If you don’t already know Karie Willyerd’s work, you should.
She’s been at the forefront of corporate learning for a couple of decades, leading the learning function at companies like Lockheed Martin, Heinz, Sun Microsystems and SuccessFactors/SAP. She’s an author, futurist and a successful tech entrepreneur who took her education technology company from startup to sale in just over a year.
And now, after years away, she’s a chief learning officer again. She took on the brand new role of global CLO at Visa in 2018. In this conversation recorded on stage at the Spring 2019 Chief Learning Officer Symposium, Karie talks about why she decided to take the job at Visa, what it means to be strategic in corporate learning and how she manages the function at a high-growth company.
But what’s most important about this conversation is what she has to say about the future of the chief learning officer role. Her insights are sharp, practical and informed by her years of experience.
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Note: this transcript has been edited for space and clarity.
Mike Prokopeak: Hello and welcome to the Chief Learning Officer Podcast. I’m your host Mike Prokopeak, editor in chief of Chief Learning Officer magazine and I’d like to thank you for taking the time to join us. Welcome back to our returning listeners and a special welcome to anyone who may be listening for the first time.
In this podcast we bring you conversations with corporate learning and education leaders on the evolution of the role and practice of chief learning officers. We’ll share lots of insights into their career paths and what advice they have for others as they pursue this incredibly important job.
It’s no secret that talent is at the center of the modern business agenda and it’s our hope that you’ll hear tips and ideas from this podcast that will help you succeed in business, whether you’re a long-time CLO with decades of experience, whether you aspire to the role in the future or maybe you’re just passionate about the future of learning in today’s organizations.
Our guest today on this podcast is Karie Willyerd, the chief learning officer for Visa. If you don’t know Karie’s work, you really should. She’s been at the forefront of corporate learning for a couple of decades, leading the learning function at companies like Lockheed Martin, Hines, Sun Microsystems, SuccessFactors SAP, and now at Visa.
Karie’s also an entrepreneur. She started her own technology company, Jambok, in 2010, and took it from startup to sale in just over a year. She’s the author of two books, “The 2020 Workplace: How Innovative Companies Attract, Develop and Keep Tomorrow’s Employees Today,” and “Stretch: How to Future-Proof Yourself for Tomorrow’s Workplace.”
As you might guess from those titles, Karie likes to sit at the intersection of where business is today and where it needs to head in the future. Her insights are sharp, they’re practical and most importantly, they’re informed by her years of experience. These aren’t your typical consultant’s books written by someone who’s on the outside looking in. Karie’s been there. She’s been doing the important work that many of you in the listening audience are doing as well.
We talked to Karie on stage at the Spring 2019 Chief Learning Officer Symposium in Las Vegas and we caught up with her on a number of topics including the new role at Visa and what attracted her to the job. Most importantly, we talked about what it means to be strategic in learning and development and how she manages the learning function at a company that has seen dramatic growth over the last few years. There’s so much in there that is useful to others in the CLO role, including a couple of what Karie called her “rants” about what needs to change in the way CLOs do their work.
I was joined on stage in Las Vegas by my co-host Justin Lombardo. Justin has his own unique background as a chief learning officer. Growing up in the heyday of Motorola University under its transformational leader Bill Wiggenhorn and becoming the first chief learning officer in the healthcare industry. In this conversation, they both showcase how CLOs need to continually reinvent the work they do to stay relevant in their organizations. It’s a fun and enlightening conversation and I know you’re going to love it.
If you have a comment or a topic idea for a future podcast send us a note at email@example.com. And finally, if you like what you’re hearing, consider giving us a rating on iTunes. We’d love for you to be able to share the great work that other chief learning officers are doing with a broader audience. Now, here’s our interview with Karie. Let’s get learning.
Mike Prokopeak: Karie, let’s start really broad. You’ve done a lot of things over your career before you started as CLO at Visa. You’ve been an author, an entrepreneur, you’ve been a CLO at a number of companies – Sun Microsystems, SuccessFactors, SAP SuccessFactors. You started your own company. You have been a thought leader and a futurist in the learning and development industry. You keep coming back to corporate learning. What is it about being a CLO that brings you back? Because you did it. You could have very easily said, “Been there, done that, moved on, started a company, I’m doing other things now.” But you came back. Why? And I’m assuming it wasn’t just a paycheck.
