After Covid-19: How to Rebuild Learning and Development (Interview)
After Covid-19: How to Rebuild Learning and Development (Interview)

How can L&D leaders emerge stronger from this crisis? In a series of interviews focused on recovery, MERIT invites experts to share their viewpoints and advice.

In an in-depth interview, Natasha Bonnevalle, partner, THNK School of Creative Leadership, discusses how to create learning programmes that achieve more with less and how to manage difficult emotions. The challenges for L&D leaders are formidable, she says, but there are ways to meet them with grace and purpose.


CHROs and CLOs are facing so many challenges right now. They are managing daily operations during unprecedented disruption, while also thinking about long-term adaptation. What leadership principles can they employ in order to keep people engaged and successfully steer their organisations through the crisis?

During this time, it is easy for leaders to become extremely task-focused – meeting important safety and productivity objectives, prescribing necessary short-term solutions, and putting new structures in place.

But crises are crises because they affect people. CHROs play an important role in redirecting attention to people-focused leadership.

These are some of the practices they can employ, in their own leadership and in role-modelling the right behaviours in support of the leaders in their organisations:


Lead with empathy and humanity

Under the current circumstances, companies have a role that goes beyond being just an employer. Workplaces are communities, built around the relationships between people across the organisation. More than a century ago, Theodore Roosevelt said: “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” These days, employees face fear and uncertainty at levels many of us haven’t experienced before.

It is crucial for leaders to dedicate time to understand how people are coping, show empathy, and support their teams where needed. By creating an environment of psychological safety, team members can address both personal and professional challenges without fear of repercussions. By promoting a team atmosphere where judgment has no place, leaders will foster an environment where important ideas and innovation can emerge – a prerequisite for navigating the storm and its aftermath.


Reinforce purpose

In recent times, more and more organisations have moved purpose from the periphery of their strategy to its core. Many of us are seeing the vitality, energy, and creativity evoked by purpose-driven leadership. Today, it is even more important to unify the organisation around a common goal. Employees want to know why they should continue to show up to work amid such difficult circumstances.

Being explicit about who your organisation serves and why this is important, especially now, is a great way to engage the hearts and minds of employees. Going forward, it is also a great way to attract, motivate and retain rare talents. Eventually, markets will start picking up again. Embedding purpose deeply into the fabric of your organisation will help attract those high potentials who prefer to work for companies with missions that resonate with them both intellectually and emotionally.


Be transparent and fair

Leaders have a special role in reducing employee anxiety. Frequent, thoughtful, and transparent communication helps demystify uncertain situations for employees. Even though you may not have all the answers (and you will not), engage in frequent interactions with your staff – both those who are working remotely, and also essential employees whose role requires them to be on site.

In all interactions, be transparent. More informal messaging from leaders seems to be resonating during this time because it feels authentic. Find a good balance between a tone of realism and optimism, which helps to build hope for a brighter future. And for those people who worry about the continuity of their job, don’t hide the fact that difficult decisions may be coming, but build trust that everyone will be treated fairly.

It is no secret that employees are asking themselves: Will the leaders in my organisation rise to the occasion? Will they look after me when the going gets tough?

Even though leaders are now only visible in virtual meetings, all eyes are on them: they are under more scrutiny than ever before. Role-modelling the desired behaviours helps build the types of interactions and culture that will contribute to the success of the organisation during and beyond the crisis.


Read: After Covid-19, Speed Up Digital Transformation or Face Extinction (Interview)


Which agile methodologies may be pertinent right now? How can they help?

At THNK, we use the Cynefin framework, developed by David Snowden and his colleagues. It supports leaders in understanding the context they are in, so they are more able to address the problems and opportunities arising from that context.

Out of the four domains of the model (simple, complicated, complex, and chaotic), the complex context is the one we find ourselves in during this crisis. It is a context of unpredictability and flux. Many leaders are tempted to revert to traditional command-and-control management styles, whereas a more experimental way of leading is much more effective. Instead of attempting to impose a rigid course of action, leaders should patiently allow patterns to emerge. The notion of probing, sensing, and responding is key. It is not about applying good or best practices, but about trying out small steps, learning from them, and reiterating.


What are some easy, inexpensive techniques HR and L&D leaders can put to use today to strengthen their response to Covid-19?

Based on some of the practices I mentioned earlier, HR and L&D leaders can role-model the types of behaviours and actions that help build the resilience of their organisation.

At the start of every meeting, do a quick personal check-in. This can be a “free flow” check-in or one that has prompts such as: “What sustains you through this period?” Check-ins help people feel connected and seen.

Encourage peer-based support. Facilitate groups that work in support of each other. One way we are doing this at THNK is by having weekly “Islands of Sanity” interactive sessions for our alumni community, where people can connect and help each other improve their coping skills. The concept is inspired by American anthropologist Margaret Mead, who asked: “Are you willing to use whatever power and influence you have to create islands of sanity that evoke and rely on our best human qualities to create, produce, and persevere?”

And finally, encourage the notion that the crisis is also a key learning opportunity by reflecting on and sharing your own challenges, mistakes, and learnings. This is a time to show your vulnerability. To be really present with the people you lead. And to invite them to share their learnings with you.


