Leadership learning programs: the good, the bad and the ugly

In the last week, I have had substantive interactions with three corporate universities (“U” for short) responsible for a wide variety of learning programs, one of which was incredibly vibrant, energetic and effective. The other two were low energy, clearly demoralized and ineffective.

The contrast between the three programs was so sharp that it really struck me, which led me to wonder what was different about them and how they got that way.

The high-energy “U” did several things that the others did not including:

  • The leadership team of the organization was obviously committed to having a business impact and not just -putting people through classes.
  • They made it clear that all programs required an obvious business justification
  • They did many experiments, both controlled and well-measured; but there was a willingness to try different approaches
  • They embraced the newest information coming out of neuroscience.

As a result, over-time, perceptions of the learning organization changed from being seen as a useless bureaucracy to being seen as making a meaningful contribution to the organization’s financial performance. The learning organization was consistently invited to be part of the leadership team by being involved early on in every major strategy discussion, and thus bringing insight into the capabilities the organization needed to develop and execute strategies.

The lame “U” organizations were starkly different, they seemed content to put people through classes even if they didn’t have an impact. There was little or no connection to the business and certainly no discernable contribution to growth.

To illustrate their attitude, several years ago, I spoke at a “training convention” and during my presentation, I asked people if their programs had an impact. Every person replied that they had put X or Y number of people through their program. I responded by saying, “That is your throughput number, but did you have an impact?”

The people looked at me like I was speaking Greek. The notion of business impact was completely outside their frame of reference. These organizations had leadership teams that rigidly followed conventional wisdoms of training and ignored advances in neuroscience. Consequently, they were seen as a “necessary evil” – to quote one C-level executive. Not surprisingly, team morale was poor.

I stepped back and asked myself, how did the good organization get that way? Certainly, it was a leadership issue. The head of the “U” was determined to add real value and wasn’t willing to except lame offerings. She was also the first to embrace neuroscience of learning as a revolutionary change to learning. The cycle then became reinforcing.

As I described in a recent article, published in Training Industry Magazine, “Neuroscience Makes Learning a Driver of Growth,” by driving financial impact, the learning organization becomes a valued partner. When the learning program consistently helps the organization tangibly grow, it becomes important to the sustained success of the organization and great results will follow.

Bottom line: The good “U” is a great place to work. The other two are awful. So, I pose two questions: Does the leadership of your learning organization really want to drive business results? Is your organization willing to embrace the newest science of learning?


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