What are the hats you, the CLO, wear in your organization? Cheerleader? Coach? Priest? Investigative reporter? In addition to the above-mentioned roles, CLOs are also change agents. To gain added insight into your role as a change leader, it can be useful to think about the way a change leader is both a wing walker and a trapeze artist. After all, change can be dangerous. Knowing how to switch hats — or spandex — from wing walker to trapeze artist is vital. And knowing how to play both of these roles simultaneously with different parts of the learning organization is a key to managing change effectively.
Even if you have never explicitly thought about it, you likely operate like a wing walker on occasion. Wing walkers were the post-World War I entertainers who got out of the safety of the cockpit and traversed the exterior surfaces of barnstorming biplanes while they were in flight. The first rule of wing walking is, “Never let go of something until you’re hanging on to something else!” Thus, while the plane is in motion, you must reach out and put one hand on something of substance while you continue to cling like a vice grip to what you are now embracing. Let’s bring the metaphor back to your work as change manager. Once you and your learning team have built a reputation of responsiveness and positive collaboration with the business units, you must begin reaching out for new opportunities to serve them, without dropping what’s working.
Sometimes, however, you simply can’t reach that new handle while holding on to the old one; sometimes you can’t implement “new” at the same time you maintain “old.” The prime law of trapeze states that, “To swing on a new bar, you’ve got to first let go of the bar you’re on.” Applied to work, you might need to stop your instructional design team from continuing to refine an existing program and get them started creating new ones. You might need to eliminate some existing classroom courses to provide time and resources for experience-based learning options. You might need to drop your current learning management system to implement one that is more functional and effective. In these moments, you won’t be a wing walker. Instead, you’ll be a trapeze artist: You will execute a well-rehearsed release and catch from the old bar to the new, and you will certainly experience a split second gasp of free fall.
But how do you navigate between these roles? The answer emerges from some thought-provoking questions.
The first question is, “What are the most important learning issues for the success of the businesses you support in the next two to three years?” This question is all about where we are headed and what will ensure that we get there safely and in style.
The second question is, “How effectively are you currently serving the company’s most important emerging learning needs?” If you’re doing well, take a wing-walking strategy. Hold on to what’s working and will continue to be important. But if you’re spending learning resources on less important issues, it might be time to start timing your release-and-catch routine.
Finally, “How will you sustain your success or make the necessary change?” In both sustaining success and radical change, it’s imperative to “sweat” the details. If you wonder why your people are not reaching for the next hand hold or swinging the bar to meet you, it might be because they don’t understand or believe in the plan. Clear goals, objectives, roles, rehearsal, preparation, equipment checks and safety nets make all the difference. To survive as a successful trapeze artist or a wing walker is not to be more of a “maverick” or “dare-devil.” Rather, you must be all the more responsible in your approach: acknowledging the potential for misstep or missing the bar and planning accordingly.
So, as CLO, you have many roles including, of course, change agent. Your hat rack must certainly have the leather cap and goggles of a wing walker and the colorful head band and cape of a trapeze artist. And when you walk or fly, you and your people must do it knowing what’s most important to the business, how intelligently you are spending your resources, and how you’ll manage the risks of hanging on and letting go.
Fred Harburg is a managing partner at Venture Works and has held numerous international leadership roles at IBM, GM, Disney, AT&T and Motorola. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.