Over the seven years I’ve been an editor at Chief Learning Officer, I’ve often been asked what skills, abilities and qualities make a successful chief learning officer.
There’s no easy answer. The best CLOs are skilled and armed with deep knowledge. They have deep expertise developed over decades of work. For some, those hard-earned skills come as they worked their way up the learning-and-development ranks, starting out designing and delivering courses and progressively taking on more management.
For others, their expertise is earned in fields outside of L&D in functional and managerial roles whose performance is tied closely into learning and development such as sales or operations.
Whatever their path, successful learning leaders also have leadership skills and abilities to marshal resources to their cause, motivate and influence others and make the clear connection between what their teams do and what the organizations are trying to achieve.
But it’s not skills, knowledge and competence that set them apart. What makes successful CLOs special is something a bit more difficult to define. The question is the answer to what makes a successful CLO.
Bear with me for a second here. It’s no secret we’re living through an era of accelerating change. You all feel it, I’m sure, in ways big and small. Product cycles are in constant churn. Whether it’s the smartphone in your pocket, the business software you use to manage your resources or the way you watch your favorite TV shows, nothing stays the same for very long. Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen calls the period we’re going through an era of “disruptive innovation.”
But it’s not just technology and product cycles that are being disrupted and accelerated. Knowledge — the currency that employees trade in — is under pressure, too. Experts like John Seely Brown, the former Xerox chief scientist and head of the company’s famed PARC research center, estimate that the half-life of skills is a short five years. In technical fields like IT and engineering, it’s more like two. Think about that: In only two years, nearly half of what the engineers know about their field will be thoroughly obsolete.
Traditional education didn’t prepare us for this challenge. We learned facts, figures, formulas and specialized knowledge and locked it away in our brains for future use. But while we were busy locking it away, someone came and changed the locks and didn’t give us the key.
Disruption is here in learning whether we’re ready or not. Knowledge and skill are currencies that are constantly changing in value, and success increasingly lies not in building up a reserve of that currency, but in our ability to trade it and trade it in.
Business cycles are shortening and accelerating, new challenges are emerging without warning, and skills and abilities are morphing and changing. A successful CLO has the ability to find a path through complexity without making it complicated. And finding that path starts with asking questions.
Successful learning leaders ask questions about what we learn and pay close attention to the evolution of the skills and abilities our workers need. They ask questions about how we learn and are always open to new and emerging technologies and ideas.
But there’s a bigger question that lies at the heart of everything I’ve seen from some of the best CLOs: Why. Why do we do what we do? What is the motivation that lies behind what we are trying to achieve?
Technology can’t answer that question. Knowledge can’t solve that riddle. Only the sort of deep inquiry and strong and consistent relationships can lead to an answer. And whatever answer you come to today will likely change tomorrow.
There is an incredible amount of work already being done by learning leaders around the world. One of our constant goals with Chief Learning Officer is to share those stories and show the many different answers that are possible to that simple question of why.
What makes a successful CLO? The answer is never the same. The only constant in the age of disruption is not the answer; it’s the question.
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