The Chief Learning Officer Exchange (CLO Exchange), organized by the International Quality & Productivity Center (IPQC), is an invitation-only forum that brings CLOs and other heads of learning together for deep discussion and debate around the most pressing issues they face. One CLO Exchange member, KimLoan Tran, PhD, presented at a recent virtual event, and will be keynoting the CLO Exchange in-person event in Orlando, Florida on December 12 – 14, 2021.
Dr. Tran believes strong leadership has a significant impact on employee engagement, and engagement drives productivity, profitability, and retention. This core philosophy drives her approach to building a leadership curriculum from scratch at TIBCO, a global leader in enterprise data integration, management, and analytics. As Chief Learning Officer, Dr. Tran had the unique challenge of creating frameworks and programs to develop and upskill TIBCO leaders across the globe—a challenge she readily accepted after spending much of her career driving large-scale business transformation initiatives.
I recently caught up with Dr. Tran to hear how she did it and the lessons learned along the way.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Kevin Kruse: You had the challenge of growing the learning and development function at TIBCO. How did you go about building a sustainable learning culture?
Dr. KimLoan Tran: In my experience, I’ve found four key steps to be tried and true. I use these as best practices and anchors when working with organizations that are in the initial stages of building a learning culture.
Step One: First and foremost, develop a good understanding of the current state and what the business priorities and objectives are. This is going to require you to learn the language of the business. It's not about us coming in with a separate agenda and saying, “Hey, here's a menu of L&D services that we have for you—go ahead and pick what's going to work for you.” It's really going into those conversations, listening and saying, “Tell me what you care about and what resources will help you get there.”
The L&D team and I took three months to travel and interview leaders and employees. We wanted to understand what people cared about, their biggest business priorities, challenges, what kept them up at night, and their success metrics, to understand the gaps and where we could help. We also asked about critical skills leaders need to be successful, and if they had a wish list, how would leadership behave?
Step Two: Create a leadership competency model tailored to the organization’s needs. The L&D team met with leaders and collaborated with regional HR business partners (HRPBs) to understand the critical skills and behaviors our leaders needed to be successful. Those needs came down to the ability to give meaningful feedback, have uncomfortable yet critical conversations, lead with empathy and trust, and lead through change. This was particularly salient for our first-time manager population. From there, we developed a framework for new managers around these competencies in four pillars: leading self, leading others, leading results, and leading change.
Step Three: Align the program objectives with business strategy. A lot of times L&D programs get launched and they become a footnote or a nice-to-have resource. But when you connect objectives to the business strategy, typical excuses get stripped away because your program objectives focus on success and performance outcomes that are essential to what leaders are already measured on.
For example, TIBCO's business strategy is solving the world's most complex data challenges. And part of our strategic Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) is to build world-class operations. To do that, we needed to accelerate a culture of high performance and our L&D strategy was essential. We know from research that managers account for about 70% of the variance in employee engagement scores. That’s a huge number. The logical next step is to build relevant and consistent leadership capabilities across all regions and functions and provide our leaders with the same language, tools, and skills to tackle common challenges with their team members. The L&D team in partnership with HRBPs worked closely with our C-suite to define what success would look like. And we were very ambitious. By the end of the year, our target goal was to have 90% of our first-time managers go through the First-Time Manager Program. We made sure to track progress and make it highly visible. We surpassed it with 95% of people managers going through that program before the end of Q4 that same year.
Step Four: Apply change management tactics to drive adoption. When you don't yet have a culture of leadership development, the key to alignment and buy-in is involving your leaders and other key stakeholders in program development conversations so they have a voice. For our First-Time Manager Program, it was the managers of participants, the managers themselves, and HRBPs—each playing a critical role to support and ensure accountability and success. We started small with a pilot group of first-time managers and iterated based on everyone’s feedback to continuously improve the program before rolling it out globally.
Once you have learned how your stakeholders feel about the program, use that information to create compelling, cross-platform messaging that highlights success stories as well as addresses their concerns and allows them to ask questions and raise further concerns, and then respond quickly to address their issues so you can continue to improve. Lastly, is measurement. This means having a set of agreed-upon metrics for success, creating support inside and outside the classroom, and measuring behavior change over time. Leaders have to feel that they are equipped with the right training and tools to be successful and must understand the agreed-upon metrics to achieve those levels of success.
Kruse: What does the new manager program look like today?
Dr. Tran: The primary audiences are new managers transitioning from individual contributor roles for the first time, and also any high-potential individual contributors on the track to being promoted. It's a six-week program with three, 90-minute virtual sessions on leadership practices. Before every 90-minute workshop, we give participants 20 to 30 minutes of on-demand pre-work. That's where we really lay out the content—the frameworks, the assessments, the questions that they should be prepared to contribute to in the discussion. Week one is pre-work. Week two is the first session, which focuses on practices one and two. And then week three is pre-work for the next session, and so on and so forth. It gives people room to breathe and also to apply concepts. Each class adds another layer of knowledge and practice to your toolkit.
Kruse: Did everyone go through as one big group?
Dr. Tran: We created cohorts because as a first-time manager, you need support. I'm a huge proponent of social and peer-to-peer learning. And it's important to build and extend your network of folks who are going through the same learning journey. So we put people in cohorts of no more than 20, and we preserved those 90 minutes for practice time. It wasn't about us coming in and lecturing on a framework. It was for people to bring their real-life challenges to bear. We leverage Zoom breakout sessions and bring in live coaches to create a safe space for people to work through their real challenges and get feedback from peers and from the coaches as well. We also have live Slack cohort channels where folks can share their challenges and ideas. After the program, we keep the Slack channels open so that they can access their network of folks ongoing.
Kruse: How did you land on 20 people per cohort? Would you ever expand that number?
Dr. Tran: From my experience, when you want to create an engaging learning environment, I would say about 20 is best so people don't get lost in the shuffle. If we had 1,000 people virtually, there is no way that we would've gotten the same level of engagement and focus. Nobody would be on camera. People would be multitasking and it would be really hard to engage everyone. Keeping it small almost forces people to listen. And being 100% virtual, we always encourage people to be camera-ready, especially around our segment on giving feedback, because now managers are having to give feedback to their folks virtually. You can't read body language and non-verbals with your camera off.
Kruse: Any lessons learned or adjustments you've made to the program over time?
Dr. Tran: A huge lesson learned is making sure that you use smart change management practices. So even if the program is fantastic, if you don't gain that buy-in starting with the executives, it's not going to go anywhere. Adoption takes a lot of time and it needs champions and strong storytellers. Learning has to be supported, reinforced, and rewarded by the managers of the participants. Otherwise, they will not make time. We were able to quickly apply the lessons learned and subsequently launch another leadership program on the heels of the First-time Manager program called LEAD (Lead, Engage, Accelerate Development) that expands to all people managers enterprise-wide to focus on a leader’s role throughout the entire employee lifecycle.