Karie Willyerd: No. I sold a software company so it’s not the paycheck. So for a few reasons. First off, I find that the best writers and the best consultants are people who are rooted in practice. And I think it’s very difficult to sit as just a consultant and dream up blue sky ideas and take those out to people without kind of interjecting periods of practice.
I still felt like I wanted one more corporate role before I moved more to the consulting part of my career. But secondly, Visa was really intriguing. So, I thought I was going to do maybe a give-back role, working in government or in a nonprofit. And then Visa came along. And it was just so interesting and appealing, that I jumped.
Mike: So, Justin you’re sort of in that give-back period here now.
Justin Lombardo: Yeah.
Mike: We’re going to dig into your role at Visa and what was so appealing that made you make that jump. But, from your point of view, Justin, as you look at it what are the things that are most appealing about the job for you that would say, “You know what? That’s really intriguing?”
Justin: You look for the oddity. So the standard role of somebody who manages and runs a learning organization doesn’t interest you at a certain point in your career, right? Okay. Been there, done that. This is a steady state organization. They need some changes but it’s not a sea change. It’s not a disruptive change. There’s nothing about that that’s interesting, I think, for an experienced CLO. What’s interesting is when you get the twist.
Where they say, “We’ve never had one so we don’t know what this is. And we want to play with it. We want to redefine it.” Or a place where they say something like, “We’ve tried this once and it failed but we need to try it again.” Those kind of things. And then for me right now, it’s as you said, doing the not-for-profit thing. The work I do for the archdiocese as their senior advisor on talent and human performance is really, it’s all pro bono. But I do it several days a week because it’s an organization that hasn’t done anything with this for literally hundreds of years, so it’s really a green field operation. You say, “Really? When was the last time you looked at learning?” They’ll say, “About 1060.”
And so you stop and say, “Well, I guess we have some… you know, it’s a low bar in terms of what you have to accomplish.” But I think it’s that twist, this thing that says, “I know how to do this normative state. Can I really do it when there’s something that’s either failed or been undiscovered before?” Does that make sense, Karie?
Karie: Oh, definitely.
Mike: What is the twist for you? Because I mean, I think you’re saying the same things. I didn’t need to do this. But there’s something about this particular role at Visa that was that twist. So why now for you?
Karie: Well, so the headhunter calls. And they’re saying, we’ve got a position for a CLO. When you’ve done it enough like I have, you get the calls and you say, “Let me connect you to my network.”
Mike: I’m not in the market right now but I know some people.
Karie: Yeah, exactly. I said “I don’t think I’ll take a CLO job again.” And he goes, “Well, you know, this one reports in to strategy.” I said, “Oh well, that’s interesting. Why?” And he said, “You’re going to have to talk to them to find that out.” So I have like an insatiable curiosity. I used to be a journalist. So I had to go find out.
Mike: So what did you find out? Reporting in to strategy, that wasn’t something that you sort of negotiated coming in, it was already set.
Karie: It was already set. One minute on Visa history. It’s not the company you think it is. You probably think we issue credit cards. We do not issue credit cards. We are a technology company that supports banks who issue credit cards. So we’re the rails upon which banks run. We’re a technology company which is I think kind of a surprise for most people. Wildly profitable, it’s only been a public company for 10 years. Before that it was a nonprofit. So the culture is very nonprofit-like inside Visa which is very interesting. So I get in and find out that it is the CEO who’s made the decision.
There was a small Visa University that did mostly leadership and a few programs. It had been moved to strategy by him. Because he felt like the only way we’ll get the investment we need in it and make it the focus that we need is to put it in strategy. So he calls my boss who’s employee no. 2 in the 10-year-old Visa and he says, “Congratulations. You just got the learning function.” And he says, “OK.” And so from there it’s been a journey.
