Often, it isn’t enough for L&D managers to simply have the best ideas and methodologies to help their organization grow. L&D managers still have to convince executive teams to sign off the budget to pursue the right course of action.
This process of winning budgets and people over takes a mixture of hard work, energy, and the right interpersonal skills. It’s a tricky job, and sometimes it can be tough to get a project or learning strategy over the line.
For Shermaine M. Perry-Knights, Senior Trainer & Instructional Designer at Fulton County Government, the process of securing executive buy-in is second nature.
Fortunately for us, Shermaine was willing to chat to me recently about her approach to L&D, and the skills and techniques she uses to get senior staff on board with a shared L&D strategy.
As Shermaine explains, the learning strategy for Fulton County Government focuses on three key pillars.
“First, there’s a needs assessment,” she says. “Each person on our team goes out to different departments to determine their needs. There might be a knowledge gap, or a skills gap. Our job is to design a training solution to accommodate that.”
And because the County Government has a broader range of responsibility, it’s important to reflect the view of the community, too.
“Second, we get feedback from citizens,” says Shermaine. “This could be a concern with a particular service deficiency, or some other aspect of our operations where we could be doing better. From the feedback, we can design a training service.”
Related: The Right Way to Do a Training Needs Analysis
Finally, she takes a strategic view of the County Government’s L&D needs.
“Every four to five years we create a new strategic plan, and this informs the business needs and outcomes,” she says. “Our learning strategy needs to reflect this plan. Our current plan focuses on customer service initiatives, succession planning, and developing our management and supervisors.”
So, what happens once you’ve collected this information? You take it to the executives.
As Shermaine explains, once the information gathering is complete, she takes it to the heads of each department to engage them in a plan of action.
“We take this to the executives and explain how we can address any deficiencies or other areas of focus with training solutions,” says Shermaine.
As you might expect, this process isn’t always smooth sailing. “Naturally, sometimes there can be some resistance,” she says. “It can be difficult to hear that what you’re doing could potentially be counter-productive to engagement with citizens, or to the strategic initiatives, or to our mission as a whole. Having that conversation can become very touchy.”
One way to handle sensitive situations like these? Focus on the solution, not just the problem. “We’re there to point out shortfalls,” says Shermaine, “but more importantly, we’re there to show how to address it with the right training. Our goal is to turn this into something positive.”
"We’re there to show how to address it with the right training. Our goal is to turn this into something positive.”
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When the time comes to convince executives of a particular course of action, Shermaine has a few tips and techniques.
“I like to offer case studies of similar organizations providing similar services, and highlight how training solutions have helped them to increase engagement, productivity, and customer service. This way, we’re showing that the problems aren’t limited to one department. They’re shared, and we can help address them.”
Getting your training budget and buy-in is also a question of setting up the right context for the discussion. “One-on-one conversations can really help,” says Shermaine. “In a group, talking about potential improvements can be tough. People respond much better one-on-one.”
Even with these techniques, it’s important to stay realistic: even the most convincing L&D manager won’t get the green light every time.
“Sometimes our suggestions are very well-received,” says Shermaine. “But sometimes executives hear you out and have different priorities. They might want to focus on team-building, instead of data analysis, for example. Instead of simply disagreeing, there are plenty of ways to achieve both priorities. We could provide additional resources through lunch learning sessions, or something similar.”
Another key technique for getting your training budget or exec buy-in? Follow up discussions with email to make sure executives have clear and accurate information. “When I leave any conversation, I always follow up with an email to confirm everything we discussed and make sure everything is clear.”
"We’re showing that the problems aren’t limited to one department. They’re shared, and we can help address them.”
As Shermaine notes, getting executive buy-in can be even trickier when you’re dealing with a mixture of hired and elected officials.
“We have officials who are hired into a position, and officials who are elected. For elected individuals, the chain of responsibility is different, and it can be challenging trying to suggest changes in knowledge development. This can be a real tightrope.”
“I think L&D has a bit more support in the private sector,” she says. “In government, it’s a little bit different, because our services become the forefront of our strategy. L&D is important, but it isn’t seen as the top priority. You have to argue for your seat at the table.”
One unexpected development to come out of the current global pandemic? L&D has become a higher priority for executive team members.
“With COVID-19, there’s a greater demand for L&D, because we all have to switch to virtual alternatives to the status quo, or you become obsolete. The delivery mechanism has changed. This capability is now valued a lot more.”
Above all else, Shermaine says, the key to achieving executive buy-in to L&D is to show the impact of learning activities across the organization’s objectives.
“L&D teams need to demonstrate their value as a strategic partner and to document their learning impact. That way, you can convince managers that you can help them achieve business goals and that you’re worth listening to. It’s about what we can do collectively to demonstrate our impact.”
Related: 3 Data-Based Ways to Prove Training ROI
For L&D managers looking for new ways to secure training budgets or executive buy-in for learning strategies and priorities, tips like this are incredibly helpful.
Thanks again to Shermaine for sharing her expertise and experience!
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