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L&D Plus Leadership: How to Encourage Your C-Suite to See Failure as a Great Opportunity to Learn

What if you could convince upper management to see failure, not as a disappointing outcome to be avoided, but as an opportunity to learn?

This is certainly what Dr. Cenina Saxton, as Director of Talent and Culture at Focus Brands, is championing across the business. We had the pleasure of sitting down with Dr. Saxton to better understand how “failing fast”, building cultures of feedback, and betting on collaboration have helped her scale L&D programs across her career.

She walks us through all this and more in our latest episode of the L&D Plus podcast.

If you’re saving the podcast for later, we’ve distilled the main takeaways below:

Think beyond the classroom

Dr. Saxton is a big proponent of creating a culture in which employees are invited to “fail fast.” Failing fast means being able to take risks, go out on a limb, and try out new things in a professional setting, in order to ultimately learn from those experiences to better the business.

After all, if we look at the famous 70/20/10 rule, we realize that most learning happens through experiences, whether they be projects or job rotations, and not traditional classroom learning. Grabbing a few dozen employees and sitting them down in a room to take notes is not going to create a culture of productive risk-taking. Instead, L&D teams should empower individuals to go out on a limb in their day-to-day work.

A great vehicle for delivering this important message is new hire orientation. “The notion of failing fast can start at onboarding,” explains Dr. Saxton. “What are you most interested in doing and learning? Learning a different part of the business, getting out of your comfort zone?” She outlines that employees can do all this while helping the business grow.

 “But,” Dr. Saxton clarifies, “they can't do that without the safety net of saying it's okay if you try and fail.”

They can't learn without the safety net of saying it's okay if you try and fail.

Create a mindset of continuous learning 

That’s why it’s crucial for leadership teams to create safe spaces for this kind of structured risk-taking. L&D teams can help build this kind of culture through:

  • Establishing employee coaching programs built on this premise
  • Encouraging peer feedback shared in safe spaces
  • Adapting performance review cycles to reward “failing fast” behavior
  • Pushing for organization-wide change, not just shifts on individual teams
  • Highlighting ways that leadership has led by example in taking calculated risks

Ultimately, it’s about showing how failures don’t necessarily lead to negative business outcomes, but highlighting how they do contribute to continuous learning. Another integral part of any “failing fast” program? Collaboration.

Set the right tone for collaboration

Nobody is going to have the tools they need to take risks and learn from them without the help of their peers and colleagues. Again, onboarding is a perfect time to set expectations around collaboration, as Dr. Saxton explains:

“We kick that off when we onboard our new associates. That's where people begin to make an impact…it's important that you're learning your role, you're meeting your peers, you're understanding the priorities of your team, but more broadly across the function.“ 

This is another opportunity to fail fast. A new hire may think they know exactly how they can best contribute to the business in their first weeks on the job, as they’re feeling out their new role. Maybe they hit the nail on the head, or maybe they’re off the mark—but either way, having the freedom to try and fail accelerates their learning process and gets them fully onboarded that much faster.  

Another important point to remember about failing fast is that a tactic that didn’t work in one setting might very well work in another. As Dr. Saxton explains, “Let’s say we have a failure here, or something that maybe did not achieve that desired results, it doesn't mean it won't work in a different place.”

Let’s say we have a failure here...it doesn't mean it won't work in a different place.

Structured collaboration vs. collaboration in the flow of work

So, what’s the best way to fold in the kind of constructive peer feedback that helps everyone to learn from their mistakes?

For Dr. Saxton, there’s no one right way to go about it. In some contexts, a more structured approach to feedback is welcome. This was the case during her time working in the nuclear industry; each major project would be followed by a debrief, in which participants outlined what went well and what could be improved. Crucially, they brought in outside perspectives, like members of the HR team or teams from off-site, that could comment on group dynamics or industry standards.

In other settings, however, an in the flow of work approach to feedback is just as common and effective. The ultimate goal is always to highlight how working in silos is never as effective as working collaboratively.

“Don’t focus on L&D—focus on business challenges”

One of the best ways for L&D teams to show their true effectiveness is to demonstrate how their work moves the needle on business-critical challenges, not just on metrics like engagement levels or courses completed.

For L&D professionals to make this leap, however, they need to put in the hours to understand their organization: 

“Develop the business acumen. What are those key drivers for success for the business and ask the leaders that you're supporting, what's important to you? What keeps you up at night? What are those things that are going to be most critical to the success of your function to the business in the next 12, 18 months?”

Concretely, that means:

  • Attending their meetings
  • Attending their off site meetings
  • Mapping out one to ones for your first 90 days to get this information

Another tip is to do some benchmarking; find out how your L&D peers are approaching the challenges that you have. You’ll want to grow your community of practitioners, but, crucially, you shouldn’t focus on L&D—focus on business challenges, instead.

For more inspiring and actionable L&D stories like this one, be sure to check out our other episodes of L&D Plus. And if you're looking for more great L&D resources and insights, come and join the L&D Collective and connect with other learning leaders!

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