Building a Learning Culture Means Getting Comfortable with Change
Understanding and accepting that change is constant, necessary, and positive is the key factor for thriving in the modern workplace. I refer to this sense of adaptability as change agility, which is all about seeing change as an ongoing opportunity, not as a threat or liability.
That’s easier said than done, but when you embrace change and are open and adaptable to what comes next, you’re positioning yourself and your team for the twenty-first century workplace. The consulting firm McKinsey & Company equates this sense of adaptability with “lifelong employability: helping people continually and successfully adapt as the economy evolves.”1 McKinsey also found that many companies are far behind in restructuring themselves to operate with learning as a core capability, despite the fact that “75 percent of executives said they believed reskilling would fill at least half of their future talent needs.”2
Why is adaptability key for organizations and individuals? First off, it’s simply too expensive for companies to hire their way out of the skills gap, that is, the growing delta between the skills that employees possess and the skills employers want.
Second, hiring top talent, especially in areas like engineering, machine learning, and data science, has become increasingly competitive. The cost of attrition is rising, too; by one estimate, “it costs employers 33 percent of a worker’s annual salary to hire a replacement if that worker leaves.”3 It can take a long time to find the right match, and even then, employers may lose out to other companies offering better compensation, benefits, working conditions, and so on. In the meantime, your business is still lacking those critical skills.
Not only does adaptability have a huge impact on an organization’s bottom line, but it also turns out that employees are craving this skill and growing more vocal in their demands for professional development. They’re already feeling the urgency to keep their skills updated and relevant in a fast-moving workplace, and they believe employers need to support them in this effort. Research by Udemy found that 84 percent of US workers think there is a skills gap and more than a third (39 percent) already feel personally affected by it.4
Developing Change Agility
You know what it’s like: You hear about an impending change at work, big or small, and your mind starts racing to what that might look like and how it could affect you. Or, suddenly there’s a new tool or technology you have to master to stay competitive. You might worry about not having control over your situation. This stress preoccupies you and prevents you from doing your best work, which definitely won’t help matters.
Learning teams must go beyond helping people gain the expected established skills. We need to be present to help professionals succeed in their careers, which takes all kinds of competencies and even coping skills. This is where change agility comes into play for every organization. My call to action for the entire learning community: step up, think differently, and embrace our role as building organizational muscle for change.
Embracing the Reality of Continuous Change
Agility isn’t how we’ve traditionally talked about learning in a work context, but we know L&D has to evolve to serve modern workers in a culture of continuous learning.
As discussed in Chapter 1, we all need to be ready for a five-decade career. Organizations must foster agile workers who adapt seamlessly to change, and we can only do that by learning continuously.
Other factors are also contributing to the need for change agility and continuous learning. The modern workplace is more fluid than ever. Career paths are no longer linear and predictable. Workers may find themselves moving into job titles that didn’t exist when they started out.
Although I’m definitely not a neuroscientist, I always follow news and research in this field with intense interest. There’s so much we still don’t know about how the human brain functions, and I’m fascinated by every advance in our understanding. From my reading, I’ve taken away five key conditions that individuals, teams, and organizations need to get more agile in the face of change.
An Elevated Role for Learning and Development
In this new era of business agility, L&D hasn’t necessarily kept up, because, again, it hasn’t been viewed as a strategic priority. Many companies still model workplace learning after what they experienced in traditional classrooms, with the trainer as a “sage on the stage,” delivering training employees have been assigned to attend. Others haven’t evolved from where they were in the 1990s, when the Internet first emerged and corporate L&D simply digitized existing training content without taking full advantage of what online learning and other emerging technologies have to offer.
Another big factor in the effectiveness of workplace learning (or lack thereof) is the historic approach of the L&D team itself, which sees itself as the gatekeeper of knowledge and the defender of protocol.
We’ve learned a lot about learning, and we know the way we run L&D has to change. What does that mean from a practical standpoint? Should workplace learning still fall under the purview of HR? Does every company need a dedicated L&D team or person? At what point does a company get big enough to merit the addition of a chief learning officer on the executive team?
