When I started my career as a soft skill trainer I was surprised to learn about the resistance people often had toward trainings. Many people told me about their bad experiences or said that the skill trainings they get at their companies are not usually bad, but that they don’t really see the value of them. They saw these days as free days, days spent as teambuilding, or in the worst case as wasted days when they were taken away from their jobs while their “real work” was piling up in their absence.

Soon I got to see the other side of the coin. I was invited to companies to train people on communication and collaboration skills without proper context of the work they do and without any opportunities to follow-up and support them in applying what they’d learned. Learning new skills is about behavior change; it’s a slow process. Attending a one-day workshop might be a great catalyst for change by giving inspiration, new ideas, and tools to participants. But where the magic really happens is when people start experimenting with the new behavior. A proper follow-up process can help people stay on track, reinforce what they learned, and see how the new skills can be applied to their everyday reality.

I also realized that many times people were skeptical about certain training topics because they saw no use for them in their work culture. You can teach people assertiveness, but if open communication is not embedded in your culture, people won’t dare to share their issues openly. Participants frequently expressed that their managers should take these workshops. Resistance is also common because people don’t see the value of these workshops, or worse, they have been assigned to do them by their managers without consultation (implicitly suggesting that they need development in that area). 

After experiencing many such trainings, as a trainer, I decided not to do the same thing since it is not what I believe in. Because yes, many of these trainings are meaningless, but there is a right way to develop people through learning initiatives. Developing a learning strategy is a complex task: it needs to be aligned with strategy, the company’s values, people strategy, the personal development plans of team members, and just as 2020 showed us, with the reality of how we do our work. 

I feel lucky that I now have clients with whom we can do learning and development the right way. I work with them closely, I know their culture, I know most of their people, I have an understanding of their strategy, and this all helps me co-create a meaningful and effective program calendar. 

As this period of the year is all about planning and creating strategies for 2021, I thought I’d share with you my approach to building strategies for learning and development. As I said, ideally it’s a co-creation between the company and a consultant. In this partnership, the client is the expert on the company’s goals and issues and the consultant is the expert on the tools we can use as interventions. Right now I work with small and mid-sized tech companies and not only does their flexible approach allow us to respond to needs in the organization more quickly, but they are also open to trying new tools in addition to workshops and trainings. However, I think the following tips can be helpful for any kind of organization.

1. Take a look at the strategy

I first recommend that you take a look at the company-wide and team-specific strategic goals. Learning and development ideally enable people to solve more complex challenges, and it arms people with the necessary skills to serve clients better.

By using your strategy as a guideline, you can identify any gaps between the current capabilities of your teams and the capabilities and skills needed to fulfill your future aspirations.

I once worked with a company who had international expansion as their strategic goal. They realized that how they represent the company and how they communicate is going to be key to their success. In alignment with this goal, we placed emphasis on supporting key people in becoming more confident in public speaking and communication, even in situations where they were in a different cultural context or speaking a different language.

Your learning and development objectives might be very different based on your strategic aspirations. If your goal is to be stellar in customer care, maybe you want to develop people’s customer-centricity and empathy. If your goal is to provide your clients wider services, maybe you need to equip your people with consultant skills. Check your goals and map out any skills that could support achieving your long-term goals.

2. Map the needs in the organization: the needs of people based on their personal career aspirations

People generally enjoy learning and getting better at the job they do. My experience is that even though soft skills play a huge role in career success, people are not really aware of how they’re helping them, nor can they name development areas for themselves.

As a coach, if I talk to people and they tell me about their current challenges, I immediately start to have ideas about how to help them develop. I can do it because I have an extensive “library” in my mind that’s full of topics and tools. But it’s not always obvious for the people, nor for their managers.

If you want to map out what kind of skills people lack, might need, or want to develop, don’t ask them this question explicitly.

Ask them about situations that are hard for them to solve or to overcome, ask about their challenges. Ask them about the traps they continuously fall into. Ask them about their career aspirations and how that person they want to be in the future is different from who they are now. Again, we are looking for a gap to fill in: where your people are and where they could be. 

There are many ways of mapping the needs. For a client I usually do 10-20 minute interviews with people from all of the teams to have an idea of the challenges they have and we define learning objectives based on this. You might want to talk to managers and ask what kind of challenges they see for their people. You might want to send out a survey as a needs assessment. Just one thing to keep in mind: look for the needs, the challenges, the problems. And then match the needs with the tools available.

3. Go back to your values and cultural aspirations

Sometimes it’s not about where you want to go as a company or what kind of future goals your people have, but about cultivating the kind of culture you want to work in. 

Your values ideally give guidance to people about the behavior that’s expected from them at the company.

With learning and development opportunities you can support the cultivation of these behaviors, you can help people develop the necessary skills to make these values come alive.

Even if you have collaboration as a value, people still need support with cultivating their collaboration skills. If you have taking responsibility as a value, people need support in learning how to self-manage and make decisions. If you want your people to give and receive radical candid feedback, you can support them with tools and practice. If you want your people to be accepting and open, you might want to educate them about their biases. If you want to have agile and flexible team members, you might want to give them tools for dealing with difficult emotions in stressful situations. 

