"A mini-survey conducted by the Corporate Leadership Council indicates that 38% of HR professionals believe that the deepest cuts from HR budgets will be made in Learning and Development." Jones

We are entering interesting times for learning professionals. Facing a difficult downturn brings a sense of impending doom, but also some surprising twists. A mini-survey conducted by the Corporate Leadership Council indicates that 38% of HR professionals believe that the deepest cuts from HR budgets will be made in Learning and Development. In the past, those budgets were cut with an indiscriminate edge. During this downturn, it seems that there is an intention to preserve leadership and high potential programmes. This is a realisation that by not using the often used blunt edge, business can maintain its competitive edge through the crisis.

However, cuts are still cuts and in a budget vacuum, alternative methods need to be sought. Amey has been on a journey over the last two years to take hold of the self-directed learning agenda for its HiPo population. In doing this, we have discovered the success (and financial savings) in creating self-directed learners. Our drive towards viewing formalised learning interventions as a choice of last resort has been very liberating. Self-directed learning is not new and Amey has avoided the worst problems created by the approach by resisting the urge to cut people loose with the message, “go forth and learn”, instead taking more time to support people’s induction into this style of learning..

Amey’s HiPos are part of its Talent Tracker programme: a self-nomination programme that allows people from all levels of the organisation to put themselves forward to be considered as talent. The key message for all employees is: “can you be more” – ‘If you feel that you have something else to offer the company, let us know, so that we can try to support you in getting there.’ This approach has transformed the way Amey identifies talent, but also leaves pools of people who need to be developed. After searching for the right approach and finding it difficult to service this need we realised that the balance of responsibility was still on the side of the company and not the individual.

The first step in our journey was to clearly establish the end game – where were we trying to get to and what did people need to do to get there. Fast Trackers within the programme need to have obtained a promotional role within two years; raising the question: in order to get promoted, what are the key ingredients? What is it that successful people do in order to gain career advancement? Working with the findings of the extensive research conducted by the consultancy, Talent and Potential, into successful careers, some of the key strands came into focus.

The next step – standing in front of a group of twenty keen, newly-identified Fast Track Amey staff in November 2007 was to bring them on board with this approach. Having just given them the heart-felt praise for their success in one hand, the other hand itched to balance out the story. We outlined the plan to them and explained that they would receive a number of programmes, beginning with Talent and Potential’s Drive Your Career, that help them to do exactly that. I positioned myself as being a career facilitator who would be supportive and responsive to their needs as they identified them through this process.

The Learning Forum

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A self-motivated group, they realised that not having to wait for someone else to own and develop their careers was a liberating experience. It put the control back within their hands and began to give them the tools to make the best of that control. Sarah, a Fast Track on the programme, in her late twenties, felt that the group responded well to this message and the challenge that it brought. This was even more the case when Sarah was promoted during her time on the programme into a more senior position. She said, “the programme is very effective, you have the flexibility to shape your career path with the expert support of the talent team behind you.”

Core elements of the fast track development programme remain. Phase one is an introduction to self-directed career development with phase two being an exercise in removing career roadblocks. Career roadblocks are defined as capability issues that will be the reasons potential future managers may be likely to give you for not promoting you into a position. By way of example, these might include a lack of commercial knowledge, financial acumen or the ability to influence. Phase three, a year into the programme, is a review of progress made at a series of career surgeries. During the career surgeries, an individual, together with a career expert is able to begin to diagnose issues, examine how far they have travelled on their journey and what else could be done to ensure that success is either created, or built upon.

It is the work alongside the programme that makes the real difference.; in terms of interventions, HiPos are likely to be given an intervention to go and find a successful director to interview, to speak with someone who has the type of job that they want, to undertake their own career path analysis or to be measuring the hard results of what they are doing to build their credibility.

Embracing self-directed methodology has led to reduced stress levels for the learning professionals and a greater sense of ownership and responsibility for the HiPos. It is a culture shift and as such, is still a work in progress but by trusting people to think their development through for themselves makes them grow considerably faster and more innovatively.