Succeeding as an L&D leader is all about juggling competing priorities. You have to establish strong relationships with people, curate the right resources and experiences for your teams, and above all else, articulate a learning strategy matching your company’s needs.
But what if you’ve only just started your role? How can you establish yourself as an effective L&D leader when you’re still getting your feet under the desk?
Recently, I sat down with LaRissa O’Neal, Director of Learning and Development at Allied Electronics & Automation, to chat about the challenges of starting a new L&D leadership position, and how to make a positive impact right out of the gate.
We started off by discussing one of LaRissa’s most important goals as an incoming L&D leader.
As LaRissa explains, Allied Electronics is part of a wider shift within L&D: moving away from being a traditional ‘training organization’ and towards being a ‘learning organization’.
“We’re moving away from functionally-driven, compliance-focused training,” she says. “These are the types of training that, honestly, no-one has fun doing. For example, you have to learn about your product if you want to sell it, and you have to complete compliance training in order to line up with state, local, and federal guidelines. We’re trying to move beyond this.”
“We’re moving away from functionally-driven, compliance-focused training. These are the types of training that, honestly, no-one has fun doing."
According to LaRissa, having a purely rules-based approach to L&D misses the true value of learning. “These are all incredibly important things, and they’re a key part of our learning strategy. But real learning is about growing as a professional. It’s about elevating your ability to perform on the job, as well as your ability to interact with other people in your company.”
This shift in focus isn’t just about boosting soft skills - it also gets better results. “Research demonstrates that when people have solid interpersonal relationships and communication skills, they feel comfortable bringing their authentic selves to work,” says LaRissa. “It’s all part of having a great learning environment and elevating a company’s potential for success.”
Despite these positive impacts, it isn’t always easy to make the switch to being a true ‘learning organization’ - especially when you’ve only just started in your role.
As LaRissa explains, one of the biggest challenges she faces as an incoming L&D leader is trying to change the perception of learning within the company.
“I’m brand new to Allied Electronics,” she says. “I’ve only been here for six weeks, and I’m trying to encourage a completely new way of looking at personal development. We’re a well-established and high-performing company, and one of my biggest goals is to change our mindset around the value of learning.”
One of the steps in achieving this goal? Securing buy-in throughout the organization.
“For a long time, we’ve thought of functionally-based training as the only way to share knowledge throughout the organization,” says LaRissa. “My job is to show how a different learning approach can help us innovate and build our potential for success. We need to do this at every level.”
“For a long time, we’ve thought of functionally-based training as the only way to share knowledge throughout the organization. My job is to show how a different learning approach can help us innovate and build our potential for success."
As LaRissa explains, she has a two-step approach to establishing herself as an incoming L&D leader and spreading her learning philosophy.
“If you’re going to change your approach to learning, it has to start from the top-down,” says LaRissa. “You have to get leadership to commit, because no matter what resources I provide, if people aren’t taking advantage of them, it’s not going to have the right impact.”
LaRissa got the ball rolling by building strategic relationships and asking the right questions. “I started by talking to our line-of-business leaders and asking how I could provide value to their teams. I wanted to show them I’m here to help elevate their capacity by working with our existing institutional knowledge.”
A big part of this process, according to LaRissa? Having a collaborative attitude. “Asking people what they need is a much better approach than just telling them what I think they need.”
Related read: The Right Way to Do a Training Needs Analysis
“Asking people what they need is a much better approach than just telling them what I think they need.”
On top of this process of relationship-building, LaRissa needed to prove her credibility within the company. “I started taking advantage of the existing company resources to establish my role and show people what our goals are. I needed to let people know what I could do for them.”
Fortunately for LaRissa, she didn’t have to build everything from the ground up. “We already have some phenomenal resources, including our intranet and employee resource groups. I was so excited to see these already in place.”
“I just jumped in with both feet and started posting resources, including sharing our ‘golden nuggets’,” she says. “These are great little development resources, whether they’re internal or external, like an article or a video. This was a great way to start the right conversations.”
Of course, establishing herself as an L&D leader in 2020 has involved some additional obstacles. “It’s been a unique challenge coming into a new role in an entirely virtual environment, because people don’t know me,” says LaRissa.
“By sharing resources and starting conversations, I was able to demonstrate the greatest asset we have as L&D leaders: our credibility. I could show people that I know what I’m talking about, and that I have the opportunities we need to elevate our people.”
As an incoming L&D leader, it can be hard to know whether you’re moving things in the right direction. For LaRissa, having people come to her for help was all the validation she needed.
“I’ve been building partnerships and continuing conversations, and now it’s all starting to come together,” says LaRissa. “In the beginning I was reaching out to people to ask them how I could help. Now, people are starting to reach out to me.”
“This is the turning point,” she says. “My name is out there, and people are starting to appreciate who I am and what I’m capable of. Now, they’re asking me what I can do.”
LaRissa is also encouraging people to speak up. “I really want to take advantage of the ‘voice within’, whether that’s senior leaders or our more experienced individuals. I want people to feel empowered to talk about what they’ve done that’s helped them be successful. Then, I can share these positive stories with others. That will be a great demonstration of our success.”
“I want to capture as many of these stories as possible,” she says. “These are symbols of our success, and they show how people can expand their scope and reach. When people start to share their own wins and get excited about learning, that’s the best validation we can hope for.”
"When people start to share their own wins and get excited about learning, that’s the best validation we can hope for.”
Many thanks once again to LaRissa for taking the time to share her story with us!
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