In Chief Learning Officer’s June issue on the 2015 LearningElite winners, Kimo Kippen, chief learning officer for Hilton Worldwide and third place winner, talks about the importance of having the right conversation with senior leaders. He said the discussion is about “driving better business results and not simply justifying L&D’s existence.” He goes on to say, “I never, ever got questions as to why learning was important. … I was never asked, ‘Why are we doing this?’”
Why is the right conversation so important? What is it about, and who is it with? First, the right conversation needs to be with the right person — the senior business leader responsible for delivering a company goal like higher sales or improved guest satisfaction. Typically these leaders will be senior vice presidents and direct reports to the CEO. In other words, they will be the top leaders in your organization. The discussion about learning and its effect on business results may start much lower in the organization, but ultimately the right conversation will be with the SVP.
Second, the discussion must ultimately be about learning’s ability to help drive business results, which is why it needs to happen with the owner of the business goal. For example, increase sales by 10 percent. Both the senior business leader — the SVP of sales — and the learning and development leader must agree that learning has a role to play, and they must agree on the specifics of the planned initiative: target audience, learning modality, location, duration, objectives and cost. They must also agree on the planned impact and other success metrics so they can agree on what is expected from the learning investment. Last, they must agree on their mutual roles and responsibilities. What must each do to deliver the planned impact?
Neither one can do it alone. The senior business leader must rely on the learning professional’s expertise to ensure learning can contribute to goal achievement and, if it can, to design and deliver the right learning. On the other hand, because employees report into the senior leader’s organization, only the senior business leader can provide the appropriate reinforcement and leadership to ensure employees actually apply the new knowledge or behaviors that will result in the intended impact.
That’s why this discussion must be with the senior business leader. A lower-level leader simply does not have the power to compel the needed behavior from employees and leaders in the organization.
These conversations can be important and transformative because they’re about learning’s role in helping senior business leaders accomplish their goals. Done properly, both parties — business and L&D — will walk away in agreement on the need for learning, the particulars, the planned impact and other measures of success, and what each must do if they are going to deliver the planned business results.
As Kimo said, after this conversation, there is no question about learning’s role or importance. You are now a business partner with an important role to play in achieving your company’s goals. Notice, the purpose of this discussion was not to ask for resources or justify L&D’s existence. It is a business discussion. If learning has a role to play and both parties agree upfront on the particulars and planned impact, the discussion about cost is straightforward. It will cost $X to achieve the planned impact. If that seems like a good investment, proceed. If not, don’t. No begging. If the available budget is less, you can scale back the program — and the planned impact.
Bottom line: These types of discussions are required if you are to become a valued business partner. More, they are very interesting and fun. You will learn a lot from your senior leaders. If you are already having the “right conversations,” keep up the good work and share your experiences with others. If you are not having these today, resolve to move in this direction going forward. You will be amazed at the difference they make.