Cultivating an Engaging Learning Culture through Connection & Curiosity

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Welcome to the second episode of All About HR! The podcast & video series for all HR Professionals and business leaders who want to future-proof their organizations and learn the latest trends & insights from industry experts, CHROs, and thought leaders.

In this interview, we welcome Debora Gallo, Learning and Development Director at SentinelOne. Debora is an L&D Leader with a successful track record in building and managing L&D teams in fast scaling, hypergrowth organizations, ranging from ING to Netflix. 

In this episode, Debora explains how to cultivate a learning culture in a growing organization  – and how to do it successfully in the new era of remote work. 

Follow our conversation to discover more about:

  • The biggest pitfalls when building a learning culture from scratch remotely
  • How to make sure that your organization’s learning culture doesn’t dilute during periods of rapid growth
  • Where the learning culture starts: at the hiring phase or after
  • The biggest challenge for learners during (remote) learning
  • Learning content trends and engagement

Watch the full video to find out everything you need to know about developing and rolling out coaching, team effectiveness, OD programs, and how to best introduce & cultivate a learning culture.

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Transcript:

Neelie Verlinden: Deb, welcome along to this episode of All about HR. I am so happy that you are joining us today. How are you, first of all?  

Debora Gallo: I’m great Neelie, super excited to be chatting to you. And yeah, it’s a sunny day. It’s beautiful. We’re heading into the weekend here. I’m good.

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Neelie Verlinden: Likewise, I’m very much looking forward to our conversation. Now before we’re going to dive into, let’s say, a little bit more serious stuff, Deb. I know that you recently joined a new company – Sentinel one. So you went through the onboarding. We were chatting a little bit before we were having this conversation about how that was. And of course, in your privileged previous job, you developed and rolled out onboarding programs. So you were at the other end, actually, of the whole onboarding process. So how long has it been for you to be on the receiving end of the onboarding process?

Debora Gallo: Great question. I was just thinking about that. It’s like a roller coaster. It’s all sorts of emotions, and incredibly humbling, because I came in thinking I know all about onboarding. I’ve done it, I’ve organized it, I’ve delivered it. Piece of cake. And then as I sort of sat in that onboarding roller coaster, I’m like: Oh, this is really difficult. It’s been very eye opening to be on the other side. And to actually experience virtual onboarding during the pandemic, we’re still sort of in lockdown, and having to meet and sort of build relationships online, it’s a lot more difficult than what I was expecting. But roller coasters go up and down, but I’m on the up and feeling good about it now. So yeah, it’s nice. 

Neelie Verlinden: So happy to hear that. And yeah, I hope it will keep going upwards and upwards from now. 

Debora Gallo: I hope so. At some point, there is a bit of a dip, but I’m ready for it. 

Neelie Verlinden: Cool. Now, we’re not going to make this a conversation about a COVID at all, but at the same time, it is a little bit strange not to touch on the past year or so. So if we look at L&D, how do you think that it has changed, in any way? 

Debora Gallo: I think it definitely has changed, at least from my experience in the organizations that I’m working in. Obviously it’s a different context and different needs. So what was once a very, you know, you have your programs that are running, you knew what you were doing, the face to face interactions, and there were sort of virtual and blended, that was all working, but from one day to another way everyone is in a level situation. And we’re all virtual, and really having to rethink how we connect with our learners, with our staff. How we engage them, it’s not the same during a recipe, then when you do it sort of in a face to face environment. It has taken a lot of rethinking, and also learning some new skills. Facilitating online. I mean, not everyone has had an opportunity to do that sort of thing the last 12 months, and really trying to be creative and innovative in how we use the tools that we have at our disposal that we may not have been using to its full extent before. So definitely a shift. And I think what I’m curious about is as we come out of this phase, how do we build on what we’ve just learned and what we’ve tried and everything that we’ve been doing? How do we then take it to the next step? I don’t think we’re going to go back to how things were. I think it’s going to be a hybrid environment, which is a new learning because I think after this is people working from home, so I’m in the office, we now have a hybrid. Okay, how do we keep engaging and upskilling and sort of connecting when we’re in that kind of environment? So I think we’ve learned a lot, I think there’s still a lot for us to keep learning.

Neelie Verlinden: Yes. That was a great answer, I think there are so many elements that I feel like I want to unpack in that. And I think we will touch on some of these things a little bit later in our conversation. I’m gonna, let’s say, perhaps take a step back. And let’s talk a little bit about cultivating a learning culture, because that’s one of the things that you’ve been working on as well, when you were at Netflix. Now, I imagine that cultivating a learning culture is a big undertaking under any circumstances, let alone when at some point, the world finds itself in a pandemic, and people have to work remotely. Now, we can touch on some of the biggest differences between cultivating a learning culture in a, let’s say, pre COVID era, and then, you know, when all of a sudden you have to continue your efforts, but then remotely, can you tell us something about that? 

