Sheer talent will only yield so much problem-solving capability. It’s one reason relationships are so important for business success.
Michael Chavez, CEO of Duke Corporate Education, said leaders needn’t look further than this summer’s Brexit vote as an example of this. Increasingly complex problems will not be easily solved with a purely functional mindset. The relationships people will need to build in the British government moving forward will be far more important than arriving at the right answer when there are many pathways out of the predicament, he explained.
That’s politics, but relationships are no less important in business. Learning leaders in particular have to be strong networkers and collaborators to be effective. Chavez said networking is probably a requirement for the job. If he had to hire a chief learning officer of his own, he said he’d be willing to trade off experience working with learning management systems, for instance, for a proven track record of building relationships based on the work. “Technical expertise in learning is not sufficient — necessary but not sufficient — to drive the kind of learning solutions that organizations need.”
When learning leaders prioritize developing relationships at all levels of their organization, they’re positioning their department for success. Only through authentic relationships can chief learning officers build and maintain the influence that is central to making an impact.
“Always make the other person feel important,” Dale Carnegie wrote in his 1936 “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” The book is still ranked among Amazon.com’s best-sellers, and it highlights some key areas learning leaders should consider if they want to get things done: care, be curious and add value to ultimately make an impact.
The high value of relationship building was crystal clear during Kimo Kippen’s first few years at multinational hospitality company Hilton Worldwide; a reacquisition and a merger took place only a few years prior. “The role of learning in any organization is to enable,” said Kippen, Hilton Worldwide’s chief learning officer. “You’re supporting and you’re working closely with the business. This requires building the relationships to be part of the conversations to be able to help enable and support the business in any way.”
“You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.” — Dale Carnegie, “How to Win Friends and Influence People”
Massive transformation was occurring across the organization when Kippen arrived at Hilton in 2010. He said there were orange cones everywhere, not just for learning but for all of the enabling departments. In human resources, there was no common platform for team members to work from — among other things — and the learning organization needed to bring disparate training and development activities under one umbrella.
Given the scale of the company — today operating more than 4,500 hotels worldwide — “you can imagine that there’s the constant need for training and upskilling of talent to do all this across the 13 brands we have as a company,” Kippen said.
In addition to hiring some of the organization’s existing high potential employees to work for Hilton Worldwide University, Kippen set up a learning governance board of executive sponsors to ensure that learning aligns with the business. Members include Hilton’s chief financial officer, its chief human resources officer and the head of commercial services. The group meets quarterly to discuss its focus, successes, what’s on the horizon, what are people’s respective priorities and how can they coordinate with learning to address them. If learning is to effectively support and meet these tasks and business needs, relationships are critical.
Judy Whitcomb, senior vice president of HR, learning and organizational development at Vi, a senior living facilities company, said relationships are how learning leaders accomplish goals. Whether that’s inside the business or working with external partners, learning leaders must know what their business partners want, and they can’t do that without getting to know them. “That understanding of what your colleagues are going through, whether that’s at a personal level or at a business level, helps you get things done at an organization.”
When Whitcomb arrived at Vi in 2007, the company wanted to make sure its investments in areas like learning were making an impact on the business. At the time, the individual functions owned learning. Whitcomb said she realized early on that while there was a lot of passion and interest around learning and development, that wasn’t going to make her job winning leader buy-in to a centralized organization easy. “I couldn’t come into the company and say I’m taking your budgets away,” she explained. “I wanted to leverage their passion.”
The leaders knew the business better than she did initially because she was a neophyte to the hospitality health care space. So she approached them with her intentions set on partnership. She made it clear that she wanted to know what mattered to her prospective business partners and how they could work together to address those things. The relationships didn’t spring up overnight, they were built incrementally. But now, due to learning’s successes and the partnerships Whitcomb championed to achieve them, the department is more than a function in the business; it’s woven into the fabric of the company.
Whitcomb’s not inclined to let up on her approach, however. She deliberately altered her route walking around the office, making time to speak with colleagues and to engage with people about more than just work. Also, by spending time at the company’s various communities across the country, she demonstrated her curiosity about what people have going on and how she can support them. “Those informal opportunities are really important,” she said.
Building these relationships might mean stepping out of a comfort zone for learning leaders who are more reserved, but it’s necessary for those who want make a difference. They’ve got to be in the business, know it, Hilton’s Kippen said.
