Conversations in the Cracks

by | Oct 31, 2023 | Lead with Learning, Leaders

I spent a week in Fiji earlier in October with a group of colleagues whom I’ve known for two years online. We’re in a business leadership community and we gathered for a conference and workshop. As I landed back in Toronto after 21 hours of travelling, my tired brain was quietly reflecting on the experience. What bubbled to the surface is the importance of meeting face to face again and how different and stronger the connections are than when you only meet virtually. 

I also reflected on how the workshops at the conference were structured. There were formal sessions and plenty of time to reflect and apply what we were learning. It highlighted the difference for me between training and learning. Training, and even facilitation, are structured sessions. They’re important and there’s a place for them. But, if you bring people together in person and you only have structured sessions there’s a missed opportunity. We were all staying at the same resort so there were many opportunities to have informal conversations – “conversations in the cracks”. It was often these conversations that were as valuable or more valuable than the formal structured sessions.  

This is where the real learning happens. 

Where does learning occur in your organization?  

When I think of the learning and development professionals I’ve worked with, I see how it’s easy to get caught up in the formal training and the content we need to cover. It’s rooted in learning objectives supported by learning activities and demonstrated by performance outcomes. I know I’ve succumbed to this tendency in the past. We need to be equally, if not more focused on creating space for “learning between the cracks”.  I call this Lead with Learning and it means creating team cultures of learning for employees to share knowledge, learn and develop outside formal training programs.   

Learning starts with People Leaders  

To Lead with Learning, People Leaders need to recognize that developing their employees is a core aspect of their role as a leader. I can hear the reaction already – leaders have no time! Lead with Learning is the focus of my next book and I’ve been interviewing leaders to hear their stories and experiences with developing their employees. I asked one leader, the Corporate Controller in her medium-sized organization, how she finds the time to develop her employees. She responded that she makes it a priority – plain and simple. She has been on the receiving end of a leader who didn’t focus on her development. She also shared how she struggled initially in her leadership role to connect with her team. Even though it takes time in her day and takes up her mental energy, she knows it’s important because she’s experienced the alternative. She values learning in herself and in others and finds she also grows when she’s coaching her team members.  

What happens when you Lead with Learning?    

Many organizational challenges can be addressed through embedding learning at a team level. In fact, I was playing around with a title for my keynote, and considered Lead with Learning: Make everything better.  

Grandiose notions aside, here are some specific benefits.  

1. Human Resources   

The challenges Human Resources faces are perhaps the most aligned with learning. One pressing challenge is employee engagement, motivation and commitment. The McKinsey report, The State of Organizations 20231, identifies that 33% to 60% of employees across different geographies plan on leaving their jobs. These are the ‘quiet quitters’ who are unattached from their work and organization, fulfilling their basic job requirements but nothing more.  

We can look to People Leaders to counter this. A recent study2 shows that 70% of team engagement is attributable to the manager and that when managers support their employees’ continuous learning, they show greater commitment towards the organization, which in turn reduces their intention to leave.3 

2. Research and Development  

If we look at another functional area, research and development provides another great example of how a learning mindset and team culture of learning can address common challenges. A persistent challenge is keeping up with or surpassing the competition with new products and services.  

When leaders Lead with Learning, they foster curiosity and the courage to take risks and learn from failure. This leads to increased creativity and innovation. As Susan Doniz, Chief Information Officer at Boeing, shared, “Translating her love of learning into an organization-wide culture of curiosity is vital for navigating the rapid pace of change in technology — and technology adoption — today.”4 

3. Operations 

Finally, common challenges in operations include maximizing output while minimizing cost, and, especially in past years, disruptions in the supply chain leading to raw material shortages. If we consider the latter, a culture of learning won’t prevent this, but it will provide a better chance of anticipating it. If disruptions occur a creative innovative team will find more and better solutions for addressing shortages and will have a greater ability to adapt to new circumstances.  

The thread that runs through these examples is that leaders take ownership of developing their employees. The McKinsey report, The State of Organizations 20235, identifies that 90% of respondents feel their organizations need to act now or soon to build capability to close the skill gaps. Only 5% responded that their organizations are “all set” with addressing the capability gaps. These are the biggest barriers cited in the report:  

  • Programs aren’t tailored to specific skill gaps.  
  • Capability-building programs aren’t integrated into employees’ on-the-job experience. 
  • Organizations don’t regularly review their ROI on learning programs, don’t adequately measure desired outcomes or link training outcomes directly to business outcomes.   

I look at these barriers and see a huge opportunity. By moving learning out of the formal training function and into teams, development is specific to the employees’ needs, occurs in real time on the employees’ job. No need to wait months for a formal training course to be developed!  

By developing a learning mindset, leaders role model curiosity to learn new things and the courage needed to take risks and learn from failure. They create team cultures of learning by caring about their employees as individuals and drawing in their interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence to create a safe space for their employees to learn and develop.  

Finally, leaders put down the need to be the ‘fixer’, providing answers and solving problems and embrace a coaching approach to help employees find solutions to problems and take ownership of how to solve challenges.  

In summary 

Curiosity and lifelong learning is one of the top ten skills needed in 2023. 6

When organizations move employee development from residing solely in the domain of training and development to including People Leaders and their teams, they shift from costly formal training to “conversations in the cracks” that address employee engagement, motivation and commitment; increased innovation in research and development and a greater ability to adapt to supply chain disruptions.    

Where are the opportunities in your organization to develop their employees? 

I have two invitations for you. 

Where are the opportunities in your organization to develop their employees? 

I have two invitations for you. 

  1. I’m still interviewing People Leaders from my book, Lead with Learning.  If you or a leader in your organization would be interested in a 30-minute conversation, I’d be delighted to have a conversation!
  2. I have a 180° assessment for People Leaders and their teams to determine how effectively they nurture a learning mindset and foster a team culture of learning. I’m planning an information session for HR and L&D professionals to learn more and determine how this could benefit People Leaders in your organization. Think learning, insights, lunch and conversations with other HR and L&D leaders.  Let me know if you’re interested and I’ll update you as I finalize details.

1 The State of Organizations 2023: Ten Shifts Transforming Organizations (link

2 State of  the Australian and New Zealand Workplace 2023 Gallup (link

Creating Learning Cultures Assessing the evidence (link

Boeing CIO Susan Doniz leads with curiosity and empathy (link

The State of Organizations 2023: Ten Shifts Transforming Organizations (link

6 Future of jobs 2023: These are the most in-demand skills now – and beyond (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.   


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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.