Debora Gallo: Yeah, I think building a learning culture is essential to everybody in the L&D space. When we think about learning, obviously the social component of it is huge. I mean, we’re social beings, we learn with others through others, just being around people, being coached by the mentor. So I think when we go from a learning culture where you have access to the end, it happens ad hoc, either intentional or just sort of these moments just happens to an environment where you really have to be a lot more intentional, and you don’t have those connections that just happen, you really need to build them design them. So really think about it, it really takes the strategizing to the next level, because you just have to be so much more intentional. So I think that’s the biggest difference is that being intentional about the connections that you’re building the relationships, the learning experiences, people at home, or wherever they are working, feel connected to each other, to the organization and to the learning? So I would say it’s a little bit harder. And it takes a lot more intentionality.

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Neelie Verlinden: Yeah, absolutely. Because I’m just thinking, you know, so we are now back in the office here in Rotterdam. And then there really is a difference when more people have the team in the same space. And you hear people talking, indeed, and you hear them talking to each other. These are all learning moments. And so yes, when you’re remote, and everybody is in their own place. Yeah, you miss out on these learning moments. Have you found a bit of a solution on how to maybe create these ones? 

Debora Gallo: I don’t know if I’d say a solution. I like to think in terms of experiments and what we’re trying and sort of saying, ‘Okay, let’s see how this works.’ And looking at the tools that we have, and these spaces where people connect, and then we were using them before. So really looking at how we make more moments of connection? Can we do that through these tools? How do we integrate these into the learning experience? Do we need a new set of tools or new ways of connecting people? And the other thing is the moments that you have with people. How do we make those moments really count and really special and focus on the things that we really need to sort of dive into sometimes? When you’re in a face to face environment, you can have a session where you bring everyone in; it’s easier. You know, when it’s online, you just really need to think okay, how this moment that I have everyone, it’s really special now. So how do I make the most of that and make the learning in that space really count? It’s just thinking about what we’ve been doing and looking at our tools. Okay, what can we use? How can we connect people? How many more touch points do we need to build in? And how does that fit in? With all the other stuff that’s going on, all the other zoom sessions and meetings and stuff that people have? Like, does it make sense to just keep adding on top of that? Or do we need to think about this differently? 

Neelie Verlinden: I like that. And I like how that is completely in the spirit of being in this mindset of always learning, right? That is exactly what experimenting is about because you do an experiment, you learn something from what went well, what didn’t go so well. And how can we improve that? So I like that a lot. I wanted to go to the hiring process and talk about that for a moment. Because if in an organization, you’re cultivating a learning culture, or you perhaps already have established a learning culture, I can imagine that it’s important that when you hire people that you keep that in mind. Now, how can you make sure during the hiring process that people will fit within that? That learning culture? 

Debora Gallo: Yeah, no, I love that question. And, you know, the way I think about L&D is as a people fit, I love to think about it like how do how does this person enhance the culture? How is this person going to help build the learning culture because that learning process is continuously evolving, and we don’t want it to stay static or to fit people into it? So the way I see it is that the hiring process is a bit of a dance, it’s like, okay, let’s see if you know how well we dance together. And can you make this sort of choreography for this dance? Like even better? But there’s two things. There’s a new person or a candidate coming in. And kind of what I’m attuned to is the level of curiosity, and the level of is this person open to learning just within our conversation? And I think the key thing is making it a conversation where we’re learning about each other and not a conversation where I’m testing you to see if you pass the test so that you fit into our culture. So that’s the first step in terms of welcoming in opening up and saying, Hey, this is our culture. I’m attuned to how curious you are. And also I need to be able to show and entice and be open to this is how we are and how we’re building to any consciousness. The candidate can also say, yeah, you know, I see myself dancing in that and helping making it even better,

Neelie Verlinden: Very much like that analogy of dancing and getting the choreography and seeing how you can actually be together with the candidate, maybe make that choreography even richer. Now, is there any difference between if you hire more junior people or if you’re actually hiring more senior people, because managers for instance, often play such an important role in really championing this learning culture? Is there a difference? Or is that something that you tried to figure out during this dance? That is then the hiring process? And if you’re not really sure, if there is that certain level, for instance of curiosity, or the potential for that, is it then still something that maybe can be ingrained afterwards? So once someone is actually joined? 

