At the Commonwealth Secretariat, our primary role is to support our member countries to be everything they can be. In other words, we don’t direct – we collaborate.

As such, the demographics of our people come from academia, the private sector and the public sector – especially on policy and political teams, who work directly with governments. To make the Commonwealth Secretariat work, the asset that must unite all those individuals is the depth of their technical expertise.

So, when we look at our learning and development (L&D) priorities, we have to put on a broader hat than what you may typically see in the private sector, from an efficiency and upskilling perspective. The priority is for our L&D process to be an enabler: one that aligns technical expertise with the requirements of the role.

Someone may come from a background of deep technical expertise – but how do you ensure it will translate into the sort of outcomes we are trying to achieve? For example, a learner may be experienced in diplomatic skills – but how do you take that and apply it to a world where they will be working with not just national governments and public-sector bodies, but with private companies and other intergovernmental organisations (IGOs) as well? That is the nature of the challenge in a multilateral context.

With that in mind, a large portion of our L&D programme revolves around project management: supporting our people to take a structured approach, with structured thinking. Plus, as a publicly funded organisation, we must also optimise how we use our valuable resources. For us, those skill areas are critical for execution excellence – and are quite non-traditional. They’re not purely technical, purely operational or based in so-called ‘soft’ skills – but a combination of all those things. Our role includes empowering staff with the tools to deliver value in all situations.

Strategic mindset

Fittingly, the tools we use for learning and organisational development (L&OD) also vary from what you would typically see in the private sector, where the focal points tend to be learning management systems (LMSs) and learning experience platforms (LXPs).

We leverage LinkedIn Learning and are also running a six-month flagship programme with the Institute of Leadership to help aspiring individuals get into people management, so they can think as leaders as part of their personal development. In addition, we have L&D tie-ups with several universities that provide courses on specific areas of relevance to the Secretariat’s activities – such as governance, climate, trade and youth empowerment.

But a lot of our learning is geared towards fostering a business-strategic mindset and building institutional knowledge. I work with the heads of our different divisions to nurture that strategic mindset – one that revolves around thinking about where you are now with the programmes and projects you’re working on with member countries, looking into the future at what the ideal outcomes should be and then bridging the gap between those scenarios in your delivery and execution.

We also have a Knowledge Management Centre: a repository of the Commonwealth Secretariat’s DNA, if you will. It includes content relating the organisation’s history, perspectives, values and achievements. In other words - what it is, what it believes, how it works and how it has got things done.

The idea behind this vital resource is that we have people coming to us from our 56 member countries with various backgrounds to help us work towards our goals. The Centre enables them to find their place quickly, and is customised to the type of work they do, so they can hit the ground running.

Another powerful tool we use is the strategic retreat – which involves bringing the team together to look at their priorities and challenge their thinking through a range of activities, helping them to work towards their goals in a more optimised way. These retreats offer an effective way to assess, regroup and collaborate to ensure we are heading in the right direction.

Even though it may not sound like one, I would definitely call the retreat a learning tool, as it enables us to drive changes of approach that are necessary amid the evolving geopolitical situations and priorities of our member countries. It helps us to build resilience, strengthen collaboration, challenge our thought process and engage our creativity. It is a way to help ensure that our people are focused on the outcomes we’re trying to achieve.

To ensure our people are tech-savvy and attuned to the changing technology, we collaborate with our ICT team to run workshops on various technology tools like PowerBI and leveraging AI in our everyday work. Our ICT team has also built an inhouse tool to support people in looking through documents. The objective is to make it easier for learners to search through our rich archive to find materials – such as policy papers – that are relevant to their work.

Capacity building

The Commonwealth Secretariat’s L&D strategy is essential to how we deliver change.

One area we are putting a lot of emphasis on is cultivating diversity of thought by consistently posing questions to our teams.

How are we innovating and reinventing our solutions to support our collaborative work with member countries? How can we build the resilience we need – not just to wade through the chaos of the IGO space, but to transform it into an inclusive environment? As a member of a directorate, how are you taking part in your current strategic plan so it’s not just a top-down approach? How are you probing the asks and ideas of the member countries so you can find your project’s correct focus? Who can we partner with for greater efficiency and effectiveness?

Another area where we’re deeply involved is working collaboratively with our various divisions, or directorates, to identify their strategic needs and provide guidance for refining them. Each directorate has its own set of priorities and, of course, challenges that come along with their work. So, we provide a customised approach that supports and empowers leaders to coach their own team members in the necessary skills.

In addition, the Secretariat provides a lot of capacity building to Commonwealth member countries, so L&D has a seat at the table – again as a consultant. It’s all about taking a holistic view.

Connecting the dots

For many years now, one of the biggest debates in IGOs is where L&D should sit in order to be most effective. Different organisations take different approaches to this. Some of them may have an L&D function for each team or business unit, and others a leadership academy.

In my view, whatever form it takes, L&D in an IGO must be a genuine stakeholder and a strategic partner. Having detailed knowledge and understanding of what your colleagues are trying to achieve, on an external level, will enable you to add value internally.

If you are able to bring in anecdotal evidence and connect the dots between what you're discussing in that videocall or classroom session and what’s happening on the ground, you will have the credibility to say: “What I’m telling you is not just theory – this is how you can apply it.”

If you don’t have that visibility or get your hands dirty, you may not be able to add value. To succeed, its necessary to shadow, observe, sit in team review meetings and understand what they're doing. Only then will you really be able to help them solve the problems that are important to them.

Voices from our community: Deepti Pelluri is head of learning and organisational development at the Commonwealth Secretariat.

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