February 7, 2022

Getting on the Front Foot with Stephan Thoma

Matthew Birchall

Stephan Thoma does not shy away from change. The former Global Head of Learning and Development (L&D) at Google, who currently leads his own talent development advisory business, has forged a successful career by actively embracing it. With an enterprising nature and a Rolodex that spans the globe, Thoma has made an art form of staying relevant in the notoriously fickle field of modern L&D. So what exactly makes Thoma tick? And perhaps more importantly, what’s his advice for people looking to make their mark in the industry?

So, tell us about your journey to Google…

I originally joined Google in an EMEA role, so supporting Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Helping them set up the talent and learning development function there was my main responsibility. This position kept me occupied for the first couple of years, before I was given the opportunity to lead the global team. But how did I get there? I’m an engineer by origin, so taking a systems-wide view has been key. I’ve always pursued opportunities with the intention of scaling and growing my contribution; taking on increasingly complex roles has also been a guiding principle of mine. While the impact of my role has grown, it’s been an iterative and agile process.

“You know, I didn’t have a design to end up at Google: it just kind of ended up that way. But I certainly found my niche in tech, mainly in the US tech sector as a European.”

Do you teach or present at industry events?

Yes, I do. I actually started doing talks before I was at Google – it started when I was working for General Electric, and subsequently Cisco Systems. There has been a lot of demand recently. I have actually just delivered a session and chaired a stream at the HRcoreLAB in Barcelona, for instance, and I have spoken at events like the CLO symposium in Miami a few years ago and elsewhere around the world. People have become very interested in Google and how it runs its business, how it thinks about managing its people, and how it thinks about learning and development.

Curiously people have become more interested in hearing me speak since I left Google. They’re very keen to learn about any potential transferable organisational practices and things that we did at Google that could be effectively deployed elsewhere.

Given this interest I’ve had to limit myself to giving one talk a quarter! In addition to external speaking events I also do quite a few in-company sessions with teams across the tech space, and also traditional businesses, typically those for whom tech/digital is transforming their business model.

What’s your view on best practices?

I have some pretty strong views on this insofar as I don’t think there are any best practices. Whether it’s Google or somebody else, I believe that the notion of best practices is the wrong frame. I think there are practices that have worked for certain organisations, in their context and given their dynamic, and if one looks at those as case studies, and thinks about what pieces of this might work for another context, then that’s the right frame for looking at things.

Over at Google, for example, the predominant strand to our learning and development strategy was predicated on peer to peer learning. A lot of that is very applicable to other organisations, particularly smaller organisations, but not in the way that Google did it because, of course, that was unique to Google’s culture and organisational maturity.

What’s been your best learning experience?

The best learning experience I had actually came from some pretty tough times and tough situations where I had to deal with barriers and constraints. I was forced to think creatively around these constraints and get the support of the people around me. A tangible example of this is a company I worked for in the cable industry a while back. The business that I was working for ran out of money, went into chapter 11 bankruptcy. The bondholders became the shareholders, and really squeezed the company’s assets to stop it from going under altogether.

That was a really tough environment in which to not only maintain but also ramp up the effectiveness of our talent strategy in a world where we were strapped for cash.

Looking back on it now, how I dealt with those tough times was far more beneficial in terms of my learning than when times were easiest.

What’s your view on a traditional university background versus vocational learning?

I think that people come from a variety of backgrounds. So, in my case, I’m an engineer by background and not a psychologist. I’ve learnt my L&D craft through on the job experiences. There are people who have gone the other route, however. I’ve seen a number of people who come in and do an MSc in Human Resources and Organisations at the LSE, for example, and this gives them a great theoretical framework but not much practical experience. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way to do it.

What’s particularly topical in the L&D space at the moment?

There’s an awful lot going on at the moment. Whether that’s social learning or gamification or 70/20/10, there are tons of articles, resources and books coming out. That being said, the major move has been towards on the job learning and peer and mentor supported learning rather than formal classroom learning. This is the really hot and happening dynamic within L&D at the moment. In addition to this, I believe that L&D and talent functions need to start thinking carefully about the sort of world we live in: we are living through a moment of unprecedented change and uncertainty about the future, so organisations really need to push hard to embrace this and hone their ability to adapt and evolve.

The ability to flex and develop the kind of organisational shock absorbers that will help companies navigate these uncharted waters is a huge priority.

For L&D practitioners this means working on what I would call meta-level capabilities; so things like learning agility, comfort with ambiguity, understanding change leadership – these are the things that really matter now. But it’s tough for L&D functions when you’ve got to work on improving stuff like onboarding processes, management skills, and functional skills such as sales or coding. These things are completely legitimate and need to be targets for learning and development functions, but they need to also spend a proportion of time working on these meta-level capabilities. If they don’t then they’re not doing what they need to do in service of the longer term future of their organisation.

