L&D Strategy

How the ‘Mess’ of an L&D Problem Provides Structure & Drives Outcomes


Holly Cook, Founder and Director of North, joins Blake Proberts on the Strategic L&D Podcast to chat about what we need to do to fulfil our organisational purpose, the key to striking a balance between self-directed and guided learning, and how to prioritise, plan and persuade in an L&D budget session. Listen to the full episode above or watch below.

This article is a transcript of a podcast first published in October 2022.

Holly, can I start by asking about yourself and your background?

Thanks for having me. Like, it’s awesome to have this opportunity first podcast for me today as well. So yeah, really stoked to be on, thank you.

I, I have a bit of an interesting background, I actually went to uni. I’m from WA, Margaret River. I love wine, love surfing. I’m not a good surfer but just love the ocean. And I actually went overseas and studied in Boston. And when I came back, my brother was working in mining. So I went up to work in the Pilbara region of WA. Long story short started a career, I guess, in the mining industry, which I had no way planned any way shape or form. And I landed in a kind of a safety and operations role.

And I guess a turning point for me in my career was experiencing in that role two people who lost their lives to fatality in mining. I became, I guess, kind of obsessive at that point around human behaviour, and why we make decisions and you know, how we can really shift culture. And I pursued at that point, and Master’s in Business Leadership and this idea of organisation development and change. And that kind of turned me down a path of really focusing on psychology based change our learning and development, leadership development, you know, and from that point, I basically travelled the world, working in fatality prevention programs with some super interesting and awesome clinical psychologists, neuroscientists, and, yeah, I just, I love the idea of brain-based kind of work.

I then was lucky enough to join a big four consulting firm, and that really expanded my career and kind of built a practice in the people and change space here in Brisbane. And from that point, I started to work across sectors, industries, really focusing my energy in on this idea of leadership and organisation development, became a mum, that was another massive turning point, and decided to leave the Big Four consulting world for a period of time. Took on a role to head up public sector capability building for a year, which was great. But it also encouraged me to think about, maybe for a period of time, I should start my own thing and, and a year ago, I took the leap of faith and started my own business, North. And we kind of aim to build courageous leaders really bring together this idea of united and capable teams, and secure impressive performance. So that’s really our mission.

You’ve got a bit of a varied background. If you had to distil it down to a couple of lessons, what are the key things you’ve learnt?

Yeah, that’s a great one. I think there’s probably some personal lessons around career and aspiration, and then some absolute—there’s, there’s so many lessons around L&D organisational development, I’m still learning, I still see myself some days as as an amateur. And I guess the first learning to that point in both a personal career perspective, but also an L&D perspective, is surrounding myself—and a lesson or an insight—is to surround myself with those who have strengths that complement mine.

So you know, I know we’re going to get onto this a bit later, you know, I’m not a tech guru, but tech-enabled learning is critical. So, you know, I had a wonderful partnership with an ex-colleague of mine who just really was into tech-enabled learning, but I was the creative design person. So really bringing strengths together, I think. And on a personal front in your career, doubling down on strengths. I just believe in a strengths-based culture. So that’s kind of insight, I guess, one, follow your purpose and passion. And I think once again, from a personal perspective, if you’re not aligned to your purpose, then you’ve got no passion in what you do. And I think that says you know, a decline in performance, certainly in the L&D space—I think all capability building and initiatives need to be linked to a, you know, individual purpose and the organisational purpose. Absolutely. And their strategy. So the idea of purpose and passion, the idea of strengths.

“All capability building and initiatives need to be linked to an individual purpose and the organisational purpose.”

And then I think taking a leap of faith, like you just mentioned, kind of before. Opportunities don’t always seek you out, you know. I’ve really learned in my career, that you need to seek out the opportunities, tell people your story, you know. You can do that in a humble and authentic way.

Yeah, so, yeah, they’re probably my insights from a career perspective and a link into L&D. I know, we’re going to spend some time together exploring deeper insights around my learnings in the kind of L&D space as well. So I’ll pause there.

How do you go about aligning some of those L&D strategies to the purpose and the passion of the business?

