The Culture Code

If L&D wants to evolve from "order-taking" into a strategic entity, a significant mindset and behavior shift is required.

In comes Dr. Keith Keating, author of The Trusted Learning Advisor and CLO at BDO Canada.

He covers: 
1. The most common stumbling block L&D professionals run into as they adopt a strategic mindset. 
2. How to leap over this stumbling block. 
3. The critical traits of a learning advisor.
4. What to do when you face resistance from stakeholders.  

Hope you enjoy 🤓

What is The Culture Code?

Welcome to The Culture Code podcast. On this podcast, you’ll learn how to grow, shape, and sustain a high-performance culture with the CEO of LEADx, Kevin Kruse. From designing and delivering highly effective leadership development programs, to measuring and improving the employee experience, you will understand what it takes to cultivate a thriving company culture. Through interviews with Chief People Officers, deep dives into key topics, and recordings of our invite-only community sessions, we bring you cutting-edge, data-backed insights from the most desirable companies to work for in the world.

Kevin Kruse - LEADx: Hello, everyone. I'm Kevin Kruse. Welcome back to The Culture Code. Our guest today is the Chief Learning Officer at BDO Canada, and the author of the new book, The Trusted Learning Advisor, Dr. Keith Keating. Keith, welcome.

Keith Keating: Thank you. It is a pleasure and an honor to be here.

Kevin Kruse - LEADx: Now, where are you joining from today?

Keith Keating: Oh, that's not a fair question. I'm in Mexico today, but I'm based in Toronto.

Kevin Kruse - LEADx: Mexico and Toronto. Now, you know, I'm from just outside Philadelphia. But you're familiar with Philly as well, right?

Keith Keating: Yeah, I have a long-standing relationship with Philly. Go Eagles!

Kevin Kruse - LEADx: I don't think either one of us would pass as true Philly guys. I'm not going to ask about favorite cheesesteak spots or anything. We're just going to skip over all that stuff.

Keith Keating: That makes it safe. Go Eagles!

Kevin Kruse - LEADx: So, I am excited to dive in, Keith. I had a chance to meet you when you were doing a keynote speech at a training conference. You brought the house down, and lots of people were talking. You stimulated a lot of good conversation, and of course, we're here mainly to dive into your book. But you've got a unique perspective because, yes, you are Dr. Keith Keating, and you just wrote this well-researched book. But you also have real-world experience as a practitioner. So, tell our listeners about the two roles or the two hats that you've worn.

Keith Keating: Yeah. So, I'd consider myself a practitioner-scholar, with practitioner being first. And I want to remain that way. I want to remain someone who's doing the actual work, not just researching and talking about it. In my role as a practitioner, I'm immersed in the day-to-day realities of L&D. So, I work closely with stakeholders to identify their needs, develop strategies, implement solutions, and ultimately drive business results. It's a hands-on role that really keeps me connected to those opportunities in the workplace, keeps me grounded, and practical, which I think is really important. On the flip side, my academic background, which is fairly recent by the way, allows me to explore the theoretical side of L&D. As an academic, which I'm not even comfortable with that label yet, that means I engage with research, contribute to scholarly discussions, and try to stay ahead of emerging trends and models in our industry. But what's important is that every L&D practitioner should be playing in that space. That's why I don't like calling myself an academic, because then my colleagues might think, 'Well, I'm not an academic, so I don't have to do those things.' Wrong. All of us need to understand the theories behind what we do, the principles, etc. So, balancing these two worlds is incredibly rewarding. The practitioner side ensures that my work is grounded in real-world evidence, and my academic side allows me to bring in that depth of understanding, that forward-thinking approach to my practical work. So, that synergy makes me a really strong L&D practitioner, and that's what I want for everyone in our field.

Kevin Kruse - LEADx: It's reflected, the two sides. I love that, you know, practitioner and scholar. It's really reflected in your book. You write very directly something that I think some people in the L&D space might take offense at, but they wouldn't deny it, which is saying, "Hey, L&D professionals are recognized and treated as order takers." From being on the supplier side, the vendor side, for almost 30 years now, I keep wishing that wasn't true, as I try to sell it. So many L&D professionals will say, "This is great," or "This is innovative," or "We need that." And nothing happens, because in general, they don't have the budget, the authority to proactively drive new initiatives. They're taking orders from somewhere else.

But tell me more about why you started there. Was it something you faced in your own career? Is it something that you were running up against in certain places?

