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Chris Pirie

Learning Futures Group

Founder and CEO

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Purpose: the genuine game-changer for learning and development?

Ex-CLO Chris Pirie shares how L&D must evolve to align with the new focus on purpose.

When I last wrote for Training Zone, it was all about how L&D’s keyword for the next decade had to be ‘human.’ I’m now going to change that, as I think the better word might be ‘purpose’.

Shortly after writing that piece, I co-hosted a fascinating podcast series with my favourite HR trendwatchers, the fantastic women over at RedThread Research. On it, we asked ourselves the question, ‘Is Purpose Working?’... and I think we may have some answers of direct usefulness to the world of learning and development.

A redefined purpose for corporations

The background to all this stems from a significant move made by a major employer organisation in the US, the Business Roundtable, towards the end of 2019. It fundamentally redefined what a modern capitalist organisation should be all about, stating that a corporation should work for the benefit of all stakeholders, from customers to employees, and from suppliers to communities and shareholders.

That was ground-breaking in America, as ever since 1997 the group has said that all a company should try and do is make money for that last group – the shareholders. But suddenly, over 180 CEOs of huge brands were saying that, while making money remains important, doing things like delivering value to customers, investing in employees, dealing fairly and ethically with suppliers, and supporting the communities in which organisations work are just as important.

This was interpreted in business as meaning that leaders need to think about the entire ecosystem and about how to provide value up and down the chain. In other words, having purpose. But what does that mean in practice?

We explored this question and learned two big things: one, L&D should be playing a critical role in the move to being purpose aligned as an organisation. And, secondly, the role of L&D and what L&D does will likely completely change. 

Below, I outline 10 ways in which L&D must evolve to be purpose driven.

1. What got us here won't get us there

That's a quote from the title of a book by executive leadership coach and author Marshall Goldsmith. Its significance for L&D: what was useful for L&D historically is not going to get us where we need to go in a new world where organisations are getting more self-aware about their specific purpose and mission.

2. L&D must participate in, and can even lead, the purpose journey

On ‘Is Purpose Working?’ we conducted a range of fascinating interviews, one of which was with an L&D leader from S&P Global called Rachel Fichter.

Her organisation was one of the signatories to the Business Roundtable statement, and even though already a somewhat purpose-driven organisation, S&P’s been very intentional about its journey to being a much more explicitly purpose-driven organisation, and the implications that has for all aspects of their business. Rachel, who was formerly the Chief Learning Officer, is playing a big role in coordinating and leading this very deliberate, thoughtful effort towards becoming purpose-driven.

If you put a more human lens on things, then perhaps the most powerful thing we can do is [...] get people used to and comfortable in situations that are ambiguous.

3. We must operate with authenticity and humanity as core principles 

Celia Berenguer, Chief Learning Officer at European-headquartered Life Sciences giant Sanofi, recently told us a great story. When launching her spanking-brand-new Corporate University her natural instinct was to be super meticulous and polished about everything… but that aspiration had to go out the window when they had to launch it in the pandemic!

What she learned out of all this, she stated, was although the work she and her team did wasn't as polished as she would've liked, it was very, very authentic. Consequently, it turned out to be much more representative of the journey that the larger company was on, and so was both super-valuable and very human.

4. Embrace ambiguity (and help others to do that as well)

In the history of training and learning development, ambiguity has been the enemy, because we've always taught process and procedure and we've always striven for clarity: that’s what you do if you're a technical writer, that's what you do if you're a trainer. But if you put a more human lens on things, then perhaps the most powerful thing we can do is the opposite of that, and get people used to and comfortable in situations that are ambiguous.

We learned all about this from the head of IDEO University, the very impressive Suzanne Gibbs Howard, who talked about purpose as being a really useful agent for change – which they formally/specifically teach at IDEO University, as well as how to design that kind of change.

5. Teach human skills to leaders

In our profession, we need to start focusing on helping people be more effective leaders – which we do by being more effective humans.

This lesson comes from a conversation with purpose thinker and writer Aaron Hurst, who talks about a shift from a world where we consider people as resources – witness the phrase ‘human resources’ – to a much more purpose (and human!) oriented one.

