Speexx Exchange Podcast – Episode 19:
Transform Learning by Making New Best Friends: Strategic Partnerships for L&D with Dr. Sydney Savion

Designing the Learning Experience

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Episode 19

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Welcome to the Speexx Exchange podcast! In this episode, Donald has the fortune of speaking with Chief Learning Officer of the Year 2020, Air New Zealand’s CLO Dr. Sydney Savion. With more than 20 years of experience in learning, culture and workforce capability development, Dr. Savion offers suggestions on how to improve learning cultures. She provides input on how L&D managers can create more strategic relationships within their organizations (“find 10 new best friends”) so that L&D is able to bring the right decision-makers along on the transformation journey. Dr. Savion and Donald discuss how so often it’s not actually the board making decisions, but rather certain executives in various verticals – how do people in the HR and training industry ensure they’re aligning with the folks who are actually making things happen? Dr. Savion makes recommendations on workforce development strategies to ensure future readiness – one that yields desire business outcomes, even in this pandemic.

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Intro 0:01

Welcome to the Speexx Exchange Podcast with your host Donald Taylor. As a renowned learning and development industry expert, as well as chairman of the Learning and Performance Institute, Donald sits down with experts from around the globe to talk business communication, learning technology, language, digital transformation, and engaging, upskilling and rescaling your organization. This podcast is brought to you by Speexx, the first intelligent language learning platform for the digital workplace. Listen in and you might learn a thing or two.

Donald Taylor 0:35

Welcome to this episode of The Speexx Exchange Podcast with me, Donald Taylor. And my guest today is Dr. Sydney Savion, the Chief Learning Officer of Air New Zealand and CLO magazine’s CLO of the Year 2020. Congratulations, Sydney. Great to have you here. Very quickly, that award, you must have been delighted to receive it. How does it feel?

Dr. Sydney Savion 0:58

First of all, I’m humbled, given all the extraordinary talent around the world at the helm of learning. And it’s a delight. It’s a delight, also a surprise. But I’m very grateful, very grateful.

Donald Taylor 1:13

It’s nice to be recognized to many people in learning and development don’t get recognition but a lot of hard work when it happens especially to good people, we’re all delighted so we’ll come along on your coattails and feel good for you. Sydney, could you introduce yourself what’s your current role and your current passion?

Dr. Sydney Savion 1:29

My current role is general manager of learning for Air New Zealand. So oversee all the learning in Air New Zealand. My passion actually is just serving others. So I do a lot of volunteer work. I’ve created a program here called Project Mana, which is a literacy numeracy program. So giving individuals lifelong skills, but also helping enhance their confidence and enhance their opportunities, and also really enhancing their well-being, I think it’s all connected.

Donald Taylor 2:04

I totally agree. I love the idea of service. Are these adults you’re talking about or children?

Dr. Sydney Savion 2:11

Adults who actually are employees. So generally, with most companies, you’re going to have underrepresented populations we do here at Air New Zealand have low socio-economic status and or English is not their first language. So oftentimes that creates a barrier for them to progress at work in in life.

Donald Taylor 2:33

And that little bit of learning can, as you say, can be a huge boost to both confidence and a general feeling of well-being and worth hats off to you for doing that. Just a quick point. Your voice clearly is not New Zealand accent the astute listener will hear that you’re from the United States. Can you tell us very quickly moving from the US to New Zealand’s a big jump? What persuaded you to make that jump to go?

Dr. Sydney Savion 2:58

Wow, that’s interesting. So many of the listeners might find this quite compelling, maybe even gripping. I’m a big believer in providence and purpose. I really do. I believe that we all have a calling on this earth. And I believe oftentimes if you whether you believe in God or the universe, the stars align, to bring you to a place where you’re meant to be to fulfill that call. And I believe that’s what happened here. I was at an intersection in my profession where I was looking for higher calling to step into and Air New Zealand had a big problem, they needed solving which was transforming learning, our timing met, if you will, thanks to I got to give a shout out to my old boss, Jody King, who is now the chief people officer at Vodafone in the former CEO of their New Zealand, Christopher Luxon, who felt like I was the right person for the job. And they are the ones that brought me here to fulfill my calling for New Zealand.

Donald Taylor 4:00

That’s fantastic, big, big journey to go. Good for you for taking that step. And obviously bring your skills from the States and your experience with you into New Zealand. Now airlines are a highly regulated environment, we will know this and we take it for granted this is extraordinary amount of infrastructure background and it all has to be checked. We just we go to the airport, we get on a metal tube, we fly at 35,000 feet, we get out the other end. And if the wine isn’t cool enough, or the tea isn’t hot enough, we complain, there’s so much so much that goes into making all of those things happen. And we look at them the tiniest thing and are unhappy about it. And it’s all regulated from the pilot through the sanitation to the loading, everything is regulated. How can you take that very physical space that airlines working and do what you do which is move it to the online world? How can you do that? How did you persuade people to come on the journey?

