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Learning Leader Tamar Elkeles Calls for Industry Overhaul: ‘We Need to Be Leading the Talent Agenda’

Articles L&D Talent Management

Tamar Elkeles is known as an outspoken voice pushing the Learning & Development industry to move forward in big ways. So it’s perhaps no surprise that, delivering a talk at a big conference, she had words you rarely hear from a public speaker: “This is ridiculous. Why are you here?  We could be doing this on an app!”

Elkeles was referring to the need to embrace new technologies in corporate talent development.  While workers are increasingly turning to their mobile devices, too much training in businesses still comes in the classroom form. “We are part of the problem,” she said. “We have been offering classroom learning for years, so we continue to do it.”

The need to update how learning takes place was just one of the takeaways from her high-energy talk at the ATD International Conference and Expo, which drew nearly 10,000 people from around the world to Atlanta for three days.

When conference organizers described the event as including “game changers, the individuals who are shaping the industry,” they could have had in mind Elkeles, co-author of Chief Talent Officer and chief talent executive for the global venture capital firm Atlantic Bridge. Under her leadership, Qualcomm was named Learning & Development Organization of the Year in 2015 by Chief Learning Officer magazine.

“The number one differentiator in companies is culture,” she told the learning professionals who packed her session. When workers consider corporate culture, they focus on the opportunity to learn as essential, she said. “The number one reason employees stay in an organization today is to grow their careers.”

This is especially true for the youngest employees. “What millennials want more than anything is training and development,” Elkeles said.

A top business challenge

Corporate learning and development professionals sometimes see their roles as ancillary.  But as Elkeles sees it, that vastly underestimates their importance.  She called on them to view their work as central to any business.

“Our value in organizations today is so much bigger than L&D. We need to be leading the talent agenda. Our role is to leverage talent in organizations, and figuring out an impressive way to do that.”

The business landscape is changing rapidly, Elkeles said. Complexity and competition are on the rise, as are the use of new technologies and the speed at which business is done. New, emerging markets and platforms will keep popping up.

So companies are left with challenges like trying to forecast the future and “developing people for jobs that don’t even exist yet.” This means creating a company culture “that maximizes employee growth and engagement.” And it means “retaining talent to drive business success.”

Talent assessment

The strategy for tackling this challenge has to include a deep dive into how well a company’s talent pool matches its needs — not just currently, but in the years to come. Elkeles called on conference attendees to gather talent analytics for a full picture.

They should ask a series of questions, including: Do we have the right talent for the next one or two years? What strategic or core skills, competencies and experiences need to be added, and what significant challenges or opportunities might occur during that time? Then they need to look beyond the two-year mark to determine needs and strengths well into the future.

Many organizations fail to ask two crucial questions, largely because people are afraid to, she added. They are: What skills do you see as no longer needing, or declining? What derails talent in your business?

But development isn’t just about skills. Elkeles called on the crowd to examine key traits that distinguish great leaders as well: curiosity, adaptability, resourcefulness, exceptional people skills and an open mind, which includes good listening skills.

To develop these, employees need feedback. Elkeles offered a line she uses with executives. “I have something for you and it’s free,” she tells them. Then they’re generally all ears.  “It’s feedback,” she tells them, “free feedback.” She then asks whether they want to hear it.

She told a story of one executive who wanted the feedback. “I said, ‘You’re very dismissive and do not listen.’ And the executive said, ‘Oh, that’s interesting. My ex-wife said the same thing!’”

Make development a constant at every level

These kinds of constructive critiques should come year-round, as a regular part of management, Elkeles said. There should be “constant feedback and development discussions.”

And they should happen throughout the entire pipeline. “Don’t just focus on your VPs and above,” Elkeles said. “If you’re a true talent executive, you’re looking at talent as it comes in the door.” Leadership development is for everyone, and people peak at different times in their careers.

To make development a pillar of how an organization operates, managers at all levels must be brought on board as part of the effort, she said. They should come to see development as a standard part of what they do.

The key is to make the entire development ecosystem active every day. “If you’re just waiting for your annual performance review to discuss development and feedback,” Elkeles warned, “you’re not effectively managing talent.”

Learning comes through on-the-job assignments and even board meetings.  And besides skills and traits, employees need to learn company culture.  “Every touchpoint you have is an opportunity to share” what the company is all about, she said, highlighting one company that sent its employees stories about its culture every week for a year.

“From the minute people accept an offer letter to join your company, it’s an opportunity to communicate to them about your culture,” Elkeles said.

Learn from each other

Another part of continual learning is to embrace user-generated content and peer learning.

Elkeles did this at Qualcomm by using Pathgather, which pulls together internal and external resources to create a single destination for learning and building career paths.

“I’d rather have a talent platform that actively shares what people are learning online and from each other than use an antiquated LMS (Learning Management System),” said Elkeles, who serves as an adviser to Pathgather.

Elkeles also told the crowd at the Georgia World Congress Center: “Build your learning apps.” When employees have easy-to-use applications in the palms of their hands, learning vastly increases.


We’re living in an era of intense personalization, Elkeles argued. “The fact that we have everything personalized today reinforces the need to personalize learning, and we’re not,” she said.

By offering a multitude of options, giving regular feedback at the individual level and making sure people have access to development tools in the most convenient ways possible, that individualization can thrive, she said.

Even in group learning situations, the one-size-fits-all idea of learning is misguided, Elkeles said.  “This — me talking to you — I hate this,” she said to laughter. Elkeles prefers to “hear your experiences” and “learn from you,” rather than deliver a lecture like a classroom teacher.

“I really believe the classroom is reserved for three things,” she explained: interaction with an expert, interaction with each other and role-playing to practice skills “in a safe environment.”

Assessing value

To move forward in the talent development arena, professionals need to help executives understand the clear value of what they’re achieving, and of what they’re pursuing. “I’ve never met a business executive who knew how to measure L&D,” Elkeles said.

In general, the wrong metrics have been used, which created a “mess,” she argued. Learning leaders have pointed to the numbers of people who underwent training and the numbers of courses offered. But these don’t show the top brass real value. “When we start talking about training classes and butts in seats and those are the measurements we’re using, we’re screwing ourselves,” she said.

“Think about changing the discussion to: How do we add value to the business? How do we leverage our talent?”

By using analytics to create a clear, simple graphic, talent executives can show worth in both the short-term and long-term.  They can demonstrate the ways talent initiatives lead to higher employee performance, satisfaction and retention — and how that saves the company money.  Elkeles put it succinctly: “Talent analytics are linked to business success.”

Three-year plan

Enacting these changes will take time, Elkeles said. “I always say that complete change takes three years.” By the third year, companies have adopted it as standard practice.

Getting more and more people on board by explaining why these changes are necessary can help speed up the process.

It’s a big charge, but a crucial one, Elkeles told the crowd. “You own that.”

Categories: Articles L&D Talent Management

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