Blonde, white, middle aged women at desk with a distraught appearance

Building a Strategic Plan: 11 Essential Questions for Corporate Learning Leaders

Story Introduction 

Kathryn is the Chief Learning Officer at a fictional manufacturing company called AshCom, located in Minneapolis. Kathryn has been the CLO for more than five years and, with her team,  has produced some amazing learning experiences. But things are changing fast. Rebecca is a consultant from MindSpring who has served as an advisor to Kathryn for the last four years. This is their story.

Kathryn didn’t call Rebecca all that frequently. While there were a few exceptions, her calls were most often about a problem. And not a small one. As Chief Learning Officer at AshCom, Kathryn valued outside perspectives. She had a small group of people whose opinions she trusted who provided her with wisdom and insight, and Rebecca from MindSpring was one of those people— a trusted consultant and advisor.

When Kathryn said she wanted to meet in person, Rebecca knew the problem was serious. Most issues required only a phone call, maybe a video chat, but an in-person meeting meant whatever was coming was going to be significant. Rebecca booked the first available flight to Minneapolis and cleared her calendar for two days. She liked working with the learning team at AshCom, talented people who were passionate about learning. She especially appreciated her time with Kathryn. Of all the clients served by Rebecca, Kathryn was one of the most thoughtful and strategic leaders. Kathryn didn’t merely react, she was deliberate and intentional. A steady hand. 

Two days later, Rebecca walked into the AshCom offices, said good morning to some of the learning team members she’d come to know over the years, and knocked on Kathryn’s office door. Kathryrn’s office always made Rebecca smile. Most of the wall space was covered with white boards. Normally, each was covered with notes and diagrams, mostly in Kathryn’s handwriting, but the thoughts of others were represented as well.

The first sign of trouble: all the whiteboards were empty. Clean, even. Rebecca noticed this before her eyes met Kathryn’s. Kathryn immediately knew what Rebecca was thinking. “Yes,” said Kathryn, smiling weakly, “I’ve cleared the decks.”

As Rebecca looked at Kathryn, pausing before saying anything. She had deep circles under her eyes, the kind people get when they are under heavy and sustained stress. Rebecca had never seen Kathryn like this before. Attempting to put Rebecca at ease, Kathryn said, “I know what you’re seeing. I’m a mess.” 

Kathryn had always appreciated what Rebecca called “unvarnished truth,” and Rebecca’s response provided it. “Yes,” said Rebecca, “you are a mess.” Both laughed out loud. Kathryn was suddenly aware that it had been awhile since she saw much humor in anything.

Sitting at the conference table, Rebecca said, “Let’s get into it. What’s happening in the AshCom world? What’s happening with learning here? How’s your learning team?”

Kathryn breathed deeply and responded, “I’ll paint you a picture. I cleared the whiteboard because I needed to clear the cobwebs— to kind of start over. That’s why I called you. I feel like I need to reboot myself and a lot of our learning. Now we have plenty of clean space to sort things out over the next day or two. I hope you have enough time.” 

“Don’t worry about time,” said Rebecca. “I can stay for as long as you need me. Flights are easy to change. Do you have a single issue, or is it a snowball?”

Snowball rolling down a hill and getting bigger. Anology to problems starting out small and accumulating to something larger.

“Snowball?” asked Kathryn.

“A bunch of issues rolling down a hill, gathering speed, and picking up all sorts of other things— sticks, branches, and rocks— as it progresses until it’s out of control. That’s a snowball,” said Rebecca.

Now Kathryn laughed hard. “Snowball might be too small a term. This is more like an avalanche in stages.”

“So let’s begin at the top of the hill,” said Rebecca. “Where did this all start?”

Kathryn thought for a moment before answering. “The beginning was kind of gradual. It was something my learning team began to notice several months ago. Some of our learning experiences were not performing like we hoped they would. Learners were ranking them lower than they had in the past. Fewer people were signing up for voluntary opportunities or exploring the learning paths we’d created. It took more pressure to get our team members to take compliance training. And maybe most troubling, our behavior objectives weren’t being met.”

“Is something changing at AshCom?” asked Rebecca. “Sounds like you might have something bigger going on than just underperforming learning.”

“We’re struggling financially,” replied Kathryn. “We are not hitting our quarterly goals, and a lot of my peers don’t think we will for the foreseeable future. Our CFO announced a hiring freeze three months ago, and that rattled everyone. Some say we are already in a recession. Others thinks the worst is still to come. There’s little optimism we’ll be out of this anytime soon.”

“Not surprising,” said Rebecca. “You and I have both been around long enough to have experienced this before.”

“We have,” responded Kathryn, “and I think I could have dealt with that, but then Alishia—the youngest member of our team—got rattled and took another job. She was incredibly creative and talented in technology. I really thought she could have my job someday. I’m happy for her new opportunity, but we took it hard.”

“That’s a big loss,” acknowledged Rebecca.

“That’s not the worst of it,” said Kathryn clearly frustrated, “Last week, our CFO stopped by and told me I needed to let two more of my learning team members go. That just happened two days ago.”

“Hmmm,” said Rebecca. “When I entered the building, I saw several of your team members and said hello. Most of them didn’t look very enthusiastic. One or two looked a little worried to see me.”

“Everyone is on pins and needles here,” said Kathryn. “My whole team us unsettled. No one really knows what’s going to happen next.”

