Building an awesome learning ecosystem is a team effort. Learning is not strictly the domain of L&D. Regardless of role, we all have our parts to play to make learning a true differentiator for our employees and organizations.

Each role impacts the employee learning experience in different ways. In my work, I have found that one particular role almost always has a bigger impact on the employee learning experience than any other. The person in this role can make or break an employee’s ability to improve their performance. For that reason, I believe this is the most important person in workplace learning. My finding isn’t based on scientific research or surveys of top-performing companies. It's simply an observation after 15 years of practical experience in both corporate L&D and large-scale operations.

So, who is the most important person in workplace learning? Let’s round up a few of the usual suspects (+10 for catching the Casablanca reference):

Suspect #1: The Executive

The corner office establishes the overall strategic vision for the organization and sets the tone for workplace culture. Executives control budgets and resource allocation. We also know how important their support can be during L&D initiatives, including everything from communication to hands-on participation.

Suspect #2: The Subject-matter Expert

SMEs have vital information people need to do their jobs. They sometimes provide performance support in the workflow, but L&D often relies on them for access to the foundational information on which training content is based. And sometimes you have to chase the SME down to get that info before your deadline. That must mean they are important, right?

Suspect #3: The Learning and Development Professional

Of course L&D is important! After all, we’re responsible for building and executing the organization’s learning strategy. We have to provide the right resources to the right employees at the right time to foster performance improvement. But are we the MOST important?

Suspect #4: The Employee

Employees have to be responsible their own development, right? As the pace of business accelerates and workforces become increasingly remote, employees must take the lead and leverage every available resource to support their own learning. This is essential to our ability to simultaneously scale and personalize learning.

So who is it? My guess is that many of you chose “employee” as soon as I asked the question. Yes, of course employees must take ownership for their continuous learning, but I’m going to list them as the second most important player. In real life, an employee’s best efforts can ultimately be derailed by our final suspect: the Frontline Manager.

Final Suspect: The Frontline Manager

There’s a reason people have taken to the “pick your boss, not your job” philosophy. As an L&D pro, I have seen how influential frontline managers are when it comes to their employees’ ability to develop in their roles. As a “retired” operational manager, I also know what it’s like to wield that influence. Managers are in the trenches with their employees every day. They have direct formal authority and can choose to either tactically support the learning culture or completely hide their employees from it.

Frontline managers:

  • Control employees’ day-to-day priorities, schedule, and capacity
  • Assign and reinforce employee accountability
  • Sit in between employees and workplace knowledge sources—often with the option to funnel information based on perceived value
  •  Act as an employee’s primary source for performance feedback

This story is further complicated by the manager’s own accountability, which typically focuses on short-term business objectives. This can cause the de-prioritization of employee development and a related unwillingness to allow employees the time and capacity necessary to focus on learning. Employees can also suffer due to inconsistent support when working in large operations that include multiple managers spread across daily shifts.

L&D often runs into challenges when trying to engage frontline management, for all of the reasons I already listed. Rather than solve the problem, we have turned to structured interactions, such as the “leaders as teachers” concept. While well-intentioned, this idea is often nothing more than an attempt to puppeteer managers by giving them talking points that support our learning initiatives.

Rather than asking for permission to support their employees—and complaining when we don’t get it—we have to find better ways to partner with frontline managers and enable them as key components of the workplace learning ecosystem. Here are a few suggestions:


In my last column, I suggested that we must believe operational context to be more important than our learning strategies. We must understand our management partners’ accountabilities and align our work accordingly. This includes building learning opportunities into the workflow and limiting potential strain on already tight operational resources. If we do ask to pull employees out of the workflow, we should have a very good reason and a measurable value proposition. “Because we have to” just doesn’t cut it.

Provide actionable information

Traditional L&D data, like competitions and quiz scores, doesn’t help frontline managers do their jobs. It just gives them more work to do as they track down people who haven’t completed an assignment. We must improve our data collection and reporting so we can provide actionable information that managers can use as part of their role. At Kaplan, we provided managers with a simple dashboard that identified potential knowledge gaps as well as growing expertise by topic within their teams. By connecting learning to performance, we can inform managers’ coaching efforts and limit unnecessary requests for training.

Teach them to teach

Like it or not, frontline managers are often promoted for reasons other than their leadership skills. Many are simply great at the job and therefore deserve the promotion. Beyond traditional “leadership training,” we must identify managers’ potential knowledge and skill gaps and provide related learning resources and opportunities. Specifically, we must help managers become effective teachers so that we can more reliably lean on them for support without resorting to scripted speaking points.

Support them in the same ways

We typically include managers in our learning strategies so they have exposure to the same experiences as their employees. However, when it comes to helping managers improve their skills, we often use different strategies—or no strategy at all. This creates a value disconnect and makes it more difficult to “sell” approaches that focus solely on employees. Instead, we should build our learning ecosystem using consistent resources and strategies that we can apply regardless of role. For example, managers and employees alike should benefit from on-demand performance-support resources and knowledge-sharing opportunities. This will make future strategy suggestions more familiar and potentially acceptable to managers.

Jump in and help

Nothing says “I care about your business” like dropping what you’re doing and helping when things get rough. At the Walt Disney World Resort, we suspended all formal L&D activity during peak operating periods so we could help out in the theme parks. Anyone who had appropriate certifications (like me) got into costume and performed roles alongside the cast. Others picked up pans and brooms and just tried to keep the parks as clean as possible for our tens of thousands of guests. We were there when our management partners needed us, and we didn’t let our L&D responsibilities get in the way.

Learning often takes a back seat to the needs of “the business,” and justifiably so. Sure, learning is always taking place based on the reality of 70/20/10, but we must adjust our formal approach to make sure our efforts are consistently valued by the people we support. Executive stakeholders, SMEs, employees, and L&D all play huge roles in workplace learning and performance. In my opinion, our first step should be to establish meaningful partnerships with the most important players in our learning ecosystems: frontline managers.

What do you think? Based on your experience, is the frontline manager the most important person in workplace learning?