Donna McNamara describes an ideal consulting career as the intersection of client needs, professional expertise, and enjoyment.
President, Donna McNamara Associates and Senior Fellow, Human Capital, The Conference Board
Donna McNamara is a learning, leadership, and organization development consultant. Formerly the vice president of global education and training for Colgate-Palmolive Company, she developed and implemented Colgate's worldwide learning strategy, designed the company's business goal alignment process, and built leadership capability in accelerating effective change. She is a past volunteer president of ASTD and a recipient of the Gordon M. Bliss Memorial Award for contributions to ASTD and the workplace learning profession.
Q How did you break into the learning and development profession?
I began my career as an inner city school teacher and counselor, but after several years I was looking for something different (and unconventional). I moved into a leadership position as the director of a maximum-security corrections unit where, as an organization leader, I was exposed to management and team development programs, found them tremendously useful, and decided to migrate to the learning and development field. Earning a doctorate in education and human resources, and gaining consulting experience while in graduate school, helped to establish my credibility in the profession.
Q Did you have a coach or mentor to help you along the way? If so, what advice has stuck with you?
I am fortunate to have worked with outstanding people who have been interested in my success and generous in providing helpful advice. Some of the lessons that stand out:
- Start with a clear understanding of the business, including strategies, market diversity, performance challenges, and desired results.
- Spend a significant amount of time in the trenches listening to people's issues and views, establishing relationships, understanding operational and cultural perspectives, and helping to celebrate successes as well as solve problems.
- When visiting field operations from headquarters, provide what unit leaders perceive as concrete assistance, which will help them to improve business results.
Q To whom do you look for guidance and support now?
My husband (who has excellent background in the field) and long-term, respected colleagues whom I feel comfortable approaching either one-on-one or through a small professional learning group are my greatest sources of professional guidance and support. For staying abreast of best practices and new insights, I look to ASTD, Harvard Business Review, and the relatively new Conference Board Human Capital Exchange.
Q What new insights into the profession have you gained since becoming a consultant?
I've gained an increased understanding of and appreciation for the expanded range of possibilities for providing effective executive coaching on a remote or virtual basis. While I believe it is important to first establish trust by working face-to-face, I have found that after an initial one- or two-day client engagement, working virtually is a viable option. The practicalities and norms of business life—and the possibilities now available through technology—have expanded the methods that can be used in executive coaching and helped this aspect of the profession to become both more flexible and more "in the moment."
Q What basic skills should people who want to advance their careers in workplace learning develop?
The foundation of a career in L&D is established through technical mastery of areas important to one's job performance; personal credibility through valuable contributions and sound business judgment; and excellent networking and collaboration skills to gain effectiveness.
For those who want to advance their careers to an executive level, additional competencies become increasingly important such as a business perspective to broadly understand key organization issues, challenges, and opportunities; a business partnership to help achieve business goals; strategic planning and alignment to anticipate and link strategic responses to people and organization needs; and influence and negotiation skills.
Q What advice would you give to a learning and development professional who wants to move into consulting?
Aim for the intersection of three factors: areas in the field in which you have expertise and successful experience, the current and emerging needs of people and organizations, and the work that you truly relish and in which you find great joy.