Yeah, yeah. I’m so thrilled you’ve asked that question. It’s something I am encouraging organisations to do. I believe it is critical to do. Some buy into it, some don’t. So I’m keen to explore that as well. But and I don’t think—I think it’s a bit of art and science. So, you know, to your question around strategy and the link to L&D, we just shouldn’t be doing learning and development that’s not linked to our strategy, you know, unless it’s for a sole purpose of motivating people, but I think you can have the two together, even in that case. So I would argue that it’s crucial.

I think, you know, an organisation, most organisations have a purpose. Some use it, some don’t. So, you know, some can sit on a shelf in a strategy document, some really bring it to life. And, you know, the questions at the start of that bringing together of the strategy and organisational purpose and your L&D strategy is really starting to say, well, what are the kinds of leaders in the workforce that we need to deliver our strategy? You know, what are the things we need to do to fulfil our organisational purpose? When you start there, that’s an exploratory question. And you’re starting to get people to even contemplate that there is a link. And so I think that’s a key kind of insight to getting buy in that the two should link.

But then how do you practically do that? There are many ways I can give you a few examples, I think, you know, the first thing you should be doing is thinking about what are the capabilities? What are the mindsets? What are the behaviours that we need in our business, to deliver the things that we need to deliver in our strategy? Right, so there’s an inextricable link between your priorities of your business and your, you know, the way that you design learning initiatives, you know. That that can be done in a really collaborative workshop. It’s a bit of art and science. As I said, it’s white-boarding some of the things. It’s testing, it’s going back to things like research and saying, what are the skills you need to solve complex problems? You know, what are the things you need to build adaptive leadership in your business, which is critical in times of, you know, this VUCA context that everyone’s talking about? So there’s a bit of the mapping piece.

And then I absolutely believe it’s applying some really contemporary, you know, leadership development, organisational development principles, like, you know, putting learners at the centre of design. They have to be at the centre. How do they like to learn? What are the barriers to learning in your business? How do we bring all of these facets together? And you start to do this really great contextual analysis piece. I know that might be mind boggling for some, but I think that is the crucial point, you’ve got to stay in the mess of the complex problem. You’ve got to figure all of this out.

This is not an HR team or learning team [responsibility]. It’s a crucial time to build momentum… for learning, if you bring your business into creating this stuff.”

And then absolutely, the last thing I’d probably say on that, that is that you have to engage your business in this process. This is not an HR team, or a learning team doing it in the corner. It’s a crucial time to build, you know, momentum and excitement and reengage passion for learning if you bring your business into creating this stuff. So I’ll leave it there. I know you might want to dive into some of those areas. But I clearly think that this is critical.

What are some of the consistent or common hurdles that you see organisations hit when they’re trying to do that alignment?

Yeah, yeah, absolutely. I think the one is, you know, collective leadership at the top buy in that this stuff’s important. That’s the issue or her life first say, and I think there’s some ways you can No become that. One way could be, and I’ve tried this before and it’s worked is to ask some really powerful questions. So to ask the question I mentioned before, you know, hey, hey, executive leaders, you know, we’ve got this really critical strategy here. Do we feel really confident that we’ve got the leadership and the workforce we need to deliver on this? Do we—have we really articulated the skills required to do this work? Do we think we’ve got them? What do we think we need to do about that? Because when you ask, Are we really confident? People start to go are we? You know, and there’s this contemplation.

So, you know, when I think about applying psychology-based change principles, it’s that we’ve got to bring people onto a level of them contemplating that there’s an issue here to resolve or an opportunity for, for the business. So first issue: Buy-in. Second issue, probably encouraging people to stay in the analysis and the mess of the issue and know that that’s an adaptive complex problem. And that, actually, there’s not one right or wrong answer. And I see businesses, often just referring back to a dictionary of competencies, and saying this’ll do, you know, we’ll take it and tailor it a little bit for us. I don’t think that’s the right approach. I don’t think you get buy-in, I see those things sit on shelves. I’m not saying, you know, competencies are not required. But I just think there’s a better way of, of really bringing together a few things; strategy, engagement with your business and really brilliant learning.

