When a senior learning executive sits down at the proverbial leadership table with a list of learning and organizational development requests in hand, we know what should happen. But is the learning and development well deep and expansive, or shallow and peppered with rocks and obstacles? Who listens, and how much empathy and understanding does that person share in the CLO’s work? Are requests given top priority? Are recommendations noted as key to the overall success of the organization or business unit? How much juice does a CLO really have?
“When you said, ‘What kind of juice do CLOs have,’ I remember as a kid growing up in Brooklyn, my parents and I used to call gasoline ‘go juice,’” said Jim Brolley, director of organizational learning and development, Harley-Davidson Inc. “I thought about that, and CLOs have the potential, and in my mind, are the additive to regular gasoline that makes it high test. A CLO, in the right organization, can really energize the organization into higher performance. Whether you’re a CLO, a director of learning and development or organizational excellence, or whatever you want to call it, the CLO’s opportunity and approach is different. Their strategy has to be based on senior leadership mental models and the needs of the business. Senior leadership obviously is different from one company to another. Their mental models of what is learning and development are different. A good example is, if they call learning and development training, you’ve got a long road in front of you. If they hired a CLO not because it’s the ‘in’ thing to do but because they understand they need cultural change and they need to look at processes and the way people work so that they can learn experientially in the organization, then you have a lot more juice in the organization.”
Your juice or level of influence also may depend on the amount of pain present in an organization. Pain, Brolley explained, is a big motivator. A lot of pain or struggle to meet business needs with effective learning and development opportunities offers the senior learning executive more juice because the powers that be are looking for solutions. The less pain present, or the fainter the actual or perceived need, the longer and rockier the learning road becomes. “There are some things that you have to do regardless, to add high test to your impact,” Brolley said. “Anytime you speak of ODT, organizational development and training, you have to link it to business needs. You have to eliminate the word ‘training’ from your jargon, and as much as possible, you have to eliminate any kind of learning and development jargon. The kind of stuff that we in the professional ranks use, we can’t use with senior management. We have to talk in terms of business needs and solutions. Also, when you come into an organization, you have to identify the low-hanging fruit that have clear ROI associated with them. You have to find a leadership sponsor. At Harley, a sponsor is usually a vice president or a functional leader because they’re the ones who can eliminate the obstacles and provide you with the guidance and the clout to do what you need to do.”
After you pluck that low-hanging fruit, Brolley said, you have to hit the ball out of the park—or deliver the results as promised, exceeding expectations if at all possible. “That’s why it’s really important for you to get that sponsor to understand the business so that the things that you deliver are key and crucial to the business,” Brolley said. “You get juice one success at a time, one stakeholder or one sponsor at a time. I don’t think you come in and because somebody gives you the title CLO, you wind up with it. It’s anything but that. In order to get that and do those things, a CLO has to have a number of competencies and capabilities.”
These competencies include technical ability—knowing the field of organizational development and learning. You also need a broad “helicopter view,” so you can look high and far enough to see things coming in the future and address them before they become substantive issues. “CLOs need to have a sense of urgency, which basically means that they need to walk fast down hallways,” Brolley said. “They need to shorten their delivery dates. They need to shorten cycle times anytime they get the chance, and they need to be one hell of a listener.”
“A job is a function of the person who’s in it,” said Mary O’Hara, vice president of people development, Bell Canada Enterprises. “Your own personal credibility weighs a lot in this equation. If you are personally credible—a businessperson who understands the business, the levers and the critical influences that can have an impact in that business—that’s quite honestly a big piece of what determines how much juice you have.”
The other piece that determines your level of influence depends on your organizations’ philosophical point of view, O’Hara said. “Our CEO believes very much that innovation is absolutely an outcome of learning. If you have innovation as a strategic pillar in your business, and I think that learning and innovation are intricately connected, that doesn’t hurt. It’s actually very helpful when it’s part of the strategic conversation and the narrative in the organization that our ability to learn and to learn fast, and I don’t just mean training, is an essential enabler to innovation in our organization and for us in this industry. The speed at which we are able to innovate, move forward and learn as an organization is not only essential for our growth, in some cases it’s essential for our survival.”
When that whisper about the CLO’s spot at the executive table floats past your ear, O’Hara said it’s no different than any other senior-level executive with a responsibility to earn his or her keep and justify his privileged position in a public company.
“Every single one of us has to earn the right to be at those chairs in the boardroom, every day in our offices and in the space that we occupy,” O’Hara said. “The people that we lead who look to us both in our own functions and inside the organization, they all look to us to be credible and to be able to earn our place at that table every single day. I don’t think that’s unique to a CLO. That’s absolutely the reality for everyone in public companies, and certainly in private as well since they’re much more scrutinized, but it’s the truth now. It’s the business reality everywhere, and it’s not limited to North America.”