Stories from the first 3 years leading Talent Development for a high-growth company
This is a co-authored blog post between a passionate talent development professional (Phylicia Jones, “PJ”) and Curious Lion (told by founder, Andrew Barry, “AB”). Together we share our lessons and learnings on how to work together to create amazing learning experiences.
Year 1 – Authentic Connections Matter
PJ on building relationships as a Talent Development professional
Every Talent Development professional dreams of doing it all. From onboarding to employee learning to leadership development to organizational effectiveness. Sometimes you are given a box and you have to stay in it. Sometimes they say, “wow you are passionate about this stuff, show us what you’ve got!” and you’re off to the races with a very small budget and an eager agile mindset.
My first year at PagerDuty, I was trying to do it all as a one-person team with help here and there. I had built my mini Talent Development empire from scrappy monthly onboarding to two-day leadership development experiences, to 90 mins virtual led employee learnings. I delivered over 80+ hours of learning and spent most of my time creating content from scratch. I needed to scale badly, otherwise, would I be successful in year 2?
I’m sure everyone can relate to the thousands of sales emails you get daily, right? When you start a job, it is natural to get inundated from companies trying to convince you they can help you with all sorts of learning offerings. Don’t people know one-team learning teams have very small budgets?
A month in at PagerDuty, February 3, 2018, to be exact, I received a LinkedIn connection request from Andrew Barry, the CEO of Curious Lion.
Naturally, I was ‘curious’ with that unique company name and personalized greeting. He later followed up via email and said “I love the way you say you are “accountable for finding potential in people” at PagerDuty. That has been one of my personal mottos for a long time 🙂 Given budgets, I could not start a partnership at the start of my first year, but we stayed connected.
When first I arrived at the question of how to scale, I started thinking, who did I remember? Who could be a thought partner? Andrew was the first person I reached out to restart conversations when I was able to expand my team and get help accelerating my content needs. Why? He and I had what I like to call “real talk” from the very beginning and what I realized was we were both badass learning professionals, and that stuck with me.
AB on building relationships as a sustainable way to prospect for new business
Every year, like most learning vendors, I do some cold outreach to ‘build a pipeline’ of potential new clients. I don’t use a shotgun approach. What I’ve found is that ‘spray-and-pray’ works in generating fistfuls of transactional projects. This is fine if you deal in volume.
What I look for instead is a connection. I’ve built my entire business on having empathy and a professional understanding of the business of my clients. What better way to do that than to get to know the individual you’re going to be partnering with as just that – an individual.
The best part of this approach to business development is that it’s fun! I love geeking out about unique ways to help people reach their potential, so when I read this on PJ’s LinkedIn profile, I knew it would be a fun conversation.
We both had a consulting background, which helped kick our relationship off, but what made it memorable was that she spoke passionately about talent development. That’s my kinda people! We had a great first conversation, but due to limited budgets, we went our separate ways.
From a vendor perspective, that happens often. Timing and budget. Both these things need to stack up for the moment to be right. But what was unmistakable about our first conversations was a shared joy in all things learning-related. I have seen time and again that this is what sparks long-term business partnerships. A long-lasting partnership that starts small is worth infinitely more to me and my business than a bigger, one-off transaction. It’s worth more because you get to deliver so much more value. And that’s what a partnership is all about after all.
I didn’t know we would work together, but I enjoyed our initial conversation and kept in touch with PJ out of pure interest in what she was doing. It didn’t feel like work. We were now just two learning professionals, sharing ideas. As you can imagine, I was delighted when she reached out to me towards the end of 2018 saying she had a project to discuss.
Our Top 3 Takeaways from Year 1
- Pick your content vendors wisely – your visions and passions should align.
- Take a chance – have a conversation; the best partner will actually listen more than they sell.
- Save the good ones – you never know when budgets align and you might want to restart the conversation.
Year 2 – Handing Over Your Learning Legos To Another Pro
PJ on taking the first step with a vendor
When you have a successful year one, all you want to do is keep up the momentum. But how? How can you do it with a lean team and a limited budget?. PagerDuty now had more learners around the world, in more time zones, and more offices. Was I expected to be in every classroom, office, and room with each learner all the time, in real-time? Well, if teleportation ever gets invented, yes! But until then, I needed to quickly scale. Scaling in learning terms means prioritizing, shifting focus, relentlessly solving for the various learners, and learning how to continuously improve without losing what has already been built.
So, after transitioning onboarding to my Talent Development team member #2, I needed to give our employee learning programs a face-lift. I needed to bring content to learners who needed it when I was asleep.
This is when Curious Lion and I started to talk shop. We’ve all heard of blending learning, video learning, and micro-learning. I needed to build more of this into my virtual-led experience by offering pre- and post-session content to give me time back to focus on learning experiences that required my actual human presence. Curious Lion helped animate 6 different learning videos to bring a light-hearted spin to our LearningDuty session. For the first time, it was great to speak to my content and BOOM!, they were in my head and producing videos that captured the essence of our learning contents and culture.
AB on starting a new project with a client
The first project PJ pitched me was typical of many first projects we receive: it was a big idea with a modest budget – the classic marriage any learning vendor worth their salt must nurture until it thrives! I gladly took on the work because I knew the opportunity to work with an ambitious learning leader like PJ at a fast-growing company like PagerDuty had the potential to develop into so much more if we did a good job.