And that doesn’t come from a competency framework, assuming that leaders are going to have all of these same things, right. Leadership is about doubling down on strengths and being unique. So yes, there’s a challenge there. So staying in the mess of the problem and doing the work to, you know, to come up with really great insights around what your business needs in the L&D space. They’re probably the two main things that I’d call out.

I like that saying, stay in the mess of the problem. I think that the natural instinct is to run from the mess of the problem, but you’ve got to really be part of it to solve it.

Yeah, yeah. And what we do, right, when we don’t stay in the midst of the problem is we just apply a process that we’ve used before or that we’ve seen somewhere else. And we say we’re being context specific or bespoke, because we’re doing a bit of tailoring. But, you know, I often see from a consulting perspective tenders go out in the market. And a business says, you know, we know we want to build conflict resolution training as an example, or we want to build adaptive leadership.

And quite often, when you go into the business, and you really start to work with their learners, you see, that’s maybe not what they need at all. And you start to realise they’ve not done the upfront, analytical piece, planning piece, engagement piece before they get to deep design. Yeah. And I’m not an analysis person. So I don’t think you need to do that. Until you’ve got it perfect. Right. Sometimes you’ve got to back some decisions and run with it.

Once you’ve got that buy-in, and you’ve done that analysis, how do you then find that the best way to prioritise what’s next?

Yeah, yeah, I mean, I’m laughing because I’m going through that with one of my wonderful government clients here in Brisbane at the moment, you know, and you want to, you know, the aspiration was to target two to three initiatives, you know, and then you get all excited about all these possible things we could do and reengage and re-excite people with this idea of learning and curiosity. And yeah, so prioritisation is tough. And I think it’s a bit of two things.

The first thing is, I believe you can get quite targeted in your initiatives when you do the right mapping between your strategy and your learner needs. And bringing those two ideas together, you can, you can cut some things off the list. I think then there is a bit of, kind of—maybe we call it research or benchmarking—but a bit about, you know, what is my industry need now and into the future? So I think there’s always a future focus, you know, let’s not—because capability takes time, right? You know that. Capability building takes time. So let’s focus on now and a bit of the future and the aspiration, let’s make it a bit aspirational.

So another idea around prioritisation is then really thinking about what else is important to a business? So I think yes, there’s the strategy piece, what we need now and into the future, but also like things like cultural data. So what’s the cultural journey we’re on? You know, is there are a real need right now for a specific group of leaders to have some stretch opportunities, because it’s going to boost our culture? So there’s some other considerations you play into the prioritising.

You know, there’s some really practical things around do we want, you know, to provide learning at the same time for different cohorts or layers of leadership or workforce? Do we want to cross-function our learning to build collaboration? So I think you can kind of do a number of things at once. It doesn’t necessarily mean learning overload for an individual, right? The important point I’d make about that, though, is it’s got to be integrated, you know. People over in column A shouldn’t be doing something completely different and unrelated in column B. There’s got to be a story for the organisation that really connects this together. And the story needs to be linked to your strategy, your purpose and your cultural aspirations. Right. Context, strategy, purpose, you know, and then who are the learners? And what do they need?

“There’s got to be a story for the organisation that really connects this. And the story needs to be linked to your strategy, your purpose and your cultural aspirations.”

How do you then break down a use case for a budget or business case for buy-in?

Yeah. In some ways, I’m lucky because in my role now, in my business, usually those things happen before I come into play. However, in saying that, I do work with a lot of businesses that say, you know, how do we convince the, the executives? How do we prioritise the budget? How do we plan for that?

I have a few things that I say probably go wrong, that have convinced me that this is an insight or something I should share. And one of them is around organisations that try to do everything. And I often speak to my clients, and they say to me, you know, Holly, we’ve done this for three years now, we’ve spent a million dollars in learning or in leadership development. And, you know, we’ve been told it’s tailored and contextualised, but we’ve not got the sustainable impact or outcome, you know, at a business level or a behavioural change level. So I think it’s not trying to do too much. It’s actually thinking about spending your budget wisely. And that comes from firstly, design and planning well. I think it’s about picking two to three initiatives, maybe, and really focusing on targeting your budget at those and doing them over time.