The key point here is that Aaron says we shouldn’t teach these human skills in the same way we teach technical skills. And that’s another thing we have to unlearn in L&D – we know how to teach people how to program, or how to operate a piece of machinery or how to run a particular business process, but the techniques that we use to teach people how to be better collaborators or more empathetic leaders have to be completely different. That's new, and incredibly important and exciting work we must do.

6. Use rituals and symbols in the work that you do

This piece of advice comes from our debates with the teams at medical equipment leader Medtronic and from well-known health and beauty product leader Johnson and Johnson. A lot of L&D teams run the corporate or sales meetings but are almost universally accountable for onboarding people into organisations, which are really powerful moments in time that can be tied back to organisational purpose and values.

Whether you like it or not, you're already involved in this, but the question is, have you reflected on what you're doing with these very powerful assets you're in charge of?

This notion that purpose is only the business of leaders, and that leaders are solely responsible for the culture of an organisation is losing steam.

7. Help employees find their own sense of purpose, and understand how that might fit at the team level or whole organisation level

This was a call to action we heard from several different people – including Aaron Hurst and leadership strategist and purpose thinker Dan Pontefract. But the message was most powerfully communicated by Ernst and Young, which has an amazing programme that specifically helps people find their own personal purpose and tie it to the organisational purpose where possible. That's a really important role for L&D to play if it wants to.

8. Everyone can help in the journey to purpose

This notion that purpose is only the business of leaders, and that leaders are solely responsible for the culture of an organisation is losing steam. Again, we learned this from S&P on the podcast, but also from my own experience at Microsoft.

Everybody in the organisation can be a leader, and everyone in the organisation can impact the culture. Programmes like peer-to-peer coaching and initiatives that harness the power of community are so powerful here, and, again, L&D needs to be front and centre of these activities.

9. Leave knowledge to others

The responsibility for the primary old business of L&D – training in skills and processes – is increasingly being given back to the functional groups in the organisation (maybe peer-to-peer coaching is an example of that?). One extreme example was from S&P, which doesn’t even have a chief learning officer anymore, but has broken it down into three constituent parts, culture, leadership and employee engagement.

As a result, all the technical and business-specific training now gets done at the work group level, through a community-based approach. That's quite an interesting idea and shows how we could (and should) rethink the entire role of L&D – leaving more knowledge transfer bits to others, and instead focusing on these much higher order matters like culture, engagement and leadership, and being the primary ‘owner’ of all things purpose.

Do your homework on purpose, think about how it's shaping the future of both the business you work for and L&D itself.

10. Progressive L&D teams operating across the whole ecosystem

The kind of purpose-driven organisations the Business Roundtable envisages create value for the supply chain, their partners and their customers. Intriguingly we're seeing the same in the most progressive L&D teams, where they are starting to open up training to their partners, for example, or using training as an engagement tool for customers and prospects.

From our series of conversations, this was very much what Ernst and Young is doing, where its famous purpose workshops originally designed to help employees find purpose are being opened to selected customers. We were told this is both really enhancing the programme by having broader engagement, but also helping the company by opening new, deep channels of conversion and connection with clients.

Find and own YOUR purpose

Summing up, I always ask all our podcast guests a question: Why do you do the work you do? The answers are as diverse as these experts and leaders themselves, but one thing that consistently strikes me is that people who are change agents and thought leaders often operate from a very clear sense of personal purpose. 

They often articulate very clearly how their work is related to that, and they're also very clear on how their work relates to the purpose of their organisation. I think this is the perfect takeaway for L&D professionals; you've always had purpose, you're a purpose-driven person or you wouldn't be in the role you're in now.

So do your homework on purpose, think about how it's shaping the future of both the business you work for and L&D itself… and get ready for the amazing new world that is opening up for you and everyone around you, if you let it.

I’d like to finish by pointing out that L&D is specifically called out in the Business Roundtable manifesto – that “investing in our employees” starts with compensating them fairly, but also includes supporting them through training and education that help develop new skills for a rapidly changing world.

That’s a call to arms that certainly works for me. And I hope it does for you, too.

Suggested reading on purpose:

Interested in this topic? Listen to Chris Pirie's podcast discussions exploring the issues identified here, including purpose and what it means for L&D.

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