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Transitioning From Instructional Designer to Learning Thought Leader

Many individuals find themselves to be “accidental” learning professionals. Often the trajectory looks like this: an individual excels in their job role and are brought into the world of learning and development (L&D) as a subject matter expert (SME). They enjoy the project and are asked to take on increased responsibility in learning projects as time goes on. Eventually they find themselves in the position to take on a leadership position within their L&D organization.

Does this sound familiar? If so, you may be asking yourself: How do I gain confidence and position myself as a learning leader when my background isn’t in learning?

Let’s explore some simple ways to shift your mindset into a leadership perspective and be seen as your organization’s L&D thought leader.

1. Be curious.

It may seem simple, but the best way to learn is to ask questions. While you may know and understand your organization’s business goals and vision, do you know how the various departments or individuals interpret them?

Find time to network with individuals at all levels and departments in your organization, even if they aren’t a stakeholder in a current learning initiative. Ask about business goals, departmental challenges and their personal growth priorities. Be sure to ask questions you think you already know the answer to. Sometimes, hearing the answer in someone else’s words will uncover nuances you may not have considered.

By showing a genuine interest in their corner of the organization, you’ll not only be able to speak more confidently when approaching future training needs, but also will position yourself as an ally.

As you build relationships, dig deeper into each group you work with. What metrics are departments measuring their success by? What growth opportunities are available for individual job roles? What does each department’s tenure and career pathing look like? Are there skilling gaps that aren’t being addressed currently? Even if these are not items you can address in an immediate learning project, understanding the landscape helps you make informed and strategic decisions as you build future learning solutions.

2. Foster a culture of learning.

Thought leaders never stop learning — even if they already have years of experience in their field. There are countless free opportunities to grow your knowledge: look for podcasts, webinars, publications and other opportunities to learn more about currently trending learning topics. Set a weekly goal to consume at least two new resources.

Don’t limit your learning to L&D related topics, either. Learn about your industry and other fields, like human resources, marketing, sales enablement, leadership and more. Stay up to date on the latest technology, trends and tools — and on your competitors. Gaining a deeper understanding of the roles you are building training for gives you a bigger seat at their table and shows your commitment to helping others grow.

If you have financial backing, there are also countless certifications you can earn online that don’t require a multi-year commitment. Beyond learning invaluable industry knowledge, these courses can also be an opportunity to grow your network and hear from other professionals.

As you continue to grow your own knowledge, you are setting an example for others in your organization. Share what you learn and encourage others to do the same. If possible, set up a dedicated space to share articles, book recommendations, technology suggestions and to celebrate new certifications.

3. Go beyond the obvious.

When approaching a new project or learning initiative, one of the biggest mistakes a new leader can make is thinking too narrowly. Look at every new project as an opportunity to ensure you are aligned with business objectives and anticipating future needs. Ask yourself: Is this project a quick fix to a bigger issue? Will this information be outdated in a short amount of time? Proactively adapt your learning programs and choose methodologies that will endure the evolving needs of your organization.

You also want to ensure you don’t fall into becoming an order-taker. Instead, dig deeper in to the “why” for the training. Let’s say you are approached to create a training module outlining steps for call center agents to properly categorize calls in their notes, which is a current pain point for the department. It would be easy to immediately jump into building a step-by-step guide of the process.

However, if you conduct an analysis before beginning development you might learn that agents only have 30 seconds between calls and aren’t able to complete all the steps in that time. A training module will not solve this issue. If you created learning modules without understanding the root cause of the issue, the original requestor will question why your module didn’t move the needle on performance.

4. Welcome feedback and iterate — on yourself and on your projects.

You’ve probably heard some version of the quote, “You should never be the smartest person in the room.” Great leaders surround themselves with others they can learn from, and proactively solicit feedback. Take time to sit and reflect on the constructive criticism you receive. Defensiveness is a normal reaction when confronted with critique, but overcoming it is pivotal for fostering personal growth. Approach feedback with a mindset of openness and curiosity. Take time to actively listen and reflect on others’ viewpoints before responding. Once you are ready, create goals for improvement and share them with your peers/mentor(s) to hold yourself accountable.

When working on a project, share your work with others as you progress. Hold brainstorming sessions, ask for opinions, and don’t be afraid to take chances. Thought leaders are often those who embrace experimentation.

5. Don’t be afraid of your own voice.

By sharing your thoughts and expertise with others, you grow both your own confidence, and the confidence others have in you. Start by sharing your thoughts and ideas internally. This can be through speaking up more often in strategic planning sessions or project meetings, providing feedback to others in your department, or finding a new tool to share with your project team. Consistently delivering great products also builds your credibility internally.

You should also build your personal brand outside of your organization. Build an online presence by sharing your thoughts on a webpage, blog or through social media. Network with other professionals through industry events, professional organizations, and online communities. Build these relationships by engaging in meaningful discussions, collaborating on projects such as podcasts or articles with peers, and sharing your wins (or struggles). Participate in panels, podcasts, and conferences as often as possible to expand your network and continue building your personal brand.


As you continue to grow in your role as a learning leader, remember to stay patient and positive. Building thought leadership takes time and persistence. Don’t expect overnight success or instant recognition. Stay committed to your journey, consistently delivering value and contributing meaningfully to your organization. As your knowledge and skills grow, so will your confidence and personal brand.

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