GOLDEN EGGRecent results from our 10th Annual Learning Excellence and Innovation Benchmark Study (10th Annual study) show that expert companies that use a consistent performance consulting methodology enjoy more leadership support for organizational learning than those that do not. In CorpU’s research brief, CorpU 10th Annual Research-Performance Consulting Building Relationships, we explore the data behind this statement and pose a possible reason – performance consulting provides a structured way to ensure the right people are being asked the right questions regularly, thus increasing leaders’ support and alignment of learning with the business. However, it doesn’t answer the question of which comes first – the use of performance consulting practices to engage leaders in a conversation, thus increasing alignment, or a strong foundation of alignment with and support from senior leaders that already exists, thus enabling the use of performance consulting practices?

This question follows the pattern of one of the oldest questions in history, “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” You could argue that either is the case. The same kind of argument applies here. One could say that performance consulting, especially the increased communication that occurs through its use, definitively increases leader support. However, it can also be argued that performance consulting will not be accepted as a methodology, and neither will non-training solutions, without an already well-laid foundation of trust.

But is the question really a chicken and egg debate, or is there a case to be made for one answer over the other? In my experience, without some existing level of support and trust from senior leaders, the use of a performance consulting methodology will be difficult to implement or use. Why? The reasons have to do with the nature of the relationship between learning and corporate leaders and the need for honest, open communication:

First and foremost is acceptance of the recommended solutions. Without strong relationships with leaders and a history of success, a learning organization will have a tough time selling new, non-training approaches to resolving performance problems – one of the essential elements of a performance consulting approach. In fact, in one learning organization we’ve studied, senior leaders were convinced that training was the answer – the only answer. When the learning organization wanted to explore other potential causes and solutions to the problem that prompted the training request, leaders took matters into their own hands and designed a training program without them.

Second is the investment in learning professionals’ development. Performance consulting requires a different set of knowledge, skills, and attitudes (KSAs) than does traditional instructional design. Active listening, challenging the status quo, and influencing are all key skills needed to successfully “consult” with business leaders. While many traditional trainers have the ability to develop these, the KSAs are not an automatic. Therefore, learning organizations that use performance consulting will need senior leader buy-in to support the investment in the training necessary to develop learning professionals.

Third, not all companies are ready to support a performance consulting culture. Performance consulting practices require a systemic and systematic look at a performance problem, including identifying root causes using hard data and facts and asking the right questions to get a 360 degree view of the problem. This type of diagnosis and analysis requires a company and its leaders to be willing to take a hard and honest look at current practices – warts and all. Not all companies or leaders are willing to do this or are ready to. Leaders in those companies may actually throw up roadblocks to the process, thus hindering accurate diagnosis and affecting the results. In one fast-growing insurance company, seasoned business leaders actually used peer pressure to try and dissuade a newly hired leader from implementing recommended solutions from the learning organization, despite success with a previous performance problem. The tension created by this scenario made it extremely difficult for the learning organization to suggest any type of solution to performance problems other than the tried and true face-to-face classroom sessions company leaders were used to and expected.

Companies that successfully roll out a performance consulting methodology do so with the support of leaders. In one pharmaceutical company, the learning and development team sees performance consulting as a natural evolution to already existing relationships and not a “new” approach to understanding performance and training needs. In their experience, leaders were hungry for the types of conversations that the learning organization proposed.

The bottom-line? Senior leader support comes first. Learning organizations with strong relationships with leaders can continue to build on those relationships using a performance consulting approach, but, without that support at the beginning, will ultimately struggle with changing their practices from being an order taker producing courseware to being a performance improvement consultant with the freedom to suggest other interventions.

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