I recently chaired a learning and talent management conference. For nearly three days I introduced a parade of accomplished practitioners and thoughtful consultants as they shared their stories of new initiatives and programs. It’s a great way to sense the pulse of the field and I felt encouraged by many of the stories but also a bit concerned by what was missing.
Present through the 20+ stories was the march of progress:
- The shrinking of learning from courses to bit-size to now nibbles.
- The expanding concern of inadequate talent pipelines to feed the future with a redoubling of efforts to accelerate development.
- The constant creativity of talent and learning leaders to bring fresh thinking and new approaches in responding to these challenges and many more.
Yet something was consistently absent from this parade of Powerpoints. No one told a story of numbers. Yes, there was always a business case and nod to strategy in these presentation. Yes, there were committed senior leaders, courageous program champions and empowered participants. Yes, there was plenty of technology and DIY approaches for the newest workforce generation.
But no, no one really told a story of quantifiable results. Sure there was a few snappy quotes from happy participants and an odd chart here or there of engagement survey scores. But nothing that would indicate our profession has collectively joined the ranks of other functional areas where hard results are required and credible numbers tell the story. In other words, there was little evidence that a CEO would take notice of our work.
In the past, we could provide excuses for the absence of managing by the numbers. First, the work of learning and talent management is chiefly one of support. Much akin to the old BASF commercials, we don’t make the results directly, we help put in things that help others get results.
Second, requests for our services are typically framed in terms that speak of activities rather than bottom-line business outcomes. Organizations reward our work if there is enjoyment, satisfaction and a bit of ‘wow’. We are rewarded for service vs. being held strictly accountable for results.
Third, most of our professional career experiences are staff and support roles and rarely ones where outcome measures are clear and business results are primary. We just aren’t good at it because we have not experienced much bottom-line, outcome based accountability. Unfortunately, our formative years were spent learning that what matters most is when there is interest and happiness with our work, where we are seen as being helpful.
This is backed up by a look at how HR leaders are scored in 360 evaluations vs. other functions. The consulting firm Zenger-Folkman produced such a study recently from their massive database of leadership assessments. Versus all other functional leaders, such as sales, engineering, operations and marketing, HR leaders were seen as better at developing others and building relationships. We excel at being helpful.
What isn’t helpful is where HR talent scores below the other functions: driving for results, providing a strategic perspective and inspiring stretch performance. Unfortunately, this study reported that regardless of functional area, the most effective, highly regarded leaders excel at results, strategy and stretch.
Those excuses are getting old and tired. I’m cheering for a new wave of learning and talent leaders to show the way with a leadership brand of masterfully driving results first, operating with a strategic lens of business first and inspiring stretch performance first. And then followed with the traditional excellent in learning and talent programs and initiatives.
You can count me to be present if those new leaders are at a future conference telling their story.
(c.) Kevin D. Wilde 2017