Coaching the CEO to ask the right questions (Guest Commentary)

People development should be seen as investment aligned to business strategy
By Lynn Johnston
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 04/09/2012

In an age of recession and restraint, the pressure is on CEOs to be accountable for all aspects of their operations.

When it comes to people development, senior learning and development managers must be instrumental in guiding the allocation of scarce resources to the organization’s most pressing needs. An unsubstantiated budget allocation for learning — or no allocation at all — is no longer an option.

So what can HR professionals and corporate trainers do? First, guide the conversation to determine the problem. This may be the hardest part. Resources will be needed to support a new product launch, that’s clear.

Then, consideration must be given to the other pain points in the organization. Are there inefficiencies in certain areas that need to be addressed? Are there leaders of tomorrow ready to step into new roles as long-time employees head out the door? Is there a growth strategy that will require competent employees not currently available to the organization? Questions like this must be put on the table before any decisions are made.

Business units left to their own devices will always find ways to expend any budget allocations for people development, but those funds are often subject to cuts when times get tough because they are not part of the big picture strategy for the organization. Senior learning and development professionals need to turn this around — and asking the right questions is a good place to start.

Defining the problems and working through the appropriate solutions should never be done in isolation. The more you can involve a senior management team in this process, the more likely it is you will find the right solutions.

If this allocation of resources is done at the management level, you have buy-in and accountability, both strong success indicators. The CEO is significantly involved in the business strategy for the organization, so aligning the people development strategy will be very much in his interest.

You may never get consensus because of competing interests at the management table but the goal is to get a priority list of where resources should be spent. Now, people development can be seen as an investment for the organization — aligned to the business strategy — and the senior leaders, who have been part of the conversation and agreed to how these scarce resources will be spent.

There are many different models to determine which senior leaders actually sit at the table and make the final allocation of resources but, suffice it to say, successful models include leaders from the business units as well as shared services such as IT, HR and learning and development. This becomes the “learning governance” model and is an essential framework for making these key decisions.

Once the problem is defined and decisions are made around the allocation of resources, learning and development professionals can get on with figuring out what the people development programs should look like. It’s an appropriate time to consider who to target for training and what technologies to use to fill the need.

It’s tempting to answer these questions early in the cycle. Getting the sequence right can make a significant difference in the success or failure of the people development strategy. There is too much at stake not to get it right.

Lynn Johnston is the Toronto-based president of the Canadian Society for Training & Development. She can be reached at, (416) 367-5900 ext. 26 or visit for more information.

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