Keith Keating: So, I was born an order taker. My father was in the military, and not going into details, but I grew up as an order taker. When I joined the industry, I was treated like an order taker, but it was second nature to me. That's all I knew. It wasn't until about 5, or maybe 10 years in, did I, at that point, have enough experience, credibility, established the point of view where I started trying to contribute to the conversation, and then got the pushback. I was like, "Wait. But I'm the experienced one here." Specifically, what I would say is since the inception of formalized workplace learning, we have been treated like order takers. We have been taking orders by those outside of the field of L&D. We sit by while others call the shots and make the decisions. They tell us who, what, where, when, why, and how a learning intervention should occur, throw it over the fence, and then we execute it. If you think back to our history, it started that way because managers were determining what workers needed to do. They told us, L&D, that we need an employee to move this widget here, and we trained them how to do that. So, we started as order takers. Over the years, we've gained actual skills and experience. We know about the science of learning, or we should know, and we're much more than order takers, or we should be. The challenge for us, and really the impetus for my advocacy of evolving, is that we're at this stage now where we can no longer sit passively and be order takers. We have to be trusted learning advisors, strategic business partners who are embedded in the business, because ultimately, our future as an industry really depends on it. The statement I've been using a lot lately is, "We have to evolve or else," and that choice is ours.

Kevin Kruse - LEADx: Yeah. And so, you talked about being comfortable as an order taker, and let's face it, most L&D professionals, especially earlier in their careers, if that's the norm they're joining, okay, this is the way it is. I love this, like you talk about advocating for this shift, evangelizing for this shift, but it starts with us as an L&D professional, right? There are certain traits or characteristics we need to embody before we can expect people to embrace us as a trusted learning advisor. Tell me more about that.

Keith Keating: So, I want to address one thing first. It is easier to be an order taker. In some ways, it feels easier, less resistant. I know many of us are burned out because we've fought the good fight and we're constantly being pushed back to. That's one of the reasons why we need to evolve – it's for our own burnout, the sanctity of our sanity, and our industry. But beyond that, there's a whole book about the characteristics. However, as you alluded to, it's a mindset. This transformation is about adopting that mindset. It starts with our self-awareness, asking, "Where are we on that pendulum of order taker to trusted learning advisor?" and being honest about that. Then, stepping back and asking, "What would our stakeholders say?"

Because the truth is, it doesn't matter how great you think you are. If my stakeholders perceive me as an order taker, that's their reality. It's like being a leader. I can call myself a leader, but if nobody's willing to be led by me, am I a leader? If my stakeholders don't consider me a trusted learning advisor, am I a trusted learning advisor? So, it's that mindset, self-awareness, knowing where you are today to figure out where you need to go tomorrow. Of course, it's continuous learning, understanding both the sciences of learning – there is a science to learning, and so many people don't recognize that. Understand the nuances of your business. It's crucial to foster those deep relationships with stakeholders. I could go on and on, but I want to end with this: trust is one of the major characteristics of a trusted learning advisor. It's in the first word there. Trust to me is about being credible in your practice. When doing that self-awareness, have you established credibility? You want your stakeholders to trust you, but what have you done to earn it and deserve it?

So, you've got your credibility, being reliable, following through with your word, being dependable, accountable. Then, you've got the relationship sides, developing deep and meaningful relationships with your stakeholders and not just your obvious stakeholders, but think outside of that ring. Who are you missing? I'll give you one for free: the Chief Financial Officer should be one of your stakeholders.

So, we talked about credibility, dependability, relationships, being honest with your intention, not trying to subtly sell something to your stakeholders but having their best intentions at heart, and finally, solid communication skills. I know I said a lot there, but you can rewind it and listen to it again.

Kevin Kruse - LEADx: That's right. And when I was at the table group at your keynote, I think it was in Nashville, maybe. The CFO tip was something that I heard probably the most people saying, like, "Keith just gave me an action item. I've got something I'm going to do." I think so many people don't think about, "I can actually ask for a meeting with the CFO and have a conversation and build that relationship." That was really high value there. What you also did in that keynote that people had a lot of fun with, you sort of played an interactive scenario with the audience. It might have been ultimately a business challenge around retention and engagement, I think it was. And people played along. What happens in the scenario is what I think often happens in real life. We want to be a trusted advisor. I'm doing the steps to move in that direction. And then that order comes in, right? And it's like, "Kevin, we need you to build us a one-and-a-half-day workshop on these bullets using these tactics," and they just expect me to go build them. We're going to run into resistance, at least initially, as people might be used to us playing that role of order taker. So, what advice would you give to others when you initially start bumping into stakeholders who are resistant to this approach?

Keith Keating: I'll start by saying, you're always going to face resistance, or let me speak in the first person. I still face resistance. I have all the credentials I thought I needed. I have the experience I thought I needed. I wrote a book on it. I'm still treated like an order taker. So, this is a continuum. It's a pendulum. You're going to swing back and forth. You know the bumper sticker, "This is a journey, not a destination." So, just recognize that resistance is a reality. So, when you get that order, the question you need to ask yourself is, "Do I want to push back?"