Mike: In practice, is it really a distinction without a difference when it comes to learning roles? OK, you’re reporting in to strategy but does it really affect your work? Does it really make it any different from somebody who is reporting in under a talent function or under an operation function? Why is it distinct, if it is, to be reporting in to strategy?
Karie: I wouldn’t say that it would be like this for everyone but at least at Visa it is very different. So it was a big statement to move it from HR over to strategy. I have come in when there wasn’t a CLO and been the first CLO before at Sun, that was the first time I did that. Every time else, I was promoted into it. And there it was like a years-long process to get everything pulled together. It was a dual line to HR in that situation.
So interestingly, I was here like four months before every single person that was in learning anywhere in Visa is being shipped over to me. Because we have a new chief learning officer. And they said, “Don’t worry about budget. Just do what you need to do here.” And it’s like, I must be… like, have I died already, and-
Mike: Yeah, how did that happen? Somebody actually said those words to you? Don’t worry about budget?
Justin: They had money.
Karie: They have money. So really, I came because I’m going to get to invent the future of learning in practice at Visa. So that’s kind of my big appeal for it. And when you’re in the strategy group and you’re aligning to all of the strategy you get the opportunity to do that.
Mike: By the way, just as a point of clarification, what does the strategy group do at Visa? What is it?
Karie: We do things like the M&A. Amazingly, one of the most strategic things we do is the relationship with governments around the world. We process one-quarter of the world’s business transactions. The way we grow is if a government decides to allow more cards in their country. So we’re working with governments all around the world. So I have the training that’s both inside and outside. We’re training government entities on what’s it mean to have a cashless society or a cashless city. How would that work? You can actually use a card to get on the subway instead of a ticket if you wish.
Justin: So you’re really helping them with emerging businesses.
Justin: Yeah, that’s a very distinctive role. You’re not just supporting the emerging business, you’re in there helping them to understand. Talk about that. Because if you start talking about the redefinition of the role that’s a pretty critical shift. Because what you didn’t say is, “I’m in there following after they set it up to teach them how to do this. But I’m going in and talking about the concepts of cashless society and what to do.” That’s pretty distinctive, Karie.
Karie: Well, if I was going to pick a theme of the conference so far a lot of it has been around disruption. And so in the industry in which we operate, our roots are in financial services but it turns out we’re a technology company. And so we’re making a cultural shift to that. And understanding that these startups – the fintechs of the world – are the ones that are a real threat and disruption. Another part of my role is how do we prepare the fintech ecosystem for being friendly to Visa through education and other tools I can’t talk about yet because they’re secret.
Justin: That’s interesting. Toggling back to Motorola U, if any of you recall after the Soviet bloc fell, suddenly technologies were opened up in the Eastern European countries that hadn’t been before. And again, this was because of having a visionary leader like Karie, Bill Wiggenhorn was very visionary. And we went in then as a team, not to help the countries that were newly emerging democracies or newly emerging economies after they bought something but to understand how you even get there. And it’s similar to you.
I remember we went into Bulgaria to talk about cellular infrastructure. And we went in talking about “We could do these things for you as part of the business. And here’s the notion behind what a contract about that would look like.” And they said, “Well, we’ll think about it, and we’ll come back and tell you about it. Wait, we’ll call you back in in a day or two.” We waited two days. They didn’t get back to us. We waited three days. We were wondering what’s going on. Fast forward, our country manager who was Bulgarian went and talked to the minister of telecommunications and said, “What’s up? Do you like this or not?”
What we found out is they had no idea how to negotiate a contract because they had never had to do it before. You’re probably going in saying, “We can do this and make a cashless society,” and they won’t tell you that they have no idea what it means but you have to do it. And that’s a radical difference in the notion of what a learning function is.
Mike: And it’s early days for you. So it’s how long now since you started?
Karie: Nine months.
Mike: How would you describe the foundation that you’ve built over those first nine months. And you know, obviously there a lot more work to do and it’s going to take a lot of time to get there. But in those first nine months, what’s the foundation that you think you built, that you hope you built, that you wanted to build?