Debora Gallo: That’s a really good question. I mean, I think there’s the Curiosity plays, which I think applies across the board. So whether we’re hiring sort of at a junior level, or at a senior level, and being curious and open, and also humble to acknowledging sort of what you don’t know, I think as you get higher and higher, I particularly look out for that sort of humility, that self awareness, that curiosity, because that’s what you want your leaders to role model. So if you see that if we can pick that up, if you can identify that from the beginning, then I think there are better chances that they will be able to maybe draw that in and really be a role model that once they’re in the organization, I think. Can people sort of learn that once they’re in the organization? Of course, I believe that everyone has the potential to learn. So I think what it comes down to is how much do we invest? How much are we investing in, in building and supporting and growing our people? And is that if we’re the type of organization that does have that mindset that yes, you know, this is part of how you know, of our ethos, of what we do to develop and grow people, then maybe it’s not such a determining factor if they don’t display it, and they have the technical skills, or they have something else that the role requires. So it’s a bit of a long winded answer, but it gives you a bit of an idea.

Neelie Verlinden: It does, it does. And what I like about it is I keep hearing the same important elements coming back now that I’m talking to you, but I also hear it from other people, the importance of curiosity, but also self awareness and humility. So it’s very nice to hear that once again, to realise that something else that I also was curious about is one as a company goes through a period of rapid growth. And in that case, Netflix is a super good example, of course, because the company has done so well over the past two years. But that can also come with extra challenges for that learning culture within the company. So how do you go about that? So you see the company expanding, let’s say, left front and center into different geographical areas as well? What are some of the things perhaps to look out for in that case?

Debora Gallo: I’ve been in a number of organizations that have been through sort of different stages of growth and different pace of growth. And there’s that little bit of fear of all as we grow so quickly, is our culture going to dilute? Like, are we going to change? And I think the way that I think about it is that the culture will evolve, it will change. And it’s not that it may not change fundamentally, but there’ll be aspects that yes, evolve. And what happens is that when you’re smaller and the pieces in it are crazy, you have a sense that you can see everything and you understand and you can kind of like put your arms around the culture and you say, No, I we can, I know. And then once that pace, that growth starts, you kind of lose that and you think, Oh, my gosh, I can no longer see it all and I can’t put my arms around it. And I get a sense that I’m losing control of it and it’s going to be this crazy beast that turns into something that we can’t control. And I think that’s where a bit of that fear comes from – oh my gosh, our culture is going to dilute – whereas I think it will evolve and it changes and our role in L&D and talent, even leaders are to ensure that we’re kind of guiding that culture to evolve in the way that we want it to. And that guiding and that evolving means that we have to be more intentional about the touch points when we talk about culture, how we talk about it, how we break it down and make it practical, right? Because I think that’s one of the key things is that you can talk about culture, but then it becomes this thing that everyone talks about that it’s like, what does that actually mean in reality, in practicality. So some of the things that I’ve done in my previous roles, it’s really breaking it down. And something that we did in my role at Netflix was where with virtual, people can’t get a sense for what is the culture. We hear about it, we talk about it. So it’s really creating those moments of storytelling where we can start breaking it down – how can this be part of the culture we talk about? Well, what does that mean for me? How have I been experiencing those key stories from others? Have some debates, have some cases where we put ourselves in and we can experiment with the culture? So it’s creating those moments, which are the focus of the learning initiatives around culture? Because it’s really how we bring people into the fold to really understand their role in it and what it looks like in practice, and you don’t get that just by talking about it, you need to make that practical. So it’s during onboarding, it’s having specific sessions, it’s having cultural conversations, it’s really creating moments to interact, break it down, and then you know, it’ll evolve and that’s fine. And it may look different as you’re going to different places. And that’s also okay, there’ll be a red thread or a backbone, which will stay the same. And then it’ll evolve. 

Neelie Verlinden: That just maybe a misunderstanding people sometimes have when it comes to culture, right, that indeed, they’re they’re having this fear of the culture diluting. But the culture, I think, is something that should always be evolving. As a company grows, that should enrich the culture as well. I also love what you said about these different touch points. And indeed, onboarding can be a really important one in that sense. And I also see how you need to be more intentional about it when everyone’s remote. I guess I can do the work regardless of what company, but it is about the culture. And that’s also one of the reasons why I’m so happy to work for a certain company. So yeah, I think this is what makes the difference. I wanted to change tack, a little dab. And now you already touched on it briefly, I wanted to go to engagement, because obviously, within L&D engagement is an important topic. And there’s a lot that can be said about it. So engaging learners, that is often a bit of a challenge, of course, maybe you can share some of your biggest learnings in that regard. When it comes to engaging people.

