Not making learning stick – a typical HR story

Meet Matthew, he’s been working in HR and L&D for the last fifteen as a specialist in creating lasting behavioural change in organisations. He worked his way up through the ranks and is two years in to his latest challenge as the Head of L&D for a large SME employing around 500 people.

He’s one of a small team and is struggling to fulfil the brief he believes he was brought in to deliver for the organisation.

“We’ve operated the same way for the last twenty years and we’ve been very successful at it.” He was told when he was recruited. “But we’re growing fast and we need to change the way our people are led. We’ve got some amazing, technically gifted leaders but they just don’t seem to have the right behaviours to cope in our current, rapidly changing market.

We need your expertise to change the leadership culture of the business. This role has never existed here before so you have the opportunity to make it your own!”

Organisations spend millions of pounds annually in our industry to change cultures and behaviours but often fall short of making those changes stick.

Yet despite his years of experience, expertise, knowledge of leadership theory and a network of trusted suppliers, after two years of effort, running needs analyses, creating competency frameworks, designing well received development programmes, little has changed in the business. The behaviours of the leaders that are needed at a senior level are barely evident.

Unfortunately, it’s an all too common story in many organisations regardless of their size.

Organisations spend millions of pounds annually in our industry to change cultures and behaviours but often fall short of making those changes stick.

So what needs to be done differently?

It all starts at the top. Often the reason that learning and development initiatives fail is because the culture is not right. If there isn’t a culture for learning in the organisation, modelled by the most senior people, then it is unlikely that lasting behavioural change will permeate further on down the ladder. If employees feel that the organisation as whole doesn’t value learning, why would they engage with it? And perhaps more importantly, if learning isn’t valued at an organisational level, why would employees who want to learn and make lasting changes stick around? They probably won’t.

So what can Matthew do to bring about the change he and the business needs? Here are two steps as a place to start:

  1. Pay more attention to the existing culture for learning in the organisation. If the climate for learning is not embedded within the company’s culture, then that is the problem to solve in the first instance. Does the executive team genuinely value learning for its people? A good test of this is the degree to which they individually invest in their own ongoing personal development.
  2. Don’t accept that the cultural change only needs to happen in the lower layers of the hierarchy. If we were all braver and more challenging of the executive team and the need for their own behavioural change then we would get far better buy-in from the rest of the organisation. Do they lead by example? If not, then HR and L&D needs to challenge that.

Of course the challenge here for HR and L&D is often resistance from the senior team to recognise that they need to engage in development too. If you’re asking yourself how to go about doing that perhaps our whitepaper would be of use.

Matthew’s story is not unique – it’s one we see all the time in organisations. But perhaps by focusing on the overall culture and the senior team, Matthew can begin to change the end of his story from run-of-the-mill to exceptional, and perhaps a little inspiring…

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