Karie: Well, so in case anyone becomes a CLO for the first time, I’ll tell you a little bit about what I did. The first 100 days, I met one-on-one with 150 VPs or above to talk about what they saw as their needs for building capabilities and skills in their organization. I’m fortunate enough to have written a book about careers and future-proofing yourself so I could hold author chats and actually draw audiences. So I had coffee chats with over 600 people in the organization to get a sense for it. And I came up with four strategic directions that we should take in the learning organization and four areas to focus on. And then took that through the socialization process of all of the executive board members and so on.
So I’ve got that all done. And pulled together the 150 or so people that all sat in different organizations all around Visa. Threw it up in the air and came up with new job descriptions, taking 70 job titles down to a couple dozen job titles, 15, I think. Then we’re doing the McKinsey Three Horizons work, on what do you do in the first 18 months, the second 18 months and then the third horizon. The reason you do it that way though is so that you’ll do a 70/20/10 – a different way of thinking of 70/20/10 where you pull the third horizon at least 10 percent of your time into the first horizon, 20% of the second horizon into the work. So you’re laying the groundwork.
So we got that work done. New staff, all new staff. Everybody on my staff had to reapply for jobs. And so it’s a lot of groundwork, as you said. And a little bit more foundational work than I anticipated. Because I thought, “Well, it’s Visa. It’s a big brand.” But lots of work to do.
Mike: Yeah, big brand but actually not a large company in terms of people.
Karie: Right, 17,000. And that is triple in three years. 60% of the people are there less than three years.
Mike: So it’s green field on many levels. There isn’t a lot of organizational history in that regard. When that many people are new you can kind of really start anew.
Karie: I don’t know how you feel about this but it feels to me like talent and the building of capabilities is really hitting the CEO radar. So our CEO Al Kelly is on a presidential task force on how we upskill the people that are being left behind in the new economy, as is Tim Cook and the CEO of IBM, so just a lot of people that are really starting to get this high on the radar. So it’s an exciting time to be involved in this because people actually care about it because they’re worried about what will happen to us as a society if we don’t keep up.
Justin: That’s the key and it’s interesting you say that. One of the speakers referenced the fact that we’re in a full economy so it’s in front of people now. How many out there, and Karie, you probably remember, how many of you out there remember the McKinsey War for Talent? This is a replay kids, go and binge watch that. Because that was the first time the notion of talent on a national scale came to everybody’s forefront. Because there was a shortage again. And the shortage was going to last. So you’re kind of in a sweet spot and you must obviously have a good CEO who’s taking it seriously. But it’s kind of repetitive for that.
But I wanted to ask a follow-up about what you’ve done in the first nine months. So, you went in, you had a CEO who had said, “We want this,” right? But it was a green field. They never had one before. What have you run into or what have you done up to this point where they said, “Oh no, no, no, we didn’t bargain for that yet”? Have you run into that at all?
Karie: I think at first they said, “You know, you only want to do strategic things, so you don’t want the call centers for example. You don’t want the call center training.” And I said, yeah, they’re like coming to me and trying to push it on me. And it’s a good thing I took it. There were some great skilled people in there and they were sitting at 30% utilization rate. So I can repurpose them to do other things and so on.
I think maybe the one thing that I’ve got, that’s going to happen in three weeks is, over the last five years people have tried to start country manager programs, country manager training. And people would get going and they’d define the competencies and they’d put a thing in and then it just would fizzle out.
So that was one of the things identified. So I said, “Okay, we’re going to do a country manager training program. And it’s going to be really fun and experiential.” And they go, “Oh, you’ll never get it off the ground.” Unless somebody does something in the next two weeks. I mean, I’ve got board members, like Visa board members coming to it as well as the CEO, the president. Every single person on the president’s staff are all coming as part of the leader as teacher component of it. So I got their calendars, so we’re going.
Justin: That’s pretty awesome. So this is what, your third or fourth CLO role, kind of?
Justin: Is it your fifth? What have you said, “Oh I used to do this as a CLO and I have no intention of doing it again”? What have you taken off the role that you have intention of ever bringing back? Because you don’t see the value added in anymore or it’s an obsolete thing that we used to look at. Is there anything in the role?
