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Sarah Ratcliff

Sarah Ratcliff Solutions

Learning Specialist

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Sharpening L&D’s communication skills to help gain influence among the C-suite


There are many learning and development professionals who feel that they are not heard. Why does nobody understand what you are trying to do? It’s a great question and one we must ask ourselves if we are in this role. If we continually feel frustrated by this then it’s time to change our behaviour and seek to understand why other departments or the C-suite are not listening to us.

To take L&D’s first step towards being heard, we should seek to understand the goal of the business.

Let’s first look at what we are trying to do: give people skills, develop confidence, help people to do their jobs better, achieve compliance and everything else in between. Before setting out our learning and development goals to help us accomplish the above, we should be asking ourselves ‘what is the organisation trying to achieve’? Is their scope bigger than ours? The answer is likely to be that it is. People are part of the organisation and help drive the business toward its overall goal. But what is that goal?

To take L&D’s first step towards being heard, we should seek to understand the goal of the business.

Think like a salesperson

The first thing a salesperson does is build a relationship. We all know about stakeholder engagement, but let us consider whether we take the time to build a relationship with those who can influence others and make the big decisions?

A salesperson will take time to understand the individual they are trying to influence. They will build rapport, ask great questions and find some common ground upon which to talk about.  

But how do we in L&D do that? The C-Suite is so unreachable except in those awful presentations and big meetings.

A good starting point is to imagine you are just trying to get to know a person, not specifically the CEO. What would you say to them if they were just your average person? I expect you would just ask normal, simple questions.  

How important is asking the right questions?

It seems simple! It can be, but it needs to be part of your plan. Ask questions which give you information about the person. What common interests can you chat about? Not only will this help you build a relationship, it will also give you a great foundation for the bigger questions you will then go on to ask.

Your goal here is to find out what the organisation wants to achieve overall and how they intend to do that. With this information you can match your L&D strategy to that of what they are trying to do. This will help put the needs of the business at the heart of your L&D work, which will in turn raise your profile among the senior executives.

Reflect on who your real stakeholders are. Who can influence or block learning initiatives and who are your cheerleaders who see your value?

The words you use can make a big difference

You will help senior leaders see the big picture of your work by using their words, their language and the answers that they gave you to create a foundation for what L&D is contributing to. You will create a bridge between what learning and development is creating and the overall goal of the business.

Just like a salesperson, you are helping to make the link between people development and business needs that are  crucial to the success of the organisational strategy. At this point, learning and development becomes critical and will have its voice and opinion heard. 

Create an action plan to get to the core of the problem

Reflect on who your real stakeholders are. Who can influence or block learning initiatives and who are your cheerleaders who see your value? Take some time, and use stakeholder mapping tools to better understand who you need to spend more time with.  

Seek out ways to ‘get to know’ stakeholders who can influence. Take your opportunity where you can. At the start of a zoom before others join the meeting a simple ‘how are you finding home working?’, can open a conversation which leads to relationship building. Grab every opportunity to do this! 

Use questioning techniques to really understand what the organisation is trying to achieve. If you don’t understand, ask more questions. By taking time to really understand, you are more likely to get the solution right and everyone will thank you for that. 

Ensure that the learning strategy contributes to the goals of the organisation and be ready to speak about it readily.

Speak to the business in their language, use the words they use. For example, if they say they want  to increase sales, show evidence of how your learning initiatives would do this clearly and simply. You don’t need to get into the detail of how you will do that. That’s your thing, not theirs.

Keep it going

Keep talking to nurture these important relationships. They can make or break what you are out to achieve. Understanding the whole organisation’s goals will ensure that as a team you will all work together. It’s the first step to learning and development becoming a critical cog in a wheel that must keep turning. 

Interested in this topic? Read Charles Jennings' article 'Three L&D actions for developing business impact in 2021'.

Author Profile Picture
Sarah Ratcliff

Learning Specialist

Read more from Sarah Ratcliff

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