Dis-empowered employees are a significant issue today. Professionals with skills and passion too often are forced to patiently do their jobs as best they can without clear direction and without the ability to make a decision and execute on it. This is a leadership problem. Perhaps there is no one to execute leadership, no one will allow it, or layers of ineffective processes are in the way. In the case of learning leaders—those that lead the learning function in organizations, or at least are trying to—this situation is unnecessary, and costs untold dollars in lost productivity and lack of innovation. The end result is that the business is not supported as well as it ought to be.
Work environments are dis-empowering for many reasons, usually poor ones. Perhaps the person in the leadership role does not have the skills or passion to lead—this is a different issue than I am addressing here. Perhaps senior leadership is fearful or overly controlling—if so, it will limit the effectiveness of the learning function. Perhaps some people are in the wrong roles, where they cannot be effective—this is an issue that needs solving. Regardless, it is important for senior leadership to create an empowering environment in order to maximize their investment in the learning function, for the good of the entire organization.
Now, with the disclaimers aside, let’s talk about how to empower your learning leader, a person with the training, skills, and passion to lead the learning function in the organization. There are only three simple, basic steps to success.
How to Empower your Learning Leader
- Find the right leader, one you can trust. This is a person that is trained in the tools and processes of talent development, with the experience to lead; there is no substitute for this. If your learning leader lacks credibility, the learning function will suffer. This is also a person that respects the mission, vision, and values of the organization with high enough emotional intelligence not to alienate people. The learning leader must be able to create synergy and collaboration among the various functions of the business. If you don’t have this person, the rest of this article does not apply to your situation; enough said.
- Hand over the keys. Yes, you heard that right; hand them over! If you can’t do that, see #1. Otherwise, hand them over, and let the passion and innovation flow! Let this learning leader lead; have the rest of the learning function report up to him. Don’t handcuff this leader with layers of committees and cumbersome processes that reduce the agility of the learning function! Hand…them…over. This doesn’t mean that you cannot coach on business etiquette, people skills, understanding the business, or whatever—but the learning function needs more expertise than you have; otherwise, why did you hire a learning leader? You can’t coach him on the learning function, so you have to trust him. If you don’t, you will dis-empower the learning function and will wonder why no one seems to make any innovative decisions and why it seems that initiative and enthusiasm are gone, and you will want to do an engagement survey to find out what is happening. But the answers will be obvious to your learning leader. Hand…over…the…keys.
- Become okay with changes as the learning leader innovates. In any worthwhile endeavor, changes are needed—not once, but as an ongoing part of the process. Seeing changes happening does not necessarily mean that the wrong decisions were made initially. Perhaps those decisions were right for the business at an earlier time, but that time is past. Agility is more important! The ability to move with the speed of business and the standing permission to lead are more important than staying with past broken or outdated approaches to learning. See #2. Right decisions need to be made—from a solid learning and development perspective—to get to innovation. Unfreeze the current practices so that new ones can be developed, and allow it to happen, patiently supporting and guiding—without micromanaging.
Effectiveness and Efficiency: Get the Order Right!
A further note about the need for agility and change is needed, regarding the difference between effectiveness and efficiency. Much too often, senior leaders want to work on efficiency before effectiveness, which will always result in failure over the long term. What do I mean here?
Effectiveness, or doing the right things, is the starting point in any initiative. A learning leader understands this, and it often results in the need to abandon certain practices. Peter Drucker said long ago that you cannot only ADD things, or you will OVERWHELM the business; you must also subtract, or ABANDON things. A good learning leader has a strong sense of what will work, and what will not. He will want to abandon some things; let this happen! It’s senior leadership’s job to protect and empower, not to be an enabler of poor practices.
Do not force your learning leader to work on efficiency first—that is, improving the current practices. It is an exercise in insanity to keep attempting to perfect poor processes! This is like attempting to paint the interior walls of a house that has a faulty foundation; it might look prettier, but it won’t last. In a short-term situation, under the tyranny of the urgent, perhaps you will need to finish up with some current practices before retiring them, even though this may create extra work later; we all understand this, but this should be short-term only, and only when critical to the needs of the business. Resist the temptation to prop up poor practices to save face; in the end, everyone knows the truth and people will respect leadership more for owning the problems and supporting a new direction.
In the oil and gas industry, when a well is no longer producing, the phrase used is: “plug and abandon.” Plug the well, abandon it, and move on. Who knows when it is time to do this? The answer is: Your learning leader. Let…her…lead. There are no shortcuts, and no cookie cutter approaches. You cannot apply “best practices”—an over-used term today—to ineffective systems and come out of it with much that is sustainable. You must be doing the right things before attempting to do them better! Let the process of building something systemic and sustainable happen, and support it. If need be, push back deadlines—which are often artificially imposed—and allow time for better processes to be developed.
Empowering your learning leader is the first step to a better, more agile learning organization, but it is too often the step never taken. Find your learning leader, commit to him, support him, and let him lead. Hand over the keys, and expect more agility and change within the learning organization. In the end, it will help everyone to be more successful.