Involving C-Level Executives in L&D

Throughout my 40 years in the Learning and Development (L&D) world, I have most often been asked how I have been able to tie my L&D initiatives to the company’s CEO and other C-level executives. So many people I have met from this world complain constantly about their inability to involve their CEOs in their work, or even to get a meeting with the CEO. For example, when I first left the corporate world to pursue consulting, I met with the new L&D manager at a local high-tech company. She had worked in the industry for many years and had taken this job about a month earlier. As she finished a phone call, I looked around her office. On the wall was a framed letter from the company’s CEO welcoming her to the company. When she finished the call, I asked her about the letter. “I had it framed,” she told me, “because I know that it is the only time I will ever have any communication with the CEO.”

Here are some of my personal stories about strategies to tie my L&D work to my organization’s C-level staff that have worked for me. I hope they can provide some insights for others in the field.

More than 20 years ago, I was a speaker at one of Elliot Masie’s conferences in Orlando. I was scheduled to present a session on knowledge management and how it tied to L&D. Just before my breakout session, there was a general session speaker, a futurist who was a great speaker and had a lot of good information and insights that could benefit not just L&D, but also C-level staffs in the audience’s organizations.

I had about 200 people in my session. I started by asking how many people had found the previous speaker of value; almost the entire audience raised their hands. When I asked, “How many of you think the speaker’s content would have value to your CEO and other executives in your company?” more than half raised their hands. I then asked, “How many of you are going to get a copy of the speaker’s book or a tape of his presentation to give to your CEO?” Three people raised their hands.

Here is my point: L&D groups need to view their responsibilities as encompassing the entirety of their companies. The CEO needs to learn, just as much as salespeople, call center personnel, service technicians, first-level managers, and everyone else in your organization needs to learn. Obviously, the learning content for these various audiences is going to vary a lot, but they all have learning needs. If you ignore the learning needs of the C-level executives in your organization, you are missing great opportunities to add value to the organization and to build your relationship with those executives.

In several companies in which I have worked, I would occasionally send an article from the Harvard Business Review or a book I had recently read to the company’s CEO with a note saying that I hoped it might be of value to him or her. Most times, I never heard anything back from the CEO. But, in one company, I got an email from the CEO several weeks later thanking me for the book. He asked me to order copies for all of his direct reports and then to come to a meeting of the company’s executive committee to lead a discussion of the book’s content. What a great opportunity to start working with the company’s executives! This then led to the CEO’s request for me to start attending these meetings to take notes for the executive committee and, later, to facilitate those meetings.

Do you have meeting facilitation skills? If so, why not volunteer to facilitate planning meetings for various groups within your organization? What better way to become involved in the company’s business and get the information you need to planning learning activities that support the organization’s business goals?

Being Proactive

At another company, a senior engineering manager was promoted to be the VP of marketing. I went to see him. I asked him about his background in marketing and he said that he had none. I suggested that he might find it useful to attend a marketing seminar at one of the leading business schools (I had done research to find several appropriate programs). He said that he appreciated the idea, but that he wasn’t comfortable going to such a seminar.

What he would really like, he told me, is if I could find a professor from one of the local business schools who could give him a reading list and then act as a consultant, discussing the readings with him and acting as a sounding board for his ideas. I told him that I would find him some candidates. I spent a few days using my network to identify three candidates, sent him their bios, and arranged for him to interview all three. He then chose one person and worked with him with great success.

To be responsive to your organization’s learning needs, you need to be flexible in your approaches. Different people have different learning needs and learning styles, and a solution, no matter how excellent it may be, will not work if the target is not willing to try it.

“The CEO Has No Interest in Spending any Money on L&D”

I had been hired by another company to build a virtual university to train thousands of employees so that they could get a variety of technical certifications as part of a partnership agreement with several major vendors. Once this was up and running, I asked my bosses (three levels of HR VPs) what more I could do for the company (such as sales training, management training, etc.). They told me that the company wasn’t interested in doing any additional training, that they always hire experienced people so that they don’t have to “waste money” on any training. After the meeting, my direct boss came into my office and told me: “Do you have any idea how much damage you did to yourself by even suggesting that your group do anything outside your original charter?”

