Dr. Keith Keating is a chief learning & talent officer who works with Fortune 500 companies. He wrote The Trusted Learning Advisor to guide L&D practitioners in the evolution from being “order takers” to becoming trusted learning advisors. Although L&D practitioners must individually transform themselves, he offers practical insights and strategies that support the creation of value and impact for organizations. These are the most important outcomes of any kind of learning directed by L&D groups. They are more important to each of us individually in the human development field with each passing month. I hope to make that clear in this review.

Order taker vs. trusted learning advisor

In its truest sense, we know that what learning does is to change learners by changing their behavior and enhancing their accomplishments. Keating reframes that understanding by asserting that the job of L&D practitioners is to be changemakers in their organizations. In other words, learning becomes an integral force for achieving growth. To achieve that outcome, learning professionals must become trusted resources and advisors that leaders in the organization can turn to for effective analysis, problem-solving, and practical solutions. Unfortunately, in some cases (arguably too many cases) learning professionals settle for, or are only rewarded for, behaving like order takers. It is time to change that reward system or to change the way in which we respond to the demands.

What is involved in making the change? Keating proposes “finding actionable ways that move the needle towards developing a relationship with your stakeholders that positions you as a Trusted Learning Advisor.”

Across all three groups, the practitioners don’t lack the energy to deal with stakeholders who are difficult and challenging when it comes to accepting the change in roles and expectations for human development practitioners. The path is not easy, nor is it risk-free. Stakeholders are not aways eager to give up the power to unilaterally set the direction, and sometimes there is a question of conflict with longstanding leadership views. The larger problem is that the practitioners have not learned the art and skill of being a trusted learning advisor instead of being just a learning provider.

The order taker role

In traditional organizations, the stakeholder asks the practitioner to deliver a training program to fix what the stakeholder perceives to be an urgent problem: Sales goals are being missed, product defects are increasing, client satisfaction is trending downward, the team seems unmotivated and prone to interpersonal conflict. The stakeholder does not want to take people away from work for too long, no more than a half day to patch things up and to get the people back on track. The process (to the stakeholder) looks like this:

  • The stakeholder identifies the problem;
  • The stakeholder (or someone else) identifies the solution;
  • Someone else tells the practitioner what to do;
  • The practitioner does what he or she is told to do.

But problems are rarely that simple. Nobody asks the practitioner’s professional opinion about the performance issue or about the type of intervention that might be best or if a learning intervention is even appropriate. If the practitioner takes the time to be consultative, strategic, or collaborative, the stakeholder is likely to say something about “the paralysis of analysis” and to suggest that what is wanted is simply to fix the problem as the boss directs.  

The trusted learning advisor role

As Keating suggests, the process is for the trusted learning advisor to work collaboratively with the stakeholder as a strategic consultative business partner. It does not involve telling the stakeholder what to do. It requires the advisor to:

  • Leverage extensive L&D experience and knowledge;
  • Provide guidance and advice specific to the stakeholder’s needs and objectives;
  • Strive to constantly create value;
  • Have the willingness and ability to challenge the stakeholder when necessary, saying, “There might be a better approach to solve this problem, and here’s why. Let me help you.”  

Keating says, “The Trusted Learning Advisor provides value by helping the stakeholder to get better results more efficiently, effectively, and systematically than the stakeholder would have been able to achieve without the Advisor.” If you have been in the situation of being called on to stay in your lane and serve as an order taker, you already know how difficult this role can be. And yet this is your value proposition, the creation of value that persists long after a project is finished.

Dr. Keating segments the path to that change in three ways for those in L&D, human resources, and talent development.  Across all three groups, he has specific advice for entry-level practitioners, for mid-level practitioners, and for senior-level practitioners. The way ahead is there for all practitioners at all levels.

How do you get there?

As an L&D practitioner, your role is to engage as a cross-functional business partner throughout the organization as you work with many different stakeholders. Keating refers to this as a “non-stop balancing act of managing stakeholder expectations while keeping L&D a priority in the business.”   

“Trust is the foundation of human connection.”

The first step is to focus on ensuring that your stakeholders trust you. Trust is the first step in building a relationship, both professionally and personally. This is a journey, not a destination. Dr. Keating carefully leads the reader through the steps in building that trust and cites the work of many experts. As he concludes, you have a choice. You can stay in the safety of the order-taker’s silo, and nobody will notice that you made that decision. But learning has the power to change lives, and you, as a trusted learning advisor, are the future of L&D if you choose to take that path.

“Tempus fugit”

I would like to make two recommendations. First, I recommend that you read Dr. Keating’s book and consider whether you want to be or to remain an order taker. The L&D world is filled with practitioners who at some point in their career decided to stay in the order-taker silo. The trouble with staying in the silo is that the order takers are on the route to a short career at best and accepting that it will be far less satisfying as well. The world is moving quickly out of silos.

The second recommendation is that your 2024 resolution be to get out of that silo and follow the path that Dr. Keating lays out. Why? Consider that when you attend Learning Guild conferences, the esteemed speakers, every one of them, hundreds of them, long ago decided to step out of the silo. You can be sure that those who do that this year will have far fewer worries about change, artificial intelligence, and all the other worries that your peers may have about their careers. Time is short. If you want to be a learning leader, make your change now. If you are already a leader, encourage your colleagues to do the same.