In most years, CEOs will say the learning and development function is essential to their strategy. But when the chips are down, it can quickly become dispensable. This year, many companies have made dramatic cuts in learning budgets and severely curtailed their learning activities. Several large professional firms have virtually hollowed out their L&D functions.
The antidote to these cuts and the key to sustaining critical learning programs during tough economic times is influence with senior management. Influence is achieved the same way you achieve influence with a major client or customer: through relationships and value.
Here are four basic, but powerful, steps that can increase the effectiveness of relationships with leaders in the organization and add more value to them.
First, ask, “Why would my organization’s key leaders want to build a relationship with me? What value do I add to them?” A good start is to articulate your personal brand and identify actions to develop and strengthen it. I use a very simple definition of personal brand: It is a combination of your professional expertise and the personal qualities people know you for.
I know two very different chief learning officers, each equally successful, who are known for quite different things in their respective companies. One is a former line executive who took over the learning and development function and brings a tough, no-nonsense, user-oriented style to the function. He’s known as someone who asks provocative, thoughtful questions to challenge others’ thinking. The other is a lifelong L&D professional whose approaches are leading edge and who always pushes his organization to try “next” rather than “best” practice. He has an empathetic, reinforcing style that builds trust rapidly. Each continually reinforces his respective strengths.
Second, ask, “Which are the critical few relationships I want to invest my time in strengthening?” Notice that I said critical few. Today, there is an obsession with networking that has been fueled by the growth of social networking sites and books that tout the benefits of having thousands of contacts. While there are benefits to having a broad network, the reality is there are typically about 20 relationships that matter in any professional’s career.
My research, based on interviews with hundreds of professionals and survey data from several thousand more, shows there are five types of people who need to be represented among these 20:
• Customers, in this case, key organizational stakeholders, who are the users of learning programs.
• Catalysts, who are influencers who can make deals happen and introduce you to people.
• Collaborators, usually other organizations that you collaborate with to serve your customers.
• Counselors, who advise and mentor you.
• Colleagues, who, like collaborators, support you in delivering to customers.
In looking at all five categories, what are the 15 to 20 relationship hubs that you would like to grow and nurture?
Third, ask, “What is the agenda of each of these individuals on my list? How can I add value to a goal, need or priority that they have?” Every executive has an agenda of three to five critical business priorities or goals. Usually, they also have a personal agenda that might include things like getting promoted, expanding their network, balancing work-life, leaving a legacy and so on. Your job is to thoroughly understand both the business and personal agenda and figure out how you can add value to it.
Fourth, put your answers to the first three questions onto one or two sheets of paper and block out a personal plan. Focus most of your relationship-building efforts on these 15 to 20 critical few relationships.
In the next couple of months, plan a face-to-face meeting, if possible, with every person on your list. Explore their agendas. Think about four ways to bring value to those discussions:
• Content: ideas and new perspectives.
• Connection: making a valuable introduction for someone.
• Fun: going to a sports event or having lunch together.
• Personal help: there are dozens of ways you can help someone on a personal level.
Building relationships and increasing your influence is like diet and exercise — they are not the result of one-off events that you stage on Jan. 1 of each year, but rather little investments you make each day.
Lastly, remember to cultivate your own personal interests and pursuits. As the CEO of one of my clients said to me, “You have to have interests in order to be interesting to others.”