Debora Gallo: When I think of engaging, it’s really that old age sort of classic, well, what’s in it for me. It’s alway like, if I’m participating, if I’m putting in time as a learner, what am I going to get out of this? And is that clear? And that is aligned to what I’m getting. And if it is, then there’ll be a level of engagement. I think on top of that, then in this type of environment, there are competing distractions. So I’m at home, I can just switch off or disconnect, and the social pressure of doing that I think is a little bit less. So we’ve got sort of big sessions. So it does require, again, going back to that, how are we designing the session? So that element of purpose of connection? So purpose in terms of, do I know what I’m gonna get out of this? And is that valuable for me right now, connection? Am I connecting with others in that social element, and then there’s the fun piece, the innovative piece that also needs to be there. So it’s like a concoction of different sorts of elements that come into it. But I think those are the key, the purpose, the connection to others. And then that little bit of fun, and just making it sort of enjoyable, I mean, learning most of the time, I’d love to think it’s enjoyable. I mean, there’re a lot of times where it’s not because it takes effort and practice and that sometimes can be on the sort of less enjoyable side. So it’s thinking about, okay, how do we sort of add in all these different elements to really make that an experience that I take something away from, that I’ve connected with others that I felt like there’s that social element and that I’ve had fun?

Neelie Verlinden: Yeah, interesting as well. And you mentioned that social element already before I believe, but I’m sure you know this better than I do that there is this kind of 70 20 10 rule, right, where I believe 70% is learning by doing or learning on the job if we talk about the world of work, and then there’s 20% is that social part and coaching I think, and then 10%, only 10% really as corporate learning if I’m correct, but so zooming in that on that social learning part, because obviously, again, when we are remote that is a little bit harder than when we are in the same space. Have you any ideas or any experiments, perhaps, that you’ve been doing to create that connection and to create that social element and even when we separated? 

Debora Gallo: Yeah. I mean, what we’ve, what we’ve been experimenting with or trying to do is look at, first of all, when you have a moment where there’s people sort of together, how do we incorporate a little bit of a connecting with others first before we dive into whatever it is that we’re focusing on. And in the beginning of the pandemics, whether you have a meeting or a session, whether it’s icebreakers, or different ways of just creating that moment of connection, it was like new and fun, but then as the pandemic sort of went on, and we’ve been 12 months that it can get a little bit like, Oh, here we go again. But I do think that it’s really important to create the connections, which in this environment may need to be a little bit more, I guess, architectured, or sort of intentional. Did that answer your question?

Neelie Verlinden: It did, it did answer my question. Absolutely. Thank you. Now, going forward. When we look at the learning content, what are your thoughts on that? How do you think that could evolve? Because or maybe the other question would be like, what would be the future of blended? What would that look like? 

Debora Gallo: I mean, I think there’s a huge future, because I think we’ve demonstrated that it works. I think blended learning has existed for, you know, 20 or 30 years now, it’s been around for a long time, virtual learning has been around for a long, long time. What wasn’t? Probably as everything was the buy in, or everyone sort of having that as the only option. And that’s what we’ve had for the last 12 months. So for me, I think the diversity of choice is just mind blowing. Now, I mean, I’m doing courses with groups from all over the world, which back to a month ago would have had to travel. And it just takes a lot more effort. So I think, now my expectations have also changed. Because when I look at courses, I’m like, Well, I can do anything, because now it’s all online. So do they have something available? And when I see like, Oh, they don’t, like Oh, that’s interesting, like, so my expectations have already changed. And I’m expecting the availability of the choices to be there. Which means that for the providers, and for content, I do need to start thinking about, okay, how do we sort of expand our offerings. And also it means if there’s more of this than I’m expecting it, then the quality that I expect, is also going to be sort of increased. So it’s not going to be enough just to have sitting in a session with 500 other people and just listening for an hour like that. Yeah, my expectations have also increased. So it’s really thinking about design, about that blended experience, about the moments that you have with people, how do you design that so that the content that’s asynchronous that you have outside of these moments? How do we make that sort of engaging and enriching and also that you connect to people because you can also do that sort of in an asynchronous manner, but really starting to recognize that there’s a bit of a pressure to step it up in terms of how we’re designing and what we’re offering. And people will expect high quality content, will expect connections with others, will expect engagement and will expect it to be fun. So it’s exciting, because that means there’s just so much innovation that’s going to come out and opportunities that I love that you’ve already come across something that kind of blew up blew your mind. I mean, I’ve gone through a whole heap of sessions that I didn’t think was possible online, I’ve done sort of team coaching, where it really is about getting together with people and doing that online. And it worked fine. I’ve signed up to a creative workshop exploring my inner critic, and I’m thinking, Okay, I’m curious to see how this works in this environment. So I’m actively testing out just getting a bit of a sense for Okay, let’s give this a try. Because, I mean, I’ve come out of all of these really amazed that, hey, I learned a lot. I met people from all over the place. And it was fun. And I’m learning so much. So it’s an exciting time to be, I think, in the learning space.

