Do you find it difficult to explain what you do for a living to people outside the L&D community? I sure do! Plus, it’s always funny to hear how people explain my job when they introduce me to new people. I usually end up being some hybrid of a teacher, software developer, and a marketer. L&D is such an odd profession.
But that’s not the only thing that makes L&D unique. We also relate to the people we work with, in a particular way. No matter what their jobs may be, they all have opinions on how we do what we do. They know their preferred learning styles (paging Clark Quinn!). They remember how much they liked those training programs they attended years ago. And they’re 100% sure complex performance problems can be solved with 45-minute instructor-led sessions every two months.
It’s frustrating. We’re the experts in this stuff. We know when “suggested” solutions clash with foundational principles. But we also have to face reality. Most of the people we work with went to school. They completed job training. They’ve always followed the same format: course > test > complete. Can we blame them for questioning new ideas when they’ve been told over and over again that “learning” is supposed to look and feel a certain way?
It takes more than expertise to foster a great learning culture. It takes trust. But you can’t build trust without navigating your way through a maze of stakeholders, decision-makers, and subject matter experts. As Denzel Washington said while using slightly different terminology in Training Day, we’ve gotta play chess, not checkers. (Figure 1) To build a modern learning organization, L&D pros must become masters of The Game of Influence.
Figure 1: Are we playing the right game? Pixabay.
L&D must adopt modern tactics, such as personalization, automation, adaptation, microlearning, and performance support to keep pace with change, accelerate skill development, and restore learning equity. However, we can’t unilaterally decide to change how we support people within our organizations. After all, the last thing people need is more unexpected change. We must gain buy-in across the stakeholder spectrum, from the frontline to the C-suite. If we want everyone to play along, we must shift mindsets before we can shift practices. L&D must influence people to think differently about the connection between learning and work.
As always, there’s a catch. Every stakeholder is unique. They have different motivations, objectives, interests, experiences. and WIIFMs. A particular tactic may work for one group but not another. Rarely does a single tactic influence everyone on the board. This makes the game a lot more difficult to play (and even more rewarding to win).
Here are six key players and the matching tactics I’ve used to the greatest effect while playing this game over the past 15 years.
This player drives results. They’re accountable to shareholders, board members, regulators. and public perception (as well as employees). Some recognize that a skilled workforce is critical for achieving their desired outcomes. Some do not. It’s L&D’s job to shift this perception.
Providing equitable learning opportunities is always the right thing to do, but this usually isn’t enough to change mindset. To gain executive buy-in, you must demonstrate how investment in a new technology or a cross-functional reskilling program will yield desired business results. One of the best ways to do this is by sharing case studies.
A good case study shows how another organization achieved results by applying the same (or almost the same) practices you are pitching to your stakeholders. Sometimes, the best case studies are from organizations that have a lot in common with your workplace, such as the same industry, region, products, etc. However, stakeholders may also be influenced by case studies from organizations they respect, even if they are very different from yours. Do your homework. Research your stakeholders. Identify case studies that include the details needed to open their ideas to your idea’s potential.
For bonus points, find out how you can connect your stakeholders with people who participated in the shared case study so they can provide real-world feedback on their experiences.
This player protects the company. It’s a complicated role. They need to mitigate risk and keep regulators happy. As a result, they can be skeptical of new ideas that may “upset the apple cart” (do people still say that?) Chances are, they know check-the-box training isn’t the best way to help people learn. It’s just the best option which they are familiar with for playing their part in the game.
You must demonstrate how you will enable risk mitigation as part of any reimagined strategy. This includes checking all of the boxes this player needs to do their job. Do your homework (again). Dig into the legal and regulatory requirements associated with your work. Show how your reports will check all of the necessary boxes (and perhaps provide even more useful data they can leverage in the future).
For example, if you want to transition compliance training from a 60-minute course to a series of microlearning topics, your first move with this stakeholder should be demonstrating how your new reporting will meet both internal and external regulatory requirements. This will put them at ease and make them more amenable to exploring new methods for solving highly regulated performance problems.