Ideally these values are already present in your everyday interactions. However, by giving new input, new tools and new food for thought through training programs, people can live these values better and also develop a common understanding of how they want to work together.

Last year I had the chance to support four teams within an organization to cultivate collaboration skills through the Radical Collaboration methodology. It was great to see how a framework could help them have meaningful conversations about the kind of relationships they want to cultivate internally, and how they developed a “common language” they could use to remind each other to choose collaboration in their everyday interactions. 

4. Choose the right tool for the right goal

Once you start to see what kind of strategic goals need support, what the needs are in the organization based on people’s aspirations, and which cultural values need a bit of reinforcement, you can choose the best tools to cultivate these skills or transfer new knowledge.

This is the point when co-creation between someone from the organization and a learning and development expert can be very useful.

Someone working in the field of developing people, especially if they have a wide range of expertise, can give you tips and might know methodologies or training topics that are less common.

This is the step that I enjoy the most. At this point of the planning, I get into an advisory mode: I propose training topics and methodologies, and research whether or not there’s a program that could best fit the needs identified. This is also the point when we can get creative because there are just so many more tools than one-day skill trainings. 

Last year there was a team where we had the goal of developing internal collaboration and facilitation skills. One program element was a follow-up workshop, facilitated by my participants, where they could actually practice facilitation skills as they were giving space for team members to have meaningful conversations about how they want to collaborate. Now that’s what I call two birds with one stone!

5. Match people in a meaningful way

Attending the same session, workshop, or development program can provide a common experience, a common set of methods, and a common language to the people who participate. These programs can also act as a great team-building activity, as people have facilitated conversations about topics they wouldn’t normally cover. 

In order to utilize the full potential of the learning initiatives you organize, be intentional about how you group people. Do you want this workshop to strengthen team cohesion? Do you want specific teams to have the same knowledge so they can use what they’ve learned as a reference point in their collaboration? Do you want to support cross-functional collaboration by mixing people from different areas? 

It can be a powerful experience for a whole team to go through the same program. It can also be really nice to share an experience with colleagues you don’t know so closely. Both can work, just make sure you put some thought into it.

6. Communicate, communicate, communicate

Once your learning strategy and the program elements start to crystalize, communicate them! People will better understand what’s expected of them, why they are receiving invitations for programs, and how attending them will benefit the advancement of their careers if they are told these things explicitly.

People appreciate these initiatives if they see that there was a lot of thought put into developing them and that their needs were considered in the process. Especially if you consulted team members in any way, it’s great to summarize the result of the internal search and how the current development plan responds to that. 

I’m really grateful that some clients allow me to conduct short interviews with future participants before starting a program. This helps me enormously as I plan the content, as well as giving people a say in what they expect and what would be the most useful for them.

7. Plan the follow-up process

Please don’t plan standalone one-day workshops without any follow-up, please, please, please! Or rather, don’t do it if you want your programs to have any impact. After one day people just get back to their daily work and forget most of the things they’ve learned.

Real learning happens through reflecting on experiences. If you have a one-day workshop, it’s crucial to plan at least a 2-3 hour follow-up session for participants to reflect on what happened in their work lives recently and where they could apply the new skills.

As I said, behavior change takes time. The more opportunities people have to reflect on their experiences, the more those experiences will stick.

As I facilitate many such follow-up sessions, I also see that I can greatly contribute as a trainer or coach to helping people link the material to everyday situations. I help them see how what they’ve learned about themselves plays out in real life. I help them recognize which tool would be the most useful in a certain situation. We can replay situations and solve them differently in our minds or through role play. There is so much gold in follow-up sessions, where the focus is exclusively on linking the new knowledge to real life.

If you, for example, plan a 2-day workshop for your team, I suggest that you already block three 3-hour follow-up sessions in people’s calendars, ideally with 2-3 weeks between them. In my follow-up sessions, I also encourage participants to develop internal rituals that they can use to continue reflecting on their skills after the program ends. If we want people to practice the new skills, we need to support them until they become part of their thinking and behavior. 

+1 Be flexible and respond to the needs of people

In the beginning of 2020 we had many yearly plans with clients. Then the whole year was about replanning them on the fly. It might happen that your focus areas shift during the year. It can happen that new incoming challenges require people to level up in their skills. I gave workshops on emotional agility and online facilitation – not because we planned these things but because there was an immediate need to support people.

The more relevant your programs are, the more people will appreciate them, and the more impact you’ll have on your people and your culture.

You support your company’s vision and achieve your strategic goals through the contribution your people make. By supporting the growth of people, you support the growth of your company. Learning and development are not a nice-to-have, it’s an essential part of your strategy if done well. 

I hope these tips can help you develop an impactful learning strategy for your team. And if you are curious about what I’d say or what kind of ideas I’d have for your team based on the needs identified, don’t hesitate to reach out.