Dr. Sydney Savion 5:00

That’s interesting. For me, it’s about partnership and strategic partnership with the business leaders. So I truly believe that the companies are run by the business leaders who oversee the verticals in the company. The CEO, and the C-suite and the board are there to steer and guide and, you know, co-create a strategy, but it really is the business leaders that drive and execute on that strategy. And so I’m a big believer. So for those listening, here’s a gem, and strategic partnerships, I always say, when you get to a new company, find 10 new best friends. And those new best friends should be the people who run this, run the company. Because I think it’s so important that learning, in order for learning to be viewed as a as a strategic asset, the business leaders have to view it that way. And being able to identify problems that learning can help solve, or at least moderate, I think is key. That’s what I would offer.

Donald Taylor 6:05

And I love this because you’re not talking about oh, I used a particular platform, you’re not saying oh, I used a particular methodology of creating content, what you’re talking about is the people in the business. And when you say business leaders, these are the these are the people who are not at the board level, but they’re probably a level down or perhaps even to level, the people who are making things happen.

Dr. Sydney Savion 6:26

The executives, the executives and also going back to those companies that are highly regulated, like the airline, it’s also this strategic partnership extends to the regulators. So having a strategic partnership with the regulators to bring them along on the journey of any transformation, because oftentimes with regulations, especially in airline industry, they’re somewhat dated in terms or lagging behind.

Donald Taylor 6:58

Let’s be fair to the regulators, they want to make sure everybody’s safe, right? So they would say they’re being cautious. But okay, they haven’t moved with the times.

Dr. Sydney Savion 7:06

Yes. So bringing them along on the journey to demonstrate that you still can fulfill that standard of competence and keep the regulations in an alternate fashion, using technology.

Donald Taylor 7:21

Okay, that for a lot of people listening, whether they’re in finance, or heavy engineering, or whatever hearing about that, and trying to apply it to their industry would be music to their ears. I don’t have to do things in that old way, I can take a new way to do it. But behind that big picture, bring the regulator on the journey with you, what are the practical steps you do to persuade somebody who may be in an office about 100 or more miles from where you are, and you have to get them to believe that this is something which you can do, which will, as you say, meet their standards, but in a different way? How do you actually prove that to them?

Dr. Sydney Savion 7:55

I’m a big believer in experiments, Donald, I believe you have to trial things like, let’s talk about about the vaccine for COVID-19, right? You have to trial that on people or whatever subjects that the drug companies need to use to ensure it actually works, but it’s a large population in terms of as valid validity, but it is a small population to get to trial thing. So I’m a big believer in trial and things and even in that trial, staying in close contact with the regulators, so they can see the evolution of that trial. So if it’s working well or not working? Well, if it’s not working well, either way, working well or not, is getting their input into that along the journey. So that is what I would say to the listeners, a practical way. And what I’ve done and done here in other companies is experiment. I think it’s so important, before you try to roll something out enterprise wide.

Donald Taylor 8:59

there’s a great tendency in learning and development, tried to create the solution, and then step up to somebody and rolled out. And I think people will probably say, well, I want to do that with the regulator, I want to go to the regulator and say, you used to do it that way. Hey, look, we’re going to do it this way now, and regulators will probably push back on that. You say, Come with us on the journey, please help us. And it’s that business, isn’t it of getting the input on the way that gets them bought into the final product that you have?

Dr. Sydney Savion 9:27

Yes. And I just think you can’t go to them with the painted picture. You have to go with here’s the blank canvas. Let’s co create this picture together. And so that way, that way, they can see the evidence, whether it’s the failures, this is they need to see it all so that for them. It’s concrete evidence that it works or doesn’t work.

Donald Taylor 9:49

Of course, you say co-created, actually you’re the one doing the work and you’re getting a bit of input from them on the way and presumably this is the same approach the managers you say to them, and the executives are saying to them, we’re going to we’d like to change. But we’re not going to present things as a fait accompli, we’re not going to say here is it’s a done deal. You work with them as well, is that the same idea, the experiment?

