We are in the middle of the awards season here in the UK and I love it! Acknowledging and celebrating the impact that L&D professionals have made to individuals, teams and organisations is one of the highlights of my year.
What I love is that the awards process is not just for the elite, the tech savvy or the big hitters! It’s for those who are making a real difference in their organisations – despite the circumstances. Awards provide opportunity to reflect on the past and plan for the future. They also help us hone our skills for making smarter business cases for the value that we create.
With the Culture Pioneer awards, where I am a judge for the learning category, still open for entries, I thought it would be a good time to share my reflections on the awards process and tips for entering again. If you’re on the fence or just haven’t got round to it, I hope this will encourage you to enter.
This was previously published as a Learning Changemakers newsletter and more recently TrainingZone
Are you tackling a significant business challenge right now where you just know you are making a difference? Spotting a problem to solve or an opportunity to address – and having the fire in your belly to get on and do something about it – is an important part of being a learning changemaker.
But making a difference can often be a lonely job – decisions need to be made and risks taken. Rarely do we get time to reflect and learn from what we have done. Which is why I am a big fan of external award programmes – and probably not for the reasons that you think!
The process of putting an awards entry together helps to hold up a mirror to your approaches to adding better business value. And it gives you an opportunity to reflect on and celebrate the results of stepping out of your comfort zone and make changes. If you are at the beginning of your journey to making a difference, the awards process can provide you with some excellent guidelines for getting things done, if you know what to look for.
I have been involved with judging L&D awards for over 20 years, setting evidence-informed judging criteria and poring through literally thousands of submissions over that time. For me this has always been a continual privilege to journey with participants for a while, exploring and celebrating their stories of growth, change, challenge and triumph.
Awards help you plan for success – the award criteria are there for a reason!
Good award programmes don’t just snatch their judging criteria out of the air. The criteria will reflect the ageless principles that have continually proven to drive better business results. They will ask you to reflect on:
- Context – Why this specific programme is important for your business & how you established this as a priority for your attention
- Choices – why you made the choices you made in the first place
- Collaboration – How you worked with others to get your solution rolled out
- Risk – The risks involved, how you mitigated them & what you learned
- Impact – The ultimate impact on the business as a whole
They will give you hints about what the judges are looking for against their criteria – the role of evidence, stakeholders, technology and more but they won’t prescribe how – that is down to you and your team to make the decisions that count.
Which is why at the beginning of any significant project, it’s worth looking at award criteria to set the scene – whether you enter now, next year or never, at least you will have done the groundwork!
They are good for engagement – external success supports internal adoption
Many organisations are struggling to engage learners and managers, but in the first 10 years of the Towards Maturity Benchmark (now the Learning Performance Benchmark) we found that those organisations in the highest quartile take up were three and a half times more likely to report external successes in awards back to the business than those in the lowest quartile. Year on year, the data showed us that external success in awards showed a direct correlation to internal take-up of learning innovation. This correlation may have been a reflection that organisations had worked their way through the judging criteria to deliver success. But we also found that external recognition is always good for building internal credibility!
Not everyone can be a winner but for most people just taking part in the awards process is a great way to change mindsets. Preparing the award provides a great opportunity to reflect on lessons learned and the journey so far. Careful preparation increases the chance of getting great results that matter to your business leaders, it also helps you communicate more clearly with your business stakeholders.
The do’s and don’ts below are equally useful to think through your internal communication as well as your external communication with the awards process.
Careful preparation also increases your chances of being shortlisted, which in turn offers a unique chance to get feedback from both peers and industry experts. When it comes to awards, the journey is very important, winning is the icing on the cake!
How to get recognised externally
So let’s get down to what you need to do to not only set great groundwork for success, but to get the external recognition you deserve!
In the interest of your success as well as my and my fellow judge’s sanity (we work through hundreds of submissions each year between us!) I want to share a few insights with you.
How do you create a submission that impresses the judges and helps you stand out from the crowd?
There are plenty of awards around that can help to profile your work but how can you make sure that you stand out from the competition and make the most of the experience? The first step of the journey is preparing the award submission, the effort you make at this stage can really pay dividends, especially when you are shortlisted.
- Believe in yourself – I speak to many people who have done some really innovative work for their sector or size of business but continually compare themselves with others with different circumstances and feel that they just don’t stand a chance. Most judges are looking for submissions that will help move the industry on and inspire change in others, this is not just a role for the big guns! If you haven’t considered entering an award before, why not sit down with your team and reflect on one of your projects that you’ve been most proud of, what’s worked, what you’ve overcome and what’s been achieved?