I knew that there were training needs – there are always training needs. But I also recognized that I wasn’t going to get any help from my bosses or from the company’s leadership team. So, I started talking with the business unit managers about their employee’s learning needs, and every one of them talked about one particular area: project management. From these discussions, I learned that there were three levels of learning needed with regard to project management:

  1. A basic understanding of project management and what goes into a project plan. This was a need for more than 1000 employees.
  2. Basic skills for project managers around project planning, management, and control. Included in this was the need to educate these project managers on how to use a set of project documents that had been developed by a European division of the company that the company wanted to adopt across its operations. This audience was 200 to 300 employees around the world.
  3. Project management certification from the Project Management Institute as a Project Management Professional (PMP). It seemed that the company had lost several large-scale opportunities because customers insisted that the project be headed up by a manager who had this certification. This audience size was 30 to 50 employees.

I started doing research and found that several universities offered project management curricula that involved anywhere from 8 to 12 courses that would require anywhere from 6 to 12 weeks of classroom training and cost in the range of $15,000 to $25,000. I knew that my company would not agree to that much time away from the job and certainly wouldn’t want to pay that size of bill. I also found a number of distant learning courses as well as other self-study materials. My final plan included:

  • A book and CD combination to provide basic education on project management that I set up in a lending-library mode – this was for the more than 1000 person audience. The cost for this was less than $500 to get the materials for the library.
  • A one-week classroom course on project management and control from a local university. I paid to have this course customized in two ways: first, we developed a case study that involved the types of projects done by the company, and second, we included the project management forms that the company wanted to adopt worldwide. This was for the several hundred current project managers in the company. The cost per person for this course was approximately $600 per person (versus $2500 per person if we had sent employees to take the generic course from the university).
  • Two 8-week distance learning course to prepare employees to take the PMP examination. These courses cost $800 per person per course.

I put together the program proposal and circulated it to the business unit managers. A few days later I got an email from Dave, the company’s senior VP of business development. Dave was the driving force behind all company initiatives – he had negotiated the partnership agreements under which I had been hired to develop the virtual university to achieve the various technical certification goals. He also had a reputation for being a very hard person to please. Legend had it that many proposal meetings had ended up with, figuratively speaking, the proposers’ blood on the floor. Dave wanted me to present the proposal too him.

At the appointed time of the meeting, I went to the board room. It was crowded – all three of my HR bosses were there (“Now you are going to learn a hard lesson,” my direct boss told me) along with about 20 other people. The crowd resembled those who would go the Rome coliseum to see the lions eat the gladiators. I presented the proposal, explaining the needs, the alternative delivery methods I had researched, my proposed plan, and its costs. At the end of the presentation, Dave said: “Great job! This afternoon, I’ll send you a list of people I want to be the first to get certified.”

C-level executives often have little idea of the learning needs of those lower in the organization. By doing your homework, assessing needs and developing cost-effective solutions to company challenges, you often can win over executives who didn’t recognize that those needs existed.

Getting the CEO Involved

At one company, I had put together a leadership development program for 36 mid-level managers. I was important to me and to the program’s participants that they see the CEO support and become involved in the program. Despite my requests and those of my boss, the senior VP of HR, the CEO said he was too busy to come to the first two sessions of the program. He finally agreed to come to the third session. I asked him to speak after dinner one evening, to spend 15 to 20 minutes talking about his own leadership journey and then to open the session to questions.

This session was held at Cambridge University in England. We had a great dinner in an historic dining room. The CEO got up after dinner (around 9:00 PM) and spent 20 minutes talking and then opened it up to questions. Shortly after 11:00 PM, the dining room manager came in to say that his staff needed to clean up the room and go home. The CEO asked if there was any other place we could meet. The dining room manager said they could open up the student pub next door (the university was on summer break), so we moved there. They tapped a keg of beer and the discussion continued to 1:00 AM, when the barkeeper said that he needed to close and go home. The CEO said he would take responsibility for locking the room and paid for the rest of the keg. The session went to 3:00 AM. The CEO said he got more from the session than he gave, and he never missed another session for the remainder of the program.

In many companies, large and small, where L&D directors have generally found resistance from C-level executives to participating in L&D programs, once a C-level executive has participated, they almost always want to come back for more.

When C-level executives spend time with program participants, they almost always feel that they get great value from the interaction. Most C-level executives have little contact with employees more than one or two levels below them on the organization chart, and they find that their interaction with these lower-level employees is especially valuable in connecting them to what is really happening in the organization.

I hope that these few examples from my own career can spark some ideas for you on how to better connect your L&D efforts to the executives in your organization.

For more ideas on how to tie your L&D initiatives directly to your company’s business goals, please see my book (On-Target Learning), available in paperback and as a Kindle e-book from Amazon.