How can talent functions learn to become comfortable with ambiguity?

I think it’s mainly practice or simulation based so I’m not sure there’s much you can give people by way of a theoretical frame. Perhaps you could give them a theoretical reference point to give them some mental models, but I think it’s predominantly through playing ‘serious’ games and real life experience. This means learning through creative simulations, case studies, and working groups; it also means really pushing experiential learning and encouraging feedback and reflection. Now these can obviously be baked into a workshop or an online learning platform, but the main thing is to ensure that people have safe places to play and push the boundaries. This is what truly fosters comfort with ambiguity.

What advice would you give to people looking to enter the L&D world?

Well, I guess I have several pieces of advice. First of all, they need to have something that gives a hiring manager or hiring organisation some degrees of comfort that they have some credibility in this space. This is the case even if the applicant is straight out of college with no work experience. So, for instance, what have they taken on that suggests that they could be potentially successful in L&D? Have they taken on, say, a coaching position within a sports team? Or do they have some vocational interest or do some altruistic work in supporting and mentoring people? Where is there real tangible evidence that they’ve got some real capability in this space? That’s the question hiring managers will be asking.

Secondly, I would recommend that people make the most of external L&D resources. So, for example, Don Taylor’s Learning and Skills Group is a great resource to get up to speed and to hear about what other organisations are doing. I would certainly recommend joining that and learning from that. I’d also think about the notion of 20% time – we used this a lot at Google. The principle is to allow employees to spend 20% of their time on other projects that are in service of the organisation outside of their core role. Most organisations obviously can’t do this. Nevertheless, I would encourage individuals to think about how they can package up a project or some parcel of their time so that they can get involved in a development initiative of one sort or another. That way you can start to experiment and you can start to gain some experience and expertise, and you can also start to send some signals internally in your organization or externally into the marketplace that you’re serious about this.

Are there any books, resources or events that you would recommend to readers wanting to find out more?

There is a very interesting common interest group organised by several people from Veran Performance. It’s called myHRcareers and is run by Charlotte Hallaways. It’s a London based HR networking group aimed at aspiring and junior HR and L&D professionals. It’s free to join and I’ve heard good reports about it, so that would be one concrete thing that I’d recommend. Another thing worth getting involved with is the twice-yearlyLearning Technologies Expo at Olympia, which is also free to attend. It gives you a really good handle on what’s going on in the L&D space.

Are there any thought leaders worth tracking?

Charles Jennings would be one to keep tabs on. There are also various people who have blogs and Twitter accounts. There’s a lady called Julie Drybrough whose Twitter handle is fuchsia_blue. Her website, which goes by the same name, has a whole lot of articles centred on L&D – that’s worth investigating. In terms of video resources, Learning Now tv and Fuse Universal are worth exploring. Fuse has a whole bunch of open community forums with L&D thinking and material on it.

What skills do you think successful L&D functions possess?

There’s clearly the role related stuff you need, and of course business insight and credibility. Either you have it or you at least have some evidence to show that you have the capability in those spaces.

But for me that’s just the price of admission. That’s not enough. What you also need is the ability to engender followership.

Can you get people committed and behind your ideas and way of thinking? Can you generate support for what you want to do without recourse to hierarchical power? I think for me that’s the real differentiating element. Can you mobilise people and can you mobilise and build a team behind you? The more you can create followers, especially the first couple of followers, the better. This holds true even if you’re an individual contributor or first level team member in an organised group – it remains the key differentiating factor.

What skills or attributes made candidates stand out at Google?

We were always looking for people who had domain expertise for a particular role. But more than that we wanted candidates who had something that differentiated them, in a good way. For example, had an individual done something that marked them out from everybody else? Did they spend time on extracurricular activities? Or did they have a passion for a particular sport or a passion for something that’s a bit wild and wacky? Just something that’s compelling about them, really.

I think there’s a real risk in saying that we look for people from a certain background or from a certain academic institution in that it closes down talent from other places. We tried not to do that at Google.

Instead we were interested in people that had something different about them, some sign of going above and beyond, and /or some spark of inspiration.

Is there anything else that you feel we should be asking you?

I think the main thing that springs to mind is that people in L&D should be brave. I worry a bit that HR and L&D folk sometimes see themselves as support functions. They are support functions on one level, but that mentality creates a kind of subservience in the organisation. In a way this is correct because we need to do things in service of the business needs of our clients. But I think the key differentiating dynamics going forward will increasingly revolve around people and culture. How are companies going to get the best out of their people? I think we are a strong position to address this question and take the lead.

I think L&D and HR people should have a much stronger point of view for their organisations and be much more proactive than perhaps they are in some organisations. They need to be brave.

Now, they need to do that founded on a point of view and that point of view needs to be founded on data and a substantive, objective hypothesis. But I think it’s time for us to get far more on the front foot than we have been in the past.

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