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8 Steps to Creating Champions for Learning

Bob Little 

April 1, 2016

©iStockphoto/blyjake

The concept of identifying and then appointing appropriate “champions” to ensure initiatives’ success is neither new nor specific to corporate L&D. It is, however, more difficult to achieve successfully than you may think.

For many years, the consumer world has cheerfully embraced the idea of a high profile “personality” endorsing a particular product or service. In the corporate world, this approach has been used to facilitate such things as change management for 50 years or so.

One of the longest-established examples of “champions” being associated with business success comes from the use of the Royal Warrant in the U.K. Its history dates from medieval times and, by the 15th century, the Lord Chamberlain, as head of the Royal Household, formally awarded tradespeople with a Royal Warrant of Appointment – a practice that continues to this day. It was in the 18th century that tradespeople supplying the U.K.’s royal family began displaying the Royal Arms on their premises and stationery.

Nobody, yet, has managed to obtain a Royal Warrant for supplying L&D to the U.K.’s royal family, although many vendors might like the chance to try. Nonetheless, it’s a universally acknowledged truth that any L&D program in want of success must have its champion.

Usually, but not invariably, that champion is selected from the organization’s senior executive team. Or, at least, the most senior executive who’ll agree to champion the program. L&D professionals know that their program is in trouble when the most prestigious champion they can find for it is the janitor!

One way to prevent such embarrassment is to implement a system for creating a network of suitable champions for any and every L&D initiative.

Identifying “L&D champions” in your organization can prove worthwhile for embedding and sustaining learning. Once selected, these people need to be trained and/or coached to be effective as learning champions. They could even become “super learners” and, thus, champion by example.

Follow these eight steps to launch a successful network of champions:

1. Define Learning Champions’ Roles and Responsibilities

These include understanding the key milestones and timeline for the learning program, helping to promote it, experiencing the program first, and coaching and mentoring other learners – especially those who have just joined the organization.

2. Define the Learning Champions’ Selection Criteria

This enables relevant executives to decide which of their workers to identify as learning champions. The criteria could include that the champion can attend strategy meetings and training sessions as necessary; can translate the vision for the program and communicate it positively; can be charismatic and influential; is trusted and respected by colleagues; and can recognize – and overcome – resistance to the program.

3. Provide an Overview to the Leadership/Management Team

Keep the senior leadership team informed and explain the benefits – for its members and for the organization – of the “champion scheme.” You need its understanding, and its support. In addition, discuss how it plans to reward the champions – with money, prestige and/or career advancement.

4. Ask the Management Team to Identify Champions

After the overview session, provide a mechanism and a deadline for the management team to submit its learning champion nominees. Manage this process and prepare supporting communication to ensure that the management team has been sent the information relating to the role, criteria and deadline for selecting the champions.

5. Conduct a Kick Off/Training Session for the Champions

Set up a half-day session to explain their role in detail, and outline the expectations for how they’ll work with the L&D team. Include some key principles of the psychology of change, communications and resistance management.

6. Agree on Collaboration Methods

Establish how the champions will collaborate with the L&D team, and with one another. Create an online collaborative work space for them to download information, share stories, and give feedback. This should increase their engagement with the L&D team and with fellow champions, because they’ll feel part of a team and have a voice. There should also be monthly face-to-face meetings or conference calls, to keep champions updated on the program’s progress and upcoming activities. The champions must always be ahead of the learners, so that they can respond to their colleagues’ questions.

7. Communicate the Launch of the Champions’ Network

Ensure that everyone in the organization is aware of the learning champion network by providing contact details, a photo, and ways to communicate with its members. Ideally, this message will come from the program’s sponsor or a senior leader, to ensure that the network is seen as “important,” and is also seen to have senior leadership support.

8. Reward and Recognize the Champions

A risk of becoming a champion is that the organization merely continues to value and reward you solely for your “normal” job duties. If the additional role of “champion” isn’t formally recognized, valued and rewarded, it’ll be difficult to persuade anyone to take it up. Conversely, if a high value is placed on the role, people will aspire to become learning champions – and their number will increase. This should produce substantial benefits for the organization.

Learning champions can help overcome issues of worker adoption and align the learning with business culture (or help change that culture). They play a key role in helping to motivate learners and in informing the expectations about programs of everyone in the business – learners, managers and even the CEO.

Yet, merely instigating a network of learning champions doesn’t guarantee success for every learning program. Since each program is slightly different, it’s difficult to “roll over” knowledge from one to another. The audience, their learning needs, delivery methods, and so on, all vary.

The key is to ask the right questions at the start and at the end of the learning process.

It’s important to produce tangible and intangible measures of program success. The latter seeks to relate the results to what’s important in the business culture, not just the bottom line. Once you have all these results, you need to tell people about it!

Marcel Proust wrote that the secret of discovery is not to find new lands but to see with new eyes. Achieving this is the key to success for learning programs in any organization.

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