Big, Hairy, Audacious, Goals (BHAGs) are not new territory for startups and tech companies in and around Silicon Valley. The idea has been around for decades. Conceptualized by James Collins and Jerry Porras in the book, Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, BHAGs, when committed to by an organization, can change the very nature of a business’ existence. They push us to operate outside of our comfort zones and serve as guides for the entire organization. They are bolder and more powerful than regular goals as they typically are 10, 20, 30-year commitments that are also energizing and tangible.
One of the biggest, most challenging goals all L&D and People leaders have to face is how to build a culture of learning. I first came across this topic when I first dove into the world of L&D in early 2016. And it’s a topic that proves to be popular at all L&D and HR conferences around the world. Yet, it’s elusive. Many companies haven’t achieved it yet. Why?
Because it’s a BHAG. It involves behavior change, going against the grain and changing preconceived notions and norms, and all of these things when you add them together take a very long time to realize. Additionally, not one L&D person can accomplish this goal alone. To build a culture of learning, it takes the collective effort of every employee at your organization, and every L&D and People leader across all companies, over many years. We’re all in this together.
Last week, we hosted a People Innovators Panel in San Francisco to discuss The L&D BHAG: Building a Culture of Learning. As with many of our events, we were able to bring together people to discuss an important topic, featuring L&D and People leaders from Slack, Gainsight, Malwarebytes, +Acumen, and Raise the Bar Consulting. Our panelists offered great words of advice and concrete examples of ways they are approaching this L&D BHAG. Here are just some of the evening’s highlights.

Culture is created one employee and one team at a time

First, what is a learning culture? You have to define and know how you’re defining culture. “Workplace culture is the accumulation of all the actions your employees do every day. Culture is constantly being created and changed one employee, one group, and one team at a time,” says Aaron Levy, CEO and Founder of Raise the Bar Consulting.
If L&D is going to impact workplace culture, companies must define their values, ensure employees fully understand the values, and then teach them to act on the values to bring them to life.
While it’s easy to list out a set of nice-sounding company values, it’s a lot harder to get your culture to embody them on a daily basis. How do you make sure your values aren’t just a list on your wall or website? One way is through onboarding. Hire people that fit your cultural values and then encourage them to champion these values. For example, if you want to create a learning culture, look for candidates that value continuous learning. Create onboarding programs that teach your values, so new hires are initiated into your culture immediately and can embody the values from day one.

It’s OK to fail, it’s all about learning

Learning from mistakes and failing forward is a key value many organizations use to nurture their employees and create an open and transparent culture. In addition, embracing failure and giving and receiving feedback are an important part of the learning process and an essential building block of a learning culture. However, often times people see feedback as something negative and something that is only associated with a formal performance review.
“People see feedback as performance, but it’s actually about learning. One way we build in feedback and transparency in our workplace is by organizing ‘Open 360s’ where entire teams give and receive live feedback as a group,” explains Jo-Ann Tan, Creator and Director, +Acumen. Live feedback sessions like the ones used at +Acumen create a supportive learning environment and ensure feedback and learning happen all the time, not just during annual performance reviews.
Transparency is another way to create a workplace that is open to feedback and new ideas, which is a key factor in building a culture of learning. At Slack, they use their own social tool to create transparency in the workplace.
“We set a high bar for vulnerability and candor by posting all the survey feedback from our workshops on our Slack channel—both what people liked and didn’t like. We publicly acknowledge all the feedback and then adapt our programs based on it—so people see the L&D team modeling how to receive and learn from feedback,” shares Ariel Hunsberger, Head of L&D at Slack.
At Slack, they also reward people for displaying vulnerabilities, sharing, and calling out suggestions. They celebrate the wins and the failures—and most importantly, what people learned in those experiences.

Be in sync with department managers and make learning part of company policy

Before you do anything, embed yourself in the teams you’re trying to help and meet with managers weekly to really understand their problems. Align yourself with them so their wins are your wins.
At Malwarebytes, the L&D team leveraged change management tactics when introducing new learning programs and tools.
“Before rolling out Udemy for Business, I spent a good 6 months meeting with managers. Besides asking what problems they wanted to solve, I also tried to gauge whether they were for or against learning, so I knew where they stood,” says Brent Boeckman, Global L&D Manager, Malwarebytes.
The Malwarebytes L&D team does regular quarterly reviews with managers to monitor and reset objectives. In order to integrate learning in their culture, Malwarebytes also set a new company policy that every individual had to have one personal development goal. They worked with company executives to set aside 20 hours per quarter for each employee to reach their goal through learning.

Understand your employees’ desire to learn

Finally, as you work towards the BHAG of building a culture of learning, remember people learn better when they have a choice and can actively participate in the learning process. Keep a grassroots approach to learning and listen to your employees as you design your L&D programs. What are the reasons they want to learn in the first place?
“You need to address employee motivations to learn. Referencing Udemy’s research, there are 4 drivers of employee motivation—learning to grow, learning to catch up, learning for external change, and always learning. Tying your L&D programs to employee motivations can make a huge difference in engaging them,” offers Yael Altschuler Malek, Global Director of L&D at Gainsight.
Understanding the desire to learn is an important part of building a culture of learning. Let employees have a say in what their learning experience looks like and empower them to take ownership and choose their own learning path.

A big thank you to our wonderful panelists and to our engaging audience. To hear more great insights from the evening, watch the full panel recording here.

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