Leadership Matters | Challenges and Opportunities of Leading Learning

This blog is excerpted from the Performance Matters Podcast. In this episode co-host Dr. Conrad Gottfredson sat down with Honora Whitfield, Meta’s Global Director of Learning and Katie Coates, McKinsey & Company’s Director of Learning, to discuss how they are working to shift their organization’s thinking around learning.

Conrad Gottfredson (CG): It's my honor to be joined by two of the most remarkable learning leaders on the planet. For years, I've had a front row seat to watch you both lead your learning teams and transform your organizations from a traditional learning mindset and focus, to a performance first approach.

You know, I’ve also read that about 29 to 30% of senior management roles globally are filled by women. I'm wondering what advice do you have for other women looking to grow their careers and abilities to lead learning?

Katie Coates (KC): I think what's really helped me over the years is just having the right mentors and sponsors to help guide me in the whole journey.

And I've had many. In my undergraduate I connected with a university professor who took me under her wing, she said, “You have no idea how much potential you have, right?” And she just started looking for opportunities for me. And through the years we stayed very close.

In the mid-90s I started working with another leader. He, again, just provided career guidance, opened up opportunities for me, coached me through difficult situations, and really just took a personal interest in me.

And one more, when I came to McKinsey it was a different operating model and way of working than I was used to. I met this woman that I connected with and I'm like, “hey, I need some help trying to navigate.” And she of course was happy to help. She has been someone I talk to monthly, for the past six years.  

The point is, find various types of mentors along the way and don't be afraid to ask for help. Don't be afraid to ask for someone to mentor you. People are generous.

Honora Whitfield (HW): When I think about this role, and I think about what it takes to be successful and effective in this role, I think about three dimensions.

I think about understanding and having a deep expertise in the discipline itself, I think about the leadership role and that hat that you wear, and then I think about the operational aspect of the role.

To have a chance at being an effective learning leader, I think you have to have all three of those in spades. Sharing from my career path, I've probably done each and every role within my organization over the past 25 years. And I think that has made me the leader that I am today.

Just being able to understand and have empathy for the work itself, because I’ve been in those shoes, really resonates with my team. So, my advice to others who want to be a learning leader, no matter where you are in your career, is to really gain a deep understanding and appreciation for all the depth and breadth of the work. Being a well-rounded learning leader has been my path, and it’s worked well for me.

CG: Just brilliant advice.

So, let me just share an observation that I've made about the both of you. I find that you are caring leaders. That is, you care about the people with whom you work, those that you lead, you champion them, and you are really genuine.  Katie, you talk about being lifted up, but you lift others, I just would like to know your thoughts about that element of leadership, that connectedness and the caring side.

HW: Yeah, I think it's important that I feel personally committed to caring for the whole person—not just the work side of the person, but their people, their mothers, their fathers, their families. Over the course of the pandemic we got in touch more with this personal side because we were all working from and seeing firsthand their children, their struggles, and their day-to-day lives via Zoom.

So, you really, as a leader, must focus on doing what’s best for them from both the personal and business perspectives. And when I’m mentoring individuals on my team, I'm mentoring them not for the job that they're doing today, I'm mentoring them for the job that they want to do tomorrow—whether that's on my team or on another team, whether it's in our organization or within another organization. I just find that you get the most out of people when you care for them on a personal level.

KC: I kind of look at it as my obligation to now help the next generation of learning leaders get there. So, I spend a lot of time mentoring some of my dear colleagues. In fact, I just helped one of our specialists get promoted to manager, and I'm so excited for them and for the opportunities that are ahead for them.

I've even helped people kind of figure out, do you want to stay kind of where you are? Or, do you want to look at other opportunities outside of where you are? You know, what's the right role for you, as a professional and as an individual?

So again, it's this obligation to build the next set of learning leaders, and how do I set people up for success.

CG: I have a good friend who had said to me, “You know, it's not the role of a leader to maintain the status quo.” And both of you have been challenging the status quo as it relates to learning, by moving to performance. As you've been shifting and helping your organizations move from being learning focused to a performance first focus, what are some of the barriers you have faced and some successes that you found in that journey?

KC: Yeah, so I think you know, in-person learning is still a very traditional, very loved method of learning. It really is. And our organization is no different, in-person learning meets a really big need for us in terms of community connection, celebration, transition, the leadership mindset, and it's what our people really love. And it's what they think about learning.

I think performance support, there are so many different definitions of it, and there are misconceptions about what it is, and what it can and can't do. So that's some of the things we've been kind of working through. How we’re doing it is by talking through the speed of change. You can't possibly learn everything you need to in an in-person classroom setting, you just can't right?

And so, we are trying to open up the organization to other ways of learning, such as learning in the workflow.  We found a couple leaders that are really willing to take a risk and that liked this idea. We talked to them about it, and we started with a project! We picked something that wasn't, you know, too high profile too high risk, and we're like, “let's do this, let's learn from it, experiment!”

And we did it and we had great success with that project; we learned a lot from it and it had a lot of high results. Other teams and people saw what they did, and the results that they had, and they're like, “we want that”. So, we just worked with another group to build a digital coach for a group of 3,000 people to provide consistent processes and access to learning in the flow of work.

So, I think it's that experimentation, finding the right projects, and showing success that is helping us alter the status quo.

HW: So, I think that the barrier often with implementing performance support and workflow learning is that some senior leaders have just never heard of it before. You know, “What is this Five Moments of Need thing? What is workflow learning?”

And even some of our internal team members have never heard of it before, right?

So, there's this huge change management effort that you're really embarking upon, once you sell them on the benefits, they get it, and they want it. And they want it yesterday.

It also comes with a price tag and is not something you can do it overnight. So those are other barriers, right?

How do you get the funding? How do you prove the ROI for it, once you are able to get the funding? And then it's trying to set realistic expectations on what it's going to take and how many resources you need and how much time you need before you're going to have it in place.

And you will reap the benefits of it, so I think that those are just things that you have to be really explicit about and really take the time to do and do right.

So, again, how we’re changing the status quo is by selling them on all of the benefits, setting realistic expectations, and then choosing one project at a time to implement. That's how we’ve approached it and we are focusing on basically one project per year, get it done really well, and get the adoption that we're looking for before we move on to the next solution.

For Con, Honora, and Katie’s full performance-first discussion, listen to the full episode.

Don’t forget to subscribe to The Performance Matters Podcast to stay up to date on all the latest conversations and guests in The 5 Moments space.

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