Executives understand that corporate education activities bring value to an organization in many ways, but that understanding does not always translate into financial support for learning initiatives or development programs. Often, chief learning officers must present a case to gain the funds required to bring their learning plans from paper to post. The Center for Effective Performance has come up with five actions learning leaders can employ to help gain executive support.
Paula Alsher, vice president of client solutions at The Center for Effective Performance, said that one of the first steps to get funding is to develop a prospective return on investment that outlines the anticipated results an organization can expect from a learning intervention.
“In my view, and in our experience, a lot of success depends on the training leaders’ ability to actually sell,” Alsher said. “It’s always really about selling. Frankly, it’s not even limited to just getting the budget approved. Once that happens, I think it’s important to continue to sell the value of what you’re doing to the right audience, even as the initiative is being executed. When you’re talking about executives and speaking in their terms, they look at things from largely a financial perspective. A lot of times, we don’t attach financial value up front to training and performance improvement initiatives.”
Alsher offered a client example to illustrate her point—an industrial engineer who had never done any kind of formal training. This person was able to develop a strong prospective business case, and even when the initial response to the initiative was no, he didn’t give up. He went back with the prospective ROI and demonstrated in clear terms what the value was going to be. Eventually, Alsher said, he was able to sell it, but she cautioned learning leaders to be conservative reporting numbers so that they are easily defensible. “You don’t want someone to just sit and bicker if you’ve estimated too high. Do something that you can’t really question. If salespeople had the skills to meet all your expectations, it’s quite realistic to expect that would mean a 1 percent increase in revenue, which is very small, but when you look at that across a large organization, it’s significant compared to the cost of the initiative itself.”
A second action involves scaling large initiatives down into meaningful but digestible chunks. There may be clear value in conducting a large-scale, complex initiative, but without a proven track record of success, it can be difficult to gain executive support. Learning leaders must show and not tell results. “Start small and scale down the initiative into phases or chunks, then sell the value of that rather than trying to go after all the money,” Alsher said. “Then demonstrate results. It’s much easier to get money down the line once people can see the value of what you’re doing. A lot of times, people’s experience in training is the programs haven’t delivered all that the organization needed or wanted. There’s some skepticism that you have to work against by demonstrating real results.”
Third, develop relationships with key business partners who can be counted on to provide executive support. If the executive board won’t listen to you, a learning leader, they may listen to one of their peers who can attest to successes that you’ve enjoyed. “You’ve got to have people who have influence on your side,” Alsher said. “Develop champions who can speak for you and on your behalf in terms of results that they have experienced. When you can get those people on your side, it makes the job a lot easier.”
Fourth, start your campaign for executive support by building a track record of success. Alsher said that you can’t expect executive support without it. “You have to build political capital along the way. You do that with real results and by documenting those along the way in ways that are meaningful for the executive audience who is going to be the decision-maker on a purchase.”
Finally, documenting successes or the results you’ve gathered also means communicating those successes in a language that your executive audience will understand. “Sometimes you have to go the extra step and do some interpretation,” Alsher said. “Do something with charts and graphs or something that says, ‘This is just for the first year. Let’s look at two or three years out and see what kind of value we can expect.’ Doing those kinds of analytical interpretations can be extremely helpful. Sometimes it makes sense to partner with someone like the CFO or someone else in finance if (the initiative is) something really critical and you don’t have the skills yourself.
“You can’t stop selling, not even when you get something approved,” Alsher added. “Any opportunity to demonstrate value at a time when it’s first occurring, it’s really good to take advantage of those. Always have your eyes and ears open for those kinds of opportunities. You’re competing for resources, and it’s not always just the intrinsic value of something, it’s how you market and sell that value that really makes a difference in the end.”