At the tender age of 21, I started one of the best jobs of my career as project resource manager at a general contracting and construction management firm in New York City. I worked closely with the cofounders across all the moving parts of the business, and it gave me the foundation to thrive as an entrepreneur. It wasn’t just the access that made it special though: This was the job I stayed at the longest in my career because it’s where I felt the most cared for and seen.
From communal dinners and my own key to the office to work on side projects, to giving me an advance to secure my first apartment and gifting me a MacBook when I resigned, Cathy and Sherrill—my then-bosses who referred to me as their partner—invested in my learning and development (L&D) beyond my role at the company. They nurtured my wholeness, and it only made me love and take pride in my job more. They embodied a critical business fundamental that many companies and leaders miss—not only can the L&D function be a vehicle for personal and professional development, but also peak organizational performance.
Most recently, I tested this theory through a year-long stint as the creative researcher-in-residence at WeTransfer. Working alongside the Employee Experience and Learning and Development teams, I helped chart a path toward the ambitious goal of revamping the function into an in-house, full-service agency dedicated to empowering people and teams to play, learn, grow, and thrive in (and outside of) the flow of work. Think strategic consulting, experiences and expeditions, curated and original content, training, and coaching, facilitated connections and partnerships, and community—all under one incredibly durable roof.
While the effort is ongoing, here are my biggest insights for rethinking learning and development so that both companies and the brilliant people making them run can realize their full potential.
Understand the three interconnected pillars
Most commonly, we speak about the ways that learning and development can impact an individual, but the magic really happens when we invest in these three pillars:
- Individual learning and development where people are equipped with the skills, support, and resources to become who they are while creating work they love.
- Communal learning and development where a culture of cross-team knowledge sharing, experimentation, play, and collaboration is nurtured.
- Organizational learning and development where a company takes an honest look at its bright spots, blind spots, and growth edges and then applies those reflections and learnings to transform itself for the better.
Commit to ongoing internal creative and cultural research
You can’t care for your people if you don’t know what they care about. Research is the best way to get to the heart of this. Knowing how daunting and repetitive surveys can be, I wanted to take a more dialogical approach during my residency. Through cross-team community forums, ethnographic shadowing, and one-on-one conversations, we were able to investigate what L&D meant to people working across teams and how and where they needed support.
These conversations helped cultivate deeper trust while gleaning more concrete qualitative and quantitative insights for our agency endeavor. We got an inside look at some of the biggest hurdles people and teams were up against as well as how they were finding creative ways to maintain connectedness while working remotely, establish systems for goal setting, and prioritize reflection as a motivator for growth. There’s so much nuance that was made visible through the intimacy of real-time communication that open and close-ended survey questions can’t quite capture.
Within your own company, imagine how setting up a process for ongoing research could reveal opportunities for knowledge sharing and problem-solving.
Build L&D into your OKRs or KPIs
When you’re meeting annually, quarterly, or whatever the frequency might be to set OKRs or KPIs, consider these questions:
- How does each person on the team need to contribute in order for us to reach our goals?
- Is each person on the team empowered and equipped with what they need to make that contribution?
- What does our team (individually or collectively) need to learn, grow, or develop in order to reach our goals?
The answers to these questions can be turned into a bespoke learning and development plan for each team that helps them more effectively assess and measure performance and progress and tangibly connects L&D to these outcomes.
Make room for everyone to participate
Like diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), learning and development is not a one-person or one-team job. It takes collaboration and consistency to build and sustain a culture that both enables and celebrates actualization.
Our big picture vision for this at WeTransfer was to build a team of learning business partners (LBPs) who would act as consultants for the agency. Recruited internally, these partners would be representatives from each team across the business who understand the nuances and inner workings of their team’s day-to-day. They would act as a liaison between their team and L&D to articulate needs, identify developmental opportunities, and help facilitate the execution of their team’s plan. Think: Project manager meets ambassador meets creative strategist.
Given all that the Great Resignation continues to reveal about the needs of humans across the world of work, it’s time we embrace learning and development as a catalyst for shaping more expansive and equitable work futures. Where will you start?
Holley M. Kholi-Murchison is an artist and cultural geographer exploring work as a pathway to communal actualization. They recently completed a yearlong creative research residency at WeTransfer.