This player also protects the company. They establish hardware and software guidelines to secure data, reduce costs, and limit redundancies. They aim to provide the tools and support needed to power all parts of the operation but their limited resources tend to push them to prioritize customer-facing projects over internal requests (including L&D).
Your first move to gain IT support, especially for a big project, should be presenting your technology roadmap. Do your homework (yes, again!) and make sure you understand every IT requirement, process, and expectation associated with your work. Create a roadmap with details such as:
- Problem(s) that created the need for your request
- How your solution will solve the problem(s)
- Why existing resources are insufficient for solving the problem(s)
- Effort and cost required to implement your solution
- Process for implementing and maintaining your solution
- How your solution will/not impact existing tools and processes
- How data and security requirements will be met
Make your solution sound simple and the effort seem worthwhile. Show that you’ve done the work and share their concerns. Preemptively address this player’s likely objections and make it easy for them to accept new ideas moving forward.
Subject Matter Expert: Improv
This player wants to keep people informed. They need the training to cover every detail so people can do their jobs correctly. If they’re a safety manager, they need employees to know all of the safety rules so they don’t get hurt. If they’re a product manager, they need employees to know the ins and outs of every product so customers get the best possible support. We know people can’t consume and retain this much information, but the SME may not realize they have other options besides traditional courses and slides with lots of words and very small fonts.
You’re not going to convince them that large chunks of their information is unessential. Instead, your first move should be to agree with everything they ask for—kinda. “Yes, and …” is a rule-of-thumb (do people still say that too?) in improv comedy. By leading with “yes,” you accept new information rather than immediately challenging or dismissing it. The “and” allows you to build upon the idea and take it in new, complementary directions.
Since you’re playing the long game (chess, not checkers), you can introduce SMEs to new, proven approaches over time by using a “yes, and …” Yes, you will build the recommended solution … and you’ll augment it with an additional tactic (the thing you actually want to do). After implementation, demonstrate the effectiveness of your alternative approach and suggest they consider it for future projects. You can still cover all of the information, but you’ll do it in ways that align with the unavoidable realities of learning and work.
This player “doesn’t have time for learning.” They have limited staffing, limited resources, and KPIs they must hit. If they don’t immediately see how training will help them achieve their goals, they won’t support it. If they don’t make training a team priority, it won’t get done—no matter how much buy-in you have from other stakeholders.
The best way to influence this player is to help them directly. Why should they champion L&D programs if they aren’t getting the support they need to do their best work? This doesn’t mean delivering employee training to them first or providing them with “manager versions” of materials. Instead, prioritize this audience by adopting continuous learning and support tactics for managers and reducing reliance on structured programs. Shift their mindsets by providing them with hands-on evidence of how modern learning practices can improve job performance. Then, ask them to champion your new employee learning initiatives.
This player is focused on execution. They have limited control over their schedules, resources, and priorities. They want to develop their skills but they only have so much time in their day. If you want them to do something new or add a task to their already overflowing list, you need to explain why it's worth the effort. Otherwise, they’re not going to do it— until their manager chases them down.
The reason “because L&D said so” does not work with this stakeholder. Instead, their mindset shift must come from within. Begin your initiatives by building champions within peer groups. Involve employees throughout the solutioning process. Run small experiments to demonstrate the impact of new tactics. Collect feedback from early adopters, and use it to communicate with the larger audience. Show them how people with similar goals, backgrounds, interests, circumstances and experiences benefitted. Then, ask them to try something new.
The most important move in the game
Every L&D team has its own stakeholder list. Some tactics may work better with different audiences in real life. Regardless, the most important move you can make in The Game of Influence is getting to know the other players. They all contribute to your workplace learning culture in different ways. They all begin the game with unique perspectives. They need your help to understand what works best when it comes to modern learning and support practices.
The great thing about this game is that everyone can win. You just have to make the effort to build relationships and establish trust with the other players—before you ask them to change their long-held beliefs about learning. When they see what’s possible and how you can help them achieve their goals, they’ll lean into your expertise and open their minds to new possibilities. Winning this game is a key step in the transition from order-taker to performance partner.