Cultivating Learning Boldness

The theme of OEB in 2021 was learning resilience. In the post pandemic world, we talked about it as the secret to overcoming the past and the key to the future.

For me, resilience is essential for flexibility and sustainability in our role and interventions as learning professionals. It keeps us in play. But we need to do more to than stay in the game, we need to play to win, this means spotting opportunities to make an impact, shifting tactics, it is about taking bold action even if it is risky.

If resilience is the key to the future, boldness is proactively using that key to unlock the future. So how do we cultivate learning boldness and use it wisely?

Bold vision

In the winter of 2019, I spent an evening with some wonderful people professionals who were looking to improve their impact by reimaging the future of learning. We explored the latest evidence behind top performing learning leaders – how they used evidence, insight, and influence to create impact within their work. [1]

The group then used an exercise to imagine what they wanted the future of learning to look like in their own organisation. Their vision included democratised learning, taking down HR silos to find new ways of surfacing, developing, and growing talent, ensuring students were work ready and becoming increasingly digital.

Looking back I wondered how many of them had been buffing up their crystal ball! It didn’t take long for this group’s bold vision for the future to become a global necessity!

I’ve been an advocate of boldness in our learning leaders for many years now – it takes a level of courage to act on our convictions and realise our vision. So I then asked a follow up question of the group. ‘Given this evidence of what high performing learning teams are doing today– What would you DO in your organisation if you were 10x bolder?’

The top scoring actions crowdsourced from participants were:

  • Shift to learner centred learning – ask what individuals need to do their job, be open to an emergent approach of resources not courses
  • Listen, Listen, and really listen! – what is needed and is what we are doing really working?
  • Connect and collaborate – Create personalised learning that works horizontally AND vertically across organization
  • Take a more holistic approach HR/L&D – ditch the programme of courses, instead focus on culture change by upskilling managers to take more supporting role to facilitate flexible, personalised learning for teams
  • Develop tools for learning that are simple and easy to use
  • Explore digital with an open mind – Get exposure to advanced AI, use it to challenge thinking about how to evolve with it to support the changes that people need to make

This was a small group with their own unique challenges. This list of actions was personal them. However, since the pandemic hit, I often wondered which of these ideas, generated in the warmth of a cosy conference room in November of 2019, had been implemented in the cold covid light of day?

I’d like to think that this group took bold action because of their experience that night which meant they were equipped and ready to respond a few months later. I’d like to think that they had already started to experiment with these themes and had begun the process of reflecting and learning from them. I’d like to think that they were ready to adapt when called on 4 months later.

I’d like to think that, but I wonder.

Whilst we need a bold vision to genuinely move forward, bold ideas alone are not enough, we also need action.

Making an impact: bold action

The value of an idea lies in the using of it. — Thomas Edison

There has always been a certain amount of ‘danger’ for L&D leaders looking to do things differently– challenging the status quo and sticking our heads above the parapet is a risky business. There is a level of uncertainty and risk in business and in our own jobs. Will new models of learning work? Will investing in new tools and technologies make a return? After all no L&D professional got fired for building a catalogue of courses or a suite of online compliance eLearning or implementing the IBM of learning management systems!

But the definition of boldness is the ‘the willingness, confidence and courage to take risks.

The challenge is, we often know what action we need to take to make a difference to the individuals, teams, and organisations that we support. But it takes courage.

It’s safer to stick to what we know. It is also safer for the business to ask us for what they have asked us for in the past. Doing what we’ve always done feel like the safe thing to do but it won’t help us seize opportunities or challenge our pain points. It takes boldness to step out of the safe zone.

When I completed my first corporate learning plenary for OEB back in 2007, I shared some of the secrets of high performing learning team. Then and now, those high performing learning teams consistently reported that they were over five times as likely to be influencing learning culture and seven times as likely to agree that their approach is improving organisational agility.[2]

What the leaders of these teams have in common is a certain amount of boldness. They take risks, try new things, and prepare their organisations to do the same. And their approach works.

In my experience resilience keeps us in the game but boldness gets us moving.

Cultivating boldness

Boldness, like resilience, curiosity, are easy to talk about but tough develop.

These mindsets inform our actions but they need to be proactively cultivated. Like habits they need to be, named and recognised, nurtured and affirmed, repeated, and rewarded over time.

