Lessons For New L&D Leaders

Set yourself up for success by learning from peers who have already been there.

You’ve landed a new leadership gig in the learning and development (L&D) field. Are you fully primed for success? Whether you’re a seasoned manager moving laterally across companies or assuming your first leadership role, there are many moving parts in a successful transition—and more than a few potential pitfalls. Here is some wisdom from three senior-level L&D professionals who’ve made a combined 14 successful leadership transitions during their careers.

Scale Expectations from the Outset

All three Learning professionals agree: Don’t bite off more than you can chew. It’s natural to want to impress organizational leadership (and your team) with immediate results. Although you might be tempted to charge in with bold, exciting ideas, resist. Erin Miller, VP of People Operations at mobility futurist Transloc, was eager to make an impact when she joined the company. “I was excited about several different [opportunities]. But I quickly learned it’s better to make a strong impact in one area than try to touch multiple areas where you will not have as strong an impact as you would like.”

Executive coach Eric Hicks agrees. Prior to starting his coaching consultancy last year, Hicks held executive leadership development roles in multinational companies such as Cigna, JPMorgan Chase, and Pepsico. When entering into a new L&D leadership role, “you have to think like a laser versus a shotgun. Find one or two organizational drill points that will create the most return in the shortest time and go deep,” he suggests. “Get some early points on the board with an important strategy-linked initiative first, which will build your credibility for wider targets in the future,” advises Hicks.

Build Out Your New Network

Transitioning into a new role requires listening—and lots of it. Adopt a curious mindset and go on dozens of fact-finding missions. Hicks advises that you build a “60-Day Network,” in which you interview three to four people with divergent viewpoints each week. At the end of two months, he says, you’ll have “25 to 30 new ‘best L&D friends.’” Building this network is critical, Hicks adds, because they help you understand the business. Moreover, they can help you support your future initiatives.

Gabrielle Calkins has used a similar approach each time she’s moved into a new role. Calkins is director of Training for Lacks Industries, Inc., a multi-tier automotive supplier. Calkins has made senior management interviews a mainstay of her personal onboarding process. She asks about company goals, business unit goals, and ways in which interviewees see the Training function contributing to organizational goals. “When I eventually make recommendations, and senior management recognizes their input [from the interviews], it really helps with buy-in,” Calkins says.

Listen and Learn

Calkins has found that a thick skin can help during those first months of getting your organizational sea legs. As you move throughout your fact-finding interviews, you’ll find that “not everybody in a company is equally interested in valuing or supporting training,” she says. And that’s OK; Calkins says it helps you identify your allies. But don’t discount the naysayers too heavily.

Learn to dig a bit deeper into the disinterest, Hicks suggests. “It’s not true in all organizations, but I have found that in many companies, individual business units simply don’t feel a strong connection with L&D departments beyond onboarding and management training.”

That’s why it’s so important to build your networks early on—they can help you ferret out dissatisfaction. In many ways, L&D is similar to the sales function, observes Transloc’s Miller. It all comes down to active listening, much the way skilled salespeople do. “If you are listening to and understanding pain points and challenges people have, then you can better identify the solutions you might be able to bring,” Miller adds.

Above all, “keep your powder dry for now,” offers Hicks. Meaning, don’t try to bring your prized initiatives from past employers into your new organization and expect them to be met with immediate enthusiasm. “I have seen more people try to bring what they did at their former employer [too early] and it just will not go, because people won’t own it.”

Calkins agrees: “Stakeholders need to see themselves in the solution” you present or it won’t gain traction.

A new leadership role presents an exciting chance to make an impact throughout your organization. Capitalize on this opportunity by identifying projects that have a strategic impact, building alliances, and resisting the urge to prematurely champion your favorite solutions from previous employers. Doing so will set you and your team up for success.


  • Think like someone in the C-suite, says executive coach Eric Hicks. Ask yourself: “What are the leaders one level down from the CEO saying? Where are they placing their resources? Where are they making bets on the market?”
  • Do what L&D professionals do best: Educate yourself. Prior to making the transition to her first training manager role, Gabrielle Calkins, director of Training for Lacks Industries, Inc., read the book, “The First 90 Days.” “Be a learning sponge: read, network, listen to Webinars and TED talks” she recommends.
  • Enlist the support of influential employees, at all levels of the organization. Erin Miller, VP of People Operations at mobility futurist Transloc, and her team created a Hype Crew—employees who are early adopters of her department’s programs—to help get the word out. “You have to build strategic partners throughout the organization to build goodwill and support,” notes Miller.
  • When meeting with peers and upline colleagues, ask: “How can I help you succeed?” and “What counsel do you have for me?” Hicks calls these “magic questions” that demonstrate you are a part of the team and not interested in building an empire.