Just don’t have an agenda going into what should be informal conversations, Whitcomb said. There will be plenty of time for that in planning meetings and other formal situations. When engaging with people in and outside of their function, learning leaders have to get to know what their colleague/employee/business partner cares about.
“You never know what you’re going to get, but I’ve found that you get more out of those unplanned interactions than you would sometimes out of the planned meetings,” she said.
“So the rare individual who unselfishly tries to serve others has an enormous advantage.” — Dale Carnegie, “How to Win Friends and Influence People”
With no expectations about what business partners might share, Whitcomb can learn what her team members are working on, what they’re thinking about and what challenges they may be experiencing. The rapport that develops makes her seem more approachable. “When they need something, a favor or an exception, or they need support, you’ve already got that relationship established because they know you care about them personally,” she explained. And it’s rare that she returns to her desk without a new idea, task or a new meeting to schedule.
To sustain these relationships, Whitcomb said it’s important to ensure the value-add goes both ways. In her communications she said she makes sure to recognize people for the work they do, and she actively looks for ways to support her team members’ work, and ultimately help drive greater results.
Kippen said as newer learning leaders build their credibility with leadership and internal customers they should actively demonstrate their ability to add value. But that requires business acumen. They have to know how to speak the language of the business and understand it. They also have to listen, a lot. “Listen, listen, listen, and get out there very quickly to start making those connections, working those relationships.”
New learning leaders also should demonstrate their ability to get things done and execute on established plans. Kippen said start small, get some quick wins, “then start to tell that story, and then very quickly look to how then you’re going to build your strategy, structure, people, process and things,” he said. “Try to put together a roadmap so that people can see that you know where you’re going so that it doesn’t ever appear that you’re just kind of waffling and moving in one direction and then in another without intent.”
Make an Impact
“If you want to know how to make people shun you …even despise you, here is the recipe: Never listen to anyone for long.” — Dale Carnegie, “How to Win Friends and Influence People”
In a 2006 study of more than 1,000 leaders, managers and executives, The Ken Blanchard Cos. found that a strong ability to communicate and emotional intelligence and empathy were ranked among the most important skills a leader needed to possess to be effective. The study is a bit dated, but those qualities are still quite central to authentic relationship building and ultimately to having influence.
Without the relationships Vi’s Whitcomb deliberately fostered, she said she doesn’t think learning would have the impact and credibility it has at the organization. As a result, “we have more work not because we’re asking for it, but because people come to us. We have a good business,” she said. “You have a good, reputable brand because you’re approachable, and you’re there to solve problems.”
Learning leaders are able to influence because of the relationships they develop with people across the organization. There’s a lot of communication involved so people know they’re working toward the same goals. Further, this mindset doesn’t change based on who the learning leader is engaging. Influential people get things done through others without leveraging title or position, Whitcomb said. When a relationship has been nurtured between learning leader and team member, or learning leader and department manager or employee, titles and roles are afterthoughts as people gather around a table to solve problems.
According to online database company EBSCO Information Services’ Competency Center, building and maintaining influence includes a range of capabilities such as networking, coalition building, persuading and negotiations, activities neither Whitcomb nor Kippen are strangers to.
In its web resource “Competency Center: Building and Maintaining Influence,” EBSCO offers six strategies to help leaders become more influential in the workplace:
- Create a broad network of professional relationships inside and outside the organization.
- Think of negotiation and persuasion in terms of mutual benefit rather than manipulation.
- Solicit opinions and perspectives from the people whose support is essential.
- Build a partnership with the people who will be most affected by an initiative and whose buy-in is crucial to success.
- Be transparent about any personal motivations and never hesitate to over-communicate.
- Share credit with others.
Talent is increasingly a differentiator that can determine business success in a competitive market. Kippen said that all new business initiatives should have three components: change, communications and learning. As such, the role chief learning officers play in any and all of those initiatives is a significant one.
Yet, Duke CE’s Chavez said the days of the learning leader as an aggregator for all learning activity are quickly coming to an end, if not already over. Instead, today’s CLOs have to develop big solutions that help enable capabilities in the business through learning. “They’ve got to be plugged into the business to be able to do a good job with that,” he explained. “And that means they have to be extremely curious about the business and the problems embedded in the business.”
When it comes down to it, in order to be successful, learning leaders have to be curious, plugged in and deliberate about making friends.
Bravetta Hassell is a Chief Learning Officer associate editor. Comment below, or email editor@CLOmedia.com.