Everyone talks about it, but the truth is many of you are wondering whether it's possible for a learning professional to gain the ear of a CEO and executive board in a meaningful way. "Sure," you think, "they say they hear me, but then nothing happens—no added budgetary dollars or programming, nothing." For others of you, it's even worse: The executive board doesn't even make a show of listening. But as much of a long shot as it might seem, gaining a seat at the C-suite table is possible. Understanding your company's big picture strategy and financial plan, and having the right return on investment (ROI) and performance indicators to use as leverage, will send you on your way.
Making the Case
Sometimes the structure of the company and learning function aids C-suite collaboration. Such is the case at Northwestern Mutual, where development programs are built for a sales force comprising independent contractors who have a vested interest in efficiently and effectively developing their skills, says Director, Field Training Todd Herbert. That means getting funding for additional programs from the CEO and executive board comes down to showing the learning is making a difference, and is related to supporting the performance of the field. "Our sales force is individuals who are contracted by Northwestern Mutual, working under an exclusive agreement to offer our products and services as appropriate to meet our clients' needs," says Herbert, "but they also are independent businesspeople, with no time to waste, so they will only attend the training that is proven to be effective. Therefore, we have to sell them on the value of our training programs."
With this learning model, learning professionals are taught to ask themselves vital questions before approaching the C-suite for added funding. "We first ask ourselves if training is really part of the solution," says Herbert. "We ask, what is preventing someone from performing up to the level we've deemed essential to his or her success? We then can solicit input from the field [sales force] to quantify the obstacles to someone being able to perform, and that's the kind of data that help the C-suite better appreciate why we're asking for the support to move forward."
Herbert put this proof-of-worth approach to use in the development of a new field sales front-line leadership program that looks at the competencies needed by new leaders, along with the process by which they're developed into different levels of field leadership responsibility. Ongoing support from the C-suite for this program depends on the results from the field that Northwestern Mutual's learning professionals are able to continue bringing executives. "We work with several field sales committees with which we're serving the field constantly," he explains. "Through that ongoing input from the field, and by monitoring improvements in performance or actual sales results, we're going forward to the C-suite with guidance before they're coming to us. They're looking from a product and service standpoint where we need to go, and then we're able to provide them with a sense of how prepared our field sales force is to support that."
An example of the learning function's ability to anticipate the needs of the C-suite is its Fastrack Training Program, the company's sales school, which is designed to onboard new representatives. "We're constantly monitoring where some of the developmental needs are and whether we need to place greater emphasis on product knowledge or on their ability to identify and support client needs," says Herbert. "We then vet that fact-finding and analysis up through the organization to propose the training we think should be available."
At Luxury Jeweler's Resource Group, Chief Learning Officer (CLO) Theo Gilbert-Jamison says the corporate university she operates works directly with the company's 14 senior leaders to collaboratively develop training and development programs. And it isn't a one-way street. Just as trainers expect an attentive ear to their ideas, so, too, must they lend one to the needs of executives. "The first thing we want to do is understand what their business goals and objectives are," says Gilbert-Jamison. "In retail, it's going to be around growing the brand, improving processes, and customer loyalty. We want to make sure we understand from a C-level what's important to them."
Keeping in mind what's most essential to the executive board is easier if you think of them as your customers, says Vivian Bright, who also holds the title CLO. "We have to think of them as our customer as far as understanding the value of training," she says. "If we don't see their goals as our goals we can't meet the bottom line. So, to get their attention, we have to begin to think as a C-level [executive] thinks. And then we can base our strategy and success around meeting their goals and objectives."
This collaborative, bottom-line-oriented relationship was demonstrated over the last year in the development of the e-learning component of the Luxury Jeweler's Resource Group's Leadership Academy. This classroom experience was effective, but Gilbert-Jamison, Bright, and the company's other trainers thought they could better meet the C-suite's goals for greater learning retention by implementing an online segment of the academy. To do that, they had to prove to executives why it would be worthwhile. "We not only had to create the strategy around what their business objectives were, but we also needed to share that strategy with them and make them part of the process by getting feedback from them on what kind of classes they wanted to be delivered on the e-learning platform."
To facilitate greater involvement, Gilbert-Jamison and Bright had the executives, who would be making the decision on the viability of the e-learning, pilot the classes themselves. "We did this so they could get the experience and then help us refine it to make sure the classes hit dead-on with their business objectives," says Gilbert-Jamison. Convincing executives to take time from their overrun schedules to participate is possible if you show them what they'll get in return, says Gilbert-Jamison. "It's tough," she concedes. "You have to have a high level of credibility to persuade senior leaders to participate in training that's going to be for mid-level managers. But we persuaded them that by attending the classes it would show they're serious about learning and development, and would allow them, as these classes were being developed, to pinpoint their key priorities."
Find the Right Forum
At NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, alignment with the C-suite is facilitated by the inclusion of learning in many of the organization's strategic initiatives, says CLO Carol Silk. "Every year we have a kick-off led by our CEO with all the hospital initiatives for the year in which strategic priorities are laid out," she notes. "My training directors and I attend that so we get a strong sense of what the priorities are for the organization and who is in charge of which initiatives. So, pretty early on in the annual process we are connected with the key strategic leaders."
From there, learning professionals at NY-Presbyterian are kept in the executive loop via a Learning Partnership Board composed of learning professionals throughout the hospital. This board, which meets monthly, gives all training "process owners" in the organization representation, and the chance to bring learning needs to light that Silk then can communicate to her executive colleagues. "We also have a Leadership Systems Steering Committee made up of vice presidents and senior vice presidents," Silk explains, "so if a training need surfaces, and we need to get some fire power behind it, this is the steering committee we turn to, and it gives us strong recommendations around implementation."
Hospital leadership continues to play a pivotal role during that implementation period. Whether it's a quality control or patient satisfaction measure, "as we're developing training, we work with strategic leaders across the hospital and consider them the owners of those curricula. We're just fleshing out the courses, content, and delivery plan," says Training Operations Director Jacqueline Cardillo. "So we built in alignment with the key business leaders."
This partnership, and the resulting buy-in from executives, can be seen in how the day-to-day training needs of the hospital are taken care of, says Director, Technology Learning Solutions Mary Beaudette. "If our clinical electronic medical record system is going to be upgraded, then the C-level group would say, 'OK, how are these people going to be trained and supported to manage this new process?'" Beaudette explains.
Adds Director of Nursing for Education, Quality and Research Gina Bufe, "Nursing conducts a learning needs assessment, and utilizes tracking and trended data throughout the organization, to take a proactive approach in identifying executives' training needs. If something unplanned surfaces, training teams come together through various forums to make sure learning needs are met." Bufe's advice to other trainers looking for C-suite collaboration: "Make sure the right people are on the right committees to hear information and data coming out of the organization, so you can identify learning needs in a proactive manner."
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