“You’re not alone,” replied Rebecca. “Several of my clients are in the same boat— high levels of uncertainty and insecurity. Anything else I need to know about?”

“Oh goodness,” said Kathryn with some anxiety in her voice, “is there something else I should be anticipating?”

“No, sorry,” said Rebecca. “I didn’t mean that. I meant are there any others factors I should be aware of.”

“I certainly hope not,” said Kathryn.

“So what are you looking for from me?” asked Rebecca. “Sometimes I’m a sounding board. Sometimes a source of support and encouragement. Other times, what’s needed is a deep dive into a specific problem. How can I best help you?”

“I’m not sure I know a specific answer to that question,” replied Kathryn. “The problems we’ve worked on together in the past were very specific. What I need now is insight. I’m not even sure that’s the right word. Maybe experience? Or direction? Wisdom? Does MindSpring offer wisdom consulting? Overall, I need clarity. From there I need help building a sustainable and productive path forward.”

“I hear you,” replied Rebecca. “I’ve been through this with fast–growth companies who have outpaced their learning ecosystem. Sometimes stable companies are the ones behind the learning curve. But I’ve also gone through this with firms facing the same challenges as AshCom.”

“We certainly aren’t fast-growth,” said Kathryn. “but maybe we have fallen behind. More importantly, we need a plan for working our way through what is happening right now. Maybe I should start with the questions I need to be asking right now for the good of the company and for the good of my team.”

“Then let’s begin there,” said Rebecca. “I’ll start with what some of our clients call ‘The Dirty Dozen.’”

“Like the old movie?” ask Kathryn.

“Probably,” said Rebecca. “I’m not an old movie buff, so I should probably work on a better name. For our purposes think of them as eleven essential questions. Not every question applies to every circumstance. Some people start in the middle. Others need all eleven.”

“So if we spend time on these questions,” asked Kathryn, “the path I need will emerge?”

“That’s the idea,” said Rebecca. “Some answers might come more easily than others. Some will take a lot of work and time to figure out. All of them are designed to bring your operating assumptions to light so we can examine them and see if you’re tracking to your objectives.”  

“I’m sure some of what I’m assuming is wrong,” said Kathryn.

“You can be the judge of that,” replied Rebecca. “Judging is not what I do. Guiding is what I do best. Once we have some answers, we can set some priorities.”

Rebecca, for the first time, could see Kathryn’s face begin to relax. She looked more like herself again.

For our purposes think of them as eleven essential questions. Not every question applies to every circumstance. Some people start in the middle. Others need all eleven.”

“Can we get them all asked and answered today?” asked Kathryn with a grin, already knowing the answer.

“Not even close,” said Rebecca. “But what we can do is clarify the questions and start thinking about how we will gather the information we need to answer them.”

“This will be a huge relief to my team,” said Kathryn. “They’re already stressed because we’re down three key people. Some of them are wondering if they’ll be the next to leave. All of them have questions about where we are heading. As the person tasked with leading them, I need to make things clear to them.”

“That’s the right way to think about it,” said Rebecca. “Let’s cover the questions one at a time and keep an eye on anything that might cause additional stress. Before we dive into the questions, I need to tell you that, for most organizations, the order matters. They sort of build on each other, even when companies start in different places on the list.

“I’m in,” said Kathryn. “Let’s get rolling.”

“OK,” said Rebecca. “I’ll put them on the whiteboard and let them sit there a bit. We can take a break for 15 minutes and start at the top.”

Rebecca grabbed a black marker and walked to the whiteboard. She wrote:

  1. What are your top company priorities right now and how will learning play a pivotal role in achieving them?
  2. Who are the targeted learners and how well do you know them?
  3. Do your learners care about learning and how does learning connect with their goals?
  4. What organizational factors are influencing your learning initiatives?
  5. How will get your learners’ attention and build momentum for learning?
  6. What are the essential topics for learners right now, what is their order, and is everyone aligned?
  7. How are you measuring the impact of learning on your organization?
  8. How are you keeping current or ahead of the curve in the learning industry?
  9. How are you upskilling your learning team?
  10. How will you meet your objectives without adding full time team members?
  11. What is your 3–5-year plan for learning in your company?

As Kathryn watched Rebecca write, she felt oddly better and worse at the same time. She felt a little guilty she didn’t have ready answers to these questions. And she knew finding the answers would take work. But she also felt relieved that now she had a place to begin. Ahead was a clear path out of the chaos and into a functional and beneficial plan for herself, her learning team, and the company.

After Rebecca finished, she sat down, capped the marker, and waited as Kathryn took in the information. Two minutes of silence went by. 

For most organizations, the order matters. They sort of build on each other, even when companies start in different places on the list.

Finally, Kathryn spoke. “I see where you’re going, and I understand the ‘why’ behind what you have in mind. This will be challenging, but I honestly don’t know another place to start. Some of these are unsettling to me.”

“The one thing I can promise you,” said Rebecca, “is that you’ll finish this process with a path forward. I also want to reinforce that I’ve been through this with many other organizations and the results have brought a lot of improvement. In other words, things will get better.”

“That’s why I called you in the first place,” said Kathryn, “and just what I needed to hear. You take a break. I’m going to sit here for a little longer and think about these. I just need a moment.”

“Take the time you need,” replied Rebecca as she stood. “I’ll be back in a few minutes. Then we can begin with the first question.” 

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