As L&D leaders, we know we can make an impact for our stakeholders if only they would let us design outside the box that we, ironically, have created for ourselves: training requests.
So, how can you go beyond these order-taking requests to establish yourself as somebody who can come up with solutions that make a demonstrable difference to performance?
In this L&D Podcast episode, Guy Wallace and I speak with Judith Hale, Performance Improvement expert and thought leader, about her experience and approach working with stakeholders and clients to impact performance outcomes.
Read on to hear about Judith’s journey to performance-orientated L&D, her three-step framework for engaging stakeholders, and how you can build your stakeholder currency by offering more value than you were asked for through delivering more than just training.
As Judith explains, she did not enter the learning and development world through a traditional career path.
“My degrees are in communication, and my masters is in theater management. I was a speech teacher for seven years,” she says. “I was tenured but bored, so I quit, going to work for a professional association that did performance-based testing and certification.”
At the time, Judith read about value engineering, focusing on why there is a problem and root cause analysis.
“During this exploration,” Judith explains, “I started my own company. I wrote a one-page letter to seven companies in Chicago saying I had an observation, and five of them called me up and hired me. I got introduced to and took on some major assignments, and this is where the theater and the communications started coming together.”
But it wasn’t long before Judith discovered that her clients often could not pinpoint their needs or problems they wanted to solve with training. She knew she needed to change tact.
Judith’s approach to analysis centers around her stakeholders because she observed that her clients often aren’t skilled at articulating their needs.
“They’re not skilled at working together,” she says. “I found out that what we were working on was wrong. I learned that although they all talked asif they were aligned on the same thing, when you probed, they actually all meant different things.”
So, how does Judith overcome this challenge? First, she starts her analysis at the very first meeting with a potential client.
Often, stakeholders are not skilled at working together. I found out that what we were working on was wrong. I learned that although they all talked as if they were aligned on the same thing, when you probed, they actually all meant different things.
“My approach to analysis begins at the first time of contact, not when the contracts are signed, because, in that window, they are more revealing,” Judith explains.
“They don't self-censor as much because they don't think it's serious. They're finding out about you, not realizing you're finding out about them. I am listening for hidden agendas, their ability to articulate the problem, and what they are focused on,” she says. “Are they looking at the total environment, or is this all about X person?”
Right at the beginning, the future clients’ guard is down because they are seeing if Judith is a right fit for them, revealing a tremendous amount about their biases, assumptions, and openness to new things.
Once the contract is signed, Judith will sit down and ask the client to explain how the stakeholders and the organization got to this point. Why have they engaged her?
“I ask, how did you get here?” Judith explains. “I want to know how well they thought through their history and what triggered them because I don’t have the solution in my pocket; I'm insisting they do that. I also look at the physical environment.”
For example, when entering an office, Judith will notice that the ambient noise is loud and wonder how anyone can think, let alone work. In this case, you don’t need training! A simple problem is solved by a simple solution: a good acoustical engineer.
“So, I pay attention to where people are working, and maybe that’s my theater background because you have to create the environment for the story,” she says.
Next, Judith gets the stakeholders to agree on what they want to solve: a specific problem with a targeted solution.
“Then I get down to negotiating,” she explains. “Now that we agree, are they open to new ideas? It immediately tells me I'm in the wrong room if they're not open to that. So, I negotiate for the crack in the door where we will go and explore a question. I will negotiate how open they are to new ideas or perspectives.”
Over the years, Judith has learned that many people are terrible writers, but they are great editors. She might enter a stakeholder meeting with a hip pocket piece of a paper with the latest research and use it to make her point.
For example, Judith might ask clients, ‘Did you know the research says these are the ten most common mistakes organizations make?’ In one case, Judith had an executive reply that they had made all ten of them. She said that was good; now they could move forward.
“If they can be editors, they feel empowered,” she says. “In the process, they reveal their assumption base, what they know, and how open they are. They are disclosing a great deal of information, so I need to know how to position my recommendations going forward.
