How to Build a Culture of Innovation Through L&D

We spoke to L&D professionals at Bayer, Ernst & Young, Wyndham Destinations, Bonobos, and CyberCoders to learn about how they influence innovation within their companies. 

Featuring interviews from L&D professionals bringing their companies into the

How do you identify a culture of innovation?

While it can look different in every company and industry, certain traits stand out. We spoke to L&D professionals at Bayer, Ernst & Young, Wyndham Destinations, Bonobos, and CyberCoders to learn about how they influence innovation within their companies.

There should be no surprise that these companies leading the charge are unafraid to take risks, create environments where employees can personalize their learning, and are role models for the rest of the company in terms of L&D. 

Create a Safe Space

Innovation happens when employees feel free to take risks without repercussions.

Focusing on employees’ individual strengths has been key to creating a culture of innovation, according to Tiffany Poppa, the Director of Employee Experience at Bonobos, the first digitally native vertical brand that was acquired by Walmart in 2017.

“The Gallup StrengthsFinder assessment is the first stop on the Bonobos learning journey,” Poppa says. “From there, managers, directors, VPs, and Chiefs go through our Managing for Success program, which focuses on feedback, delegation, coaching and mindset while leveraging the power of positive psychology and strengths to facilitate those conversations.”

“Focusing on strengths creates trust; it creates a safe space to try something and possibly fail, have a conversation about it, and move forward.”                


For Bonobos, innovation is a byproduct of their culture that prioritizes relationship-building and trust between employees and managers over learning hard skills.

“Our strengths-based approach has effectively fostered a culture of collaboration and open communication because it celebrates the individual,” Tiffany Poppa says.

“Focusing on what’s right with people makes for an inclusive environment where people can openly express themselves, their ideas, and even their challenges.”


Encourage Idea-Sharing

Hand-in-hand with creating an environment where risks can happen without repercussion, encouraging idea-sharing between colleagues on all levels of the organization will also propel innovation. The L&D team at CyberCoders, the recruiting firm that’s a division of On Assignment, aims to make this possible through their Associate Recruiter Incubator Program, a program for new employees that combines intensive education with mentoring to ensure they have the skills they need to excel in the tech industry.

“For this program, my team and I hire, manage, train, and ramp up individuals that have no prior sales or recruiting experience,” says Dani Chang, Training Manager at CyberCoders.     

“We keep these new recruiters for a period of eight weeks, and then, if they graduate, we place them on teams that we feel are best suited for their management style.  This has greatly contributed to a culture of idea-sharing and cohesiveness. Once on teams, they are exposed to new techniques from their managers and teammates.

These ideas are normally kept within the team, but with the bond created in the 8-week program we are seeing all prior generations of Associate Recruiters coming together to foster a culture of support and innovation.”

The takeaway?  Create programs that allow employees to cultivate their individual strengths while building relationships with others on the team. Where there’s support, there’s innovation – and trust needs to exist between team members for innovation to flourish.           

Keep Your L&D Function Agile

For  Anthony  Sandonato,  the  Vice  President of  Learning  and  Development  at  Wyndham Destinations, an agile L&D program is the key to  supporting  innovation,  especially  with  their massive workforce of 25,000 employees in 110 countries.

The team received a silver Brandon Hall Group Excellence in Learning Award in 2017 for creating a top learning strategy. One of Wyndham’s key L&D programs is Destination U, their corporate university.

“The framework for Destination U has been designed to be open and flexible to allow for changes in internal reporting structures, as well as mergers and acquisitions,” Anthony Sandonato says.

“Our L&D team structure is built upon that flexible framework, and designed to remain nimble and adjust to continuous organizational changes without compromising either the speed or quality of our talent development strategies.”

An overly-planned L&D program is less likely to adapt with any changes in business strategy, so don’t be afraid to stray from your schedule when business needs shift. This also means that for innovation to occur, your program needs to tailor itself to the individualized present (and future) need of employees.

This personalization is something professional services organization, EY (Ernst & Young), accommodates within their Audit Academy. While auditing is, of course, a regulated industry, and the Academy does include a core, required curriculum, employees have the ability to customize their learning experience. This makes learning more effective and efficient, which is especially important considering lack of time is often one of the greatest barriers to L&D.

