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.
Room to breathe,” said Kathryn, the CLO of AshCom, as she began her final session with Rebecca, her lead consultant from MindSpring.
“Maybe a better way to say that is ‘room to think,’” replied Rebecca. “Our sessions have covered a lot of ground. It’s been an intense couple of days, but I hope it’s been worth your time.”
“I cleared my schedule for this,” said Kathryn, “which wasn’t easy to do in the middle of all we have going on.”
For the last several months, Kathryn had spent most of her time reacting to crises. AshCom, a manufacturing company with 7,000 employees, was experiencing significant financial strain, strain unlike anything in their history. The finance team put a hiring freeze in place until the company at least stopped hemorrhaging cash. While the bleeding slowed, it did not stop. Their next step was company-wide layoffs.
Kathryn’s team originally had ten members. She loved this team. They worked well together and had produced solid learning experiences for several years. But something was changing. Even before the financial trouble, Kathryn noticedthat learning was not performing like it once had. Learners were less engaged and less interested.
Just as Kathryn was beginning to pay attention to this declining trend, the financial crisis hit. The uncertainties caused one of her team members to leave. In the layoffs, Kathryn had to let go two more. The team had gone from ten to seven, and those who remained were nervous. Everyone was distracted and concerned about the future of AshCom and their own jobs.
Kathryn’s conversations with Rebecca began with Kathryn laying out the challenges she, her learning team, and AshCom faced. Rebecca listened intently and then gave Kathryn a series of questions that would serve as a guide for their time together. The questions were:
- What are your top company priorities right now and how will learning play a pivotal role in achieving them?
- Who are the targeted learners and how well do you know them?
- Do your learners care about learning and how does learning connect with their goals?
- What organizational factors are influencing your learning initiatives?
- How will get your learners’ attention and build momentum for learning?
- What are the essential topics for learners right now, what is their order, and is everyone aligned?
- How are you measuring the impact of learning on your organization?
- How are you keeping current or ahead of the curve in the learning industry?
- How are you upskilling your learning team?
- How will you meet your objectives without adding full time team members?
The last question to be discussed was, “What is your 3-5 year learning plan for your company?”
This was the question Kathryn most looked forward to, not because she had a ready answer, but because long-range planning was something she enjoyed, was good at, and had very little time for in her current situation.
“Most of my time,” said Kathryn, “is dedicated to putting out fires. I am the poster child for the tyranny of the urgent. Actually, most of the other people in leadership or management roles are experiencing the exact same thing.”
“I’m guessing not many are thinking beyond the next month, given all you have going on,” said Rebecca.
“I’m sure that’s true,” said Kathryn. “Right now, the coming year feels like a distant future. Thinking in a time frame of three to five years is like writing a sci-fi story set on another planet.”
“I’m going to say something that might sound crazy to you,” said Rebecca, “but now is exactly the moment when you should be thinking long-term.”
You have to be able to deal with the crisis of the moment and also keep one eye toward the horizon.
Kathryn raised her eyebrows. “Why yes, Rebecca, that does sound crazy.”
Rebecca laughed and decided to plow forward anyway. “Look, this is your role. It’s also the role of every C-Suite leader in this company. You have to be able to deal with the crisis of the moment and also keep one eye toward the horizon. I know that’s easy to say and hard to do, but it’s what the role requires and exactly what your learning team needs at this moment.”
“Can I ask why?” said Kathryn. “You know what these last months have been like. You know me well enough to know I take my job very seriously. And you know I don’t want to bounce from crisis to crisis every day. It isn’t an overstatement for me to say that I hate this right now.”
“I understand,” said Rebecca, “but let me give you a little perspective. There is never a good time for long-term thinking. That’s why most leaders don’t spend nearly enough time doing it. They do exactly what you described, careening from one problem to the next without any reflection.”
Rebecca paused for a moment to gauge Kathryn’s reaction. She knew Kathryn well enough to read her expression as one of close attention.
Rebecca continued, “This is difficult, but you can’t get caught in the trap of short-term thinking in the middle of a crisis. Everyone says they will just handle one more thing before they spend time on their vision and plans. But there’s always one more thing. The best leaders can do both because they know they must do both.”
“I hear you,” said Kathryn, feeling her blood pressure rise. “But it’s not easy. I have so little time. The next thing you’re going to tell me is that if I don’t spend time on it, no one else will.”
“Yup. That’s exactly what I was going to say,” said Rebecca, “although I might have softened the delivery a little for you. For the learning team, this is your role and it is yours alone. You can’t delegate it.”
“So am I supposed to move to a cabin in the woods for a month while I figure this out and leave everyone else to tend to the mess around here?” asked Kathryn. “Actually, that doesn’t sound too bad, and I know just the place!”
“Okay, okay! I see this is touching a nerve,” said Rebecca, “Let’s take a breath and talk through how you can work on a plan –without escaping to a cabin. Obviously, you need some time. That’s the first requirement. It’ll be a challenge, but you need to block off time, and it can’t be in 15 minute increments. I don’t know anyone who can think deeply 15 minutes at a time.”
“It takes me 15 minutes just to get in the right frame of mind to think about the future,” said Kathryn.
“That makes you just like everyone else,” said Rebecca. “I get my best ideas when I’m doing something else and not trying to think, like when I exercise. A few years ago I took up rowing. I do it on a lake when I can but I also have a rowing machine at home. I need something simple and repetitive that puts my muscles and brain on autopilot.”