Like I see businesses changing their kind of learning and development approaches, or where they put their budget every six to 12 months. But we know that culture change and even capability building can take a couple of years. So I’m convinced that even if you were to choose the wrong things to focus on, they would have a positive impact on your culture if you doubled down and did them over time.

“I see businesses changing their… learning and development approaches, or where they put their budget, every six to 12 months. But… culture change and even capability building can take a couple of years.”

So think, thinking—that’s, that’s a bit about thinking about where to place your budget. The business case to get the budget? Well, I think that’s maybe threefold. You know, it’s back to the question at the roundtable around, do we think we’ve got the people we need to do what we’re trying to do, and the impact of showing them maybe the consequence or the impact of, of not spending the money in L&D. So, okay, great, what would be the situation if we don’t have people capable enough to do the work of our business? You know, are we okay with that? You know, so that’s the bit of the convincing piece.

How much budget? I think sometimes people need to hear the results, see the results. We know that takes time. But you know, sometimes you can wheel in people that have, you know, undertaken the meaningful learning and development, and they can talk about how impactful that’s been to them or their teams. You can, you can draw out stories and anecdotes that help convince people to expand the budget. It’s about starting somewhere.

How do you go about showing that ROI on training?

Yeah, that’s, that’s another great question. And I think there’s different views around that. So, so, how do I encourage organisations to measure or evaluate our ROI? The first thing is I kind of ground my principles around this Kirkpatrick’s framework. So Kirkpatrick’s talks about evaluation of learning, around looking at layers. So your business impact is one layer. That’s really tough to measure. We know that. To really measure a learning intervention having a causal effect on a business outcome can take a number of years. I’ve only ever worked with one client who stuck to that and they’ve seen it ring true, right? They’ve—but they’ve, you know, it’s a five year journey for them.

The second thing obviously, Kirkpatrick kind of talks about is the idea of measuring application and behaviour change in the learners and then they go down to you know, kind of reaction. Did I enjoy the experience, etc. I ground my measurement and evaluation approach in that—however, I don’t think that’s the only thing we need to think about. I think we can kind of, once again, take a tangent and say to our business, what would it look like? If this learning and development, you know, process or experience or program—whatever you want to call it—makes a difference to our business? What would really good looks like? What’s our aspiration in this? What would we notice that’s different?

And you can actually do that upfront work, by the way, that needs to happen, not after the learning occurs, but right up in your strategy and design phase. And when you can help the business articulate that, then you can start to build in your measurement around that. So how will we, you know, who are the people we’re going to talk to that are going to share that there has been a change in the leader or the learner behaviour? How are we going to get them to self-report on that change? You know, and there’s so many different methods by which we can do that.

So I think there is a bit of grounding in the research-based theory. There’s a bit of helping to, you know, help organisations to really, deeply articulate what good looks like as an impact. And it might not just be business outcomes, it might be cultural. I think there’s—causation and correlation are both good. One thing that I’ve actually tried with a client recently that I thought really had a big impact—and to some of the questions you’ve asked me before, around convincing execs that this is important, etc—was we shared, we ran some collaborative insight sessions after a six month experience. We actually did them upfront, but we did them at the end, as well brought in some of the execs, brought in the sponsors. And the learners really shared some of their rich and deep experiences. We mapped those on a wall, we shared stories.

“There’s a bit of helping to… organisations to really, deeply articulate what good looks like as an impact. And it might not just be business outcomes, it might be cultural.”

And actually, when you can capture some of that, whether it’s in Post-It notes, or, you know, on a whiteboard or filming the learners before they start the program, and then at the end, and you can create a rich picture and story and share that back. I mean, that convinces anyone surely, you know. So yes, business impact, critical. You can do it, it takes time. I believe in it. I also think you can get rich qualitative insights around the shift in your business, from a business outcome perspective and a culture perspective by, you know, designing creative evaluation approaches.

You said that you’ve had one client use the Kirkpatrick model. Why did they go through it where other clients or other organisations don’t?