Karie: At Lockheed Martin, that was my first one as CLO for a division of aerospace, so fighter jet aircraft. There’s 32,000 employees there, so it was almost twice as big, just a division, as Visa. We’d run an annual needs assessment survey where we’d find out everything everybody wanted. And then you’d go and do some statistical analysis on all of the needs, add them all up. And by the time you got to the top, it was like this regression to the mean. Because everybody wanted “Managing my Manager” and “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.” And you know, all of this stuff that just was interesting … but not really. If you produced all the stuff to match that you weren’t going to move the needle for the business. So I’m a fan of understanding what people want but not as the only way you determine direction.
In the country manager program there was some previous analysis. There were five different needs assessments that had been done on the country manager. So I had these discovery reports I could look at. All five came to the conclusion that country managers needed executive presence. So I talked to the president and I talked to the CEO and they say, “You know, what we really need is for them to understand commercial acumen and how you run a business when you’ve been promoted from being the salesperson in the region to the general manager. So we need them to make that transition.” If I hadn’t had that conversation and had just run off on the easy, “what do they say they want,” it would have been an executive presence and storytelling class. Not that those aren’t important But they weren’t the whole picture.
Justin: As I listen to you talk about that, that’s one of the reasons why it’s really great that you’re reporting in to strategy. Because many traditional HR people get really nervous when you say, “Well, I really don’t care what they’re saying they think they want, I’ve got something else here that needs to go on.” They’re going like, “But we’re judged on how we serve the people and you’re talking about it from a business end, which is…”
Karie: Well, I think the other thing that happens if you’re in HR and because some of the reports were done by HR, is they focus on general leadership skills and not on what’s it take to be successful in role. They figure, well, the business is responsible for all the rest of that stuff. And I have a different philosophy on that.
Mike: Is this a little bit of a case of be careful what you wish for as a chief learning officer? It’s like, we want the seat at the table, we want to be involved in business. And now, guess what? It’s a core business issue. And okay, what do we do now that we’re there? So, what do you recommend that you do to be ready for those type of conversations, whether you step into a role where it’s set up to be that way when you begin or you’ve got to be a little more opportunistic along the way to find those opportunities. How do you prepare for that? How do you get there?
Karie: The reason I was laughing is because about two months ago the CEO sent me an email: “Here’s what I’d like the experience for new hires to have coming in.” And he wrote an outline for the orientation program and the list of professional skills that he wanted them to have available. It was a two-page email.
And I thought, “Wow, I’ve never had a CEO do that.” But it’s also like a, “OK, I’ve got to manage that.” Plus he’d already bought into the four priorities and one of them was not that people are getting presentation skills as part of their first year as an opportunity. We have it but I just hadn’t put that as a priority.
I think all CLO jobs you have to helicopter between strategy and operational. The fun thing about being a workplace futurist like I was at SAP for a while is you’re sitting in the strategy and the idea stage. I had 1000 people working for me at SAP when I left. I had 1000 people working for me at Sun. I’ve got 150 now. So you’re hands-on doing a lot of the work. As a CLO in most companies, I think you have to go between an operational and setting the horizon as well.
Mike: That’s hard to do though. Justin, you and I have talked about this on a number of occasions on the podcast in particular. You’re helicoptering or toggling between the two. Difficult to do in practice actually.
Karie: I’m the first person to graduate from college in my family, much less get a doctorate. And so my lineage is part of it. One line is in Arkansas. So in summers I would have to herd the cow to come on this poor cotton farm. And you kind of learn quickly that you need to get the cow to the gate in the distance. But if you don’t pay attention to what’s happening right here you’ll get the shit kicked out of you.
I think a CLO job is a lot like that. You’ve got this gate in the distance that you’re trying to corral the organization through. But you do have to pay attention to what’s happening right in front of you at the same time. But if you only pay attention to what’s right in front of you you’ll just go in circles and make no progress.
