The power and importance of learning advocates

An organisation’s culture and work ethic flow down from the top, which means that if leaders are not driving the learning culture the whole organisation will suffer. Obtaining the full support of the organisation’s top influencers, ie executives and managers, creates a strong foundation for a continuous learning culture. In this article, Judith Christian-Carter takes a look at the importance of learning advocates and some of the ways to get them onboard.

There are two types of learning advocates to be found in most organisations today, managers and executives. It has long been known that managers are essential to an employee’s overall work experience. A recent Gallup survey showed that managers account for at least 70% of the difference in employee engagement. However, a 2021 LinkedIn Workplace Learning Report revealed that only 40% of learners said that in the previous six months their managers challenged them to learn new skills, even though over half felt that their managers supported their career goals.

These findings show that organisations are currently under-using their managers as learning advocates and the situation is even worse when it comes to executives. In another LinkedIn report undertaken in 2020, only 27% of Learning and Development (L&D) professionals said that their Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) were active champions of learning. The time has surely come for organisations to involve these two sets of leaders as drivers of the modern learning culture.

Executive buy-in

A successful modern learning culture will never exist without the buy-in of an organisation’s top leaders and executives. Buy-in goes way beyond executive sign-off on a new learning initiative. Executives need to have a full understanding of the commitment and investment required to create a learning culture, including the large payoffs that come with such a culture.

In order to get executive buy-in, L&D professionals need to make a clear connection between the learning goals and the goals of the organisation. Executives need to see how a culture of learning is the answer to many of the organisational challenges with which they have to deal on a continual basis.

Where executives are tasked with improving operational efficiency, they need to see how a learning culture can move and encourage employees to reskill and upskill, which, in turn, helps the latter to stay flexible and prepared to take on new or added responsibilities. Likewise, for executives who have to ensure that the organisation stays ahead of competitors, showing them how a learning culture can be a critical driver of innovation will reap dividends.

Managers as learning advocates

Managers can be described as the link that connects employees to the organisation. As such, they have a critical role to play in developing both individuals and teams, and, because they are hands-on, they should be regarded as the most powerful advocates of a learning culture.

In order to support employees’ learning objectives and the umbrella modern learning culture, managers may need advice and support when it comes to knowing where and how they can involve themselves with employees to achieve the best results. Some managers may need specific tools and/or some prior L&D to help them succeed. Others might be new to a managerial role, while some may have more direct reports than previously experienced and there could be managers who have not worked for an organisation that puts an emphasis on learning.

Helping managers to get involved

L&D professionals are instrumental when it comes to advising and supporting managers in getting involved with their direct reports. Here are four areas where professional L&D advice and support may be required.

  1. The importance and application of learning: in order to be a learning advocate, managers not only need to believe in the value of learning in all its forms but also be able to communicate this value to others. It is not just a matter of knowing the “what” of learning, it is also crucial that managers can explain to their direct reports the “why” that lies behind the “what”. In some instances managers first may need to understand the “why” for themselves. Besides helping people to identify areas for skills buildings, managers also need to help these people to apply what they have learned.

  2. Employee development: as managers work closely with their direct reports they are able to get to know their strengths, possible areas for growth, and areas where employees need or want to expand their skills set. The L&D function needs to make sure that managers are helped to turn these valuable insights into opportunities to develop people and to help them grow. Two ways in which managers can achieve such outcomes are by helping people to create personalised learning paths or by pointing them to appropriate learning content.

  3. Social responsibility: organisations today have an increasing responsibility to show that they embrace diversity, equality and inclusion. Managers, therefore, need to be able to lead people on these issues while, at the same time, upholding organisational standards. Managers may require help with recognising unconscious bias, how to follow inclusive and diverse recruitment practices, embracing people’s differences and in creating a working environment that promotes equality.

  4. Employee wellbeing: with remote working likely to continue for some time to come, if not a permanent factor for many people, it is vital that managers are able to support their employees who work remotely. Remote workers have already reported becoming stressed, anxious and burnt out as a result of working remotely. Managers need to be able to recognise the signs of stress in their remote workers, know of available and helpful resources, and be able to encourage these people to develop a healthy work-life balance.

Other areas where professional L&D input may be required to help create positive learning habits that ultimately will impact on the organisation, are increasing employee engagement, improving staff retention and fostering the growth of leadership talent. The L&D function needs to work out which are the most important areas, and to determine the role that both learning and managers play in achieving the organisation’s objectives.

In a nutshell

To sum up, an essential first step is getting buy-in from the “top people” by making clear connections between learning goals and organisational goals, so that these people then understand their role in creating a learning culture and the major pay-offs that come with it. Then managers can be brought in to act as the advocates for learning, as well as providing extremely valuable insights into their employees’ skill sets to help create personalised learning paths for these people.

Managers will also need support and appropriate development opportunities so that they are able to help their staff to achieve their learning goals and to create positive learning habits. However, the benefits of getting managers to act as learning advocates will be well worth the effort involved.

Judith Christian-Carter B.Ed (Hons), M.Phil, FLPI, Chartered FCIPD, is an independent learning consultant. She can be contacted on 07850 182722 or via e–mail: judithchristiancarter@btinternet.com.