It’s only recently that CLO’s have been given a seat at the senior-level executive table. A real seat, the one with arm rests that looks like all the chairs, not the metal folding number saved for the odd guest. That’s to be expected. The value of learning and development in the business landscape has only just been widely acknowledged, but more and more organizations see the benefits and are willing to make the investments needed to create sustained performance impact. The ability to retain that seat, to build effective relationships and capture the time and resources needed to do the CLO’s job, require that senior-level learning leaders and the leaders that they produce know how to negotiate.
“Negotiating within organizations has not received close to as much attention as it needs to,” said Michael Watkins, professor of practice in organizational behavior, INSEAD, founder of Genesis Advisers and author of Shaping the Game: The New Leaders Guide to Effective Negotiating. “It’s important for CLOs, but it’s also a skill that they need to increasingly focus on providing for their leaders, especially when you look at more virtual, networked and matrixed organizations. Negotiating is the key skill.”
Watkins said that in a broad sense, negotiating means garnering influence and alliance building, both of which are important because singular authority is dead. “Harvard Business School Publishing holds this annual partners meeting for about 60 senior leadership and development people, and I was one of the speakers. We got into this big discussion about some of the key issues they’re facing and how do you manage in a virtual organization environment where you’ve got people managing at a distance and also matrixed organizations where you’ve got multiple bosses. It’s a little bit dramatic, but I say we might as well forget about authority. If you think that you’re going to come into a job and it’s going to give you the authority to do things, you’re probably going to get yourself in a lot of trouble pretty quickly.”
Why is the idea of authority defunct? Watkins said part of the reason is that most people no longer have a single boss. Modern business relationships, including those in learning organizations, are more and more interdependent. CLOs and other leaders depend on people outside their direct line of authority to get critical tasks accomplished, particularly when attempting to make changes to learning programs. “Authority is not going to be granted to you by your title,” Watkins explained. “It’s going to be won through a negotiation, alliance building, making the case, influencing people.”
In order for CLOs to use effective negotiation practices in their work environment, Watkins said that he often advises leaders to think about the key network of players. Who can influence an eventual decision? It may not always be the obvious person. You may have to win over the key advisor to a senior leader, rather than the leader himself. “Step number one is understanding the history of thinking around development in the organization. Second, what’s the real network of influence that’s going to operate here? Who are the full set of players not just existing, but who could be pulled into the conversation in a productive way? Having identified those players, really think through in a deep way, where do your interests line up with them? Where do your interests potentially conflict with them? Construct alliances around the conjunctions of interests, and begin to move things forward in that way.”
Watkins said another piece in effective negotiations is how CLOs might shape the agenda of organizations to get their issues in a prominent place. “This means not necessarily driving early for particular outcomes, but focusing a lot of your earlier effort and simply getting the key issues of development, of certain forms of investment onto the conversation agenda of the organization.”
Not driving for particular outcomes might cause a problem for senior-level learning leaders who are increasingly asked to prove that learning and development has measurable impact on a business’s bottom line. “Yes, CLOs are coming under a great deal of pressure to quantify the value of the programs they deliver, and the central problem they face is the most important programs they do cannot be quantified in that way. It puts them, unfortunately, often at odds with the financial people because the financial people want to treat what they’re doing like a project and kind of apply product finance concepts and returns of investment and so forth. If you’re talking about a sales training program, sure, we can do that,” Watkins explained. “We can see the results. We can track the results of training a sales person and see what happens. But as soon as you get into the realm of more senior leadership development and into softer skills issues, let’s not kid ourselves that we can go and quantify the benefits of that.”
Watkins said if CLOs can make the business case for metrics, that’s great, and they should do so to the maximum extent possible because that is a starting point. But it’s often convincing key line managers that a learning initiative has value, and painstakingly building their support through pilots and similar efforts, that truly aids negotiation. “Yes, a CLO can be pressed hard to quantify and appropriately sell if it’s possible, but often the name of the game is to build momentum behind an idea. Find the right pilot. Find the right champion. Test it out. Have people see the benefits. Sequence your way along to kind of get momentum and support for things. The best negotiations of all are where other people are making your case for you.
“Focus on negotiating packages, don’t go issue by issue. Try to always frame it in terms of costs and benefits,” Watkins explained. “If we do this much more, this is what you get, and if we do this much less, this is what you lose. Don’t get caught in an issue-by-issue discussion where you’re sort of getting picked apart. Always focus back on the overall package. Second, think hard before the negotiating about who you want to negotiate with and who you want to try and involve in the process. How do you want to establish the agenda? This is about not playing the game that other people define for you. Third, it’s often beneficial to negotiate principles first rather than getting caught down in details. Try to sort of win the battle of the overarching set of principles you’re going to use to evaluate what you’re doing. Win that battle first before you get caught in details about line item 32.”