Dr. Sydney Savion 10:09

Same idea, but with the business leaders, since their language is about dollars, cents and data is really using their business intelligence with them, and along with learning data to bring them along on the journey, I think it’s so important. Oftentimes, I think you hear from learning practitioners that business won’t listen to me, they certainly not going to listen to a bunch of learning stuff, because one they don’t understand. It’s not like it’s not that they don’t want to, I just don’t think it’s not exactly a keen interest of there’s quite frankly.

Donald Taylor 10:48

They’re busy guys, men and women are busy people, and they’ve got stuff on their desk and learning may be an interesting side issue. But it’s not what’s keeping them up at night.

Dr. Sydney Savion 10:58

For sure. Right. However, if and I think people listening will get this, if you’re talking about cost reduction in productivity, time to proficiency, reduce incidents or accidents, things like that. People pay attention.

Donald Taylor 11:13

Sure. Hey, you got a problem, I can solve it for you. And you may not even realize your problem. But listen, you had a turnover rate of this with your staff. We can reduce it or something like that. You went to the regulators. You’ve mentioned the executives, what about the unions? Obviously, airlines heavily regulated and they are a force with them with their workers representing them, they have to broaden the journey as well. How’d you do that?

Dr. Sydney Savion 11:33

Absolutely. It’s very similar. It’s about building relationships. Here’s the thing, I think with pretty much most problems in life, it’s building relationships.

Donald Taylor 11:46

I’m getting that theme here.

Dr. Sydney Savion 11:48

Yeah, right. And working together, you know, people willing, that’s the way to go to work together to solve the problem. Because we all want the same thing. If it’s a problem, we all we all want the same thing. We want a solution, how we get there may be different. But if we can work together to you know, talk, nowadays in the US, I know in the UK, and certainly here diversity and inclusion is a big thing. So it’s not just diversity in terms of ethnicity, or culture or race. It’s diversity of thought as well, that will help, I think, get to a better solution.

Donald Taylor 12:25

I’m 100% with you on that one. I think one of the issues I’ve seen at senior levels in many organizations is a lack of diversity in thought, which often comes from the background of the people but and the lack of wide experience, which can lead to people working very quickly and fast in one direction. But when they’re presented with a new problem, they can be sideswiped, because it’s not something anybody’s got an experience of before. Now speaking about that, that brings us to the issue of change. So look, you’ve got this new form of training people, the unions are bought in, executives are bought in, regulators are bought in but change isn’t something you just turn on off like a switch. It’s not one and done. It’s a process. How do you make this change that you’ve introduced to the business a new way of getting people to learn how to make that then stick?

Dr. Sydney Savion 13:14

First of all, I think everyone listening knows there’s no textbook answer. Yes, there’s theories that we can use to help inform how we approach, what approaches we want to take but every company context is different. So there’s no real textbook answer. But in general, what I have found so in terms of practical advice, it’s going back to what I said about experimenting. And the other thing at that level when we’re talking about the employees is most employees, well, most people in general, what I would say the employees as you move down in organization, they want to know well, what’s in it for me? What’s in it for me, I have been doing it this way for 20 years, it’s been working. Yeah. Good. So why would I want to change what I’ve been doing for 20 years?

Donald Taylor 14:04

Do you have to be compelling in your answer, because particularly the airlines, you have particularly young people who’ve been there for a long time, and you have to be very persuasive. How’d you do that?

Dr. Sydney Savion 14:15

So and I think part of it is talking about using a theory is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Everybody has basic needs. And so understanding at the individual level, the group level, depending on what population you’re targeting, called the theory of motivation, what motivates people? And so that is my approach. I find out so if it happens to be cabin crew members, or what motivates the cabin crew members? One of the things for example, is you know what, they don’t get their training content to they’re actually off their aircraft. Well, why can’t we enable a feature where they can access content on aircraft. Or, oh my God they have to spend when you’re new, you have to spend six weeks in the classroom. Well, what does it have to be six weeks? Well, we can reduce that, and a big thing to talk about motivation there is with most places even in Auckland, I know it’s all relative. You know, if you’re in the UK, people say, oh, there’s a lot of traffic, in the US, there’s a lot of traffic here in Auckland, people say there’s a lot of traffic, but people don’t want to be in their cars forever trying to get to a classroom training that they have to be in for eight hours. So what if we could reduce your travel time or to zero or minimal and reduce your time in the classroom? So that makes people excited? Why in this instance, is because we’re giving time back? What if I told you, I could give you 50% of your time back that peaks people’s interest? So understanding the motivation of people, what’s the motive is going to be different for everyone or different for different groups? And how do you create this kind of, it’s almost like an elevator pitch surrounded by this being intriguing, elevator pitch in the form of a question. Would you like to get 50% of your time back? Or how would you like to get 50%? Or how would you like it if I gave you time back?

