Written by
Changeboard Team

Published
24 May 2011

How to spot a commercial head of learning & development

24 May 2011 • by Changeboard Team

Commercial HR professionals

In my first article What makes a truly commercial HR professional I explored the difference between HR professionals who are just strong on delivery and those who deliver real commercial results to the business. In a nutshell, those who are less commercial will not be clear on why they chose a particular intervention or what difference they personally made to the company.

In this and the next four articles, I will be applying this test to five of the most common senior HR roles, providing a comprehensive guide to recruiting your top team.

What type of L&D professional do you need?

The first criteria to establish is what type of L&D professional the business needs. As one of my readers said in response to the first article, if you were recruiting an engineer you would need to be clear if it was an electrical or mechanical engineer you needed. The difference is significant and fundamental to whether they will be a success or not in your company. Likewise, there are a number of very different skill sets in the learning and development function.

Over the last 24 years of recruiting senior HR professionals, I've observed that L&D professionals tend to fall into three main archetypes. Each has its own strengths and potential for commercial impact if the business requires their particular skill set. Take care to choose the right one for your company, as placing the wrong archetype in the business can be disastrous for all concerned.

The Training Services Provider (TSP)

This type is well versed in delivering training activities on a mass scale to a wide audience, either by designing and delivering the activities themselves or by procuring them from a third party. In some cases they may manage an outsourced training services provider.

They should be strong on training needs analysis, supply chain management and training design and delivery using multi-channel, or blended, learning processes. A truly commercial TSP will also be strong on evaluating the lasting impact such training has on both the individual and the business. They will be able to cite productivity improvements, such as higher success rates in task execution, and have a clear understanding of what that means to the bottom line. The key here is to watch out for candidates who quote an 'x %' improvement in productivity but can’t identify how that delivered real money back to the company – either in increased revenue or opportunities for reduced headcount.

The commercial TSP may even have put their reputation on the line by running their function as a profit centre – making line managers the judges of whether what they offered was of commercial value or not.

The poorest candidates will be those whose achievements are quoted only as volumes of people trained or new learning methods rolled out e.g. e-learning. Ask them why these were a good thing for the business and see what answers you get.

The behaviourist

This type achieves results by helping learners change their behaviours, often by tackling learners’ mental models and assumptions about how various tasks should be carried out. This approach is most used to transform customer service attitudes or leadership behaviours. The Behaviourist will be both capable of delivering such interventions themselves as well as procuring facilitators and coaches who can deliver this.

They should be strong on the psychology of learning, usually with a relevant qualification or significant training in the associated methodologies. They will understand how to define and use competencies as a framework for both assessment and learning. They will almost certainly be passionate about their subject. A truly commercial Behaviourist will also be clear how to connect the desired behaviours with commercial success. They will be able to provide strong evidence of a correlation between certain behaviours and high performance in the company or that industry. They will be able to articulate why these behaviours are important to the company’s current business strategy and they will have evidence that without these behaviours, the strategy will not be achieved.

The poorest candidates will be very enthusiastic about the impact of behavioural interventions, will talk of their almost life-changing importance but when asked to prove that this has direct business results, will fall back on quoting from Jim Collins’ 'Good to Great' or other management gurus. They won’t be able to apply the general observations of these management theories to the specific needs and business context of the companies they have worked in.

The skills strategist

This type focuses on mapping the skills requirements of the business for both their current and future markets, products and service offering. They will put in place a skills acquisition strategy that incorporates resourcing plans, career paths and training interventions and they will deliver the training element in a planned and phased manner to drive company performance in new markets or just in time to support new products. A Skills Strategist may drive large-scale Apprenticeship programmes, for example. The audience for such skills strategies is often the front line employees in manufacturing, sales, or service delivery.

The Skills Strategist will be strong in the disciplines of the TSP (above) and may also need to draw on Behaviourist interventions as well. They will use workforce analytics and workforce planning to inform their strategy. They will have a deep knowledge of the external labour market for the critical job families and will understand the education and qualification landscape for their industry.

A truly commercial Skills Strategist will take part in business planning discussions with operations, R&D and marketing. They will not just be responsive to the business agenda, they will help shape it with information on the skills implications of proposed plans. Whilst they will, of course, be able to explain the cost-effectiveness of their training interventions, they will also be able to explain the timing of their programme in relation to new products, market entry or business growth. The outcomes of their strategy will be time to market successes, or increased market share or production volumes.

The poorest candidates won’t have lasted long in their organisation. This sort of work is medium to long term and if their work is out of sync with the business timetable or delivers the wrong skills, it soon becomes evident. They will find it difficult to explain why the skills in their plan were important to the business at that time. They will be weak on explaining the timing issues of their strategy e.g. what the lead-time was for delivering a certain number of trained people in certain parts of the business to coincide with a new product launch.

The diverse nature of L&D

It's important to understand what type of L&D person you need for your business at this time. If you get this part wrong, even finding a strong commercial candidate is not enough, as their areas of strength will not be matched against the business need.

Such is the diversity of L&D interventions and skillsets that many companies rely on external providers and there is a paucity of in-house experience as a result. This is leading to a shortfall in the market of strong L&D leaders and finding one requires patience and great networking. The good ones are valued by their companies and are difficult to prise away. If you need any advice on your search for your next truly commercial Head of L&D, please contact me.