The answer: It depends. But no matter what, it can’t fall to just one person.
For the Many, Not the Few
One of the crucial first steps to empower change agility is to communicate that everyone “owns” learning. I’ve seen this 52work a lot of ways, and much of it will be determined by the perspectives of the executive team and the HR lead as well as the competence of the person running L&D. Although the “learning leader” role can live successfully in many parts of the organization, what’s nonnegotiable is a shared understanding that learning is a strategic need for the business, not something that sits on the periphery or is an afterthought.
Bake Learning into the Employee Life Cycle
Learning and development has often been a reactive discipline, happy to wait until it has been requested or asked for. But, in fact, the L&D mindset has to be baked into what HR does to support every step of the employee life cycle. Old models marked development as one phase in that life cycle, but L&D should be woven throughout the life cycle, evolving with the employees themselves.
Added pressures and challenges around hiring and retention in the twenty-first century have elevated the influence of HR. As never before, HR is getting its proverbial seat at the table with the rest of the key business drivers. Learning and development also has to make this move.
Ride the Changing Tides
We’ve already established that a learning culture is employee-driven. For example, my team works closely with HR on our employee engagement surveys and uses that input to identify gaps in our L&D offerings. One recent survey revealed a strong desire for more diversity and inclusion content, which led to our Manager’s Guide to Belonging training. The guide helps managers talk about sensitive topics with their reports, stay alert to DEI (diversity, equality, inclusion) issues, address their own unconscious biases, and work to create the conditions for psychological safety on their teams, all of which are foundational for belonging. But we didn’t stop there. We also created a self-advocacy and allyships workshop for individual contributors, so they would know how to surface any concerns and be mindful during interactions with coworkers.
In the past I’ve “embedded” L&D colleagues in various teams around a company to understand how we can serve them better. We also meet regularly with business leaders to make sure they’re communicating with us and not pushing learning aside when work gets hectic and stressful.
Depending on the size of your organization, you may decide on the Center of Excellence approach or embed L&D folks as business partners. Both can work, and there are advantages and disadvantages to each. Embedded L&D people can end up replicating each other’s work or duplicating efforts, often without knowing it. In another instance, someone may have built an exceptional program, but it only gets used by part of the organization. On the plus side, embedded L&D can be laser-focused on a team’s or department’s needs, build buy-in, and anticipate opportunities more easily.
Be in Service to the Business
Companies should be less concerned with where learning falls on the organization chart and more interested in creating programs and opportunities that serve the learners and the business itself.
Indeed, my professional L&D mantra is to always be in service to the organization. I learned this lesson before my “real” career even started, though I didn’t realize at the time that it would become my guiding credo.
While I was at university, I had a part-time job as a Zamboni driver at a local ice rink. Hey, I’m Canadian! This was a normal job for a Canadian student to have. This meant dealing with beer leagues—amateur teams playing hockey and socializing at the rink—wanting to hang out and drink when I needed to clean and lock up.
They didn’t take me seriously. I was just a university kid and “a girl” to boot. None of my nagging and begging did anything to change their behavior. So, I tried a different tack. I got to know them. Instead of being adversarial, I built relationships with these guys. I found better ways of communicating so they would understand my situation. And they came to respect the fact that I was just trying to do my job well and developed empathy. At the end of the season, they invited me to their year-end party and gave me a huge tip for my work throughout the season. This didn’t happen for students who had done the job in the past.
I bring the same approach to my professional career. Whether you’re in HR or L&D, you can’t just be a rules enforcer. You need to negotiate, build relationships, and show people you’re not an adversary but someone who wants to help them have a great experience. I recommend flipping the script from “You need to get better at X” to “I’m here to help you achieve your goals. What do you need to achieve them?” You can only establish that level of communication and trust by getting to know people and understanding their needs.
