How One Woman Built a Great L&D Department, From Scratch

July 14, 2017

Elizabeth Brinlee has done an amazing job building out an L&D team at FireEye.

Two years ago, Elizabeth Brinlee started her new job at FireEye. Her job: build out the learning and development function for the 3,200-person organization, from scratch.

The cybersecurity company, like any company of that size, had a variety of development needs: onboarding, technical upskilling, general talent development and, most of all, leadership development. It was Brinlee’s job as sole member of the newly formed L&D team to prioritize all those needs and provide solutions to each.

So, she got busy. Within six months of starting, she had a new leadership development program in place, learning opportunities available to all learners and buy-in from key stakeholders.

“I had to determine out what I could build versus what to buy,” Brinlee said. “Because I couldn’t build everything. It came down to prioritization and focusing on what I could best deliver, and what I needed to outsource.”

Today, Brinlee has since added more people to her L&D team. And while everything remains – and always will remain – a work in progress, she’s seeing both high adoption rates and NPS scores on her learning solutions, along with a tight relationship with her key stakeholders.

“I focused on getting solutions out quickly,” Brinlee said. “Too often in L&D, I think we wait too long to release solutions and our stakeholders lose faith. By getting solutions we were happy with out quickly, we serve their need while also getting feedback so we can constantly improve them.”

How Brinlee identified FireEye’s biggest learning needs

Brinlee used her first two months looking to answer these questions: what were the biggest learning needs at FireEye? And how would FireEye employees like to learn?

To answer those questions, she met with her HR business partners to find out what the needs were in each department, as well as the leadership team to understand the company’s overall strategic needs. Additionally, she surveyed FireEye’s employees to uncover how they liked to learn and what they wanted to learn about.

Based off that information, she found the biggest need at FireEye was one shared by many companies: leadership development. The company was expanding quickly, and therefore had to turn a lot of individual contributors into managers, fast. And FireEye wanted Brinlee to help those managers become ready to handle the job.

The good news was that was Brinlee’s core competency. She prioritized building out a first-class leadership development program she would lead herself, which she released in August of 2015 – two months after she was hired.

What her leadership development program looked like

Brinlee’s leadership development program is a classic blended learning model. It features a two-day workshop either she or someone on her team leads, coupled with before-and-after work to ensure managers continually improve throughout their time at FireEye.

Before managers attend the in-person workshop, they are assigned pre-work and take a DiSC assessment. The DiSC assessment provides insights into style preferences for oneself and others and identifies four key characteristics in a person: dominance, influence, steadiness and conscientiousness.

“Being a great manager starts with really knowing yourself,” Brinlee said. “The more you know yourself and control how you respond to situations, the more you can help your employees do the same.”

After that pre-work comes a two-day, in-person workshop that looks to instill three messages: know yourself, know your team and know your network, Brinlee said. It starts with knowing yourself, where managers are given the results of their DiSC assessment so they better understand their own behavior.

The "knowing yourself" section also includes each new manager writing “I am” statements, where new managers write a statement that reflects the qualities they want to be known for as a leader. The statement should be a stretch, yet attainable.

For example, an “I am” statement could be “I am a leader known for developing high performing teams and who provides a clear career path for my employees.” Six months later, the manager hopefully has achieved that or at least made movement on the statement. To ensure managers are always developing, “I am” statements should be consistently evaluated and refreshed, so the bar is always being raised.

Additionally, new managers list out all the tasks they are doing currently. Here, they are asked to critically analyze what tasks they are currently doing now that they should delegate, allowing them to focus on higher priority tasks.

Then comes working with people, which again is handled through a variety of interactive activities. One example is new managers work in small teams to build a bridge out of various office supplies. While they are building that bridge, teams are mixed up and Brinlee intentionally causes stress, to see how managers handle pressure situations.

Finally, on the network front they assess what cross-functional relationships are currently strong and which ones they could improve. From there, they walk out with action plans for improving those weaker cross-functional relationships.

How Brinlee handled the other learning needs

Leadership was hardly the only learning need at FireEye though. Employees said they wanted to learn technical skills, soft skills, time management skills, etc. Of course, it was impossible for Brinlee to lead classes around each need.

So, she looked for an eLearning solution that would best meet her needs. She narrowed it down to a few providers and had HR business partners and FireEye employees try them to see what they preferred most. The consensus was, as employees said “they could spend all day in there,” Brinlee said.

Hence, between her leadership development program and, she was able to meet the biggest need of the company – manager training – and provide all employees the opportunity to develop on their own time. That served as her base, as she began tackling other needs – onboarding revamp, performance reviews, etc. – as her team and resources grew.

Since she so immediately met the needs of both employees and her HR business partners, Brinlee gained credibility within FireEye, which helped her get resourcing for more L&D programs. And, usage and NPS was strong out of the gate, as her solutions were tailored to the precise needs and preferences of the company and its employees.

Over time, she’s continually met with HR business partners and leaders. That ensures she stays aligned with the top priorities of the organization while concurrently maintaining a strong relationship with those key stakeholders.

The takeaway

Brinlee’s ask was huge when starting at FireEye: build out an L&D function by herself (with a lot of internal support) to meet the needs of a 3,200-person company. And there’s so much to take away from her approach.

First, her leadership program – particularly considering she put it together herself in such a short time – is one worth copying. It does a brilliant job of turning a two-day workshop into a years-long journey where managers are continually improving.

There are so many other lessons as well. She did a brilliant job understanding the needs of her company quickly; she was smart with what she could do herself and what she needed to outsource; and she did a great job of continually engaging key stakeholders.

But perhaps the biggest lesson was Brinlee’s refusal to let perfection be the enemy of good. She knew that whatever program she designed would only need to be continually updated anyway once it was in the field, as feedback started coming in.

So, rather than spending months crafting a solution to her version of perfection, she instead released what she believed to be a good learning solution and perfected it over time using employee feedback.

“We see our tech teams using Agile, and I think we in L&D need to do the same thing,” Brinlee said. “We need to be agile as well by always learning, always looking to improve our solutions.”

Bottom line, Brinlee did what any great leader does leading any department: she quickly found where she could help the company the most, focused on that area and continually innovated. The result is the widespread respect of her colleagues, along with a L&D department that produces real, immediate results.