Should corporate learning and corporate culture initiatives take the back seat? If not, how should they change? What should people be learning right now, and how can HR and L&D deliver it under the current constraints?

Many of our clients have shared how the current crisis could be a watershed moment for transforming the culture of their organisations. They see the crisis as a very real opportunity to actively shape the “new normal” from a culture point-of-view. And so, whereas leaders’ current bandwidth to engage in culture efforts is small, it shouldn’t be difficult to build the case for their active involvement going forward.

At THNK, we are inspired by the words of the American philosopher, Eric Hoffer, who noted, “In times of change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.”

The topics we are exploring with our clients who are looking to support their leaders include:

  • Understanding the new leadership context and what it demands from them: creating time for introspection and self-reflection).
  • Finding meaning and purpose in adversity: a key prerequisite to lead themselves and their people through the crisis).
  • Building personal resilience so leaders can sustain themselves through the current phase while keeping enough reserves for what’s coming next: tending to their bodies, minds, hearts, and souls.

The major constraints to running learning initiatives today are time and money. The following ingredients create opportunities for HR and L&D to make learning happen, nonetheless.

  1. Make all learning fully digital: short, impactful interactive modules that can be delivered “just-in-time” where they are most needed.
  2. Run programmes at scale. Getting participants in a learning room in much higher numbers allows for a critical mass of learners to absorb important content and work to shift their behaviour collectively.
  3. Lean heavily on peer-learning and involve participants in each other’s development journey.


In addition, we believe in the power of participant-led learning (with participant-generated content), self-composed learning cohorts (within current networks of support), and micro-learning with immediate feedback.


Read: After Covid-19: “Help People to Create the New Normal” (Interview)


How do you see HR and corporate learning changing after this crisis, more broadly?

The International Labour Organization has forecast that the coronavirus pandemic could reduce global working hours by nearly 7% in the second quarter of 2020. This would be equivalent to 195 million full-time jobs lost worldwide. HR will have a big role to play in managing the lay-off processes and working alongside leaders to ease the human pain involved.

Nobody knows what the future will look like, but the likelihood of another pandemic or worldwide crisis is very real. HR could play an important role in building the resiliency of the organisation. For example, this could mean that succession plans, both for the senior leadership as well as for critical roles deeper in the organisation need to be much more robust (especially for short-term disruptions) in case employees become sick or unable to work.

Our brick-and-mortar offices could become less and less a place for people to show up for work. HR can play an important role in finding ways to support their employee population in working productively and in high spirits at a distance. Aside from the necessary systems and processes, this entails ensuring employees stay connected at a human level using digital technology.

The past few years have seen a growing sense that shareholder value should not be the only measure of corporate value. The notion of “triple bottom line” (people, planet, profit) has become mainstream and with it the importance of investing in employees, supporting communities, and handling external stakeholders and business partners ethically. Many corporations are scheduled to receive support in the form of public money being distributed among those most in need. For those businesses, public scrutiny will intensify. HR could play a significant role in pushing the triple bottom line agenda. Over-indexing on the people side of the business would be the smart thing to do.

In summary, the role of HR in shaping the future of their companies will become much more prominent.

As for corporate learning, if necessity is the mother of invention—and it often is—there could be some real positive outcomes of the coronavirus crisis. The drive to move to digital learning has been around for quite some time now. The current situation has accelerated this trend and it shouldn’t stop here. There is a real opportunity to rethink corporate learning: how we learn, where we learn, when we learn and together with whom we learn best. If corporate learning leaders work from the premise that digital learning presents a blank canvas to reimagine how to develop the people in their organisation, they could start a learning revolution.


How are you personally responding to the crisis? What do you find helpful and motivating in your work? How do you connect with your purpose?

Personally, I feel the current times are among the most challenging I have ever faced. The corona crisis coincides with a reconfiguration of my family and the final stages of my father’s life. I am balancing home-schooling three children with work that is more intense than I have experienced for a long time. And, of course, the company I have worked so hard to build has been hit hard by the crisis (many of our in-person programmes have been cancelled or postponed).

What keeps me going is the sense of community: our staff and freelance faculty and coaches are bonding together and putting in an incredible amount of energy to make things work, to improvise and innovate. And I make it a point to work on increasing my resilience day-by-day with practices that sustain my energy, help me regulate my emotions, and keep me connected to others.

Even though it is not cast in stone and my purpose may actually pivot as a result of the crisis, I believe that what I contribute to this world is an ability to create a sacred space where deep development can happen. This is what I continue to do on a daily basis. If anything, the fact that we have gone fully digital means that the space is more boundaryless and open. The current circumstances, in which many of us have been confronted with the limitations of our immunity and security, and ultimately our human lives, have made us more vulnerable and more able to crack open and shift our behaviours.


For more expert viewpoints, check out:

Sabine Weishaupt, Head of Leadership Development Consulting, Deutsche Telekom: “Help People to Create the New Normal”

Filipe Carrera, academic and coach: Speed Up Digital Transformation or Face Extinction