Developing Learning Leaders

The most gifted trainers still need to be nurtured into leaders. Is your company giving trainers what they need to blossom into leaders?

Trainers with natural abilities and enthusiasm to excel sometimes get stalled on the leadership path. Organizations are learning how to better provide budding Training leaders with the tools they need to grow. Here is how a handful of Training Top 125 companies, and a few experts, recommend developing your trainers into great leaders.

Before you can propel trainers into leaders, you need to know what qualities you’re looking for. “The most impactful leader understands specifically what the business is trying to accomplish, at the CEO level, and aligns learning specifically to support the achievement of that result,” says Iron Mountain Director of Global Talent Programs Nicole Smack. “A Learning leader pushes the envelope but still meets the business where it is, staying ahead of trends in the industry.”

It also is important for the up-and-coming trainer to understand customized learning solutions, says Smack’s colleague, Leah Minthorn, director, North American Learning Operations. “A Training or Learning leader must understand that learning is not ‘one size fits all,’” says Minthorn, who notes that Training leaders also should have strong communication skills. “They must have an innate ability to communicate with anyone, regardless of position, and make sure whoever they communicate with is heard, understood, and supported. They must have an understanding of what it is like to facilitate and design, and not be afraid of the technologies their team uses every day.”

At MGM Resorts, the ability to easily and meaningfully interact with employees is key for any Training leader. The most promising leaders are those who are able to build relationships with employees while embodying the company’s core values (Teamwork, Integrity, Excellence) typified when Training leaders are able to have a genuine conversation about professional, and even personal, growth during unplanned encounters, according to the MGM Resorts University team. “We groom our Training leaders to have a proficient level of emotional intelligence and effective listening with our employees—in and out of the training room,” the team notes.

At LaSalle Network, a Training leader is someone who helps learners discover the answers or solutions to business challenges, rather than feeding them information. “Training leaders need to be willing to pass on their knowledge and really coach people,” says founder and CEO Tom Gimbel. “Our Training leaders don’t provide the answers…they help people get to the answer themselves by posing thoughtful questions. They listen, observe, and think before reacting or responding.”

At Iron Mountain, promising trainers are given the same kinds of growth opportunities leaders across the company are given. “We treat our Learning leaders the same way we do our other high-potential business leaders, focusing on their growth through stretch assignments and projects to fast-track development,” says Minthorn. “Allow a Learning leader the space to stretch across the spectrum of talent development, taking on new challenges, making independent decisions, and allowing for the struggle necessary to grow.”

At MGM Resorts, helping trainers grow into leaders means giving them guidance to customize programs. MGM Resorts University develops curricula for enterprise-wide training, but heavily takes part in train-the-trainer sessions to help Training leaders customize the curriculum for their site-specific culture and guest service needs. Before providing knowledge on guest service (i.e., what to say, tone of voice, body language), the Training leader explains the business strategy and opens the broader conversation: What are the guest’s expectations and how does MGM exceed those expectations so the guest refers and returns? In this context, Training leaders act as company leaders to deliver the vision.

In addition to providing guidance in the customization of training programs, accurately reading each trainer’s strengths also is essential. When a high-potential Training leader is struggling (e.g., earning below average facilitator evaluation scores), a potential culprit is a mismatch in strengths, the MGM Resorts University team notes. Some technical trainers, for example, may struggle to teach a soft-skills communication workshop but shine when facilitating a Microsoft Office course.

Including up-and-coming trainers in high-level meetings also is essential to growth, says Adam Ochstein, founder and CEO of StratEx. “They may not have the appropriate title to be included in the meetings,” Ochstein says, “but trainers need to be a part of any executive leadership or management meeting. They need to hear and understand the company’s pain points to be sure they are addressing them properly in their training efforts.”

The most promising trainers need the company to invest in their development. “When the company identifies a Training leader, it needs to alert the employee that this potential has been recognized. It then needs to offer an individual development plan that aligns employee and company training needs,” says Health Decisions CRO+ Training and Development Project Manager Jim McCann. “Executive leadership needs to stand behind the time and financial commitments to this plan because otherwise employees will lack the incentive and reward to follow their individual plans.”

Health Decisions CRO+ currently is working on a project called “Health Decisions University,” which McCann says has detailed a formal development plan for incoming employees. “Although at present, this program is not exclusively focused on developing Training leaders,” McCann explains, “the principle concepts could be modified so that the employee advances through a Training-specific leadership plan with manager and corporate sign-off.”

