Are You a Strategic Leader…Or Overwhelmed?

By Sue Iannone

Part Two in a Series

In Part One, we outlined seven characteristics of the “Future Learning and Development Organization.”  Those characteristics are shared by teams that evolve beyond firefighting mode, look forward in a strategic way, and focus on achieving the company’s business objectives rather than struggling to keep up with daily demands.

What’s the first characteristic of such an organization?  It has a strategic learning leader.  Today, we outline some tips to help L&D leaders be more strategic, and avoid feeling overwhelmed by day-to-day demands.  These tips are geared toward the new department head, but can be applied at any time, regardless of how long a leader has been on the job.

1:  Get Your Bearings

If you’re new to a leadership role, it’s important to get the “lay of the land” before making any major decisions.  This will require a few rounds of meetings and a lot of listening.

Take the time to hold staff meetings and one-on-one meetings with your team members.  This gives you an opportunity to show them you’re listening and that you’re focused on trying to do the right things.  It also gives you a chance to more deeply understand their individual strengths and limitations.

One-on-one meetings with your bosses will help make their expectations clearer to you.  Meetings with your peers in other functions, such as the heads of Marketing, Sales, Medical Affairs, and Market Access are also critical.  They’ll be your internal customers, so it’s important to know what they’re thinking, as well as their business objectives.  Ask about their perspective on how training can support and accelerate the business objectives.

2:  Focus on the Wildly Important

Being strategic can be hard, as it requires a leader to dissect the business, understand and articulate business objectives, and formulate strategies for achieving them.  It can be easier for a new leader to “slip backward” and focus on things that are more in their comfort zone.

One illustrative example is New Hire Training (NHT).  It typically takes a large piece of the annual training budget and it is important.  However, even in a company with 10% attrition, only 10% of the company will participate in NHT during any given year.  That leaves 90% of the company that could probably benefit from other forms of L&D that are more closely related to strategic business goals.

Yet, learning leaders can easily get sucked into focusing on things like NHT while failing to address more important issues.  Instead, keep your focus on the strategic business objectives, and the things your team must do to achieve them.

3:  Trust Your Team, Delegate

Tip #2 above deals with where you focus your thoughts and attention.  Tip #3 deals with how you spend your time on a daily basis.  Don’t allow yourself to get sucked into spending an inordinate amount of time doing tactical things.

Now, reality sometimes dictates that learning leaders get “in the weeds” on tactical issues, and that’s OK.  However, it becomes a problem when it happens on a regular basis.  Every minute an L&D department head spends setting up a webinar is a minute taken away from more strategic issues.

It’s critical for strategic learning leaders to delegate tactical work to the team.  Give them the opportunity to succeed or fail.  For less tenured team members, however, just make sure that the cost of failure is relatively low for them and the department.  As they grow in skill and confidence, so can their level of responsibility.

For new strategic leaders, delegating is often very hard to do.  It’s very important, however.  Leaders who don’t invest enough time in developing their team members—and who don’t delegate—will continually waste time doing tactical work themselves while complaining that their team members just aren’t as competent as they should be.

4:  Clean House

This one can be uncomfortable, but it’s often necessary.  Sometimes, it becomes clear that a team member is not suited to his or her role.  Maybe their skills aren’t what they should be.  Perhaps their attitude isn’t good.  If you’ve properly assessed your team, you’ll be able to identify these types of issues quickly and take the appropriate action.  This may involve working with Human Resources to counsel the person, find another role that’s a better match, or remove them from the organization.

It’s important to note that “cleaning house” sometimes means affecting team members who are quite skilled and who have great attitudes.  The biopharmaceutical industry is dynamic and volatile.  Business circumstances, goals, and strategies change.  That means L&D organizations also must change. Sometimes, these changes require organizational shifts that impact good team members.  A strategic learning leader is very proactive in managing and guiding those shifts.

5:  Pick Your Battles with Stakeholders

“Pick your battles” is a good tip to remember for life in general.  It also applies to strategic learning leaders.  For example, your internal customers (the Head of Sales, for example) might have all kinds of ideas about what should and should not be done.  This may come as a shock, but the Head of Sales is not always right.

However, that doesn’t mean that you should resist every time a stakeholder says—or requests—something with which you disagree.  Decide what’s strategically important, and don’t be afraid to let the little things go.  This helps you avoid getting the reputation as a “Dr. No.”  But, when there is a strategically significant disagreement, be prepared to make your case professionally and articulate why your recommendation is more in line with the business’s objectives.

Hopefully, these tips will be helpful to you.  What other tips have worked for you?

In future articles, we’ll outline more ways to build the “Future Learning and Development Organization.”