Yeah, it was the Defence Force. So they generally, you know, we’re bought into the idea of measurement. So that’s one thing, right? We know that people need to be bought into it. They were investing a decent amount of money. And this is when I was with a Big 4 firm to actually undertake a program that, you know, I think one thing—relationships were there. So they were convinced in the advice of the people in the team, to which I was a part of. They took our advice. Not often do people want to spend 10 grand, let alone 200 grand in the evaluation, right.

And so there was a couple of things that were right. You know, the client was convinced this was a good outcome, they were willing to try it, they knew that their journey was going to be a three- to five-year journey, and that they were already committed to that. Right? So that they were the kind of factors that were in play.

For the most part, what I see is organisations that, you know—and I know why they do it, if they if they searched the market for great L&D suppliers, how do they really know that you’re good until you partner with them and build a trusting relationship? And the issue is that what they do then is they, you know, they secure a contract with you for six months, or 12 months or 18 months. We know that if we do a great job, and we build really wonderful relationships and help them have an impact, we stay there, for the most part. But a lot of people, you know, a lot of organisations I come in to, they’ve had four different providers in the last three years, which makes evaluation really tricky, unless you’ve got a great kind of technology system or organisational development team capturing and keeping all of that data in house and knowing what to do with it. I also don’t see that happens a lot.

That leads into the question of how important is technology, and how do you see that used really well, and maybe not so?

Yeah, it’s critical, right? And that’s the biggest learning opportunity for me. That’s why I’m kind of laughing. I wanted to say, Blake, help me learn something about this!

It’s critical to all facets of learning. So right up front in your analysis, I mean, the rich data organisations have, because of the culture surveys they do or the performance development conversations they have, they capture all this stuff. But we know they don’t use it well. And in fact, I have not seen too many great systems that allow for the data to come together. And then I see the challenge in people not knowing how to draw the insights.

So I quite often get sent, you know, I request these documents from clients when I’m doing that strategy mapping piece to the capabilities. Give me your data. And I see, you know, 60 pages of graphs and models, and I’m kind of going for what’s the insight, guys? What was the insight? So technology that could provide the insight? You know, I don’t know if that’s possible. I’m sure it is. That’d be amazing. But yeah, in the analytical phase, you know, grabbing rich data from technology around your people, and where they’re at is, is critical.

“I have not seen too many great systems that allow for the data to come together. And then I see the challenge in people not knowing how to draw the insights. I see 60 pages of graphs and models, and I [say], what’s the insight?”

You take that a step further into your kind of delivery—I’m gonna skip over design for a minute—but into delivering great learning. I mean, people need to learn in the flow of their work. They need to get on the bus in the morning and have three minutes where they can click a link, and they can hear something great that’s going to set their intentions for the day, or remind them of the conversation they need to have. And one of the barriers with practitioners in the space I work in is hearing how time poor people are to learn. I think technology plays a critical role in enabling learning at any time. I think that needs to come together with your kind of face-to-face structured learning, right? So technology for delivery, critical, whether it’s an LMS, or something that can, you know, you can plug in and text your coach or that it can push you some curated content. I mean, amazing, right? And then once again, in your evaluation, when you can store all the stuff, pull out data, show measurement of ROI and impact. I mean, yeah, I can’t wait to hear more about what technology’s got to offer us in the learning space.

There are a lot of different opportunities and learners can be bombarded with. What’s your opinion on self-directed learning versus creator or guided learning?

Yeah, you got some brilliant questions. I, I think there’s a place for both is my simple answer. You know, so what we know about learning, right, is it needs to be self-driven to a degree of like, you need to be able to find passion in it, be engaged in it. It’s both I think, reflective and social, you know, and it’s bringing this idea of blended together. So people talk about blended, what does that actually mean?

To me, it’s, you know, if you get it right in your design phase, where you’re really putting the learner at the centre, and saying, what do these people need right now in terms of how they need to learn? What’s the environment and the context telling us? What are the kinds of things they’re learning? Because something’s you know, knowledge, uplift, simple knowledge, uplift? Why would you bring people together now in a face-to-face workshop for that, when you can plug them in three eight-minute pieces of content over the course of a week, and then bring them together for what I would say is the moments that matter? You know, where the rich application, the connection happens within a group.

