3 Proven Ways to Get Into Your Business Leaders’ Heads

Cultivate knowledge in people and develop innovative ways to realize organizational goals.

What makes a Learning & Development (L&D) practitioner a leader in the eyes of business leaders?

Positioning yourself as a “thought leader” is a first step. Many see thought leaders as people with some type of expertise. But broadening the definition, it also applies to those working in a learning role. In essence, within your organization, your leadership is literally as a thought leader.

Another definition of thought leader is “someone who presents new thoughts or, more specifically, new ideas or ways of doing things.” In a “me, too” product/service world, business leaders know that getting a leg up is more than simply tweaking their offerings. The only way to competitively differentiate themselves is leveraging what their employees know, or need to know. Once again, this puts you front and center in your business leaders’ minds.

So step up and lead the charge by cultivating knowledge in people and developing unique and innovative ways to realize organizational goals. Here are three quick ways to help live up to your business leaders’ expectations and become your organization’s thought leader:

1. Don’t share the recipe to the secret sauce. You never go to your favorite fast-food restaurant and ask how they make the burger’s special sauce; you just want the burger. But L&D practitioners often seek “parental” approval from business leaders, trying to prove that what they do adds value. Thought leaders just add value in what they do.

Think about it. No other internal business function shares “how” they do what they do. Finance doesn’t wax poetic about how they create financial statements; they just produce accurate financial statements. Marketing doesn’t ramble on about how they create awareness; they just create awareness. So why is L&D so desperate to show how they train people when all they should do is train employees to perform effectively?

Keep the L&D secret sauce recipe to yourself and deliver results with people who perform to, and possibly exceed, expectations. This will get your leaders’ attention.

2. Realize it’s about improving performance, not improving learning. The saying, “Knowledge is power,” is a half-truth. For business leaders, possessing knowledge is only as good as it contributes to achieving business objectives. Regretfully, practitioners often get stuck ensuring that people are “learning” stuff (knowledge) rather than actually using the stuff to improve their abilities.

We expect a lot of feedback on this point, but understand that we’re not discounting the learning process. We simply want you to stop using “learning” to prove validity and instead use it to improve performance.

3. Be proactive and disruptive. True thought leaders purposefully venture into areas that challenge existing preconceptions. You must do the same. Get out of that cubicle and talk to your internal clients requiring guidance. Focus on their needs by following this sales advice: “It’s better to sell what others want to buy and not what you want to sell.” Become their business partner. Use your L&D expertise to “pro-act” in their best interest rather than reacting to their demands.

Next, stop accepting how learning is done and reimagine it. Your business leaders call this being “disruptive.” This means that if it’s not broken, break it and then rethink or improve upon the original. For example, if a client can’t have downtime, don’t force a learning solution that takes employees away from their work. Instead, collaborate with them to discover new ways for employees to gain the skills such as offering real-time tools, micro-learning apps, or something completely different. It’s never about finding the problem that fits the solution but rather about developing an appropriate solution to solve the problem.

Being a leader, especially a thought leader, is more than being the smartest person in the room. Business leaders desperately need L&D to step up and provide the knowledge they can apply that will improve the organization’s performance. This is L&D’s calling. This is your thought leadership calling, as well.

Ajay M. Pangarkar, CTDP CPA, CMA, and Teresa Kirkwood, CTDP are founders of CentralKnowledge.com and LearningSourceonline.com. They are employee performance management experts and three-time authors, most recently publishing “The Trainer’s Balanced Scorecard: A Complete Resource for Linking Learning to Organizational Strategy” (Wiley). Help them start a “Workplace Revolution” at blog.centralknowledge.com or contact ajayp@centralknowledge.com.