Hitting the ground running in the first 90 days is a big step in any new role, but for a new CLO it’s a giant leap. How new CLOs navigate this time will have a huge impact on their overall success or failure. After all, one never has a second chance to make a first impression.
The principal reason making the right moves in those first 90 days is critical concerns the rapid evolution of the CLO role, and the diversity of visions for the role held by CLOs and interested stakeholders. The conventional vision for the role has the CLO identify him or herself as a learning leader first and foremost, capturing the organization’s learning needs and putting together offerings to meet them. This vision is rooted in the legacy of training from which the learning function evolved.
Everything the CLO does, every learning strategy and initiative must align to the business strategy. This takes precedence over a great learning management system or a brilliant course. Eryn O’Brien, chief learning officer at Bank of America, said the CLO should approach the role as a business leader, one dedicated to helping clients shape their organizations and solve business challenges rather than approaching things as “the learning leader.”
“Instead of asking business leaders to tell you about their learning needs, ask them about their goals and critical challenges for the team,” she said. “You’ll uncover their learning needs, but in a more business outcome-oriented manner, less limited by that leader’s historical perceptions of the role he or she thinks learning can play.”
In the emergent vision for the role, the CLO acts as change leader, keeping tabs on emerging trends and how they might be employed to drive business and organizational change. According to Karen Kocher, chief learning officer for Cigna, “having knowledge of, and aligning to business priorities is valuable, assuming you use these to drive strategic change and not simply to receive and handle incoming needs. This evolution will increasingly be required for success in the CLO role, but it’s one that many CLOs have not recognized nor started.”
With such a diversity of visions, new CLOs should define their own vision for the role and share it with business partners in those first 90 days. If they start with the conventional vision for the role, they risk reinforcing “the old thinking that learning is supplemental, a benefit, nice to have — not integral to how the enterprise should integrate its business and people strategies to achieve its bottom-line goals,” said Tonya Harris Cornileus, vice president of learning and organizational development at ESPN.
On the other hand, if new CLOs start with their personal vision for the role, they can set themselves up as a fundamental part of the business, critical to its success.
The speed of the evolution of the CLO role has overtaken the conventional vision of it for several reasons:
Learning revolution: Advances in technology such as social media and smart mobile devices are shattering the old time and place constraints of classroom-based education, enabling a variety of ways to learn, including blended, social, informal, events, open source, on-demand and virtual. Many universities offer free online courses.
Content availability: All types of content, including user-generated and crowdsourced, are freely available. The learning function is no longer the primary gatekeeper for learning and development content.
Changing learning styles: Most employee populations contain multiple generations with different learning styles. Add global learners, and learning styles become even more complex.
Time: The rapid pace of change in the business world combined with global competition means employees often can’t afford to take time away from work for learning events. Bite-sized chunks of learning content available on mobile devices are an increasingly important part of the learning delivery mix.
How Should the New CLO Start?
Defining one’s vision of the CLO role is necessary, but it is not sufficient for the new CLO to ensure success in those first 90 days. It can help to approach the role as a student by asking the right questions of the right people to understand the new organization.
“The ability to ask great questions is a performance differentiator in any role, whether the person is new or mature in it,” said Ed Martin, vice president, professional development at Pandora Internet Radio.
There is no standard set of questions, but the following three general areas of focus can help:
What and who to know: The business strategy, expectations for the CLO role, the key players, the learning team’s capabilities and how current learning initiatives align to the business strategy.
What to do: The decisions and actions to take.
When to do it: When and how to implement what’s been learned.
The new CLO could create a list of questions and send them to trusted colleagues, including other CLOs, before starting the new role. This vetting process can provide background and give the new CLO more confidence going into that first day.
The CLO needs to become a human sponge and go on a listening tour to understand all aspects of the business. The CLO is both listening to understand business needs and shaping partners’ expectations by sharing the vision for the role and for the learning function. For instance, while the new CLO is getting to know the learning team, he or she may need to begin shifting the team’s mindset from delivering training to becoming performance consultants who understand the big picture.
Why the Going May Get Tough
Challenges in the new role include establishing credibility and influence, securing support, setting priorities and collecting relevant, concrete data to support the learning initiatives and budget.
Because of their broad spheres of influence and responsibility, CLOs need to be involved in every major company initiative. To succeed in such a broad spectrum, new CLOs must locate learning champions and tap their networks to market and implement learning across the organization. They also need to identify trusted colleagues whom they can count on to help them regain their bearings when they inevitably veer off course in the new environment.
The world has changed so much for a new CLO who grew up in the learning function. That presents a challenge in becoming fluent with new technologies such as social media, blogging and mobile learning.
Finally, a seemingly never-ending challenge involves encouraging business leaders to take a more balanced approach to their teams’ learning and development needs. That means shifting focus from this year’s budget to building capability for the next three or four years.
Overanalyzing and maintaining the status quo too long, balanced against changing things too quickly before understanding the organization, is also a potential pitfall. It may be tempting for a new CLO to work on everything at once and try to be world-class in all areas. However, it’s only important to be world-class where it provides a competitive advantage, while being good enough in others. Once the new CLO makes this assessment, he or she can then shift resources to areas that provide that business advantage.
A few additional pitfalls provide slippery slopes for the new CLO to stumble on. The first involves falling into the role of “order-taker” by responding to a request versus partnering to ensure it’s the real need. The second entails trying to prove the company made the right hiring decision by making big changes before fully understanding the organization and building the necessary coalitions. Finally, assumptions can be the mother of all pitfalls.
How many times has a leader walked into a new environment and assumed that what worked at the last job will work in the new one, or that when a client says learning is important it’s always true, or because the company hired a CLO, it values learning and will make the appropriate investments? New CLOs need to be vigilant in identifying their own assumptions and preconceived notions about what will work in the new company.
Further, there are differences for the internal versus the external new CLO. Jenny Dearborn, chief learning officer for software company SuccessFactors, said an internal candidate moving into the CLO role will have deep knowledge of company culture and existing relationships with executive clients. “That cultural awareness is essential to successfully enabling the workforce with effective learning solutions,” she said. “An external candidate would need a solid plan to gain knowledge of company culture so that learning initiatives are aligned with those values and norms.”
Ultimately, there is no single effective leadership style. Like any role, being an effective CLO requires customization. “I don’t feel like I own learning,” said ESPN’s Cornileus. “To be successful in my role means I need to gain buy-in from others and get things done through others, so I like to work through a collaborative style. So much of what I do and try to import into the culture is shared. I sincerely believe people support what they help create, so allowing others to co-create learning content and experiences has proven to be a formula for success for me and our company.”
Further, getting a seat at the table is a necessary but no longer sufficient goal for the new CLO. According to Bob Bennett, chief learning officer and HR vice president for FedEx Express, “CLOs must evolve in the direction of shaping executive conversations, and providing the thought leadership that’s necessary for sustained business success.”
In the end, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to succeed in those first 90 days. If it were as simple as following a set of predetermined steps, anyone could become a CLO. With the rapid advance of new technologies and the global economy, new learning leaders need to be nimble, open to change, and willing to question all assumptions and deeply held beliefs about learning, the learning function and the vision for the CLO role. In short, the new CLO needs to reflect on what being a lifelong learner is all about.
Greg Ketchum is CEO of TalentPlanet, a leadership development firm, and author of the upcoming book “Trapped in the Big Easy: A Hurricane, Leadership From the Heart and the Quest for a Life of Purpose.” Alan A. Malinchak, executive adviser, Deltek’s talent and learning practice, contributed to this feature. They can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.