Recently, I had the opportunity to interview Susan Burnett, senior vice president of talent and organization development at Yahoo! I have known Susan for more than a decade and have always admired her wisdom, professionalism and perspective. She is an inspiration to many in the learning profession and has made significant contributions to the field.
Elkeles: You’ve been able to effectively transition industries from technology to retail to service businesses. What have you learned as you’ve transitioned different industries and roles?
Burnett: What makes you successful in one place may not make you successful in a new place. The key is to listen for business strategy, business goals and culture. If you can understand these quickly, you can adapt what you know and use best practices in the new environment.
Elkeles: Does your knowledge about learning need to change based on the company or industry?
Burnett: No, what changes is the context you’re operating in and how you make the right translations. The one thing that makes you successful in the transition is being an expert in learning, talent development and organizational development. The way to get through cultural differences in organizations is by having the expertise, a track record of multiple experiences and strong knowledge of industry best practices. Your credibility will enable you to be successful.
Elkeles: You always seem to have your pulse on trends in the learning space. Where do you learn about trends?
Burnett: I seek people and organizations shaping the trends. I am involved in various learning networks, boards and working groups. I pick the places and networks where people who are shaping the industry tend to be. I read a lot, but the practitioners in the space are the ones who help me think about pragmatic approaches that can be applied in my organization. Really good practitioners translate theories into practice and push the envelope in ways that are practical, doable and interesting.
Elkeles: You’ve done a great job working with different senior executives in your career. What advice do you have about how to successfully interact with CEOs?
Burnett: My first piece of advice is to know what your CEO sees. Do they see talent as an enabler of business? If so, they’ll work with you. Is it something that shows up on their scorecard? Is it part of their corporate goals or something they care about? If it isn’t, then I wouldn’t work for them.
Every place I have worked, the CEO needed my help to solve a business problem. Every CEO has a different business problem, and I am there to partner and help them create talent solutions that will accelerate their goals and agenda. Find out how you can be of service to the CEO or key business leaders. That will enable successful interactions.
Elkeles: You have your hands in a lot of areas. What are you working on right now that really excites you about your job?
Burnett: Leadership transformation. It always excites me to unlock the potential of leaders at every level of the organization. I’m helping people find their leadership voice and build their leadership brand. We need organizations powered by leaders at every level. First-line supervisors are leaders, and it’s exciting to develop these people. We’re now taking some of our leadership work to people at the individual contributor level. They lead projects — they are leaders. It’s not about the organization chart.
Elkeles: What you’re doing is really building a leadership culture; it’s bigger than learning.
Burnett: It is, we’re creating a system of leadership — leadership standards, goal alignment, portals, formal and informal development experiences, new beliefs that transform actions and enable breakthrough results. What I love is putting together whole systems of change. I am not delivering a big offering of programs; I’m surrounding leaders with cultural transformation.
Elkeles: Your role is very complex. What is the one word you would use to describe it?
Burnett: Catalyst. I catalyze things. I’m catalyzing change, catalyzing the right conversations, catalyzing leadership. Catalyst is a compound you add to something and it creates something else. My role is as a change catalyst. I really like helping organizations get to where they want to go. I am there to partner with business leaders who are trying to build a better future for the business and their people.
Tamar Elkeles is chief learning officer and vice president of learning and development at Qualcomm and the author of The Chief Learning Officer: Driving Value Within a Changing Organization Through Learning and Development. She can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.
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