Neelie Verlinden: Absolutely. Yeah. I think you’re totally right about that. Before we are going to wrap up, though. I think we’re kind of in this unique position at the moment when we look at the workforce because there’s so many different generations that work together. And now when it comes to L&D, have you noticed differences when it comes to people from different generations and maybe their preferences in terms of what they want to develop? Or maybe even the way they would like the content to be provided. Have you noticed Any kind of differences to be honest?

Debora Gallo: No. I mean, I’ve heard a lot about millennials and all the different generations. It’s not something that I’ve really dived into and said, Okay, let’s have a look, I think I will look at more. So when I’m designing, or I look at who I have in the room and who I’m designing for as a learner sort of cohort. I think some of the expectations that go across the board in terms of expectations around technology, whether it’s someone who’s 20, or whether it’s, you know, my mom, who uses Instagram, and all this social apps, I’m like, we’re all for that at some point, you know, changing our behaviors. So I think that the expectations and the differences, there may be a little bit of yeah, I wouldn’t necessarily say okay, this is for this group. And this is for that group. I think it goes across the board.

Neelie Verlinden: Nice and interesting as well, to hear that. I think it makes sense, because everybody in the letter is someone who is 20 years old, or whether it’s my mom and dad, we are all now in our personal lives. We’re used, for instance, to a certain level of user experience, and I can see how that translates into what we expect as well when we’re in the workplace. And when we’re learning at work. So that’s one thing we really like to do in our series all about HR is we really like to ask people about if they can share an epic win or an epic fail, because these are things that often are their biggest learning moments. And we are all about sharing these learning moments with the audience. So I was wondering, can you perhaps share an epic win or an epic fail with us? 

Debora Gallo: Yeah, I’d love to. I have an epic fail that I’m happy to share. This was years and years ago, I was working for an organization that was one of my first corporate sort of training roles. And I was doing a lot of facilitating. So my role was maybe that four to five times a week facilitating sort, of course, after course, I was going from SQL programming, to giving feedback to leading your team, all sorts of things. And on this particular day, I had a time management course that I was delivering. So back when sort of that was the thing. So I had a group of people, we had a whole day of time management, started the course we got to midday, I sort of broke for lunch, gave everyone sort of an hour to go for lunch, I closed the training room sort of door and I went to lunch and I came back five minutes before everyone was due. I got to the door and it was locked in. And there was a sign on the door saying that this room is now in a yoga class. And I looked at my calendar and my schedule, and I saw that the yoga class was booked in and I was like, Oh my god, I’m delivering a time management course. And I really am not good at managing time because I really missed that. My whole class came back and we were all standing outside the door going yeah, this was a great lesson in time management. So checking your calendars and making sure you have an idea of what’s coming or that yes, good point. So from that day on, I make sure to know everything that’s happening. And I am on top of that, that was a huge bit of embarrassing learning moments. We all had a good laugh about that. 

Neelie Verlinden: I love that. I absolutely love that. Thank you so much for sharing. Yeah. Last very last thing that is, I think is a bit of a fun question. What are you most excited about for 2021? 

Debora Galio: Not work related. My wife is having a baby.

Neelie Verlinden: Congratulations. That’s exciting.

Debora Gallo: Okay, a big learning phase is coming up for me. Not my first child. But still, I think every child is different. But I think professionally, in this space. I’ve just added a new role. I’m really architecting and thinking about how I’m setting up sort of L&D in an organization that’s growing very quickly. So that, for me, is exciting in terms of getting into that. It’s like I suppose the opportunities for learning and just seeing how my peers in the industry really sort of push us to the next level in terms of how we design, how we facilitate, how we deliver, just that the options are just endless. So it’s exciting to see new technology coming out. It’s just a great time to be in this space.

Neelie Verlinden: That’s thick. I think that was a beautiful answer to end our conversation with thank you so much for joining me today. 

Debora Gallo: Awesome. It’s been super fun. Neelie. Thank you.

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