To have the greatest impact on learning and the overall success of the business, CLOs must align initiatives with business objectives, gather meaningful metrics and communicate clearly and concisely with boards of executives.
If one looks at the financial meltdown of the past couple years, one would see that it is, in essence, a failure of human capital. In the subsequent rush to increase rigor around governance, it is important to remember that the financial risks that led to this particular crisis are not the only critical risks that organizations face. A failure to deal with risks in people development and talent management can lead to equally dire results. Yet most boards are only peripherally involved in talent issues, choosing to focus their attention on more direct financial measures and regulatory risks that are more within their experience and comfort zone.
The chief learning officer has a key role to play in helping boards of directors and top executives understand and deal with strategic talent issues. Knowing how to “manage up” is critical to the CLO’s personal success as well as that of the enterprise. To that end, there are five key areas that must be addressed to build effective relationships with boards and top executives.
Defining the Board’s Role in Learning
Board members are often chosen for financial savvy, prestige and personal networks, not operational expertise. As a result, boards may lack insight and perspective on talent matters. This lack of experience, combined with the natural human tendency for people to focus on what they know, causes many boards to devote less attention to strategic talent management and risks than is warranted.
In addition to fundamentals such as compensation strategy, HR compliance and executive-level succession planning, the corporate board also should be thinking about creating an enterprisewide succession plan, closing talent gaps, improving performance and invigorating the culture of the company.
Laurie Bassi has been researching this topic for years as vice president of research for ASTD, Saba and now her own firm, McBassi and Co.
“The root of the problem,” she said, “is that Wall Street’s excessively narrow focus on the top of the pyramid means that attention is dominated there. Those in key stewardship roles frequently don’t know where talent is coming from beyond what they have at the top, and [they] don’t have the tools or processes in place to help guide this further.”
Bassi and others advocate the creation of a human capital committee to keep talent issues on the board’s radar screen. Compliance and compensation committees only look at very specific aspects of the company.
“If people are truly the most important asset for a company and all the board is doing is measuring compliance, clearly it’s failing the company,” Bassi said. “A human capital committee would be a more responsible way to oversee shareholder value and organizational growth.”
Do Your Homework — and Share Your Answers
At the highest level, board members and top executives should look to the CLO to do three things:
- Identify learning and talent gaps, risks and opportunities in the organization.
- Articulate an effective and cost-justified learning and talent strategy.
- Provide metrics on the current state of learning and on the effectiveness of strategic initiatives.
The issue of metrics is particularly important and often overlooked. Brook Manville, a veteran learning executive with experience at United Way, Saba and McKinsey, described his experience with various corporate boards as follows: “The board could be engaged, but really didn’t have the tools presented or know how to connect the dots between strategy and talent with any granularity. When this happens, the talent conversation gets departmentalized as an HR discussion, with no real basis or set of measures to support a rich discussion around talent strategy.”
Manville set out to change the nature of that conversation by tying learning and talent efforts to concrete organizational outcomes that were clear success indicators. In the case of United Way, he worked with local branches to identify appropriate measurable outcomes for their community change efforts and built learning and leadership programs for executives based on that fundamental principle. He later co-led a corporatewide initiative to identify a set of core metrics in education, income and health that would guide all of United Way’s community work — an initiative that was ultimately accepted and praised by the board. The link between programs and tangible business outcomes provided a strategic context for subsequent discussions with the board about key learning and talent issues.
Good metrics also can lead to identifying both strengths and weaknesses in learning and talent functions. For instance, determining the internal promotion rate can offer insights into the effectiveness of hiring, development and promotion methods. If the percentage rate is low for internal promotions, it may suggest a weak leadership development program. Further, if spending on development is high and the internal promotion rate is low, it could suggest potential learning quality, strategy, or delivery problems or illuminate operational gaps between learning and talent functions.
The Sharing Goes Both Ways
First and foremost, CLOs need the unique insight that comes from top leaders. Not only is their view of the organization invaluable, but also they are the primary source for understanding the enterprise goals, strategy and priorities by which learning and talent efforts will ultimately be judged.
Sometimes, getting an executive point of view can be the difference between success and failure. For example, at one point in his career, Vince Serritella, former learning executive at W. W. Grainger and Motorola, was facing a new environment with extremely limited resources. He proposed three strategic learning priorities in a top-down sequence that allowed him time to gradually build his team. He planned to start with strategic leadership development and then move to sales and service and ERP rollout support. During discussions with the CEO and other executives, the suggested priorities were substantially revised. “Go retail,” one key executive told him. It was closer to revenue, and it would get front-line managers and employees engaged in building a learning and performance culture.
In fact, focusing first on front-line employees rather than leaders proved to be critical in setting up the learning processes, infrastructure and culture that would be the foundation of later success.
“We wouldn’t have succeeded with the ERP learning strategy if we didn’t have the learning culture and ability to adopt change already established in the company,” Serritella said, adding that he now recognizes that if he had started with leadership training, it would have taken much longer to get the systems and processes in place to address these other critical initiatives.
Learning executives frequently seek to gain better access to the board.
“But be careful what you ask for,” Serritella said. “CLOs don’t need members of the board to start telling them how to run their jobs or get pigeonholed in a particular committee.”
Some learning leaders mistakenly believe that getting as much face time as possible with the board is the best strategy for furthering their initiatives. But boards are very time constrained. What earns the board’s respect is the ability to make a case clearly, concisely and with supporting evidence. Instead of relying on board meetings, CLOs should leverage their impact by using committees, reports and even informal contact with board members.
In his CLO role, Serritella did not attend board meetings. But his ongoing and frequent contact with the CEO and other key executives got him invited to the management team dinner the evening before the formal board meeting. That gave him a chance to informally share perspectives and talk up the issues he considered important.
While regular and frequent interaction with the board may not be necessary, meeting with the CEO and other key executives regularly is essential for CLOs. One way to structure interaction with these senior leaders is through governance councils or committees focused on learning and talent issues. Rather than getting “a seat at the executive table,” it is often more useful for CLOs to create their own “table,” where they control the agenda.
Secrets to Effective Communication
You must have your operational ducks in a row before approaching top leaders. Because of the reputation his team had for running a tight ship, Serritella was rarely questioned on efficiency or costs. He was able to keep conversations strategic and focused on his goals.
“Good gamesmanship, along with results, is important to keeping stride with executive discussions,” Serritella said.
Another key is to keep the discussion aligned with executive priorities. Having a dashboard of training metrics and translating the impact of training into financial terms is a start. But it’s not enough. The direct financial impact of training is rarely big enough to hold executives’ attention.
Correlating training programs with business outcomes such as increased sales activity, speed to market and customer service response can help gain needed mindshare with executives and board members. Breaking down results by business unit or region can also be helpful because it provides diagnostic information that leaders can act on.
“A temptation is to tell them all the things we do in learning,” said Sundar Nagarathnam, vice president of education at NetApp. “But then it’s too easy to slip into the language of learning and details of the operation that they don’t really have time for.”
The final key is to negotiate win-win agreements. That means being accountable, but also holding others accountable. As Nagarathnam puts it: “A lot of times it’s important to ask questions and challenge them as well — not about learning operations, but about business goals, objectives and agreeing on outcomes and results.”
A true partnership built on mutual respect and honest communication is the best avenue to achieving learning results and bringing critical issues to the attention of those charged with ensuring long-term enterprise success.
As people development issues become increasingly important to the success — and even survival — of today’s enterprises, it is critical that learning and talent governance gets the attention it deserves from corporate boards and top executives. The CLO plays a critical role in raising the right issues in the right way.
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