In Real Life: What If They Just Want Order Takers?

I’m really good with PowerPoint. REALLY GOOD. Why am I telling you this? It’s all about expectations, and about our desire in L&D to become a valued business partner, not just order takers. Bear with me for a minute.

In college, I was responsible for the PowerPoint show that looped continuously over closed-circuit cable in all of the residence halls. At AMC, I used PowerPoint as my only graphic design option for signage and employee bulletins. With Disney, I built media-rich presentations for instructor-led training programs and executive meetings. I was the guy you went to for PowerPoint help at the place where dreams come true.

Now fast-forward 10 years to present day. Since those PowerPoint-heavy days, I ...

  • Managed the world’s busiest roller coaster,
  • Started writing for industry publications and speaking at conferences around the world,
  • Learned how to build online training,
  • Got heavy into workplace knowledge sharing, microlearning, and adaptive learning,
  • Won Best Alternative Solution at the Learning Solutions Conference DemoFest—twice (humble brag), and
  • Became the CLO of a Canadian technology company.

I recently ran into a former peer whom I haven’t seen in a decade. He was coordinating a local professional event, and I asked if I could help. I was thinking I could leverage my network and find some great speakers or perhaps speak about various cool things I am working on. He asked me to build the PowerPoint. To him, I’m still that guy who made cool presentations 10 years ago. And I can’t be mad at him—except for the fact that he’s clearly not following my blog.

People are constantly evolving. But, when you only see a small part of their story, certain characteristics get locked in your mind. You define people based on when and how you knew them. It happens all the time. It happened to me with my Disney co-worker. And it’s happening to L&D right now.

There are plenty of L&D pros out there looking for ways to push the profession forward. You’re probably one of them. These folks have several ways of explaining their desired before and after, including:

  • From learning to performance
  • From developers to consultants
  • From creators to connectors
  • From sage on the stage to guide on the side
  • From order taker to strategic partner

And I’m all for it. We’ve realized that traditional methods aren’t getting the job done to our satisfaction. We want to have as big an impact as possible on our organizations and the people we support. We know we can do better. Round of applause and a pat on the back for good intentions! But there’s one big problem—we don’t run the business. It’s typically not up to us to define the role we play in the big machine that is corporate reality. In real life, we have to acknowledge what the people who hired us want us to be. And, in more cases than not, this is the dreaded role of order taker.

Complaints won’t change this. Nifty before and after slogans won’t change this. Strategy slides full of buzzwords and interconnected shapes won’t change this. Your stakeholders have years of experience with corporate training. They expect what they know, and that’s a support department that is there when requested and doesn’t get in the way otherwise. They want to submit orders along with a mountain of constraints and get back just what’s required. They want to be your customer, not your partner.

I’m not saying this is right or that L&D pros should accept this. I’m simply shining the light on the reality we face every day. If we want to transform our profession and truly demonstrate the value of learning in modern business, we can’t just declare the change and expect everyone to accept our new role. We have to earn it. We have to bring people along for the ride, not just expect that they know how much more than a PowerPoint designer we’ve become over the past 10 years.

Alright, enough of the doom and gloom. I can attest that it is possible to change the way people think of L&D. I’ve done it in my own roles, and I continue to help L&D teams do it as their technology partner. But I’ve never walked into a boardroom with a pitch deck and proclaimed the new role of learning in the organization to an executive team. Rather, in every case, the change was earned through small and meaningful improvements.

If you want to be seen as more than an order taker, here are five things you need to start doing right now.

1.  Know the business

Is sales on track to hit their quarterly goal? Has the company reduced its year-over-year safety incidents? What’s the customer service team’s current NPS (net promotor score)? You should know these details of your business. If you don’t, get looped into the report distribution lists and meetings that include this information. Spend time on the front line. Speak the language of your business, not of L&D. When it comes time to talk about learning initiatives, frame your ideas in their context to demonstrate your understanding of their goals and challenges. Otherwise, you’ll never be seen as a partner.

2.  Share your evolution

Are you including your stakeholders in your professional development? No, you definitely should not be presenting “what I learned at the conference” PowerPoint presentations. They’re the workplace version of family vacation slideshows. However, as you explore new ideas that inform the evolution of your role, you should provide visibility to your stakeholders. For example, I maintained a blog of new ideas when I worked at Kaplan. I used this content to subsequently build my credibility with internal partners, sharing articles as I developed new project concepts. It showed an evolution in my thinking and proved that I wasn’t just making things up as I went along.

3.  Use more yes, ands ...

It could take months to years to fully evolve the role of L&D in your organization. But you should not wait for full acceptance to get started with your new ideas. Instead, become a master of the “yes, and …” For instance, you may want to shift from page-turn eLearning to a more on-demand resource-driven approach. But your stakeholders want the same old, legally-defensible, check-the-box online course they’ve always used. Rather than arguing that your idea is better, pull a “yes, and …” Build the same, ineffective online course and the on-demand resource. Then, measure the impact of both. Next time around, use this data and feedback from your employees to sway their opinion and begin your shift in approach.

4.  Bring in outside voices

Sometimes your ideas sound a lot better coming out of someone else’s mouth. That sounded odd. Anyway, if your stakeholders think of you in a certain way, they may not be open to new and unfamiliar ideas. However, if you bring an external, respected industry expert to validate those same ideas, they may come across as being more valid. Sure, you can leverage L&D thought leaders. But you should also consider professionals who work in the same lines of business as your stakeholders. Do your research and find out which companies they admire. Reach out to your peers within these organizations to establish connections and set up reference conversations.

5.  Stop using the word “customer”

Your stakeholders are not your customers. You work for the same company! If you treat “the business” as a separate entity, you won’t be considered a strategic partner. You’ll be just another vendor that can be easily disregarded. This is why L&D functions that report directly into the operation tend to be more agile and impactful than those that align to support departments. Learning is a continuous process. Therefore, L&D-enabled support should be a regular part of the employee experience. This can only happen if you are a recognized part of the everyday operation. That’s a partner, not a vendor.

L&D cannot explain our way out of being order takers. We have to earn it. We have to prove what we can do and why our role has to change for the betterment of the organization. This won’t happen overnight, regardless of your current frustrations. But you can start acting more like a business partner, even if you aren’t seen as one right away. Rather than seek a seat at the metaphorical table, our goal should be to help our stakeholders build a better table by reimagining the way we enable performance through continuous learning and support.

Oh, and I still build plenty of PowerPoint. My presentations today aren’t quite as clever as they once were. The subject matter is a bit less whimsical. But I think they’re still pretty good. Check out my SlideShare collection, and let me know what you think!

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