Mike: But how do you give up that paying attention to right in front of you when sometimes it’s not productive. I’ll bring up a story that Justin has talked about. When you’re running a learning team, there is a point where as the CLO, the people need to be able to say to you, “Hey, step back. You know this better than I do.”
Justin: I found one of the many areas that I need to develop myself that I really need to change my habit when I took on the most senior role was not digging into stuff too far. And as a program came closer and closer to fruition, like your country manager program, it’s two weeks out. I’m assuming you didn’t develop it all yourself.
Justin: You know, you’ve got a designer and I’ve got other people. And there’s a point at which I found, where I had to stop playing with their stuff, because they really knew a heck of a lot more than I did and me mucking about with it and saying, “Well what about this, what about this?,” was not helpful. But until that point you’re going to have to dig in but then you have to pull yourself back out and go do other stuff.
Karie: Yeah. You know this is actually how the company that I started was born …was this challenge of so many people coming at you with learning requirements. This was at Sun. So we “entrepreneured” a product to allow people to have a social platform on which they both author and distribute. And so we said, “Have at it. Here’s the guidelines. Here’s some good practice rules.” And we began to crowdsource some of the work.
So I think, even though I have centralized control of the people that are in learning, I have a very decentralized approach to who has the freedom to create content. And then take more of an editorial control in order to create an extraordinary experience for the learner who comes in. So they don’t have a lot of stuff. So I think you have to figure out how are you going to make things available to people so that you can clear some of the clutter off of your doorstep to get to the cow.
Mike: The cow gets through the gate, right? Let’s talk a little bit about that issue of control. Because you wrote something on LinkedIn that Justin and I were talking a little bit about when we were preparing to talk to you on stage. You talked about how the traditional CLO is focusing on that 10%, what has traditionally been that classroom. When you came into this role, when you started this role at Visa, that you really wanted to be responsible in control – to own, I think was the word you used, the 100% of learning, not just that 10% that is out there. Is that possible to own 100%? How do you take that approach where you can own 100% of learning, when it is, just so much of it is outside of your day-to-day. How do you tackle that?
Karie: You know for people who don’t, I just say, “Wimps,” because I think, why would you be a chief learning officer if what you say is, “Sorry, I’m only responsible for 10% of the total learning in this organization.” Then I think you’re just the head of training. So that’s a head of training job. That’s not a chief learning officer job.
I have two pet peeves on this. So, warning, rant follows. The first rant is that people don’t assume that they are responsible for the capabilities for the organization. That’s to me why you get a C-level role is because you sign up for that. And it’s just like the other C-level roles.
They can’t control everything but they are responsible for the strategy. Of course I can’t control how you’re having a mentoring discussion with somebody who works for you. But I can surely enable it. So I think the further it gets to the 70%, I can begin to enable.
An example I’ll use is, I’m going to influence the goal setting and be able to say, “Here’s the way we want people to think about their development goal for the year.” I won’t go into the details of it. But then I’m influencing every conversation a manager has with their employee. Because they’ve got to talk about that development goal in a way that I’ve designed.
So rant no. 2 is that too many CLOs are only responsible for executive development and maybe professional skills and they don’t tackle the capabilities of the organization like sales training or technology, or they pass those off to the functions to do. As I’ve been doing some hiring I’m finding an amazing number of people who have CLO titles, who’ve never done any sales training, who’ve never done any technology training, never trained on product.
To me, those are quasi-CLO roles when you’re only defining a content space that you’ll play in. As opposed to, “How are we developing the people of this organization to achieve the strategy and direction of this company?” And that doesn’t mean I carve out this, this, this, this and this, this and this, that I don’t do.
Mike: As you were talking about it, I was remembering Jenny Dearborn who worked with you in the early days at Sun. I remember talking to her a couple years ago about compliance training. And that has sort of been a bad word in CLO circles. “Oh, we don’t just do compliance training, we own this much broader aspect at what we do.” And she said, “That’s ridiculous. You know what? Everybody has to take compliance training. Why would I not want that experience to be an entry into everything else that we do? Why should we not own that? Instead of just throwing up our hands and saying, ‘It’s compliance training, let it suck.” Why wouldn’t I own that? But to that point, you’ve got to be able to do those things and to own it and to say, “Listen, the employee, the population at large looks at this as training. I’m the chief learning officer, yes, that’s not where I want to play but it is where people see that we play.”