Since 2020 I have been working with Michelle Ockers and Shannon Tipton on a new initiative ‘Emerging Stronger’ where we’ve been using interviews, research, practical challenges, and communities to explore how Learning professionals can emerge stronger from disruption.

We’ve found that bold action that delivers impact is critical for success. We’ve also learned several ways that learning professionals are cultivating boldness:

1 Thinking bolder

Challenging the status quo takes courage and the first stakeholders we need to challenge are ourselves! In our eBook 5 Thinking habits for a smarter stronger L&D[3] we explored how our internal thoughts influence our actions and responses to the situations that we find ourselves in.

How do you think about the value you add through your work? – do believe that you add value by solving learning problems or business challenges?

How do you think about your role? Are you primarily in place to be the expert (to prove your value) or to work with others (to co-create value)?

How do you approach a challenge? Are your actions influenced by your past successes or a willingness to let go, go back to first principles to try to something different?

We found that those who thought about their value in terms of business outcomes, who thought about themselves as part of a team working on a common problem and who approached a challenge with a fresh perspective were less likely to feel that they had to prove themselves and were more likely to respond with boldness.

The most courageous act is still to think for yourself. Aloud. — Coco Chanel

2 Business first boldness

Spotting the business opportunity vs following the trend is essential for cultivating boldness.  Whilst we all love a ‘what’s hot’ new year trend lists, they feed FOMO – fear of missing out. It takes boldness to think independently – to buck the trends and to totally rethink your approach to what’s needed in your organisation right now.

We cultivate boldness when we align our purpose with the purpose of the organisation.

Right now, the statement ‘People are our greatest asset’ is no longer a glib platitude for business leaders with limited follow through. Business leaders are now talking about talent as an essential pillar for business success. As a result this new business agenda creates an opportunity for cultivating learning boldness:

  • The reskilling / right skilling/ ups killing agenda – creates opportunity for us to ensure that individuals and teams are equipped and ready
  • The Innovation agenda – creates opportunity to enabling of a culture of learning and curiosity across the whole organisation
  • The Digital transformation agenda – provides permission to rethink processes, roles, and value creation – both in business and in our L&D teams
  • The Performance agenda – provides opportunity for our impact to shine and be recognised

Those bold learning leaders will use the business agenda to shape their own. They will use it to set a new direction that will impact their organisation’s growth, transformation, productivity, and performance.

A Business first approach creates your North Star and purpose, essential for cultivating boldness.

3 Seeking bolder perspectives

The third way of cultivating boldness is to proactively explore alternative perspectives for to solve our challenge. We found that learning leaders who were taking bold action, did so because they looked at their opportunities through different lenses.[4] Here are 3 of those essential lenses that can help cultivate boldness:

  • The data and evidence lens- the way we use external scientific evidence and data from within our own organisation can help us cultivate boldness in our dealings with stakeholders, our design, and decisions about learning inputs.
  • The community lens – Who else shares this business problem, how can we connect with them? Who can encourage or challenge my thinking? How can we co-create value together? These are the questions we ask when we look at our challenge through the community lens and our boldness to act grows as we find the answers.
  • The Experiment lens – trying what my colleague Shannon calls ‘Baby bold steps’. Working on small experiments to test hypothesis, exploring the results with curiosity, learning from successes and failures all build boldness.

What will you do when you are 10x Bolder?

In one sense, these ideas will not be new to colleagues at Online Educa Berlin, we have been exposed to those who have undertaken bold exploration for the past 20 years but, if we want to personally make an impact, we need to cultivate our own boldness!

We’ve learned several things through our Emerging Stronger Programme. Believing in our value, aligning our purpose with the purpose of the organisation, surrounding ourselves with the safety net of a strong community and evidence base and creating for ourselves the permission to try, all help to build personal boldness in the face of adversity.

The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second-best time is now. — Chinese proverb

So what are you going to do today to become 10x bolder?

Written for OEB Global 2022 by Global Council member Laura Overton, award winning analyst and co- founder of Emerging Stronger.

[1] Towards Maturity – The Transformation journey 2019
[2] Findings – 15 years of benchmarking
[3] 5 Thinking habits for a smarter stronger L&D
[4] New Era for L&D: shifting perspective to emerge stronger

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