So I think the simple answer for me is a place for both self-directed and guided. I think, you know, the guided bit happens because we know that people need to learn certain things to deliver our strategy, right. And we provide that. How we provide that is dependent on the learner, the context and the budget, and all sorts of things.

“[There is] a place for both self-directed and guided. The guided bit happens because we know that people need to learn certain things to deliver our strategy. [But] people will not embed and sustain behavioural change unless they want to go from knowing to doing.”

People also need to really feel motivated for learn—to learn. People will not embed and sustain behavioural change, unless they want to go from knowing to doing. Yeah, and that comes from a bit of choosing your own adventure. And I think blending the two and the art of that is, is critical.

How do you go about building those capabilities or behavioural change in learning?

Yeah. Well, there’s so many great ideas out there. Now and, and I—this is probably my passion area, and I think it’s my strengths. I love getting creative and showing organisations they don’t have to buy an off-the-shelf, modulised content delivery leadership program or learning program anymore, you know. And people say they do bespoke and tailored but but you know, how do we do good learning?

I think once again, I don’t want to rehash it too much, but it comes in doing the upfront work, you’ve got to do. You know, your your analysis, your planning, putting the learner at the centre, bringing in the strategy piece, we’ve talked about that—that’s crucial. How do you bring those experiences to life? I believe they need to be leadership or learning experiences, not programs. The difference to me is you’re not signing up and doing four modules, and then you’re spat out at the end, and you’re expected to go back into your organisation, which is a complex system, and be different, or do different.

I think learning does not place enough emphasis on the embedding and the sustaining of behaviours. Why? We try and learn too much, you know, or too quickly, we don’t take the time or put our budget into the back end. And once again, right now I’ve got three clients saying to me, we know the knowledge uplift is important, we know the social learning is important. What we really want to make sure is that people come back into our business, and you know, are empowered, and the barriers are removed to them doing this stuff sustainably.

So there’s a couple of things to that as well. Right? Great learning to me, is where you’ve activated the whole system of the organisation. You have sponsors, not because they just sign off for the learning or have one leader, learner interaction, you have true sponsors. You, you know, you are welcome to, to provide insights to the business around the things that are standing in the way of those learners doing things differently.

“Great learning is a combination of knowledge, uplift, social and reflective processes, and then doubling down on this idea of embedding… to really sustain behavioural change over time. That is where you get the culture change benefit.”

People that come back into a system, or as my wonderful wife’s friend—her name is Dawn—says, you know, how are we preparing people in our learning to go back to base? Yeah, that’s a whole intervention in its own right. So something this passion for enough of mine, great learning is a combination of knowledge, uplift, social and reflective processes, and then doubling down on this idea of embedding and sustaining and building the system in your business to support people to, to, you know, really sustain behavioural change over time. That is where you get the culture change benefit.

How do you see the difference between a knowledge training approach and a behavioural training or change-based approach?

Let’s, let’s take the capability or the thing we’re trying to learn. And let’s take the VUCA context we’re operating in and something that I get asked, you know, to help people learn is this idea of collaboration or complex problem solving. They’re both really tough things. Firstly, they’re not one skill. They’re a combination of micro-skills, mindset, shifting practices, and behavioural change.

And when you think about bringing together two concepts, the thing you need to learn the complex problem solving and the learner, and where they’re at, you start to unpack this and say, well, there is knowledge to learn here. And I would say the knowledge in complex problem solving is how to use an issue tree, which is a tool to problem solve right. Now, you can learn that through an eight-minute podcast, you know, even better, you could contextualise that podcast and build one for your business and plug it back in your LMS or whatever, right? And so there are ways of building knowledge, to my principle around that I don’t think that needs to always be in a workshop and wasting precious capacity to build knowledge. You can also learn knowledge through others showing you on the job right, that 70-20-10 principle.

Then we think about the other whole piece around complex problem solving. And, you know, I’m probably not doing complex problem solving justice here because I’m just going to talk about a couple of components of it. But what we know underpins being able to come you know, problem solving complexities, things around ego, around self management, around confidence, right? People don’t feel confident to try and test and fail as we say they should, you know, there’s a whole piece around building psychological safety in a group dynamic there and that comes from really great coaching, facilitating and a group being set up in the right way. You know, we don’t just set up to talk about the task, we talk about how we gonna work together. That is learning in a social setting. And building confidence is the last thing I’ll touch on in this like, kind of, idea of complex problem solving as the thing we’re learning.