The brief was simple enough: create 6 animated videos to pre-train employees on culture and processes for day-to-day skills they needed: interviewing, giving feedback, etc. We specialize in creating custom content like this so I felt confident we could do it well.
In what format does this content currently exist, I asked PJ. Usually, we get a bunch of manuals and slide decks, disparate but dense with information. We excel at bringing it all together. This time would be different though. PJ’s answer to me: in my head.
What happened next was the most fun my team and I had all year.
PJ would consolidate her thoughts into a slide deck and record herself narrating a stream-of-consciousness flow of ideas about how it all fits together. We were the learners and PJ was the instructor, recording mini-sessions for us to interpret, reimagine, and eventually cast as a character-based series of animations. We created a world of 14 recurring characters who’s journey mirrored that of actual Dutonians. We watched them develop skills for coaching each other and conducting effective meetings.
PJ’s ability to inject her personality into every learning experience gave us the rich content we needed to bring her to life in the 14 characters and deliver an authentic voice to PagerDuty employees. The mark of a successful project for me is when our client looks like a hero and we’re off to the side. Hearing the feedback that PJ and her team were getting from across the organization as this world of characters came to life made me realize we had achieved just that.
Our Top 3 Takeaways from Year 2
- Be real with yourself, you can’t do it all – be okay with asking another pro for help
- Budgets don’t lie – be upfront about what is possible knowing you want to make a real impact even on a dime
- Don’t hold back – share the words, language, heart, and soul of your programs so your vendor can find the best ways to capture that for you quicker than you can imagine.
Year 3 – Showing Our Value and Impact
PJ on how to make magic
If you work closely with a content partner for a year and I mean you’ve laughed, you’ve had difficult feedback conversations about content updates, and you’ve shared random ah-ha moments together, then they are literally an extension of your team. You’re in the flow.
I find myself with a bigger scope as I head into my third year at PagerDuty. My team is now a total of 3 and we are continuing to scale by pivoting! Yes, changing up the game because “what got us here, won’t get us there.”
While learning is constantly on my mind, so is being a great people manager. I don’t want my team to do the same things every year. I want to up their game, give them new ways of looking at how they can deliver employee experiences now knowing what they know. Now that I have more hands, brains, and hearts in Talent Development, we can make magic.
What do I mean by magic? Giving my team opportunities to scale their work and accelerate their content development so they can work on what matters – impacting employees and driving business outcomes.
2020 has already disrupted this world in more ways than I can imagine. I will not let COVID19 stop learning and growth opportunities for PagerDuty! And with Curious Lion’s help, we were ready!
This year my team is rolling out LearningWeeks virtually, targetting learning sprints once a quarter, where all employees can gain access to content, experiences, tools, and peer-learning for their growth and development so they can return to their jobs and deliver to our customers with more insight and inspiration.
In learning, you have to be agile: build, deliver, measure, learn, repeat. Curious Lion is helping us sprint by working in the background:
- Building slick pre-session micro-videos and post-session checklists for our new manager fundamentals training called Green Shield,
- Refreshing our previous videos to support our Moments that Matter employee learning series,
- Converting live onboarding content into videos, and
- Creating facilitator guides to help train our HRBPs on manager fundamental training content.
AB on taking a learning partnership to the next level
We ended 2019 with a budget discussion about 2020. PJ had more budget and she wanted to know what we could help her do with it.
In moments like this, it’s easy to start rattling off fancy ideas. This is your chance to shine as a vendor right? Time to roll out the VR! But I’ve learned over 15 years in learning and development that less is more and simpler is better. Focus on the content and be guided by the learning objectives.
After a few video calls, I flew out to San Francisco, and it must’ve been 4 or 5 in-depth discussions (Venting! Reminiscing! Wishlisting!) before we had developed a shared understanding of the goals for 2020.
That time spent was invaluable in helping me put together a proposal in early 2020. We resisted the temptation to go all VR/AR with the newly expanded budget, but we did introduce custom animation which has added a really slick look and feel to the manager training. We’re using the remaining budget to create training material for everything PJ and her team need around the videos.
There are two key takeaways for me this year.
One is to give each other room to move when scoping work. As any good learning leader knows, learning needs change all the time. I want to be able to adapt and change with my clients so they don’t feel pressure to stick with an approach that was agreed upon months prior. The COVID-19 chaos is a perfect example of this, as we’ve pivoted our workshop design to a virtual Zoom-based experience by bringing in an additional resource when the PagerDuty team needed it.
The other key is to empower the team of your client to work better. Sometimes this means replacing you. That’s ok. You want to build their skills to be able to do what you do. Trust that if you’re doing a good enough job at this, there will be plenty of other ways you can continue to support.
Our Top 3 Takeaways from Year 3
- Don’t be afraid to ask “what else you’ve got?”– Your content partner, if they are amazing, probably has some tricks up their sleeve that they are doing for other clients. Ask about them.
- Share your story – Share your goals with your content partner and be vulnerable, it’s the only way they can help you achieve your goals and turn your weakness into a strength.
Celebrate winning moments – When you review the first round of content and your content partner got it right, let them know what they are doing well; this will encourage them to bring it each and every time!