L&D and Leaders’ roles in building employee capability

by | Aug 27, 2023 | Lead with Learning

I recently had lunch with a client who manages a Learning and Development department. As our conversation unfolded, she shared how her team created a change management program for their leaders. The program focused on how people respond differently to change and how leaders can support their teams. After the program, they asked the leaders what support they needed to implement what they had learned. The leaders responded with several ideas and topics for future training.  

The L&D team followed up with a multi-dimensional workshop on resiliency. They designed a short workshop, followed by a TED Talk, online resources and a Teams Channel for informal discussion and learning. When they launched this follow-up workshop, half a dozen of the 100+ leaders in the organization attended.  

It might feel tempting to pick holes at this example and dissect what this manager could have done differently. Yet, I’m sure we have had a similar experience where our learning and development teams have worked hard, responded to an expressed need and delivered what we felt was a quality program. I could have heard this story from any number of my clients. 

I’ve worked in learning and development for 25 years and have repeatedly heard versions of this same challenge. This story represents a pattern. The pattern may have different names – “training doesn’t stick,” “poor uptake,” or “difficulty measuring training impact.”  

How Learning and Development serves organizations is broken and needs to be fixed. We know organizations need to learn and grow to adapt and be successful in the digital age. The explosion of AI and our newborn understanding of how it will change how we live, work and learn, coupled with big data and the ever-increasing pace of change, require new employee skill sets. Employees need to learn and develop. I’m reading Brandon Carson’s latest book, L&D’s Playbook for the Digital Age. He underscores the importance of L&D in building human capability, and that it’s time to reorient L&D to take a more proactive role in enabling the workforce so organizations can rise to the myriad of changes they face. I agree, and I would add that building human capability doesn’t rest with the learning function alone. Leaders have a tremendous role in developing employees and building organizational capacity.  

When I think of Learning and Development and leaders’ roles in developing employees and building organizational capacity, I picture a partially constructed bridge.  

Photo taken in Florida, United States

On each side of the bridge is an abutment, which anchors the bridge in the ground. Bridges also have a foundation with piles set deep into the ground to provide stability. On top of the foundation is the visible substructure, with piers that transfer the load from the top layer – the superstructure – to the foundation.  

To apply bridge construction to building human capability, you can think of the abutment on one side as Learning and Development. It is responsible for formal training programs – like change management and resiliency training, that my client described at lunch. The piers on the L&D side of the bridge that support these efforts are learning acumen, execution and business acumen. In addition to knowing their trade, learning professionals need to get stuff done – effectively and efficiently. Finally, learning professionals need business acumen to understand their clients and learner audience. With these three piers in place, the Learning and Development side of the bridge can reach further into the center and bridge the gap in human capability.  

On the other side is the abutment representing leaders, who are responsible for developing their employees. The piers that support leaders’ work in developing employees are ownership, skills and resources. First and foremost, leaders must recognize their role and take ownership of developing their employees. Leaders need the skills to develop others and the resources to do so effectively.  

In bridge construction, the foundation supports the entire structure through strategically placed piles. The piles are the same for Learning and Development function and leaders. Both need to have a learning mindset. Learning professionals need to demonstrate a learning mindset to be at the forefront of change, role modelling ongoing learning. Leaders need a learning mindset for themselves and to create a culture of learning on their teams.   

When the formal training programs created by learning and development meet leaders who actively develop their employees, the gap in the bridge is narrowed, human capability is increased, and the organization is better able to meet ongoing change.  

I’m curious if the bridge analogy resonates with you. Email me to share if your organization has a gap between the L&D efforts and leaders’ support. I’d love to hear what’s working well and what’s not quite right.

1 Main Parts of a Bridge – Explained, John Mitchell, 2017, (link)

In case you missed it

I’ve shared some additional posts online. These videos explore the L&D side of the bridge in my analogy above, focusing on the manager’s role in leading the department. Here they are, in case you missed them.   

  • Manager’s role in learning – Analysis phase – (video link
  • Manager’s role in learning – Design phase – (video link
  • Manager’s role in learning – Develop phase – (video link
  • Manager’s role in learning – Implement phase – (video link
  • L&D and leaders bridging the gap in developing human capability (video link


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Hannah Brown

I help close the gap between formal training from learning and development and leaders fostering learning on their teams to embed it into their DNA.