Confidence—that comes from reflective self work guided with a coach, perhaps, you know, how do you learn that? You learn that through building deep insight around what’s holding you back from who you want to be, or where you want to go. That can be done through reflective learning, you know, listening to, you know, great TED Talks or reading a book, but also having this engagement with a coach and being in a safe place to be vulnerable, you know. And then committing to do the self work, that’s another whole piece. So I have a view around things like confidence. And, and I don’t think we focus, still, enough on the self learning, the self development, the personal insight building. So when we show up in a group, and we want to do all these things like collaborate and problem solving, in complex situations, we’re not feeling brave enough to do it.

So, you know, key points here. I think when you look at what you learn through knowledge uplift, through—versus like social learning, and maybe more workshop-style, or online webinars, it’s really thinking about what is learned in this thing through knowledge uplift, as in, you know, tools, frameworks, techniques—theory, you know, versus what’s the stuff you’ve got to learn through experiencing, being in a group and failing or coming into conflict situations are feeling uncomfortable. And that work is best done with kind of really great facilitators, coaches and mentors.

You know, we just assume, I think that people are going to show up and bring in, be their best every day. What I see in every, every room, and probably every single leader, or learner I’ve worked with over time, is a real challenge in some way, shape, or form around self. And if you can build that anything’s possible, because that person is then going to maximise their potential feel bold enough to challenge status quo. You know, that’s how you get innovation. That’s how you get creativity. That’s how you get high performing teams.

There are a lot of things that you can say are a skill. The reality is we think there are too many. How do you then bundle those skills into something tangible and meaningful that you can align to a business strategy?

Yeah, yeah. And I guess my first piece of advice is that there is you just called out the challenge, right, we all call things differently. We all categorise differently. I’m not a purist, by definition, in any of that stuff. But I’m grappling with that right now with a client. And I think the, the simple answer is every business is different. And that’s why having some guiding principles around this is helpful.

But I also think there’s too many, there’s too many skills out there. If you’re, if you’re going back to your kind of mapping and the principles I take, I think about—I start with a big list. What you start to see though, is when you talk about things like complex problem solving, or courageous conversations, or—and when you start to break down all the things that sit under that, you start to see some theming and some grouping.

I have often found the best way that learners gravitate toward this stuff, and you can set a common language in a business, is to kind of pick your capabilities and not too many, you know, so you might have you know—and I’m not talking technical, let’s talk kind of more leadership and people and softer—I think that the harder things to learn, but softer people call them. And then I actually think it’s easiest to break those down into really clear behavioural script—descriptors. And those behaviours are the things people are doing if they have this capability, that needs to be in the language of the business. Right.

“What’s not working… [is] the dictionary of competencies tailored by level, saying that you’re this level, so you’re in this box.”

So I’m finding that’s been really helpful lately. I don’t know whether that’s right, though, you know. But I don’t think there is a right anymore. I know what’s not working. That’s the dictionary of competencies tailored by level, saying that you’re this level so you’re in this box. That doesn’t, that doesn’t, doesn’t work. So well. Yeah, I don’t have a precise way. But the way I’m finding that’s working best at the moment is being clear on your capabilities.

I share a viewpoint with you, a capability to me is more than just a behaviour. It’s a whole way of thinking about the system, you know, that enables that. So I think—but that to me comes in with your kind of learning design. But capability, link it to some really clear behaviours, make it punchy, make it in the language. Also, you can add in, and I did this just recently, and it worked. Well, what that capability is, but what it’s not. Yeah. How do I know when I’m signing up to be in your new system, your, your new business, your organisation, that this capability is important, and the narrative behind it, and how it’s going to help me do the things I need to do every day? But also, what it looks like when I’m not doing that, and how I really know that I don’t possess that capability? That’s the, that’s the challenging point, right? People go, oh, I’ve got all of those things. I’ve got all of those things I can complex problem solver. I can collaborate. Really? Collaboration’s not sharing information. You know, problem solving is not giving people answers.