So, how does Judith’s framework look in practice? Luckily, she had one example to share: teaching executives to be ‘nice.’
In one real example, Judith was hired to teach executives to be nicer.
“Now again, I can't make this up,” she explains, “and they wanted it to be mandated training; they were going to require the executives to go to this.”
“I knew something else was seriously broken. So, I asked: if they are nice, what will be different in this company? That's my scorecard. You're asking me to solve that problem, so tell me what it is.”
Judith found that the proportion of employees getting counseling or therapy was off the charts. After talking to the medical director, she discovered their premiums were increasing. She also spoke with someone in operations and found they had high absenteeism. This gave her a clear sense of the problem she’d been tasked to resolve.
“I got the scorecard that if executives are nice, we expect health claims and absenteeism to decrease. After convening a small group of the target audience, I discovered they're never allowed to turn off their cell phones. What's the incentive for these executives to be nice?”
“So, I produced a 45-minute video with information on the medical cost consequences and the consequences on production with tardiness and absenteeism. So, the webinar really said, here's the state of the ark. And then I asked them, what will you do when one of you steps out of line and goes back to the old behavior?”
Judith says L&D leaders should stop being embarrassed about taking training orders.
“In taking the order, you have these little opportunities to plant seeds and build your customer or internal client's awareness of what's happening. You should also always thank them for the opportunity to partner and collaborate with them,” she explains.
Judith says she is a big believer in creating dissonance. When your stakeholders ask you for training, it is an opportunity for you to say, ‘Oh, by the way, did you know other organizations have found this helpful if they also give people support tools on the job.’
“I use all these opportunities to plant seeds to help my client become aware that there's more going on than we realize,” she says, “like a performance support tool or when I develop training, I always look for opportunities to create tools that transfer to the job, which gives me a chance to ask how to make it useful on the job.”
“So, don't be ashamed of taking orders, but make sure that when you do, you do an exquisite job and look for opportunities to add other solution sets, perform a support tool, negotiate clarity in instruction, or call to question if people are really getting the information that you think that they're getting.”
But, what should you do when your stakeholder insists on training?
In Judith’s experience, if your stakeholders insist on training, just give them their training–but make sure it’s helpful, not harmful.
“That person, who might be a senior executive or well ensconced, may have made public promises. They've gone out and said, ‘I'm going to do training, and I am going to solve this.’ So, you have to be sensitive to what they have promised their peers, bosses, or the public, and they've probably built themselves a hole,” she says.
That person, who might be a senior executive or well ensconced, may have made public promises. They've gone out and said, ‘I'm going to do training, and I am going to solve this.’ So, you have to be sensitive to what they have promised their peers, bosses, or the public, and they've probably built themselves a hole.
Judith also explains that you can call something training even if it is not training. It used to be a three-ring binder, but now it can be an 11-minute video. “Part of this is not being so vigorous ourselves,” she says. “But please understand that person's almost always made public statements, and now they don't have a face-saving way to backpedal.”
“When you can,” she adds, “engage that person's peers and get the peers to work and say, ‘I'm really glad you solved this problem. Are you doing other things to help make sure it's sustainable?’”
When it comes to building better relationships with your stakeholders, Judith finds that you must do everything you can to elevate them.
“You're there to position them, strengthen their position, and let their peers know they're very good,” she says.
Next, when you present new insights, do it as an offhand ‘this is the latest research’ as mentioned above, and never ask anybody necessarily to engage with you. Let them engage with each other. And then you can always negotiate: would you like to explore that further?
“The language is not: I know how to fix that,” she says. “The language is: how should we explore that? And you can always negotiate your protocols for working, engaging, and communicating with them. I find that very helpful to do. Don't abuse the relationship.”
Thanks to Judith for sharing her experience and insights with us! Keen to learn more from L&D experts? Check out the episode where David and Guy speak to Teemu Lilja and Fredrik Peterson Herfindal about their pivot to performance and how this has led to incredible business impact.
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