I frequently hear learning and development professionals complain that there is not enough top management support of their efforts. I must admit that I have uttered this phrase myself, but I came to the same conclusion that Pogo reached when he said, “I have found the enemy, and it is me.” I have come to realize that my own culpability in this problem has been significant. I have always tried to create learning and development programs with three crucial characteristics–relevance, engagement and impact–but too often I have created solutions in search of problems.
Relevance is the first attribute of any development effort worth its salt. The offerings in corporate curricula must be firmly connected to pertinent business experiences, issues and language of the participants. Learning solutions that lack contextual meaning are of little value in a corporate setting. When I was in pilot training as a young Air Force officer I experienced the full power of relevance. Our very lives depended on understanding the content of flight instruction. We were “motivated” learners, and the speed and quantity of our progress was remarkably accelerated by the extent to which we saw that the information was vital to our existence. While it is rarely possible to produce this degree of relevance in a corporate setting, relevance will always be an essential element of successful development efforts.
Engagement is the second ingredient of effective developmental processes, and it provides the emotional and intellectual gas that makes learning powerful. Efforts that fail to deeply engage participants may have many other desirable attributes, but will fall short. Nothing kills learning as quickly as boredom. Early in my career, I spent a few years working in a learning company that used intense outdoor and indoor events to engage the whole person and to frame the larger business challenge. This approach was extremely useful when we moved the discussion beyond the merely fascinating to the core organizational issue of relevance. When we failed to effectively translate the event into genuine participant insight, it was engaging but irrelevant.
At times I have played it too safe by choosing a conventional approach rather than choosing a powerful experience. At other times, I led development efforts that I am quite certain some considered to be boondoggles, a “fun” time or just plain odd. Don’t get me wrong, I think we should have more fun in our organizational lives, but nothing is quite as fun as relevant excellence. For that reason, my experience of choice for learning is the business itself. Some of the most powerful development uses action learning from the live business case and the real issues. It has an emotional edge that hits learners with a deep kinesthetic force impossible to dodge. Crisis often creates the type of engagement that is required to really learn and change, but crisis is a very expensive and sometimes unaffordable way to learn. It is much more desirable to learn before it is associated with the death of a business or a relationship.
Impact is the final ingredient in the success equation for effective development. If our efforts fail to have measurable impact on business results and organizational success, we are unlikely to get senior leader support a second time. One of the most effective ways to have measurable impact on the business is to be intimately familiar with the business issues, the business leaders and the barriers to an organization’s success. When we are deeply conversant with the core issues and actors and have a credible point of view on actions that will add value, we gain a voice. When we help resolve crucial business dilemmas by providing missing understanding that is essential for breaking through, we are invited to be a more serious discussant in the business conversations. When we help leaders reframe structural and organizational constraints artfully and authentically transform them to essential and energizing goals, we are asked to play a more robust role in the drama. When we help to place talent in the right jobs at the right time with the right stuff to accelerate business success, senior leaders insist on being a part of our work.
Senior leaders and their lack of support for our development efforts are an easy target. At times they deserve the indictment, but more often I have held the smoking gun in my own hand. Pogo, you may have been right about me in the past, but that’s a game I am doing my best to quit playing. Relevance, engagement and impact—that’s the game for me.
Fred Harburg is senior vice president of leadership & management development at Fidelity Investments Company. Fred has held numerous international leadership roles and worked with several Fortune 100 companies, including IBM, General Motors, Disney, AT&T and, most recently, Motorola. Fred can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.