‘It All Starts with Us’: 5 Key Ways Talent Development Pros Can Drive Change

I recently attended the Association for Talent Development (ATD) conference, the largest global gathering of talent development professionals. 

Over five days and 350 sessions, one message rose to the top: Talent development pros are in a key position to drive business impact, whether it’s helping build AI skills, leading a skills-based initiative, or expanding career development for employees

As Tiffany Poeppelman, director of career development at LinkedIn, shared during her session: Talent development leaders have such a unique opportunity right now when it comes to leading their organization and fostering the agility and resilience that’s going to be needed in the future of work.” 

Ready to take the reins and drive change? Here are five key takeaways from the event to point you in the right direction. 

1. AI has shifted from trend to critical skill set

Throughout the conference, hundreds of sessions focused on the implications of AI 

for learning and talent practitioners. We’ve moved past the point of accepting that AI is here. Now the focus is acting on it: How can we help our employees build skills to make the most of the opportunities ahead of us? 

In my own conversations throughout the week, attendees discussed how they are embracing AI, experimenting with it in their personal and professional lives, and brainstorming how to use it in new and better ways. I also heard concerns about how AI will impact work.

During her session, LinkedIn Data & Insights on Talent Development in the Age of AI, Tiffany encouraged talent leaders to tackle AI opportunities with a sense of urgency. Citing data from Microsoft and LinkedIn’s 2024 Work Trend Index on the State of AI at Work, she said that while 79% of leaders believe their company needs to adopt AI to stay competitive, 60% of leaders worry their organization’s leadership lacks a plan and vision to implement AI. 

To help learning and talent pros bridge this gap, Tiffany shared the LinkedIn framework for AI upskilling (featuring 50 LinkedIn Learning courses that are free through July 8) to help organizations identify where they are and take a strategic, personalized approach to build AI skills at every level of their organization. 

2. Because time is scarce, focus on a few priority skills

Throughout the conference, I heard how forward-thinking talent pros are helping their organizations become more agile and skills-based. In talking with practitioners, it’s clear that there’s a push to get more rigorous in tying skills to business impact. 

One particular theme around skill-building was how quickly things change — and how challenging it is to make time for skill-building in a changing world of work. During a fireside chat, Vidya Krishnan, chief learning officer at Ericsson, talked about a common problem: Without specific urgency and deadlines, learning can fall to the bottom of employees’ to-do lists.

“The feedback I got from employees,” she said, “was that everything we’re doing in our core work is on fire; in learning, nothing ever breaks tomorrow. You only find out years down the line that things broke yesterday.” 

Vidya recommended that organizations treat skills the same way they treat annual planning goals: While you set strategic goals that change year-over-year, you should also set target skills you build to help you achieve those goals.

She also shared how Ericsson’s skills journey started over five years ago with one skill: AI. While they’ve expanded to six to eight skills today, she said that focusing on one core skill enabled her to get the buy-in and support she needed to drive impact at scale. With large enterprise transformations, less is often more.

3. Career development is a team sport 

In the 2024 LinkedIn Workplace Learning Report, career development jumped to a top 5 priority for learning and development professionals in 2024 (up from No. 9 last year). The conference backed this up, with career development top of mind for practitioners. The biggest takeaway? Employees can’t do it alone, which is why companies are enlisting the support of managers and leaders to help people upskill and advance in their careers.

During a session called LinkedIn, NBCUniversal & Kraft Heinz Panel on AI & the Future of Skills, Terence Morley, vice president of global talent development at NBCUniversal, talked about how he and his team rolled out “Career Core Labs” to help employees proactively identify opportunities for career development. They’ve helped thousands of employees learn career navigation skills like personal branding, relationship building, and career exploration. 

They’ve also partnered with teams across HR, compensation, and different business units to help leaders understand their role in career development so they can better partner with and invest in the growth of their employees. “It’s important,” Terence said, “for leaders to play a role in facilitating career development.”

4. Engaging stakeholders drives impact

At ATD, there were over 10,000 practitioners from many types of organizations. We had myriad roles but faced similar challenges. One commonality was the need for talent and learning leaders to think more expansively and systemically about how to drive real business impact — especially since so much of our work, be it skills, AI, career mobility, or leadership development, affects the entire organization. 

As many sessions touched on, the key is to work in partnership and be more inclusive with cross-functional stakeholders. Instead of looking at our work in a silo, we must proactively reach across the organization to get support and feedback and invite other stakeholders to join us to achieve shared goals. 

In her session, Pamay Bassey, chief learning and diversity officer at Kraft Heinz, talked about the importance of reaching out to various Kraft Heinz stakeholders for their support and contributions. She and her team collaborate with leaders across the organization to measure employee engagement and identify more ways to advance self-directed learning. She also contributes to an enterprise-wide AI Learning Council, which encourages knowledge sharing, learning, and collaboration for those working in AI. 

This collaboration came to life with the company’s 2023 Ownerversity Day: “Revolutionizing Creativity and Collaboration Through the Power of AI.” As part of the program, Kraft Heinz leaders presented several “Tingly TED Talks” (Tingly Ted’s is a line of the company’s hot sauces) about how AI is driving innovation in the cutting-edge work the company is doing. 

5. Change starts with us: We have to model the learning we want to see 

It’s exciting to talk about the art of what’s possible, especially in a supportive and inspiring environment like ATD, but the real work lies in the behaviors we shift. This was an important takeaway from the conference: If we want to show up for our organization and be a part of key strategic initiatives like AI, skill-building, and career development, we have a responsibility to start modeling the learning behavior we want to see.

In my session titled Lead from Anywhere, I encouraged practitioners to lead from whatever position they are in today using a simple framework of “Learn and Teach.” The premise is that we can embrace and model learning ourselves in addition to providing learning opportunities for others.

No matter the project, program, or group you’re working on, you can always find at least one thing you can learn and one thing you can teach. By being an agent of learning and also sharing your knowledge and skills, you inspire others to embrace this mindset to fuel new ideas, solutions, and experimentation. 

This is especially true when it comes to building AI skills. Even if you are in a role or team that isn’t using AI, you don’t need to be an expert right away — change starts as a result of action. 

Pamay of Kraft Heinz exemplifies this approach. “My job is to build a culture of learning,” she said, “and while that means I have to inspire 37,000 employees to do this, that all starts with me.”

To put this into action, Pamay embarked on a “year of learning,” where she committed to learning something every day and sharing what she learned with her entire organization. She also posts these learnings on LinkedIn for her broader network to engage with.

Final thoughts: Take a chance

With change comes both excitement and challenges, which is why we all benefit from sparks of encouragement to keep moving forward in the right direction. 

That’s exactly what New York Times best-selling author Daniel Pink offered up during his keynote at ATD. Drawing on research for his book The Power of Regret, Pink reminded us that when at a crossroads, we have a choice to play it safe or to take a chance. The chance is worth taking — because, as Pink shared, we tend to regret what we don’t do versus what we do and get wrong. 

To help us in these moments of truth, Pink gave us three questions to consider:

If you were replaced at your job tomorrow, what would your successor do?What guidance would you give your best friend in that situation?What would your present-day self advise your future self to do in 2034?

Challenge and possibility are two sides of the same coin. In an ever-changing world of work, talent and learning practitioners have a chance to lead the way in creating possibilities and opportunities. As Pamay says, it all starts with us.