Justin: I used to love that people in healthcare would say, “I’m the chief learning officer at such and such a hospital system,” and I go, “OK, what are you doing about this nursing issue?” “Oh, I don’t look after that.” “OK.” So 70% of the workforce in healthcare by the way is nursing so if you’re the CLO and you don’t look after the population with 70% of the needs, you’re a quasi-CLO. I totally agree with you on that one.
And the thing about compliance training …that moves the needle on the business. If you don’t do that well you not only are going to get dinged by your regulatory but you’re going to cost brand equity in the market. We see that everyday. Starbucks. The latest example that may or may not turn up is what’s happening with Boeing now. I mean there’s tons of things about what’s going on that cost you brand. And if you’re a C-suite leader and you say, “That’s not mine to look after. I’m not accountable for that,” you really don’t belong in the C-suite.
Karie: Right, right.
Mike: Why don’t we take a quick speed round. So, I’ll throw you a couple questions and then we’ll dig in a little bit more after that. So the topic is: What might surprise us about something you believe? I’ll start with your philosophy of adult learning. What might surprise us about something that you think about adult learning?
Karie: Well, philosophically I’m a social constructivist. So I actually believe that people learn best when they’re set in the construct of their lives. And I think that’s too philosophical to talk about even to the people who work for me. So I use language that’s more around things like, “Hey, people are going to do best if they learn from one another. They don’t care to have us on the stage the whole time. We need to have them bringing their experience. We need to understand how the environment in which they’re working…” And that plays over well but deep in my heart I’m a social constructivist.
Mike: So you mentioned a starting a company. What might surprise us about being and entrepreneur? What surprised you as you went into that field?
Karie: So CEO stands for chief everything officer and it’s a 24/7 job. It was very interesting to learn this whole world of capital investors, the equity and the investors there and the whole Sand Hill road scene. And how different that is from how we think in business about success. So they put companies in their portfolio that they plan on one in 10 succeeding. So as soon as there’s just like a hint of something not succeeding, it’s not like they jump in to help it, they put it in the corner. Because the one in 10, if the one in 10 is Facebook or Google-
Mike: Yeah, if that one hits they’ve recovered more than-
Karie: That one hit. I never ended up having to take money because I sold so quickly. But it was just a very fascinating world to go learn. And very many CEOs walk away from those kinds of arrangements where they’ve brought money in and they get nothing out of it, the company that they started. It’s just a very interesting business model.
Mike: So the surprising thing is as a… I suppose not surprising … you start up a company, you don’t necessarily make money. As a CEO you don’t necessarily walk away with money, especially in-
Karie: Oh, you do not necessarily. I mean, you have to sell and you have to sell before you took money from other people.
Mike: Startup companies. You know, I want to get into Silicon Valley because you spent a lot of time there. And startup companies in particular, when they think about talent functions and learning functions, it seems quite often that they start way too late thinking about that, as they scale up. Where did you start? I mean obviously you had the background to know how to stand up a talent function and how important it is to think about these things before you, or at the same time that, you’re going out with a product. But that’s not common. And so, how do you approach that?
Karie: In my startup, I did a couple of interesting things. I did have someone come in who said, “I don’t know how to be a Ruby programmer. I’d love to learn.” And I said, “Yeah, well, you know, get in line.” And he said, “Well, I’ll come work for free.” And so then we said, “Oh, well that’s interesting.” So we started to set a culture. We had paired programming. In paired programming people were learning from one another so one person’s programming and one person is kind of quality control at the same time. And then you switch. And so that’s an interesting way to learn. So we could put him on things like that.
I have a practice that I carry to this day. I start every staff meeting with a learning nugget and it’s five minutes of something interesting and discussion. So, one minute to tee up the learning nugget, maybe two. And then we discuss it. And it rotates. So it would be your turn and then my turn and then your turn and so on. And that’s really interesting. Because people bring things of interest. They tend to then go pick something that they want everybody else to know and learn about.
