All Articles Leadership ATD 2019: How talent development can measure without losing sight of the business

ATD 2019: How talent development can measure without losing sight of the business

Talent leaders, regardless of industry, share common goals in building up their organizations in step with business goals.

7 min read



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Hotels. Cable and telecommunications. A master limited partnership specializing in oil and natural gas. Biopharmaceuticals. There’s usually not much overlap among those four fields, and even less to talk about for many executives.

But at a Sunday morning session of ATD 2019 in Washington, D.C., talent leaders from Choice Hotels, Comcast, Plains All American and Gilead Sciences found common ground in how they develop workforces, make the case for their business importance and — most importantly — measure their efforts to maximize the value of talent development.

One sense I got from all four speakers is that, regardless of your organization’s size or industry, there are three constants:

  1. Talent and learning leaders need to get in alignment with what the business needs and is thinking. The keys are to find the right business partners at the highest level and to ask questions that lead to business-oriented efforts –where everyone is aiming at the same outcome.

  2. Investment is needed to scale, but even the smallest learning and talent teams can improve their organization’s measurement in concrete ways.

  3. Measurement in talent development is a journey with distinct stages.

Helping the business measure what it needs

Suzanne Frawley has been at Plains All American for less than a year as director, talent management, but she’s already made strides in getting to know her colleagues and aligning everyone’s efforts on business goals and outcomes.

She started by meeting with business leaders across the organization to leanr what they needed or wanted — and whether they’d be willing to be accountable for outcomes. Frawley has used those interactions to determine “what are the key behaviors that are moving the lever?” and adjusting programs and offerings to ensure Plains keeps talent as well as finds it.

Frawley’s question about moving the lever is simple enough, but answering it involves a lot of work. The hard work was a point emphasized by Timothy Tobin, vice president of franchisee onboarding and learning at Choice Hotels International (and an author who’s written for SmartBrief).

Tobin discussed how Choice Hotels asked whether its in-house program Choice University was making a difference. Simple question, yet it opened up many ways to discuss data points, what “difference” meant, and so forth. Finding the answer probably took 18 months, Tobin said.

“Learning is a vehicle to help individual and organizational performance. By asking that simple question of ‘Does Choice U make a difference,’ it’s, are we helping people do their jobs better? Are we helping them stay in their jobs longer? Are we helping hotel performance?” Tobin said.

In the end, Choice Hotels was able to validate the efforts behind Choice University, but Tobin said there are also many stories about how these sort of talent-led exercises uncovered things that aren’t working.

Questions like “What does the business need?” don’t always reveal the obvious answers, either for the business or for the talent team. One story was shared by Gilead Sciences’ Brian Miller, who is vice president, talent, development & inclusion, about an early experience at Gilead.

After a program, the most important information delivered to the executive team and board wasn’t about data or statistics. It was about quotes and stories from the people who went through the program.

“Measure what the company values, and let’s not be overly pristine about it,” he said.

Small teams and large teams

Frawley noted how Plains All American had designed and introduced a six-month onboarding program for first-time managers. That sounds like a big endeavor, but she was able to produce it with a small team.

She, and Tobin talked about how focus is critical — small teams can do good work, but they have to hone in on what they want to measure and what they want to produce.

“I do believe it takes investment if you’re going to impact at scale,” Miller said.

Regardless of L&D size, though, what’s important is psychological safety for your team and going one step at a time, said Comcast Chief Talent Development Officer Martha Soehren. She talked about her team’s “impact stories” — an important concept at Comcast — and how she starts with a template, advancing to webinar sessions where these impact stories are presented, questioned and discussed.

“Think of that not as putting them on the spot but as teaching moments for them and the other 100 to 300 people from the team who join the call. The more safe that we make that environment to build and practice and tell their story, and then carry it to the business … the easier it’s going to be to build that capability that we all want, right?” Soehren said.

The talent development journey

The first question asked of the panel was about the idea of the talent journey. Soehren answered first.

Soehren’s been in her role for 15 years, and over that time Comcast went from having no real ability to measure learning and development to being able to successfully measure at “a 7.5 out of 10.” The organization has gone on a journey, and so does her staff. “I’m on a mission to build data capability and data muscle for every L&D professional on my team,” whether that means writing survey questions, interview questions or other crucial baseline capabilities.

Meanwhile, Tobin discussed his career journey in three phases: fear and uncertainty, doing and leading.

  • Fear: This was about “not knowing where to start,” the worry about data and statistics and not being sure when to use what.
  • Doing: Measurement and analytics are like learning a language where you have to “build your fluency,” and so doing was one of the best ways to do that. Tobin benefited from an early-career post at a company that valued talent development experimentation.
  • Leading:  In his latest job, Tobin is “setting the strategy” in a way that aligns with the business’ strategy and “leveraging learning to support the business.”

Much like his story about gathering personal quotes, Miller’s description of the talent journey focused on rethinking what is desired out of measurement.

The journey of measurement “starts so simple. You’re trying to create a clear line of sight to results.” Miller argued that a new end goal is required, something that he’s trying to do at Gilead: “How do you create a clear line of sight to an experience.”

Organizations need metrics that help them improve decision-making — it’s that simple, Miller said. And that’s what talent development needs to be doing.

“It’s less about my ability to create Net Promoter Score; it’s more about my ability to create a moment in which I can keep someone, help them make a better decision,” he said, and that means something different for measurement.

“We’re trying to create a new narrative about measurement and analytics. Getting away from a pure ‘if then, that’ to a “how do you put multiple things together, create something that says we just made a better decision’?” he said.


James daSilva is the longtime editor of SmartBrief’s leadership newsletter and blog content. Sign up for SmartBrief on Workforce and our newsletter for HR executives. Contact daSilva at @James_daSilva or by email.