Employees respond enthusiastically when you move away from mandatory training and, instead, invite them to explore, discover, experiment, and grow into new things. Indeed, one of my measures of success is how many people return (of their own volition) for coaching and practice after our initial session.
This comes naturally to me because I also spent years as a high school teacher, where I learned that you don’t grow enthusiastic learners by forcing them to follow rules and complete arbitrary assignments.
Trusting relationships create an environment in which people are confident sharing constructive feedback, asking for learning support, and talking about struggles. That openness strengthens relationships, which leads to better outcomes, which leads to better relationships, and so on.
Your Relationships Are Your Insight into Change
I also saw firsthand at PCL Construction that having solid relationships across the company enables L&D people to be more effective in their capacity as change agents by giving them insights into business shifts before they happen. Here’s an example. At one point at Udemy, we decided to put three of our biggest departments under a single leader. The change wasn’t going to be a seismic shift impacting people’s day-to-day work, but I knew from experience that these types of changes can trigger lots of complicated emotions—anxiety, confusion, anger. My team and I had already been planning coursework around change management for Udemy’s internal L&D platform, but I accelerated the timeline when I heard this news. As a result, we were able to have relevant trainings available at the same time the changes were announced, and we were able to minimize fallout.
Annual and quarterly goal planning is a great time for an L&D team to be front and center. Rather than simply tell people it’s time to set their goals for the year or quarter, our L&D team has a Goal Crushing course that walks employees through the process. We use the same idea for people’s personal development goals. My team put together a course called Career Navigator, with versions for both individual contributors and managers, so both parties know how to have effective conversations about where they want to go in their work lives.
The output of these goal-setting sessions is also a great source for me to find opportunities to support the business through learning initiatives. Whatever people put in their goals, that’s where they’re going to need to develop their skills. These goal-setting conversations are the earliest indicator of where the company’s priorities are moving. In addition, we designed our Change Agent workshop to keep up as the business goes through shifts in strategy, structure, and more. Our role as the L&D team is to help people acquire the skills to get through transition times, but we also want to teach them to be change agents themselves.
Nobody came to me and asked for these programs. They came about because we are embedded in the organization and are in constant communication with teams and coworkers about their challenges and objectives. Giving L&D free rein to connect with people around the business, rather than waiting for them to approach HR, lets us see around corners, anticipate challenges, and head off issues before they escalate.
Change Agility Matters for Learning Leaders Too
In addition to strong relationships, another important trait for the modern L&D professional is our own change agility. You can’t help employees pivot in response to changing business conditions if you are slow to adapt yourself. This is also where I think the consulting hat fits; consultants are accustomed to adjusting as their clients shift their plans and capabilities. Your corporate clients—employees—need you to roll with the unexpected, too, so they can count on having relevant, effective learning experiences available when they need them.
This is the strategic side of L&D: acting as transformation agents and guiding your organization through times of change. It’s challenging, but it’s also one of the most rewarding parts of being learning leaders in a learning culture.
Learning and development people also need to be good at promoting their services and programs. In staffing my team, I look for candidates who can “think like marketers” to evangelize learning and drive engagement. Remember, this is no longer about pushing out mandatory training modules, and it’s on us to communicate the value of continuous learning and get employees excited about embracing it. It’s hard to do that if you’re not authentically passionate about learning and helping others gain knowledge. (We’ll get into more details and examples of how you can market your L&D team’s offerings later in the book.)
Last, and connected to being agile and adaptable, L&D leaders need to think big about today’s needs while staying ahead of what’s coming next. We can’t wait and react to things that have already happened. By staying on top of trends, patterns, and opportunities—both inside your organization and inside your industry—you can know where your efforts will have the greatest impact and, from there, prioritize accordingly. Still, the C-suite has to recognize the value of its L&D visionaries and derive maximum value by elevating L&D to a strategic asset with a seat at the executive table. If you’re hoping to land that seat yourself, I’ll share more about how to do it in Chapter 9.