The chief learning officer is often tasked with accelerating organizational learning and then must illustrate how doing that improves the bottom line. Deciding to accelerate learning sounds fairly innocuous, but it’s laced with perceived and real risk.
My daughter recently shared an experience that illustrates the primary barrier that keeps CLOs from achieving their goals:
“I worked in a consulting firm that specialized in strategic engagement for seven years. I often suspected that our sales teams were giving clients what they wanted, not necessarily what they needed, but I wasn’t adept enough to help clients recognize their true needs. I hadn’t thought much about this until recently while on a call with several experienced people, including an accomplished consultant and a CLO.
“The consultant listened carefully to what the CLO had to say. He then began to suggest ideas that would meet the need expressed in company feedback, but were a departure from the CLO’s initial plan. Everyone on the call seemed to recognize the value of the new idea except the CLO.
The suggestions were not particularly risky, but they did suggest doing things that had not been done before. The client’s reaction was clear. He was a little concerned with the potential learning and change that could occur and greatly concerned with how he might be seen by higher-level executives. At the first opportunity he challenged the validity of the data he had shared at the outset of the call and proposed that the same thing be done that was done the previous year.
“It was all very transparent and embarrassing. The consultant read the situation and offered some ideas that would align with the strategy of repetition. The client said, “I love that idea!”
“While this is not an unusual story, for me it was a high impact event, one consistent with my experience at the consulting firm. I had just never seen the dynamics so transparently displayed as in this conversation. Even when people have feedback in front of them, asking for something different, the risk of change, of doing something new is terrifying.”
Hierarchies give rise to fear. Fear continually triumphs over pursuit of the collective good, and learning acceleration, and organizations remain trapped in what they know. This is true in almost all organizations.
Most of us seek quantum leaps in our performance levels by pursuing a strategy of incremental investment. This strategy simply does not work. The land of excellence is safely guarded from unworthy intruders by two fearsome sentries – risk and learning. The keys to entry are faith and courage.
Faith and courage come with personal and organizational purpose. Senior executives eventually, often painfully, learn how to live and create purpose. Clarifying our purpose empowers us and immediately fills us with positive emotions. These emotions give rise to positive thoughts and new ideas, and faith. We can say, “This is who I am, this is where I am going, and I will endure what I must endure in order to go there.” We are filled with courage because we believe deeply in our path.
Those positive emotions are contagious. Others are lifted by what we feel. On the other hand, the fear of embracing change, as illustrated by the CLO in my daughter’s story, is disempowering. The positive energy was deflated when those on the call felt his fear, and the give and take came to a halt.
There are five strategies that can open you, and those around you, up to faith and learning. They are: creating a sense of purpose, having authentic conversations, orienting people to the reality of possibility, embracing the common good, and trusting the emerging process.
Leaders who can do these five things build trust. By building trust people can do things they were previously afraid or unable to do. You can accelerate learning, change your organization and even improve your bottom line. More importantly, you will go to your job every day feeling empowered, and empowering.
Robert E. Quinn is a chaired professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, one of the co-founders of the Center for Positive Organizations and author of 18 books including “The Positive Organization.”