Donald Taylor 16:09

I love the elevator pitch idea. I love understanding people’s motivation. So practical question. If you go to people and say, hey, what’s your motivation? They may tell you the thing that’s top of mind for them, they may tell you what they think you want to hear. They may be very cagey or suspicious of you if you’re a new person. Right? I’ve been working here 20 years this person comes in got different accent? I don’t I don’t know her. I’m not going to tell her what motivates me. So how’d you establish the trust in the first place? To get the honest answer.

Dr. Sydney Savion 16:40

So I think it doesn’t come necessarily through a person like myself, I think it really comes through the grapevine, because there are people that those people trust. And those would be the people that people like myself would be going to. Also you are going to hear hearsay from people about things that people have been griping about forever. And nothing’s been done about it. And one of the things here’s a practical thing for people, one of the things that I did, I didn’t, you know, I have some colleagues that I’ve talked to you with CLOs had met with every single person in the learning group that they oversee. Right? So when I came to Air New Zealand, there was about 140 people in the learning function. And I did not meet with every single one. But what I did is I met with the group, so engineering trainers, cabin crew, trainers, the admin people, I met with each group, to hear them out in terms of what’s working well, what’s not working well. And as a collective group, oftentimes, people are pretty open. It’s almost like herd mentality. One person starts,

Donald Taylor 17:46

They trigger other people.

Dr. Sydney Savion 17:48

Yeah, just they’re pouring out. And so that’s the approach that I took here to get, hopefully, what I thought would end up being some honest feedback about what’s working well, and what’s not. And that way focusing on what’s not working well, those would be the things that I would tackle. And then I got them to prioritize what’s not working well. What’s the pain point on a scale of one to 10? What’s the pain point these so that we could prioritize those and then as a leader of leaders, I would tackle those things that are most painful, because you’re not, you know, you’re going to come into a place, you’re not going to solve everybody, you know, everything for everybody. So you’ve got to be very selective about what you’re going to solve. And so that’s, that was my approach this time around.

Donald Taylor 18:34

I’m sure you have to have a combination of quick wins and wins, which will affect a large number of people, rather than just going to the person who’s making the most noise. But I love what you described, which is not that you come in and you tell people but you set up the situation to listen. And then you get them to prioritize, which puts the onus on them. But you tell me of these, of these 20 things are griping about what are the top two things which we need to tackle? And I think probably that’s why you’ve won the award, Sydney, is your ability to do this facilitation to listen to people and to establish trust with them and get them talking, sharing quite naturally, very early on. This is really useful. Lots of practical stuff for people. I think we’ve covered a lot of ground. Is there anything that you think that we’ve, I’ve, missed and ask you a question? For somebody out there who’s looking to be a CLO, maybe they are a CLO right now. And they’re thinking, I need to change my organization, I need to make a shift. What would you give to them as the top tip to have a new direction in their organization? Maybe they’re there already. But they need to now take on a new direction. And typically, this means making things more digital than they’ve been in the past. Why should they start?

Dr. Sydney Savion 19:48

Well, I’m going to start with something that’s very relevant and timely and that’s this pandemic, I think has been a revelation for many companies and many people in terms of the importance of technology, and the role it plays, before, people were complaining that, you know, basically technology and AI are taking jobs, robots are stealing my jobs and now focuses on a pandemic, that’s killing people. So really, technology is not necessarily top of mind. It’s not that priority. However, as companies continue to, as companies try to survive, like the airline industry, like Air New Zealand, and other companies, other tourism outlets, or even move or take advantage of this, because they’re thriving, I think it’s really important for people for, you know, CLOs or heads of learning, or people thinking about this, this first chair, to be thinking very seriously now about their technology stack, and the viability and usability of that technology stack. That’s what I will be doing right now.

Donald Taylor 20:59

Pretty much learning should be pushing an open door right now, because technologies come to the fore, we’ve gone from online learning being a strange beast to it being something that everybody has some experience of in the last six months of the first, the first part of 2020. So suddenly, we’ve got lots of experience out there, it should be a matter of pushing an open door, you would hope.

Dr. Sydney Savion 21:21

I would hope. And the other thing I would add to this Donald that I would encourage people to do so, another tip or word of advice would be oftentimes with business continuity plans, which were quite front and center, given this pandemic, its most business continuity plans focus on supply chain management, asset protection, and in some cases, human resource protection. But very few plans have any have learning as an integral part of business continuity in the event of a crisis. And what I’ve learned and what I would encourage people to do, and I’ve written about this as well, learning should be in that plan, not reviewing the plan, in the plan, just like supply chain management, and all the other, what would be considered, business critical features that you need to protect. And it’s not just about recovery, because most plans are recovery plans, it should be about prevention, most people were not ready, right. And I think business continuity plan should be about preventing, to the maximum extent possible, impact on those features, supply chain management, human resources, assets and learning.