- Choose the right award and category for you – do your research. Read the judging criteria carefully and consider how your story stacks up. The criteria are not chosen lightly and will reflect areas critical for sustainable learning success in organisations. The award winner’s story will be more than a one hit wonder and contain lessons that others can learn from and rely on. Tangible evidence and proof in each area is a critical foundation for an award winner – more on that later! Select the category that will really profile your project’s strengths. As yourself, if the learning programme that you have created is outstanding and different from anything else you have seen? Is what you have created quite standard but has had incredible take up and therefore resulted in business success?
- Don’t waste words – follow the free advice! Most awards organisers provide clear instructions on word count, structure, and the type of evidence that they are looking for in a successful submission. Word count is important as it is often the first point of selection, particularly if an award is heavily subscribed. Judges might not even get to see an entry that exceeds word count, let alone read it.
- Make sure you clearly map your entry to the criteria – when an award has clear judging criteria, often based on evidence-based approaches that lead to success, use the criteria to reflect on what you have done. Tell a good story but make sure that your submission clearly addresses each of the areas that the judges are considering, preferably in the order suggested! This approach acts as a checklist for you that you are in the right category, but it also makes it easier for us judges to compare several entrants at the same time and will increase your likelihood of being shortlisted.
- Use great evidence to stand out from the crowd – historically, an award-winning programme might have been able to rely on its technology innovation, its take-up and learner satisfaction to take away the top prize. To stand out from the crowd you really need to think about how you can evidence real business change – what is the impact on the job, reduction in time to competency, changes in productivity are all immensely powerful. As a result, judges will look for award winners who are driven, first and foremost, by the need to support their business’s goals and the impact of their learning on those goals. Don’t neglect anecdotal evidence from staff and key sponsors – their view on why this has made a difference to their lives and teams really works. But good data is even better. If you don’t have any (and you should), why not send out a short survey to those who have taken part and their managers, asking some simple questions: What have you done differently as a result? How much time have you saved? How confident are you now? You may be surprised at what you get back! This approach raises the credibility of the sector, and the award process helps us transition from technical training geeks to valid business partners.
- Consider carefully how you position cost efficiency savings – this is particularly important in submissions that illustrate innovative use of learning technology. Clear evidence of improved efficiency (and I would include time and cost here) for your solution is always welcome so that we can compare it with previous approaches you have used. BUT it is not the whole story. We would also be on the lookout for the ‘so what’ factor – how has the new efficient approach delivered business impact in your organisation? This type of information will separate the winners from the also rans!
- Bullet the killer facts – review time is limited for judges and as a result several short bullets outlining facts and figures from your organisation will have a better impact than a long anecdote. Equally minimise supporting documentation and evidence and only include what is necessary to illustrate your main points. If you include web addresses, highlight the key features that you want judges to consider in the main text. If required to logon to a site, don’t forget clear instructions including a short/clear URL and relevant passwords.
- Be inspired by others – most award programmes publish their winners. Check them out, join the webinars and read their stories.
- Make the most of face-to-face time – if the award includes a face-to-face presentation with the judges (probably once you have been shortlisted), then make sure it packs a punch! Take note of any feedback you have received and be prepared to dig deeper. If you are a provider, where possible bring your client along to talk about the business impact of your solution. If that’s not possible, then they can still contribute to helping you deliver your story via video or audio. And keep to time – question time is built into the presentation process for a reason. From the judge’s perspective it’s fascinating to meet with participants in such a focused way and we always want to find out more! In my experience the Q&A time is often the moment where the winner stands out.
- Read the award submission guidelines – Keep to them, enough said!
Here are 4 things to avoid…
- Don’t make up your own rules about your submission – it may make perfect sense to you but if you don’t follow the competition rules you probably won’t get the recognition you deserve.
- Don’t overwhelm your case with jargon – use plain English to state your case so that we can all celebrate your success, not just those in your company and industry.
- Don’t add irrelevant detail – that includes obvious sales pitches about your product or organisation.
- Don’t make silly mistakes – spell & grammar checkers are available to everyone for free, so use them.
- Don’t think negatively – take an honest look at the project you’re most proud of, choose your category and give it a go!
Throughout the process, don’t forget to have fun. Whilst it seems a bit nerve-wracking, all the judges I know are there because they are genuinely interested to learn about what you are doing. Our job is to make heroes not to harangue you – this isn’t Dragons Den!
Also, tell others. Being shortlisted not only helps you raise awareness within your own organisation but also with other L&D professionals in the industry, so let the world know.
The awards season helps us reflect, grow and challenge our thinking. Importantly, it’s not a time to be shy. Be proud about your unique strengths and shout out why you deserve to win. Go for it!
Laura Overton, Learning Analyst continually curious about learning innovation and business impact. Founder of Learning Changemakers.