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Diary: Live and die by the board


diarySometime jester, sometime mentor, sometime threat. Nathaniel Wallace finds himself with a tricky juggling act as he tries to court the attention of the board.

If there is one lesson that has been sent down to me by the high priests and priestesses of learning and development, which I have sought to take heed of and live by, then it is that the success and livelihood of the training manager will depend on their access to the organisation’s directors/senior managers/overlords/benevolent dictators.

You live and die by your access to the top table.
This is court politics, alive and well. You need to know that you are never going to have your own place at the table, but that this doesn’t mean that you cannot exert some influence.

"Was I now the man who knew too much? Was I to be trusted with the insights into the top table that they had provided me with? Oh my god, what have I done?"
To begin with, you are going to have to play the part of the jester or the minstrel, every now and again, gaining an audience with the nobles and hoping that you can entertain them with your tales of blended learning programmes and online evaluation platforms. If they like what you’re doing, you can stick around and then it becomes vital to gain the ear of one or two of the key players. If you’re going to think of yourself as Michaelangelo, creating breathtaking learning patterns on the ceiling of the organisation’s Sistene Chapel, then you are going to need a patron or two on the senior management team, someone who will support your proposals and grant you more resources.

If you fail to gain influence, if you fail to play court politics, then the training function will quickly become a nice to do, and you shouldn’t feel surprised if it, and you, become expendable.

I’ve learnt this lesson the hard way. I was made redundant from my second role in L&D, as a training co-ordinator for a recruitment consultancy. My manager and the staff thought well of me, I did some nice stuff, I beavered away. But I had also failed to gain the attention of the directors.

They liked me well enough, great, but they didn’t know what impact my work was having, because I’d never shown them. When costs needed to be cut ahead of a takeover, my position was seen as being surplus and it was time for me to move on.

My conclusion was that I hadn’t yet developed the confidence to take the top team off the pedestal I had placed them on and be prepared to fight for their attention, so that they might understand what it was I did, what it was I wanted and how I helped the organisation.

I think I’ve learnt this lesson. I’ve certainly focused on my relationships with the senior team in my current role and made sure that I am in a position to exert some kind of influence.

Things have stepped up a gear recently. The chief executive wanted the senior team to go through a 360° feedback process. I found a supplier and made a case for the feedback sessions to be delivered by myself, which was accepted. So rather than bringing in an external coach or consultant, it was my good self who sat down with each of the six members of the senior management team and took them through their 20 page 360° feedback report, encouraging them to open up to me about their relationship with the chief executive, with each other and with themselves.

The sessions went well. Each of the directors felt the process had been useful and had gained some insight into the aspects of their performance that they might be pleased with and those that they might need to work on.

This, I thought, is exactly how it should be. Not only can I be a provider of an excellent learning function to their teams, I can now be their coach, their mentor, their trusted confidante, their right-hand training dude!

Caution and reason quickly returned to my mind, quelling the rampant ego. Let me think about those meetings again. Three of the directors had made exactly the same comment, something along the lines of: "Wow, doing these meetings must give you a lot of insight into the senior team, right?"

Was I now the man who knew too much? Was I to be trusted with the insights into the top table that they had provided me with? If not, then perhaps they might decide to keep me at a distance, to freeze me out and cast me into irrelevance? Oh my god, what have I done?

Court politics is an interesting game. Maybe I should be more careful about what I wish for?

Nathaniel Wallace is a pen name for a training manager working in the charity sector.

Read more of Nathaniel's columns:
Diary: A tough start to the year
And now for something a little bit different


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