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Niall Gavin


Learning and Accreditation Consultant

Read more from Niall Gavin

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Why you need to show up if you want to step up into an L&D leadership role

If you want to step up into a new role, you first need to show up in your current role.

Are you a trainer, learning designer, elearning author or equivalent 'front-line' learning practitioner?

You probably didn't set out to follow that particular career path. Maybe you were/are an expert in a specialist field, or you were/are in a related field, like human resources or organisational design, and you took on some 'training' responsibility because the opportunity presented itself and you were asked to take on such a role.

How's it working out for you? Happy in the role? Happy with the responsibility? Fulfilled professionally? Confident that you're making a difference?

Or are you starting to feel a bit trapped, stifled, ready for a new challenge? Do you want to carry on in L&D? Take on a more senior role with more responsibilities? Maybe manage an L&D team? 

Are you happy that you have the skills and abilities to take that kind of role on? If not, have you identified what areas you need to develop and how you can do that? Have you discussed it with any one like, say, your own line manager? If not, why not?

Do you care enough about the profession and its value proposition in relation to 'the business'? In other words, do you have what the CIPD calls a 'Passion for Learning'?

How have you ‘shown up’ during the pandemic?

Since March 2020, every business and organisation has had its feet held to the fire during the Covid-19 pandemic, by finally having to deal with the realities of some kind of unplanned, unstructured and hurried 'digital transformation'. 

Many will have only paid lip service to this over the years but have now been forced to engage with it due to circumstances outside of their control – staff having to work from home, social distancing, nobody commuting, the necessary cancellation of in-person, face-to-face training sessions or conferences.

The challenges have been enormous and the responses have been many and varied, not least in the people profession – and L&D in particular. Businesses that have traditionally relied on face-to-face training courses have had to rapidly re-engineer their learning offering for a geographically-spread, remote and sometimes not-so-tech-savvy internal and external audience.

In the rush to adapt, however, some opportunities may have been missed in terms of re-imagining training. There is much more to discuss and explore here, but for now, let's focus on you and how you, as an aspiring L&D leader have shown up during Covid-19? 

How have you demonstrated leadership, initiative, creative thinking and/or innovation in learning?

Because those are some of the essential skills that learning leaders need right now and will need to be able to demonstrate from now on.

Becoming a learning leader

Back in September 2019, I wrote an article for TrainingZone on management skills (which you might read if you're preparing yourself to take that next step in your L&D career). 

Therein, I discussed things like job knowledge, coaching/mentoring skills, communication, connecting, approachability, listening skills, empathy, kindness, courage, humility and accountability. 

As a front-line learning practitioner, you're probably already demonstrating some of those skills in your current role. But do you recognise them as demonstrating your leadership potential? 

Have you done some self-analysis and compared yourself against current and future skills thinking by professional bodies like the Learning & Performance Institute (LPI) and the CIPD

Both offer 'maps' of desired skills at different practitioner levels against which you can self-evaluate where you are now, and start planning your future trajectory. You could also investigate what toolkits and qualifications they offer to develop your learning and leadership skills.

Own your PDP! Make sure you've agreed and factored your leadership ambitions, targets and goals into it. 

1. Don't wait to be asked

What else could you do in your current role to improve your chances of career progression in L&D? I'd suggest you seek out the opportunities to stretch and demonstrate your capabilities. 

Covid-19 has required the profession to re-develop its online training design and delivery skills. (These are no longer optional, by the way; they are now essential additional skills in your toolkit). Consider volunteering to help re-imagine your department's or your stakeholders' learning collateral. 

2. Step up

When I was managing training teams, I gave everyone in the team individual responsibility for one, or several, programmes. I made each of them the 'lead' trainer, with the remit to ensure the learning content was relevant, up-to-date, peer-reviewed and properly socialised with the appropriate stakeholders, and that any other members of the team who needed to support that programme were 'trainer trained' by the lead trainer to facilitate it to the same standard. 

3. Lead peers

Talk to your manager. Too often we wait to be told what to do, have our direction set for us, and our development plans aimed at the short-to-medium needs of the business rather than our own longer-term career ambitions. So own your PDP! Make sure you've agreed and factored your leadership ambitions, targets and goals into it. 

If you were applying for a learning leader role now, how would you evidence your leadership development and capability and land that job?

4. Be ambitious

Do some research in the business or organisation in which you are currently working. Do you understand its vision, aims, objectives, purpose and structures? Do you know the managers of the different functions and their goals? Are you clear about how your role supports them? 

And when considering your next career move and interviewing for a learning leader role, think how important it will be to do the same research for the organisation you’re hoping to be hired by.

5. You're not alone

Finally, build your network. We are awash with social media, online publications such as, and expert practitioners who share freely online, have written extensively and speak at professional conferences. 

You no longer have the excuse of expense being a disincentive to participating in these kinds of events, as they are – for the moment – online and free. That model may change of course, but there's never been a better time to take advantage of these events and improve your networking skills. 

Follow interesting and challenging learning leaders in social media. Join in the conversations like the #LDinsight tweetchat every Friday morning on Twitter. Sign up to the Learning and Skills Group's weekly webinars. Ensure your LinkedIn profile is up to date.

And remember that these channels are a two-way street – engage in the conversations, ask questions, express your opinions. Write. Blog. Raise your voice and your profile to build long-term professional relationships. 

A personal story

25 years ago, after several years as an IT Trainer, I found myself suddenly out of work. I immediately contacted some people I had previously trained, at different organisations, to see if they were aware of any openings. 

Within a month, I was interviewing for my first Training Manager job. I was able to present the story of how, when working at the IT Training company I had just left, I had taken on the Lead Trainer role for a national retail store technology roll-out. I had briefed our IT guys, ensured our systems were properly configured and trained my peer trainer colleagues back at work to be able to run the extensive, multi-layered training programme for the retail client.

I demonstrated the effectiveness of the programme and I concluded my presentation with a visual aid – the framed Certificate of Excellence from the grateful client for my role in leading the best regional training group in their national roll-out.

I got the job.

So here’s my final question to you: If you were applying for a learning leader role now, how would you evidence your leadership development and capability and land that job?


Author Profile Picture
Niall Gavin

Learning and Accreditation Consultant

Read more from Niall Gavin

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