And if you're going to consider pushing back, I want you to think of these three things. First of all, how established are you in your relationship with your stakeholder? Meaning, if this is a brand-new relationship, you need to establish credibility. You need to establish a relationship. Sometimes, that means taking the order and executing it, even if we know it may not be the right one. We've got to get some wins with our stakeholders. So, figure out first, where are you on that continuum of the relationship? Number two, is this a fire? If your house was on fire, you're not going to take a step back and say, "Oh, let's evaluate. Why did that happen? Did I leave the stove on? Is it arson?" No, you're going to get a hose. You're going to put the fire out. You're going to stop the pain, minimize the damage, and then you can evaluate a little bit later on. So, figure out from your stakeholder, is this a fire that needs an immediate reaction? Then, later on, you come back to our needs analysis, and everything else that we know we should be doing. And number three, the question to ask is, is this a check-the-box activity? I've been in a number of situations where the stakeholder, I've asked them directly, "Do I just need to get this done? Is this a check-the-box activity?" They're like, "Yes, we know this isn't the right way. We just got to get it done." Having that question and building that dialogue helps your relationship. Because here's a free tip for you: Your stakeholder might be an order taker too.

So, figure that out. We often try to push back. We look at our stakeholders like, "Oh, my gosh! They're giving me this order." We haven't necessarily done the due diligence to look behind the curtain to see who's pulling their strings. Did somebody tell somebody, tell somebody, and that somebody is now telling us? Then we're going back to this third person and saying, "Oh, we need more time. We need more money. We need to talk to these people. We need to do an analysis." And we're like, "Yeah, but it came from here, from here, from here. I just need to get it done."

So, those are three questions that you can ask: How established is your relationship? Is there a fire? And is this a check-the-box activity?

Kevin Kruse - LEADx: Brilliant, Keith. This is, as you know, a short format podcast and a shorter format Forbes article that we're putting together. So, I'm only going to have one more question. But before I ask it, where's the best place for our readers and listeners to follow up with you and to learn more about your work and the book?

Keith Keating: LinkedIn is a great place. For the book, you could go to

Kevin Kruse - LEADx: Wonderful! So, we're chatting here December fourteenth, at the very end of the year. What are your priorities for next year? What are you most excited about?

Keith Keating: I'm going to give you three quick ones. One, at BDO, like many, we are on the journey of AI. So, understanding how AI fits within BDO strategically, and how we build and deliver AI-related services to our clients. You know, we've got fantastic strategic partnerships with giants of the industry, including Microsoft, who has awarded us a couple of awards. No plug here, but really, to be at the forefront of AI requires L&D partnership, and it requires us to support at the pace the tech is changing. And that's an important concept, because it's changing so fast. Right now, I honestly can't keep up with all the different companies, and, you know, even just ChatGPT, changing almost overnight. But we've got to. That's our opportunity and our challenge, which is an exciting time. So that's number one. Number two, it's the call to action for us as an industry to evolve from being order takers to trusted learning advisors, strategic business partners embedded in the business. I'm going to be talking about that ad nauseum until we start to see more of a shift in our industry. Which leads me to number three, what I am excited about, but also very concerned about for next year, is a stronger focus of L&D leaders and practitioners to be looking across their organizations to figure out how AI is going to impact my organization, and how do I help that talent prepare for that shift. Because right now, every single leader in every organization across the globe is asking themselves, "How is AI going to make us more profitable, more effective, and reduce our costs?" And what do we normally mean by that? Our resources. We know today that AI is going to impact our jobs and the people that do those jobs. And so, I know right now, there's a significant portion of the population that their jobs are going to have to shift or may not be relevant as they are today.

We're not necessarily talking about that as much as we should be. We keep using the word "future," which I feel gives us this freedom like, "Oh, it's tomorrow. It's another day. It's not right now." This is now. This is our call to action now, that we need to be preparing the talent today to be able to shift for what's coming tomorrow. And that has to start today. So, those are my three areas of focus and excitement and opportunities for next year.

Kevin Kruse - LEADx: Thanks for sharing those, and just for listeners, you know, I've been, we were early at LEADx starting to share some AI stuff. We did the world's first AI-powered coach with IBM Watson back in 2019. The Wall Street Journal got very excited about it, and we learned some of the limitations of AI in the L&D and HR space. But I just caught up with a former business partner. He's been a big investor in the Philly area, created several unicorns, billion-dollar companies. And he told me he has ceased all tech investments because of AI, because AI is so transformative. Just as you said, we can't keep up with it. Every week, or every month, there's another major announcement. He feels like any bet today is too risky because sure, it could hit big, but you don't know what's coming. So, the only thing we can do right now is to be learners, you know? Try to learn about it, plan, lean into it, start to talk about it, so that when there's a clearer path, we can be ready to go. But it is certainly going to be transformative. As much as we're all talking about AI, I don't think we're talking about it enough yet. It really is going to be transformative.

Keith Keating: No, and I'm not hearing enough chatter about it in our industry. And what concerns me the most, I'm not hearing the discussions about the roles that it's already impacting or about to impact. Again, it's the word "future," which we all love. It's this really sexy term that goes with everything now. But the future of work is now, it is today.

Kevin Kruse - LEADx: Yeah, that's right. It is today. On that note, Dr. Keith Keating, author of The Trusted Learning Advisor and Chief Learning Officer at BDO Canada, thanks for your time.

Keith Keating: Thanks for having me.