This blog is excerpted from the Performance
Matters Podcast. In this episode co-host Dr. Conrad Gottfredson sat down with Honora Whitfield, Meta’s
Global Director of Learning and Katie Coates, McKinsey & Company’s Director
of Learning, to discuss how they are working to shift their organization’s
thinking around learning.
Conrad Gottfredson (CG): It’s my honor to be joined by two of the most remarkable learning
leaders on the planet. For years, I’ve had a front row seat to watch you both
lead your learning teams and transform your organizations from a traditional
learning mindset and focus, to a performance first approach.
You know, I’ve also read that about 29 to 30% of senior management
roles globally are filled by women. I’m wondering what advice do you have for
other women looking to grow their careers and abilities to lead learning?
Katie Coates (KC): I think what’s really helped me over the years is just having the
right mentors and sponsors to help guide me in the whole journey.
And I’ve had many. In my undergraduate I connected with a
university professor who took me under her wing, she said, “You have no idea
how much potential you have, right?” And she just started looking for
opportunities for me. And through the years we stayed very close.
In the mid-90s I started working with another leader. He, again,
just provided career guidance, opened up opportunities for me, coached me
through difficult situations, and really just took a personal interest in me.
And one more, when I came to McKinsey it was a different operating
model and way of working than I was used to. I met this woman that I connected
with and I’m like, “hey, I need some help trying to navigate.” And she of
course was happy to help. She has been someone I talk to monthly, for the past
The point is, find various types of mentors along the way and
don’t be afraid to ask for help. Don’t be afraid to ask for someone to mentor
you. People are generous.
Honora Whitfield (HW): When I think about this role, and I think about what it takes to
be successful and effective in this role, I think about three dimensions.
I think about understanding and having a deep expertise in the
discipline itself, I think about the leadership role and that hat that you wear,
and then I think about the operational aspect of the role.
To have a chance at being an
effective learning leader, I think you have to have all three of those in
spades. Sharing from my career path, I’ve probably done each and every role
within my organization over the past 25 years. And I think that has made me the
leader that I am today.
Just being able to understand and have empathy for the work
itself, because I’ve been in those shoes, really resonates with my team. So, my
advice to others who want to be a learning leader, no matter where you are in
your career, is to really gain a deep understanding and appreciation for all
the depth and breadth of the work. Being a well-rounded learning leader has
been my path, and it’s worked well for me.
CG: Just brilliant advice.
So, let me just share an observation that I’ve made about the both
of you. I find that you are caring leaders. That is, you care about the people
with whom you work, those that you lead, you champion them, and you are really
genuine. Katie, you talk about being
lifted up, but you lift others, I just would like to know your thoughts about
that element of leadership, that connectedness and the caring side.
HW: Yeah, I think it’s important that I feel personally committed to
caring for the whole person—not just the work side of the person, but their
people, their mothers, their fathers, their families. Over the course of the
pandemic we got in touch more with this personal side because we were all
working from and seeing firsthand their children, their struggles, and their
day-to-day lives via Zoom.
So, you really, as a leader, must focus on doing what’s best for
them from both the personal and business perspectives. And when I’m mentoring
individuals on my team, I’m mentoring them not for the job that they’re doing
today, I’m mentoring them for the job that they want to do tomorrow—whether
that’s on my team or on another team, whether it’s in our organization or
within another organization. I just find that you get the most out of people
when you care for them on a personal level.
KC: I kind of look at it as my obligation to now help the next
generation of learning leaders get there. So, I spend a lot of time mentoring
some of my dear colleagues. In fact, I just helped one of our specialists get
promoted to manager, and I’m so excited for them and for the opportunities that
are ahead for them.
I’ve even helped people kind of figure out, do you want to stay
kind of where you are? Or, do you want to look at other opportunities outside
of where you are? You know, what’s the right role for you, as a professional
and as an individual?
So again, it’s this obligation to build the next set of learning
leaders, and how do I set people up for success.
CG: I have a good friend who had said to me, “You know, it’s not the
role of a leader to maintain the status quo.” And both of you have been challenging
the status quo as it relates to learning, by moving to performance. As you’ve
been shifting and helping your organizations move from being learning focused
to a performance first focus, what are some of the barriers you have faced and
some successes that you found in that journey?
KC: Yeah, so I think you know, in-person learning is still a very
traditional, very loved method of learning. It really is. And our organization
is no different, in-person learning meets a really big need for us in terms of
community connection, celebration, transition, the leadership mindset, and it’s
what our people really love. And it’s what they think about learning.
I think performance support, there are so many different
definitions of it, and there are misconceptions about what it is, and what it
can and can’t do. So that’s some of the things we’ve been kind of working
through. How we’re doing it is by talking through the speed of change. You
can’t possibly learn everything you need to in an in-person classroom setting,
you just can’t right?
And so, we are trying to open up the organization to other ways of
learning, such as learning in the workflow. We found a couple leaders that are really
willing to take a risk and that liked this idea. We talked to them about it,
and we started with a project! We picked something that wasn’t, you know, too
high profile too high risk, and we’re like, “let’s do this, let’s learn from
And we did it and we had great success with that project; we
learned a lot from it and it had a lot of high results. Other teams and people
saw what they did, and the results that they had, and they’re like, “we want
that”. So, we just worked with another group to build a digital coach for a
group of 3,000 people to provide consistent processes and access to learning in
the flow of work.
So, I think it’s that experimentation, finding the right projects,
and showing success that is helping us alter the status quo.
HW: So, I think that the barrier often with implementing performance
support and workflow learning is that some senior leaders have just never heard
of it before. You know, “What is this Five Moments of Need thing? What is workflow
And even some of our internal team members have never heard of it
So, there’s this huge change management effort that you’re really
embarking upon, once you sell them on the benefits, they get it, and they want
it. And they want it yesterday.
It also comes with a price tag and is not something you can do it
overnight. So those are other barriers, right?
How do you get the funding? How do you prove the ROI for it, once
you are able to get the funding? And then it’s trying to set realistic
expectations on what it’s going to take and how many resources you need and how
much time you need before you’re going to have it in place.
And you will reap the benefits of it, so I think that those are
just things that you have to be really explicit about and really take the time
to do and do right.
So, again, how we’re changing the status quo is by selling them on
all of the benefits, setting realistic expectations, and then choosing one project
at a time to implement. That’s how we’ve approached it and we are focusing on
basically one project per year, get it done really well, and get the adoption
that we’re looking for before we move on to the next solution.
For Con, Honora, and Katie’s full
performance-first discussion, listen to the
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