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How to Become a Learning Director: The Twenty Basics

I may be biased due to my years of human resources and training experience with The Ritz-Carlton organization, but I strongly believe that the goal of every professional trainer should be to become a Director of Learning. If this is not your highest aspiration, it is very possible that you are in the wrong profession. To be highly successful in your employee training, learning, and development endeavor, it must be something that you are excited about, love, and look forward to doing every day.

Basic n. # 1: Create a vision and mission for training. A vision and mission statement are the stepping stones to articulate and clarify why training, learning and development initiatives exist and are necessary within the organization. These tools will help you define what the training company aspires to be in 5, 10, or 15 years and articulate the true purpose of the training company.

Basic n. # 2: Align your efforts with the strategic imperatives of the organization. In an informal survey I did at a training conference this year, I found that 80% of trainers in small and medium-sized organizations could not name the top four business priorities for their organization. To move up the ladder and become a CLO, you must be able to connect every training effort you create, implement, or facilitate with your organization’s top business goals. Your CEO is not necessarily interested in the number of people who attend your training workshops; what they care about is how it will affect the bottom line, increase customer loyalty, and create greater employee engagement.

Basic n. 3: Build a strong alliance of internal customers. Find ways to increase awareness, support and participation at all levels of the organization, from senior executives and middle managers to supervisors and line personnel. As a learning and development professional, these are your customers. Make sure you know their likes and dislikes, and be flexible enough to properly develop your programs and workshops around what’s important to help them achieve their business goals.

Core # 4 – Don’t Expect the Director of Human Resources to Plan Your Career. Becoming a CLO is a journey that begins with self-motivation and self-development. If you wait for someone to take notice of your work, you will be behind the learning curve. Remember, a CLO is a visionary thinker who stays proactive ahead of the organization, always looking ahead to determine not only what the organization needs to grow and be more effective, but also by looking internally at its own professional and personal gaps and looking for ways to close them.

Basic n. # 5: Learn more about the operations aspect of your organization. If you stay in the Ivory tower training and never venturing into the operational areas of your work environment, your ideas about performance improvement will quickly become out of date. Get out from behind your desk and take part in what’s going on in the operation.

Basic n. 6: read, read, read. Commit to reading a minimum of one business magazine or newspaper a week and one business book a month. Despite your busy workload and personal issues, this is a career imperative on your path to becoming a CLO. Reading will improve your vocabulary, business and financial acumen, and keep you abreast of what is important to the CEO and senior leadership.

Basic n. 7: Create a learning library for your organization or business unit. Use a small portion of your training budget to buy hardcover, paperback, and electronic books. As you read exceptional business books, create a recommended reading list for your leaders. In progressive learning organizations, the CEO and top executives tend to read a lot. Invite them to create the reading list. They will be honored your request and will encourage their managers to use the Learning Library.

Core # 8 – Recognize and compare best practices in training. Be sure to recognize people within your organization who are exemplary departmental trainers and use their best practices as a benchmark for the rest of the organization. When you have proven examples of learning and development success among the grassroots, everyone tends to take notice.

Basic n. # 9: Expand Your Knowledge Base. Expand your knowledge and experience as a learning and development professional through continuing education. Look for industry certifications that will increase your experience in the field. Whether you decide to pursue a master’s degree, doctorate, or industry-specific certification, commit to lifelong learning.

Basic # 10 Create a learning execution strategy. All CLOs understand the importance of a strategic L&D plan, it is the roadmap of how learning will occur and be executed within the organization. Running training initiatives without a strategy is like traveling to a new destination without a roadmap; wastes valuable time and money and creates frustrating rework for everyone involved. Your strategic plan (better known as a learning strategy) It should describe what learning interventions will be developed and implemented, and how they will affect the primary objectives of the organization.

Basics # 11 – Keep a notebook of ideas and special projects. Great CLOs are visionary leaders who are always on the lookout for new ways to improve your organization’s leadership effectiveness, employee development, and production capabilities. As a successful CLO for The Ritz-Carlton, new ideas were always flying through my head, and I always had a notebook handy to jot them down.

Basic n. 12: Use all accessible communication tools to reinforce the value and contribution of L & Ds. Once you have established the vision, mission, and key learning and development objectives, use all available communication tools to share them with all levels of the organization. If your organization has an employee intranet, newsletter, or social media site, these are perfect tools for all functions and purposes of the training company. This is also a great opportunity to recognize work teams that are doing an exceptional job fostering learning environments.

Core # 13 – Establish and differentiate the role and purpose of training. A CLO clearly knows the difference between the purpose and function of learning and development. This is a trait that separates seasoned professionals from newbies. Clearly defining the purpose of your learning enterprise is the first step in clarifying your mission, vision, and key objectives.

Core # 14 – Join and actively participate in professional organizations. Professional organizations give you the opportunity to network with others and increase your visibility within your field of work. ASTD and SHRM are great organizations to consider being a part of. Also, don’t settle for being just another member of the crowd, work your way up within the organization, just as you would in a professional setting, with the ambition of eventually becoming a board member.

Core # 15 – Continually improve your public speaking skills. The mark of an effective CLO is the ability to present information to employees at all levels of the organization, from line-level personnel to middle managers and senior executives; all with ease. To develop or hone your public speaking and presentation skills, consider joining a Toastmasters Club, National Speakers Association (NSA), or facilitating workshops with a senior leader with excellent communication skills. The more you present and train, the better you will do over time.

Basic n. # 16: Create a 30-, 60-, and 90-day plan. Proactive planning is the key to the successful implementation of learning and development initiatives. This ensures that you stay on track and that your training activities are aligned with your established learning strategy. What drives managers crazy is when training is ad hoc, with no foresight or consideration for the operation, making it difficult for managers to properly plan and schedule to cover the department while others attend training workshops. At a minimum, effective CLOs plan 90 days in advance.

Basic n. 17 – Find a mentor and role model. The best CLOs can remember a specific person in their career that they looked up to. Select role models and mentors who have leadership traits that you would like to emulate; people who are insightful, educated, knowledgeable, consistently practice good business etiquette, communicate extremely well, and are appreciated by many. Also, consider the people who will give you honest and timely feedback and help you improve blind spots that you may not be aware of.

Basic # 18 – Watch and Act the Role NOW! Along with business and financial acumen, the trait of an intelligent CLO is in its professional appearance. Whether you’re an entry-level trainer, a Training Manager, or the Director of Learning and Development, start to see and act the part you want to accomplish one day. Remember, every time we enter a room, your appearance and your gestures are on display.

Basic # 19 – Pay attention to details. Everything you do says a lot about you, whether you’re creating a training manual, writing a memo or newsletter article, giving a presentation, or implementing a new learning intervention. Just as grooming and appearance are important to enhancing your career goals, so is attention to detail. While the most effective CLOs may not be perfectionists, they check every detail to make sure execution is flawless.

Basic # 20 – Stay focused. Stay focused on a learning strategy and philosophy that will support the achievement of the organization’s strategic imperatives. It’s very easy to get lost in the minutiae and divert your efforts toward non-value-added training activities.

While my twenty basics may not be exhaustive, I know they work because I used them while working for The Ritz-Carlton organization, where I enjoyed a 17-year career. While applying these twenty basics, I eventually progressed from an entry-level human resources position to Vice President of Training and Organizational Effectiveness of a world powerhouse. Simply put, to become a CLO, you need to start thinking like a CLO today!

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