Part of investing in the development of Training leaders is giving them the tools they need to succeed, says Loubna Noureddin, director of Training and Development, Miami Children’s Hospital. “We use Lean tools to develop on-the-job support for trainers and Learning professionals. Based on the extensive changes health-care organizations have experienced in the last few years, we tap into every trainer to lead extensive training initiatives,” Noureddin says. “Among the many Lean tools, we use standard operating procedures (SOPs) and phase-related checklists to support most training initiatives. This process shows a step-by-step procedure for each phase (pre-, during, and post-training) and includes stakeholder information, resources, performance analysis, evaluation, and communication tools.”

Aiding emerging Training leaders doesn’t always require a large financial investment. One low- or no-cost support tool is mentoring. “The mentor serves as a friendly and informal guide to a new trainer, and together, they identify areas of interest, areas of challenges, and critical areas for success,” says Noureddin. “The mentor may identify new growth opportunities, such as a specific project, a Lean process, or a sequence of classes to enhance a critical skill.”

Like other potential leaders, emerging Training leaders face stiff challenges before they can achieve their goals. Mentoring can be just the tool they need to help them through these challenges, say Minthorn and Smack of Iron Mountain. “Both of us have had the experience of informally mentoring someone in Learning, and have had the benefit of working with amazing people in our field and have truly learned ‘on the job.’ Interestingly, it’s often been through peer relationships where we have both developed,” they say. “By working closely with someone whose talents are ‘stronger than yours’ in certain areas, and by a willingness to be vulnerable and ask questions, we’ve seen tremendous growth in both knowledge and skill.”

A Training leader is more than just at the top of the Learning hierarchy. Training leaders should be able to see courses from the perspective of learners, says Lisa Cummings, vice president of Products at Corporate Visions. “We use the ‘Hero Model’ as a way to help facilitating consultants filter their delivery through their customer’s world. Once they make the learner the Hero, rather than being sucked into the ‘sage on stage’ draw, they can become mentors of the learning process and let their customers of the classroom be the Heroes. That’s a type of leadership you don’t see in every classroom environment.”

Spending time with other Learning professionals at conferences and events is important, but nothing is more important than having a deep connection with learners, says Tim Riesterer, chief strategy and marketing officer at Corporate Visions. “Perhaps most important is that the trainers actually are experiencing the day-to-day pressures of the people they are training to see how the skills they are training can be practically applied,” says Riesterer. “This gives the trainers even better stories based on personal experience.”

Quick Tips

  • Define what “Training leader” means to your organization, including, for instance, the ability to link business strategy to training and the ability to empathize with learners.
  • Give trainer up-and-comers stretch assignments that allow them to try developing types of training that is new to them.
  • Include promising trainers in executive meetings, so they get a feel for the C-suite.
  • Offer online job aids to trainers so they can look up answers to questions without ever leaving their desks.
  • Organize mentoring programs with more seasoned Training leaders to provide added support.
  • Give budding leaders time with the learners they are supporting, so they can easily put themselves in learners’ shoes.

4 Tips to Boost Your Reputation as a Business Leader

By Dr. Mary Lippitt, CEO and Founder, Enterprise Management Ltd, and author of “Brilliant or Blunder: 6 Ways to Navigate Uncertainty, Opportunity and Complexity” ( and

Aspiring to executive leadership requires more than just working harder, and doing more of the same only secures your current position. What business-savvy skills need to be mastered in order to advance your career?

Author John Maxwell defines leadership with one word: influence. You can increase your influence and reputation as a strategic leader just by focusing on your audience and their concerns. Here are  four tips to boost your reputation as a business leader:

1. Ask about pressing issues and concern and how you can help: Issues surface faster and faster and offering to help address issues or solve problems triggers respect, reciprocity, and results. Like Socrates, we all can help by asking questions that stimulate others to think about how to move the ball forward to resolution. As a problem-solving partner, we do not need to have the final answer; we just need to ask the right questions.

2. Rely on business language instead of professional jargon: Effective influence assumes a common tongue. Being on the same page linguistically indicates a shared frame of reference, generates mutual understanding, and spurs trust and partnerships.

3. Study your industry and your firm’s business model: Every organization possesses unique traits reflecting its industry, customer base, history, and opportunities. Knowing industry trends and competitive pressures enables Training leaders to contribute to strategy formulation, seamless implementation planning, and sustained excellence.

4. Recognize driving organizational priorities and lifecycles: One size does not fit all organizations, even within a sector. Start-up or fast-growing firms have different expectations than established firms or those going through renewal. Identify the key priorities and specific lifecycle needs of your organization.

These critical strategic skills increase your ability to comprehend current reality, identify trends, and seize opportunities for smart choices in the short and long term. They also demonstrate your ability as an executive leader.

Lorri Freifeld
Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training APEX Awards and Emerging Training Leaders. A writer/editor for the last 30 years, she has held editing positions at a variety of publications and holds a Master’s degree in journalism from New York University.