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.
The last two months had been frustrating for Kathryn. The tracking system she used to monitor the performance of her company’s learning showed learners were largely disengaged and were not applying what they were learning to their jobs. It was like a dark cloud blew in from the west and was shading the work she and her team had done. Employees at AshCom were sensing something wasn’t right, and their intuition proved to be correct.
First there was a formal announcement that a hiring freeze was being put in place. The financial health of the company, something that had been a given in past years, was declining. People who left were not being replaced. That sent a shiver down the spines of a lot of employees. One of Kathryn’s team members was unsettled more than most and decided to take another job.
The second announcement from the C-suite was even more somber. There would be layoffs across all divisions of AshCom. Kathryn was told to eliminate the positions of two more people, bringing her team size down to seven. Although she had faced decisions like this in the past, she found it extremely difficult. The pain of letting a teammate go was significant and personal to Kathryn.
Kathryn called in Rebecca to help, and she immediately got to work. Rebecca introduced eleven questions as a structure to help Kathryn find clarity and build a pathway for moving forward.
Rebecca kicked off the session. “Let’s begin with a little review. We’ve covered three questions so far:
- 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?
Kathryn looked at the whiteboard where Rebecca’s questions were listed. She thought for a moment and said, “I see what you mean about how they’re connected. I also understand why the order matters. One leads to the next. It’s like building with Legos.”
“Something like that,” said Rebecca.
“And I know our next question is, ‘What organizational factors are influencing your learning initiatives?’” said Kathryn. “I have a complete list. Would you like to see it alphabetically or numerically?” There was a bite in the question.
Rebecca chose to ignore the sarcasm. She was well aware of what Kathryn, her team, and everyone at AshCom was going through.
“How about we talk about something less stressful?” asked Rebecca. “Let’s talk about food.”
“Is this your hint that we need to bring in lunch?” asked Kathryn.
“No,” replied Rebecca. “I want to talk about the core elements of a great meal.”
Kathryn’s brow furrowed for a moment. Rebecca noticed but pressed on.
“I promise it will be helpful to our bigger discussion and will help us answer this question.”
Kathryn nodded less than enthusiastically.
“I’ll take that as a qualified yes,” said Rebecca. “What makes up a really good dining experience? What are its basic components?”
Kathryn’s mood lightened a little. She considered the question for a few seconds and said, “Well-prepared food that I like with people I care about in a beautiful setting.”
“Sounds like you have a specific example in mind,” said Rebecca.
“I do,” said Kathryn. “Once a year I get together with my former college roommates. One of them owns a condo on a canal in Florida. There’s a little seafood place that overlooks the water. Incredible food. When we get together, we always have dinner there and watch the sunset. I order a blackened grouper with white wine. The food, the wine, the company, and the location are beyond just a good dining experience. It’s a little taste of heaven for me.”
The memory alone was enough to lift Kathryn’s mood for the first time.
Rebecca smiled. “That’s what I wanted to hear,” she said. “Now imagine if I took the blackened grouper, put it in a plastic to-go container, and brought it to you while you were sitting in your car in a parking lot at a rundown mall. Still a good meal?
“Not even close,” said Kathryn. “I think I see where you’re heading with this.”
“The food is the same,” said Rebecca, “but the environment changes the whole experience.”
“I’m tracking,” said Kathryn. “We can build a solid learning experience with great instructional design, learning science, and cool technology—but the learning will fall flat in the wrong environment. Wait, did you just compare AshCom to a parking lot at a rundown mall?”
“I’ll leave that up to you to determine,” said Rebecca laughing. “I wasn’t trying to make a direct connection, but I was trying to make the point that the environment in which learning takes place really matters.”
“You’re talking about learning culture,” said Kathryn.
“Yes,” responded Rebecca. “Like at a meal, if the room is filled with tension and people don’t like each other very much, the food doesn’t really matter. AshCom is going through a lot of changes at the moment. We’re going to try to spot areas of resistance and think about how we can reduce them. Ideally, when we’re done answering this question, you’ll have a series of actionable steps leading to learning adoption success.
“And this is our learning culture,” replied Kathryn. “I get it. My learning team has had a lot of conversations around learning culture, but we never really seem to agree on a definition. Some team members say it can’t be defined but can only be recognized when we see it.”
“It is nebulous,” said Rebecca. “I want to lay out a system I’ve found helpful that many other companies have used to think through it. We call it the three-legged stool.” Rebecca walked to the whiteboard and drew a basic stool;
Kathryn looked at the whiteboard for a few moments and started to chuckle—not the reaction Rebecca expected.
“Something funny?” asked Rebecca.
“Not really,” replied Kathryn. “It just suddenly hit me that I have the wobbliest stool of all time. If a butterfly landed on it, it might collapse. Gallows humor I suppose.”
“That might be a little extreme,” said Rebecca, “but I understand how you’re feeling right now. Before we get into your specifics, let’s talk about how these areas fit together. Healthy learning cultures don’t magically appear. It takes thought and effort in these three areas.”
“’Healthy’ is a good word choice,” said Kathryn. “That’s the right way to think about this. So what does that mean for each leg of the stool?”
