Working with, not for, others

In the last year I’ve come to know quite a few learning and development type folk through Twitter. Sadly there are too many to mention who forget that life happens outside of L&D and you just get overloaded with their stream. Robert Weeks is gladly not of this fold, and he’s a pleasure to have in my timeline. We share similar thoughts on things and I would regard him a good man.

The theme put forward this month is “biggest learning in life”. I’m afraid that after some thought I need to distil that down slightly. As I considered all my life experiences, some relatively recent, nailing one in particular was difficult. I found that in the context of what this blog generally aims to explore, it was easiest to consider my biggest learning within the context of learning and development.

To some people, I might be relatively new to this field. I know that I still feel that I am. I started in my first “pure” learning and development role in September 2009, and before had only ran the odd pre-arranged staff training session when I was a manager. I was thrown into a company that had never had anyone in such a position before, and I had no-one to guide my development.

In the early days, as the sole person in the company seemingly responsible for staff training, I felt a need to acquiesce to all requests for training. Take this one (completely genuine) example, which I paraphrase slightly here. It happened on a Friday:

“We want to run a training session for a new product on Tuesday for our team. We want them to become familiar with it and our plans for the launch. We can’t tell you yet who will be able to attend, over how many sessions. And what’s more we’re not quite sure how long we can release each member of staff for. We haven’t actually fully agreed the commercial aspects of the product or the marketing plans, but I’m sure we’ll be able to tell you on Monday afternoon”.

There was a time in my early days where I would have moved heaven and earth to meet this request. After all, I was in training, right? This was my job. If I didn’t do it, what was the point of employing me in the first place?

But let’s break this down a bit. First of all, what exactly are we meant to achieve in this session? Who knows, it’s extremely vague. In fact, the marketing plans aren’t even written out yet, although they’ve stated that they want attendees to have some level of knowledge of them after they’ve attended.

The timescale is ridiculously tight, especially when you consider that there is a weekend in the middle and it goes without saying that I always have other projects and priorities to work on too. No amount of “rapid content creation” will make this a success.

Finally, how do you build a session when you don’t know how many people will be coming along or how much time you will have with them? The objectives of the training aren’t set out clearly, and we don’t know if we’ll have the time to meet them when we work out how long the session will be.

But like I said, a couple of years ago I would have tried to bend over backwards to deliver this. Maybe I was trying to prove my worth? Many companies don’t have an in-house L&D function, and there’s always a lingering fear that one day you might be seen as an unnecessary expense.

It’s a silly way to operate though. The role of a learning and development person is not to meet any demand made of them by a line manager. Your role should be to stand up for the best interests of the learners in the organisation. It is your duty, in my opinion, to set yourself up as an expert in the field of learning, and like any consultant it means that you should feel empowered to criticise plans such as this, and offer constructive suggestions on how to do it better.

You probably could knock together a session on the brief set out above. But what you do is likely to be ineffective, almost “training for trainings sake”. If attendees are polite, they might say “thank you, that was very useful” as they file out of the room. But scratch beneath the surface and they’ll probably think “that was a waste of a couple of hours. I could have just read a memo on it”.

In short, you are doing a disservice to yourself as a professional, to the learners who need to feel equipped to fulfil their roles, and the organisation itself that relies on learning and development as a crucial tool in meeting its objectives. You will create a rod for your own back, as people will assume that you will always meet requests such as this, and your colleagues who attend will assume that all your output will be of such poor quality.

I wish that I could have told this to me a couple of years ago, when I was lacking guidance and experience in this new role. Once I realised that I should push back more often (without being needlessly “difficult”) and positioned myself more as a consultant within the business (as opposed to “the training guy”) my life was made a lot easier.

And here’s the big learning experience – if you position yourself like this, and take a keen interest in the organisation’s plans and objectives, and the plans and goals of each team, you’ll find that meeting their learning and development needs gets easier too. You’ll get less random requests like the one in this story, and when you do you’ll be well placed to argue against it. You’ll see in advance the developing needs of each team. You’ll also know that sometimes you’re not best placed to meet them, and can engage other people on them at an early stage.

I wish I could tell me back then this – you are there to serve your profession, your organisation and your learners. Never lose sight of that.

Over the month of February I am hosting guest blog posts and the invitation is open to all. If you’d like to take part, the question you have to answer is: What has been your biggest learning in life?

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Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

2 thoughts on “Working with, not for, others”

  1. As someone who went from a junior level role following strict processes, to managing and designing a whole training programme for a company, this blog made a lot of sense to me. I am still very new to the L&D/HR role and find it difficult to know where my authority comes from sometimes. It’s nice to hear about people who aren’t at the top.

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