For L&D leaders, the recent disruptions due to the COVID-19 pandemic have required major changes to existing learning processes, including onboarding.
But what if you’ve just started an L&D leadership role during the pandemic? What if you need to not only adjust to the new status quo, but build key relationships at the same time?
Recently, I caught up with Kristi Conlon, incoming Leader of L&D at DPR Construction, to talk about the challenges of taking on a new role during the current pandemic, and how to grow new relationships in a virtual environment.
To kick off our conversation, Kristi gave me a rundown of her first few months on the job.
For Kristi, starting a new L&D leadership role in 2020 has been a process of adjusting her expectations. “It’s all virtual,” she says. “I think I’m a great place to write a playbook for the virtual onboarding of leaders. The challenge is, I have a globally dispersed team, and nobody would be working side-by-side even without the pandemic. It’s a level playing field.”
To get started, Kristi is focusing on one of the most important parts of L&D: building relationships, even if it has to be done mostly virtually. “I have an L&D team of ten direct reports, and about fifty indirect people on the deployment side, including our training coordinators. My goal is to build relationships with the team, and with all of our stakeholders.”
"I think I’m a great place to write a playbook for the virtual onboarding of leaders."
This means a lot of one-on-one meetings and in-depth discussion. “I had a great one-on-one where a stakeholder said, ‘Kristi, you need to learn us, then live us, and then you can change us’. That’s counterintuitive to showing quick wins, but I’m trying to give myself a little bit of a grace period at the start.”
One other strategy Kristi is using? Setting clear time-based goals.
Starting a new L&D leadership role can be tricky even in business-as-usual. As Kristi explains, a key tactic is to set specific goals for each month.
“The first 30 days is solely relationship-building. I’m gathering information, but I’m postponing any judgements or solutions. Our leadership said in a webinar that our number one job right now is to take care of people. So, we need to really listen to them and empathize with them.”
“At the 60-day mark, I should have a straw man of some ideas. I have priorities, so I know what I’m looking for, and I’m asking questions around those priorities. Then, at 90 days, I’ll have something a little more formal. By then I will have synthesized all of the inputs and shopped them internally. Then, I’ll be going out to the broader stakeholders to get ideas and reactions.”
“My first day was June 1st, so 120 days will be right at the planning cycle for our strategy and budget. I’ll have to have some idea of the resources that I need, and I’ll be forecasting for talent and funding.”
Having this clear calendar really helps Kristi to structure her first months as L&D leader, and helps her to set specific goals for different points in time. It also helps her to understand when to make changes - and when not to.
As Kristi explains, a global pandemic already creates enough uncertainty without introducing unnecessary changes to company L&D.
“I was worried about the amount of change for our team members. Every time a new leader comes in, they want to change things. But there’s so much change in the world now already. Our people are dealing with their children, with school, with working from home. I’m just one more change for them to manage.”
“Initially, I thought, what’s their threshold for change? How much can they handle? I realized that there’s already going to be change, so I should lean into it. This is a great time for transformation, because it’s going to happen anyway, so we can leverage that.”
One great example of leveraging this change? The switch to virtual training.
"I was worried about the amount of change for our team members. Every time a new leader comes in, they want to change things."
The COVID pandemic has had severe implications for businesses around the world. However, it has also created the drive for people to switch to virtual training.
“Everybody preferred face-to-face learning before, but we have to find more effective ways to do it, like with virtual learning,” says Kristi. “We wouldn’t have had that mandate before, so we should lean into the opportunities for change that this time is bringing us.”
“We have an award-winning team with signature programs. The question is how to enhance this, and go from good to great. We’re looking at the company’s 2030 mission of being the most admired company, and asking what this means for L&D.”
"We should lean into the opportunities for change that this time is bringing us.”
If you’re joining a company as a new L&D leader, it can be tempting to jump straight into the big issues. But as Kristi explains, focusing on onboarding first-hand can be incredibly valuable.
“I asked for the same onboarding experience that any new employee would have,” says Kristi. “As you know, a lot of times HR will tailor this for leaders coming in from the outside, and will take a concierge approach. But I wanted to understand this first-hand.”
However, as with so many other parts of business right now, Kristi had to adjust on the fly. “Because of COVID, I wasn’t able to get the full experience. I completed the mandatory training, but we weren’t able to convene for our in-person training. I still got a great overview of our program.”
Despite all of the disruptions associated with the COVID pandemic, starting as the new L&D leader has been a lot of fun for Kristi - especially coming to grips with her new environment.
“It’s fun if you ever wanted to be an investigative reporter, or if you’re an anthropologist and you love observing and learning. Most of us in the learning and development field are like that. We love to ask a lot of questions.”
“Unlike other companies, it’s a lot more personal at DPR. People really want to get to know you, what you have to bring, your journey and how you got here. After you’ve built the relationship, then you get to know their business. This can be tricky in a remote context, but I’m enjoying it.”
For L&D leaders settling into their new roles during this time, it’s incredibly useful to hear a few tips and suggestions from someone going through the same process.
Thanks once again to Kristi for taking the time to chat and share her valuable expertise!
Want more peer insights on transforming workplace learning? Check out #CLOConnect, our interview series with top L&D leaders on driving growth and scaling culture through Collaborative Learning. Or you can subscribe (below 👇) to our weekly newsletter to receive our latest posts directly in your inbox.