“That personalization can come either from our professionals accessing required content at the right time for them, or from choosing specific content relevant for their role and the clients they’re working on,” says Martin Hayter, the Global Assurance Learning Leader for EY.

office meeting

Experiment (and then Recalibrate)

Innovation comes from risk-taking for pharmaceutical giant Bayer. But since there are so many effective mediums and methods to deliver learning in 2019, it’s important to think outside the box and beyond traditional learning - and to never be afraid of recalibrating based on results.

Karen Bicking, the Head of US Learning & Talent Development at Bayer, piloted an action learning program for the pharmaceutical side of the company in 2018, which sparked an almost immediate effect.

“We took some leaders and they delivered some work on some projects that were outside of their normal space,” she says. “They gained experience beyond their regular role and gained exposure to senior leaders. We’ve seen a great outcome from that with a number of them being promoted already even though the program has just concluded.”

But not every experiment works. Bayer does evaluations and continuously monitors feedback in order to produce and develop the most innovation-driving programs.

Look Beyond Your Organization

In order to inspire a culture of innovation, look outside your company walls for guidance. Other companies and teams likely have excellent insights that you can apply to your own programs. In order for your L&D team to create a culture of learning for your organization, your team itself must also be constantly learning.

“You can influence innovation when you’re living it,” Karen Bicking says. “Read externally what other organizations are doing. I’ve personally reached out to people who have spoken out at conferences and people are generally very willing to have conversations in the learning community.”

Participating in industry L&D or HR award programs is another way to get insights on your strategy and programs, and it’s one approach EY has used to benchmark themselves.

“We have made a point of submitting our programs because we believe it’s a way of validating whether we really are adopting or creating leading practices,” Martin Hayter, of EY, says.

EY’s Audit Academy has been recognized multiple times by the Brandon Hall Group, winning nine Excellence in Learning Awards in seven separate categories over the last few years. Their L&D team also works with external vendors to ensure they’re incorporating the best practices in the industry.

An innovative, forward-thinking L&D team is one way to spark progress across the entire organization.

Embrace Diversity

Research shows that companies with diverse and inclusive workforces are more innovative and profitable - and increasing inclusivity isn’t something that needs to be relegated to your company’s talent management or D&I functions. L&D teams should create or offer initiatives themselves.

“We have programs geared toward diversity and inclusion so we partner with some external organizations to help develop our women leaders, for example,” Karen Bicking, of Bayer, says. These sorts of programs have paid off. Bayer has been recognized by Working Mother magazine as a top-100 company for working mothers eight times and has received The Catalyst Award, the highest honor for diversity in the U.S.

Diversity has also been a way for EY to set itself apart from the competition and spark innovation within the team.

“We’ve had people from over 25 different countries developing our content,” says Hayter.

“The team has a global flavor to it. It brings more creativity and higher quality and we know that the content we develop is going to be applicable to different cultures, and to both emerging and mature markets.”

The research is clear: the more diverse your team, the stronger your culture of innovation will be.

brainstorm in office

Make the Connection between L&D and Innovation Explicit

You could plan great L&D initiatives and hope that it sparks innovation company-wide, or you could be even more proactive. Bonobos does just this with their Learn.Know.Bos annual learning conference. This past year, they focused on innovation specifically.

“The conference included guest speakers, as well as small workshops that focused on things like creative thinking, overcoming unconscious bias, and strengths-based innovation,” Poppa says.

“We closed the week with a hack-a-thon, which brought the lessons to life in real time.

The team loved the week so much we’ve continued our innovation speaker series and have had thought-leaders in the industry speak to our team on the different facets of innovation.”

Planning programming around the concept of innovation might include a speaker series with innovators in your industry, a course on design thinking, or hack-a-thons where employees get to take a step back from their daily duties and focus on what could be improved at the company.

Don't Get Complacent

Evaluation and recalibration are at the heart of world-leading innovation initiatives. Through surveys, focus groups, or other evaluations, it’s crucial to determine which programs work, which can be optimized, and which should be scrapped.

Even more critical, however, is that you cultivate a working environment where employees can question current processes without repercussion.

In a space where there’s mutual trust, reflection can grow into innovation.

This article is part of the U.S. L&D Report 2019: Benchmark Your Workplace Learning Strategy. 

Download the report below:

What's included?

  • The employee training modalities, number of days of training, and budget outlook for corporate learning in 2019.

  • Down-to-earth advice from L&D leaders to help you adopt cutting-edge innovation and diversity and inclusion programs. 

  • How corporate learning leaders rank their impact in their organization, adopt new technologies, and engage employees in 2019.

U.S. L&D Report: 2019
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