Change is hard. Culture is vague. Learning is easily forgotten. In the modern corporate ecosystem, often change, culture, and learning don’t play together due to a lack of intentionality. Partners from different corners want to stay in their own lane owning what they know best, and very often they don’t talk or listen to each other as they build, implement, and try to sustain each element in their own spaces.

It’s easy to create a training program in a vacuum, easy to run a change management program with leaders, and easy to put together a “culture-building” module just to say it’s done. But these efforts check boxes in ways that are not lasting or reflective of those who will be most impacted by their content.

This article discusses the case study of an intersection that worked because each component was developed for, by, and with the business. It started with a standard ask: Can’t you just give me a training program?

Managing a significant change

The contemporary reality is all about shift. Teams are shifted, jobs are redefined, roles are revised to fit changing needs and norms. Employees are expected to move with agile speed into their new roles, bringing with them a culture that seamlessly blends into their new world.

Those of us who are realists know that doesn’t happen. Change is messy and heartbreaking. It takes planning and knowledge of the before and after. Teams need space to talk, ask, and even argue so they can understand not only their new world, but also their place in the new world.

In such a shift, a team moved from the world of owning and monitoring a tech platform internally to selling, consulting, and project managing their services externally. They were given a new name and the proverbial new T-shirt. Culture, check.

Except it wasn’t. Those who moved had two email addresses, were unsure about the reporting structure, and didn’t understand the pace of growth. They struggled to identify with the new corporate logo because many of them were pining for their old identity. They saw friends and leaders let go, and they lived in a constant state of uncertainty. When L&D was engaged, the leaders figured that some training would help.

Unfortunately in this scenario, isolated training would have been yet another new initiative that would confuse and muddle the world of those doing the work. Through the discovery meetings the learning and development team held with the leadership, we understood that different work needed to be done. The first step was to define, embrace, and name the change. To do that, we would need to find our champions.

Finding the “champions”

A champion is that person who you always believe. You seek them out and know they will give you the real skinny. They are knowledgeable, authentic, and ultimately believe in building for the sake of the greater good. They support the company—but do it with a sense of responsibility. In other words, they are not blind followers. They have a voice.

Champions were the pivotal point in this process, so the business leaders spent time talking to their potential champions, making sure they had the time and desire to support the outlined process.

After we found the champions, we wanted to craft a space for them to use their voices. We talked through corporate objectives, who we were, and who we hoped to become; out of those conversations, collectively, we created a series of five meetings that were designed to do the following:

  1. Outline the past, present, and future project goals and state of work.
  2. Build urgency and define the need to change, as we realistically named and owned existing barriers.
  3. Define the expectations, language, and roles of daily work.
  4. List what we would need and want to know to be successful in the daily work.
  5. Build a commitment through a system of champions.

Each virtual meeting had an agenda, breakout rooms, and expected outcomes. We structured the conversations to create positive solutions rather than encourage unproductive complaining. The first step was to be clear with the asks of each conversation. I provided clear guide-rails and asked each group to share out to the whole, after the smaller session. This expectation kept them on track.

I also created teachable moments where they learned how to facilitate breakout rooms, communicate with facts, and use data to tell stories and present to leaders. These moments of learning added purpose, leading the champions to their goal of telling their story.

We solicited feedback both in and out of the sessions, through a formal survey and informal conversations. We included teachable moments that outlined how to own a virtual breakout session, introduced the consultant process flow, provided guidance in communicating the message up to the leaders, and built presentation skills. We documented and shared the results of each meeting and provided pre- and post work when appropriate.

Outcomes: Changing culture

Outcome one was our story. The champions continued their ownership as they wrote and presented the results of our meeting sequence. People who had never spoken directly to the leaders had the stage as they helped tell our story.

Outcome two was the creation of two learning paths. The champions recognized that there were two facets of their new jobs that they needed help to learn: how to consult and how to project plan. We were able to create each learning path specifically for them because we knew them. We knew how they learned, their open time, and how to align what we were teaching to what they were doing.

Outcome three was a sustained champion system. We created a Board of Champions that acted as a continuing support system for the implementation of the cultural plans. They created a meeting cadence and owned a peer group to provide a space for concerns, questions, and most importantly, ideas. As champions rotate in and out of their roles, we will continue to collect feedback to make the role and the organization better.

We also kept track of lessons learned.

  • They wanted time to talk, question, and learn.
  • Pride in ownership means everything.
  • There are some conversations that are leader-friendly and some that are not. It made a huge difference to have the breakout rooms leader-free to encourage free discussion.
  • Follow-up and outside discussion are key.
  • Substantial and organic learning comes from the process itself.

Let’s start by listening

My takeaways: Learning and development partners need to start their work with the business by listening. We don’t need to push our agenda to be successful. We need to learn how to be consultative partners who work with the business to build and deliver the solutions that will most impact the work they do. Sometimes those solutions will be learning; other times we may support the business as they build processes, procedures, and programs that may, at that moment, be more related to what the business needs than another learning path would be.

The connection between culture, change, and learning is creating a dialogue that fits the organization and its situation. It starts with intentional work that builds people and processes, in a way that makes the most sense in the daily lives of the team.

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