It Takes Two: Staying in Step With Stakeholders to Deliver Meaningful Performance Improvement

two business partners high fiving hands across in conference room

By Alwyn Klein, senior director of learning operations at ADP. This article was originally published on July 7, 2022, by Chief Learning Officer.

When we think of dancing with a partner, we imagine that one dancer leads and the other follows. But what happens when each partner focuses too much on their own expertise and style? Without a little give and take, things could become unbalanced.

The same can be said for the dance we perform as learning and development (L&D) professionals when working alongside business stakeholders. Unless you become immersed in their routines and know the right time to take the lead, you'll quickly lose your step.

What's in a name?

The best dance performances are accomplished by partners who are accustomed to working together. They know each other's quirks, strengths and weaknesses just as well as they know their own. This is because these partners are inextricably engaged in the same routine. Applying this same dynamic to L&D's relationship with the business can help put the function in lockstep with business goals.

To start, nothing quite sets the stage for a performance than a title. L&D professionals are often referred to as performance consultants. After all, they are called upon to conduct an analysis and share guidance on improving the performance of employees. If part of that solution is learning, they collaborate with their teams to implement and measure the results. But perhaps a shift in perception can advance the value we provide.

The term "performance consultant" sets up an expectation for the relationship. The practitioner shows up, consults and then leaves. While this once seemed to reflect what internal practitioners do, I believe it no longer adequately encompasses the true nature of the business relationship expected from L&D.

Instead, L&D practitioners should represent themselves as performance partners. This is more than a new flashy stage name. Instead, it more accurately reflects the role we play when immersing ourselves in business stakeholders' worlds and designing and delivering impactful learning and performance solutions.

Go beyond the script

The underlying principles of performance consulting are well documented, the frameworks well tested and the rhetoric on its importance well-voiced. The question we still need to answer is: What is the difference between the textbook definition of performance consulting and actual performance consulting?

I believe the answer lies in recognizing that it truly does take two to tango. As much as stakeholders have expectations of us, we should also have expectations of them. In the L&D space, I often hear that neither feels like they get everything they want from the relationship. You can change this.

Dance a mile in their shoes

Recently, I had the opportunity to talk with two ADP executives about what performance or learning consulting meant to them. I wanted to hear, from their perspective, what would further enhance the credibility and value of the L&D organization as we design and implement performance solutions for their teams. Both were unequivocal in their message: Partner with me and my team.

Stakeholders do not want us to solve their team's performance gaps without walking onto the stage with them and working behind the scenes, too. Since they expect us to learn their business, it's critical for us to partner from the inside.

By immersing ourselves in the business, we can understand how it operates, how learning can bring value and the levers that drive its success. This is about more than audience and performance analysis. This is about becoming a part of the business to experience its challenges and successes just as employees experience them. This places us in the best position to help the business achieve its goals by using learning resources in the most valuable way possible.

We become more than simply experts in learning and performance. We also become knowledgeable in the businesses we support because we are their partners. In doing so, we can unequivocally show our value from a shared perspective.

The fact is, our partners will not always know the impact of our outputs on their goals until we share it in a message that resonates with them — in their language.

Sometimes, that means taking a risk with them. For example, if a business is focused on decreasing attrition, performance partners can align their efforts by finding where opportunities exist. While there exists the risk that you may not be able to make a sizable impact, as partners, their problems become yours to consider, too.

Not only will this help you respond strategically to business requests by knowing to ask the right questions to uncover performance barriers, but it allows you to anticipate business needs and be more proactive in your approach — another essential expectation of L&D teams.

There is no single star of the show

Just as you need to immerse yourself in the business and align with stakeholders, they must also allow you to take the lead when it is appropriate. Before this can happen, stakeholders must know how learning teams think about performance while simultaneously understanding their role in continually improving the performance of their teams.

L&D teams are best suited to conduct root-cause analyses to look for performance gaps and job-task analyses to identify needed skillsets. Leaders in the business are best equipped to recognize performance gaps early so they can call the experts right away. For that to happen consistently, you need to help business partners adopt a stronger performance mindset and think about performance in the same way we do.

Performance improvement — whether through learning solutions or otherwise — cannot simply be an order that is fulfilled by human resources, L&D or anyone else. Instead, think of it in terms of perpetually crowdsourcing performance improvement practices where stakeholders and learning teams are mutually accountable for improving employee performance. It's not something stakeholders can outsource. It's a partnership, where each party has a distinct role to play.

Moving in sync begins with taking the right steps

Step 1: Ensure stakeholders remain solution-neutral when thinking about performance gaps until you can pinpoint the issue.

Just like a doctor would not put a cast on an injured arm without first looking at an X-ray, you cannot offer performance solutions until you know exactly where the gap lies. Therefore, stakeholders must be steered from the immediate assumption that training, or anything else specific, is the solution.

Step 2: Everyone — business stakeholders, L&D and HR — needs to take a systemic approach to understanding employee performance.

All too often, practitioners overlook external factors and only focus on employees' knowledge, skills, or motivation to perform. Alternatively, thinking about the entire performance system ensures that you consider all possible internal and external impacts on employee performance, whether it's the tools they use, processes they follow or any other performance barriers.

I find that stakeholders respond well to the simplicity of the International Society for Performance Improvement model of a work-worker-workplace-world performance system. But the actual model you use is not as important as the principle: Employee performance exists within a system. Without this step, it's nearly impossible to design and implement integrated learning and performance solutions.

Step 3: Stakeholders must understand the importance of engaging L&D teams early.

By keeping their ears to the ground and scanning for the signs of employee performance gaps, stakeholders can bring performance partners in straightaway to investigate with root-cause analyses.

While this approach requires a continual evolution of the performance conversation, it creates the perfect performance response team that includes stakeholders scanning for performance gaps, L&D teams uncovering systemic causes and each working in harmony to remove barriers and insert learning. With such a team in place, you can effectively address issues that are solvable with learning, while also identifying issues that require other interventions without wasting resources on unnecessary training.

By moving through these steps quickly, stakeholders get the fast solutioning and quick action they want from L&D.

That's a wrap

Changing conversations results in less organizational confusion and more choreographed partnerships. But as with all partnerships, this requires a commitment from both parties. L&D teams must earn and insist upon a commitment to this partnership while continuing to evolve the conversation.

Cultivating a business relationship that everyone values is no small feat. Just as learning new dance moves involves rehearsal, repetition and a few stumbles, your journey to becoming true performance partners may be a long, winding road.

Once stakeholders recognize that generalized learning solutions are far less impactful than ones that fully analyze the whole performance system, then you can regularly speak to L&D's value in their language — helping your partnerships blossom, learners thrive and the business you support grow. Win-win-win!

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