“I actually swim,” said Rebecca. “I swim in a lake when it’s warm, and in the winter I go to the YMCA. It’s how I start my day most days of the week. I suspect I do my best thinking then because I’m not experiencing cognitive overload.”
“Interesting,” said Rebecca. “That’s a good place to begin, with habits you already have in place. Make that your time to think about the future. Don’t force ideas, but let them come to you.”
“Is that it?” asked Kathryn. “I just need more time in the pool?”
How will you both track new technologies and help your team implement them?
“Not exactly,” said Rebecca. “It’s only a start. You need a system for capturing big ideas and tracking them. It should be something visual, a pathway you can see. You’ll also need a way of returning to the path you’ve created and making changes when you need to.”
“Am I supposed to do this alone?” asked Kathryn. “What if my swimming time generates some really bad ideas?”
“That’s the next part,” said Kathryn. “You need several other groups to feed you ideas and give feedback. Doing this alone isn’t something I’d recommend.”
“So who needs to be included?” asked Kathryn.
“I think your learning team is a great place to start,” said Rebecca. “You own this, but many good ideas can come from your learning team. I’m guessing that asking them to do a little thinking with you about the future will boost their morale and be a nice break. It will show them you’re working on finding a light at the end of the tunnel.”
“What about my peers in the C-Suite?” asked Kathryn.
“They should be involved too,” said Rebecca. “At the most basic level, your job is to help them achieve the future they envision for AshCom through learning. You’ll want to make sure you have a solid handle on their own three-to-five year plans so you can align with them.”
“I have a concern about that,” said Kathryn. “The plans shift all the time. We couldn’t have predicted this current financial crisis two years ago, and we certainly didn’t.”
“Agreed,” said Rebecca. “Plans will change. Circumstances will change. Markets rise and fall. There are disruptions in supply chains. Interest rates fluctuate. All sorts of things can and probably will happen. But that doesn’t mean you don’t plan.”
“Learning is changing too,” said Kathryn. “It’s a challenge to keep up with new technology, let alone master how to use it. Artificial intelligence is going to bring about massive changes in our industry. Everyone seems to think that, but no one seems to understand exactly how.”
“That’s not a reason to avoid planning,” said Rebecca. “Actually, it’s something that ought to be in your plan. How will you both track new technologies and help your team implement them?”
“What else are the core components of the plan I need to develop?” asked Kathryn.
“I can tell you I spend a lot of time building learning plans, up to five years out,” said Rebecca. “It’s a longer conversation, but the best plans have at least these components in common.”
Rebecca stood, wrote “Team Development” on the whiteboard, and said, “You need to be constantly thinking about where your team is, what skills they have, what skills they’re going to need, and where you’re going to find them. It might mean training current team members, or it might mean bringing in new team members, but people development is essential.”
Next Rebecca wrote, “Technology: Exploration and Implementation” and said, “We’ve already talked a little about this, but you need a strategy for it and people assigned to do it.”
Kathryn nodded vigorously in agreement.
“You and I have discussed this several times,” said Rebecca, “but you need a strategy for being able to increasingly track your results. As we both know, most learning teams do a poor job and the long-term impact is significant. Not only are those teams not improving, they’re also not reporting how their work is moving the company forward.”
“And that leads us to the next strategic plan you need,” said Rebecca as she wrote, “Communicate with Executives” on the whiteboard. “Executives control your budget, so you’ll need to communicate effectively with them if you want to achieve your goals.”
“I like these,” said Kathryn, “and I think I’d add one more. We need a plan for getting more input from learners. Sometimes we’re walled off from them when we should be learning from them and listening to them.”
“That’s a good add,” said Rebecca.
“So how do I go about this?” asked Kathryn. “I have a list of things to consider and build plans around. I’m going to focus on them while I’m swimming. I’ll get input from my team and the other executives. But then I’m on my own?”
“Not if you don’t want to be,” said Rebecca. “MindSpring provides this kind of guidance. We have experience across a lot of industries and can coach you through visionary thinking. We’ve helped a lot of people in your position build out maps, create milestones, and get consensus with key stakeholders.”
“I’m going to need that if I’m going to do this well,” said Kathryn.
“This is our last session,” said Rebecca, “and it’s coming to an end. As always, I appreciate your confidence in me as aguide through some of the challenges you face. I also have confidence in you. You will get through this. You’ll figure out how to provide the very best learning experiences you can with the resources you have. I want to encourage you. I know this isn’t easy, and I’m sure you’ll have an occasional sleepless night, but don’t give up and don’t give in.”
Kathryn sat silent for a moment. “I can’t tell you what this time has meant to me,” she said. “Working logically through these questions has been an enormous help. It’s given me confidence that we can and will figure this out and get to a healthier place. Thank you for all you’ve done.”
“Your passion is helping the people of AshCom learn and grow,” said Rebecca. “My passion is helping people like you.”
With that, the two said their goodbyes and Kathryn impulsively gave Rebecca a hug. It caught Rebecca off guard. Usually, she didn’t like hugs, but she knew Kathryn was sincere. She hoped that the last 2 days had given Kathryn both confidence and a solid plan. “Call me anytime as you start working,” said Rebecca, “You know I’m always happy to help.”
“I’m sure I will,” said Kathryn with new energy in her voice
Rebecca knew, at least for now, her job was done.
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Article 12: What is your 3–5-year plan for learning in your company?