Donald Taylor 22:39

Yeah, I love that as an idea. I hadn’t thought about it at all, that absolutely makes perfect sense. Through learning, you get to build the capability, the resilience to withstand a shock. When you’re in the shock, you need to have the systems to keep learning and spreading good new practice in the organization rapidly. And then of course, that builds the base for a good recovery from the shock. Hadn’t about that at all. That’s a really good way actually also, for L&D to get itself more strategically noticed, because right now, people should be thinking, well, if this happens again, or even when it happens, again, we need to be better prepared. Well, L&D has got a good opportunity to step forward. Sydney, we’ve been talking for 25 minutes, I’m going to wrap up with the two questions that we always finished with on the podcast about yourself, what do you wish you’d known when you started in learning and development?

Dr. Sydney Savion 23:31

Wow, you know, here’s the thing, wisdom comes with experience. So that’s, that’s a hard one. I think this notion around making these friends, I’m a big believer that making 10 I say 10 new best friends, 5 new best friends, whatever you think, but who identify the people who are running the company, I think, you know, when I started in corporate is understanding the magnitude of importance in making those friendships work, regardless of personality, I think you have to make them work.

Donald Taylor 24:04

That is a really top tip. It really is regardless of personality. It’s up to you to make those relationships work. And if you don’t make them work, the rest of your job is going to be that much harder.

Dr. Sydney Savion 24:15

That is for sure.

Donald Taylor 24:16

Okay, so that’s one question we always ask, what do you wish you’d known and I can guarantee there are plenty people out there in learning and development who would be saying the same thing? And if you’re listening, take that to heart put it to work. What about now and the future? What are you curious about right now in workplace learning? What’s making you think? Oh, that’s exciting. I want to know more about that.

Dr. Sydney Savion 24:38

What’s making me excited right now, Donald, is artificial intelligence. How do we leverage artificial intelligence more intelligently, to help really advanced learning to a new level. I think again, all too often learning is not viewed as a strategic asset. It’s viewed as an afterthought. And, you know, our ability to position learning as a strategic asset is important. And I think artificial intelligence is going to play a role in that. Being able to use that more smartly to advance learning and when I say learning for those of you who are listening, it’s not training, I consider myself a specialist in learning processes informed by neuroscience and behavior science findings, so that scholarly research that informs a lot of what we do and the practices that we use today, are also the kind of scholarly findings that need to be used in learning. So that you can continue to fortify learning as a discipline. It is a discipline, and for me, it’s going to be artificial intelligence creating a better way to leverage learning more intelligently.

Donald Taylor 26:04

I love that. And I also agree, I do a lot of research of what people think is important, a lot of people talking about artificial intelligence, that’s one thing. But also looking at its current uses, very often in some small applications and also on some very big applications, there are some huge things happening right now with AI. People may not be aware of, but certainly they are really talking about behavioral science. Looking at how you can help people change and alter their behavior using some smart AI in a very positive way that works for them and their company.

Sydney, this has been great. I could sit here chatting with you all day, but it’s just 9 o’clock in the morning in London and I know with you it must be really late in New Zealand, it’s past 10 o’clock. You’ve been really good spending this time late in your evening with us. You’re now captured of course on the Speexx podcast. I’m looking forward to, I hope more conversations in the future, but for now, thank you so much, Dr. Sydney Savion.

Dr. Sydney Savion 27:02

Thank you Donald, take care.

About Donald Taylor

Donald Taylor

Chairman of the Learning and Performance Institute since 2010, his background ranges from training delivery to managing director and vice-president positions in software companies. Donald took his own internet-based training business from concept to trade sale in 2001 and has been a company director during several other acquisitions. Now based in London, he has lived and traveled extensively outside the UK and now travels regularly internationally to consult and speak about workplace learning.

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About Dr. Sydney Savion

Mirjam Neelen

As General Manager, Learning for Air New Zealand Dr. Sydney Savion is instrumental in shaping an iconic workforce and workplace and enhancing its learning, development, and measurement strategies in alignment with talent development and business goals. Throughout her dynamic career she has created and executed strategies for fostering an innovative learning culture and a high-impact learning organization. Passionate about her research interests, she stands at the forefront of translating growing behavioral and neuroscience findings that link how people learn and learning interventions.

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