“So let’s consider the first leg,” responded Rebecca, “companies—healthy companies—are those with solid financial performance. That’s essential over the long term. Companies in start-up mode might be the exception. Other more established companies can survive financial challenges for a period of time, but over the long haul they won’t be healthy.”
“So it’s all about finances?” asked Kathryn.
“Not entirely,” responded Rebecca. “But health wanes without it. Of course, there are companies with healthy finances, but their culture is destructive. A healthy company provides clear paths for advancement and opportunities to grow and learn. In broad terms, I would say that a healthy company culture must be one in which human dignity is central to who they are and how they operate.”
This made Kathryn pause. She remained silent for several seconds. Rebecca was experienced enough to let her gather her thoughts.
“I’ve been at AshCom for several years now,” said Kathryn. “We’ve had ups and downs financially, but overall, we’ve been in good financial shape. And I can assure you we’ve worked hard to treat people with dignity. I don’t mean we do it perfectly, but overall I think most people would agree with me. In our current situation, the financial struggles are beginning to challenge how we treat people.”
“So let’s acknowledge that,” said Rebecca. “One leg of your stool is wobbly.”
“That has an impact on the second leg of our stool, the learners,” said Kathryn. “We consider all employees learners, and everyone’s feeling the financial challenges deeply. The hiring freeze was the first hit. The layoffs were even more painful. It’s hard to focus on developing knowledge and skills when you’re wondering if you’ll be the next to go. You’re also less likely to help someone else because you’re focused on your own position,” Kathryn paused and let out a heavy breath. Rebecca knew she was feeling the same worry she was describing. Kathryn continued, “It’s changing how we see each other. Morale is low, and low morale translates to low motivation. Why take an extra course, attend a workshop, or read an article if you’re not sure how long you’ll be with the company?”
“Your learning team, the third leg of the stool, is sharing the pain,” said Rebecca. “You’ve lost one team member because she was nervous about her future here. You had to lay off two others. I’m sure you see this on your team.”
“I do,” said Kathryn. “They’re on edge. They’re nervous around me. I guess they’re unsure of where they stand and what their future holds. And, as their leader, I’ve not only lost important team members but also skill sets that we’re all now scrambling to cover. Frankly, we’re not all up to the task. I’m worried the quality of our learning materials may suffer”.
“Three shaky legs,” said Rebecca. “Do you really wonder why learning performance and engagement is down across the board?
“I guess subconsciously I know this,” said Kathryn, “but I didn’t really think about how it all fits together. Are you telling me this is just how things are for now and I should wait for things to improve?”
“Absolutely not,” said Rebecca. “I’d begin with the group closest to you, your learning team. Meet with them and fill them in on this conversation. Acknowledge what they’re already thinking, and don’t shy away from unvarnished truth. They’re adults, so tell them what you know.”
“I’ve had individual conversations with some of them,” said Kathryn, “but we really haven’t talked about this together. I’ll make this a priority.”
“Think about what you want to communicate to them,” said Rebecca. “I’d suggest you want them to leave that meeting confident that you’re being open with them. Tell them you want to work with them to get back to being a close-knit team. That’s a good place to begin.”
“Is that it?” asked Kathryn.
“I’d suggest you meet with your Chief Human Resources Officer and have a conversation with her,” said Rebecca. “It would be good for her to hear how AshCom culture is changing how people are learning. You can share what you’re doing and ask her what she’s planning. Perhaps what you’re doing can be a model for other leaders in the company.”
“I can do that,” said Kathryn. “Anything else?”
“You’ve been at AshCom a while,” said Rebecca, “which means you know some of the more influential people here. I’m not talking about people with lofty titles. I’m talking about those who others look up to—the people other people listen to. Spend some time with them, tell them what you’re seeing, and ask them what they need from your learning team. Those conversations can be powerful.”
“I know at least a dozen people like that,” said Kathryn. “I’ll set those up.”
After another long pause, Kathryn continued, “I have to tell you, this has been a hard conversation. My role here and my passion is to help people learn what they need to know to be successful. Through most of my time here, this has been a joy. It doesn’t feel like that right now. It seems like there are forces at work that are beyond my control, and I haven’t been sure what to do about it.”
“I understand,” said Rebecca. “The thing I’m trying to clarify is that your learning culture is a subset of the larger culture at AshCom. Once you understand what I’m calling the three-legged stool, you have a framework for your situation. From there, you can begin to do what is in your power to change things.”
“Not an easy task,” said Kathryn, “but at least I have a place to start. My strong sense is that this conversation will need to continue.”
“I’m here for you.” said Rebecca. Glancing at the whiteboard, she continued, “Are you ready to move on to something a lot more fun? Look at the question we’ll tackle next time: How will you get your learners’ attention and build momentum for learning?”
“Oh my yes!” exclaimed Kathryn. “I do appreciate this conversation, but I’m certainly ready for a different topic. The order of these questions makes more sense to me now. We needed to talk through the organizational factors influencing our learning initiatives. Having some insight there will help us think about how to get our learners’ attention in the middle of our current challenges.”
“That’s the idea,” said Rebecca. “Let’s take a break, get something to eat, and come back ready for the next conversation.”
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