You and I, sorry, could talk about this for hours, because I’d be really keen outside of the podcast for your views on this, because it’s something I’m seeing businesses ask me about every day, and I’m trying testing and seeing what works, what doesn’t.

That’s why we’re in the space we’re in, because we have seen very, very few organisations implement capability or competency frameworks well.

And do you know what’s heartbreaking about it is when they tell you that half of their L&D budget has been spent on building this amazing document, and it’s not used. And actually, you could have been providing learning any learning and it would have had more of an impact than the $200,000 you, you paid to produce a document that no one uses! Yeah, it’s a challenging one.

You work in that leadership space quite a lot. We get some different answers from people, but what is leadership?

I’m inspired by kind of a couple of people, people probably call them out Simon Sinek I think he’s great. Brene Brown, definitely Marcus Buckingham. He’s got some really great and challenging thoughts around this. I think leadership is the ability to do a number of things. It’s about having followers, people that look up to you. I think it’s about you being authentic, knowing what you stand for, and leaving a legacy with others that does good for them, for society. I think that’s leadership.

I think leadership is about the art of constant personal change and renewal. It’s unlearning. It’s relearning. It’s giving back. You know, it’s hard to just define it, right? I think it’s about, in these times—leadership in these times, these complex VUCA times, it’s around holding people productively in discomfort. That to me—and that’s Heifetz and Linsky’s work they’re from from Harvard, and their brilliant, adaptive leadership.

That is, to me the leadership we need. It’s not about, anymore, telling people it’s going to be okay. Yes, we have empathy and compassion. But we help people through the discomfort that’s inherent in really complex challenges that make us feel uncomfortable. Yeah, it’s about, it’s definitely not about positional authority.

And, lastly, where can people find you?

Where can they find me, I’m in Brisbane, but I travel all over. I was laughing because I recently was asked to be vetted for a piece of work. And I said, I don’t have a website! And you know, anyway, it took me down a path of building a bit of a brand around my business that I’ve, you know, humbly created over the last year and my business is called North.

We really believe in building courageous leaders thinking about united and connected teams and then securing impressive performance, which has to be the outcome of some of this. But what I’m—where can they find me? Something I’m, you know, you know, a place I’m about to be found, if you like, is I’m really excited. A colleague and ex-colleague, a really close friend. We’ve teamed up and we built a business. Now we’re about to launch an experience for leaders and teams around sustainable performance. And I’ve mentioned a little bit of this in the podcast, but it’s about challenging the idea of high performance in a complex world where we work so hard until we burn out and for what?

It’s about the idea of sustainable performance, which we think is the ability to be and bring your best every day. The outcomes are better, because it’s about people connecting to what matters most and then being able to achieve team and organisational outcomes. So, so we think about this in terms of energy, self-compassion, and purpose. And that’s something that we’re really excited—where we’re already, you know, doing this work with businesses, but we’ve spent the time doing the research and really bringing the experience together. So more on that, you know, on our LinkedIn, and we’ll be launching that, that shortly.

This is a transcript from the Strategic L&D Podcast, where we venture through what key L&D opinion leaders are doing today to ensure they’re delivering a strategically impactful L&D function. If you want to stay up to date with our latest releases, subscribe to our learning and development podcast. We’re on most common podcast platforms, including Spotify and Apple. You’ll also find us in video form on our YouTube channel.

Want informative L&D content delivered straight to your inbox?


Share this post!

Related Reads on This Topic

Dan Gallagher Strategic L&D Podcast

How to Remove Barriers and Align L&D to Drive Performance

Discover why choice of team name matters for internally aligning L&D, and how that feeds into creating more meaningful and measurable training…

Matt Gjersten Strategic L&D Podcast

Why Starting at the End of L&D Strategy Pays Off

Find out how lean L&D budgets often drive innovation, why self-directed learning won’t net results, and starting with strategic impact…

Julie Fitzgerald Strategic L&D Podcast

How L&D Can Deliver When the CEO Delivers a Capability-Led Business Strategy

Learn how to do bottom up and top down capability assessments, as well as why more data doesn’t necessary mean better for L&D strategy…