You can take it down to microlearning in an old fashioned way. It doesn’t have to be over some fancy technology tool. And of course I like technology tools but it doesn’t have to be. It’s a startup. You’re not going to buy a whole platform for learning, you just got to come up with quick and easy dirty ways to keep this kind of continuous learning mode ahead.
Mike: A mindset.
Karie: A mindset, yes.
Mike: Keep a learning mindset part of how you operate
Karie: And that reminds me of another rant.
Mike: Let’s rant again.
Karie: My other rant is CLOs who don’t develop people. So who take the job but they don’t personally develop people. One of the things I’m kind of proud of is I think I’ve spawned more CLOs than any other CLO. I think I’ve got five people who worked for me who have become CLOs themselves.
One of my value propositions I can give people is, “Come work for me. And I promise I will develop you. You’ll get more feedback from me than you’ve gotten your whole life combined, and you’ll love it. Because it’s done out of love, not out of criticism.” To me I find it disappointing when a CLO leaves and there’s no successor groomed. It’s like WTF.
Justin: And on the positive side of that is if you’ve been a CLO for a period of time in the same organization, it’s kind of a proud moment when you lose one of your staff members to go be a CLO someplace else. That’s a proud moment, not a bad moment.
Karie: It is a proud [moment]… and you know maybe Bill Wiggenhorn can beat me, because you know, he probably has spawned a lot of people as well.
Justin: Yeah, he spawned quite a few. There’s probably, of the first generation in the university, there’s probably 10-12 of us. But that was scalability too. He had at the peak, we had 1200 people in the university.
Karie: Right, right.
Mike: I just love that we’re using the word spawn when we’re talking about CLOs. It’s the spawn.
Justin, you benefited from people in your career who did that for you. Karie, I’m assuming you benefited from people throughout your career who invested in your personal development and kind of led you in that space. What advice do you have for people who are going to be in those next roles of chief learning officers? What do you recommend that they do?
Obviously go work with an interesting organization that is doing important work, that’s going to be great. But, what would you recommend as a developmental experience for people who are either aspiring to be in CLO roles, or are in a CLO role and are looking 5-10 years down the line and saying, “I want to continue to be on the front line, the front edge of this.” What do you recommend for them?
Karie: One of the pieces of advice someone gave me was get in the way of growth. So if you’re in an organization that is not growing, no matter how good you are, it’s going to be difficult for a spot to open up for you. So, look for places that are growing. Because good things happen when you put yourself in the front of growth. You probably will get stretched just a little more than you think. You should feel about every three months like you’re in over your head or you’re not stretching enough personally.
If you’ve gone three months and you don’t feel some panic about your ability to do the job, then your settling and you’re not stretching yourself. It can’t be constant. But it should be at least every three months that you feel, “What have I gotten myself into? I don’t know if I can think my way out of this.”
Mike: Make yourself uncomfortable.
Karie: Make yourself uncomfortable.
Mike: As you look back at things, what are some steps that you wish you could have avoided.
Karie: I’m a loyal person. So it was convenient for me to stay at Lockheed Martin a long time. It was through the years my kids were growing up and I could have a lot of work/life balance. I didn’t have to travel a lot. But I think it’s also what lead to kind of this phenomenon they’re talking about with women today. That is women are coming into their own at older ages than men because of the child bearing trade-offs they made. So I wish I had skimmed a few years off some of my earlier career moves. Not by much but just a few years here and there in order to be in my prime just a little bit earlier.
Mike: How do you know when it’s time to move on? Maybe Justin, we’ll open that one up to you. How do you know when it’s time to go?
Justin: Well, I think Karie hit on it. It’s when you’re going six, eight, ten months and the internal dialogue in your head is, “I’ve got this knocked. I know what’s going to come up next week or next month, or I think I do. And I’m going to define it around that.” And nothing is… you’re not solving anything that you go, “Hm, I’ve got a grasp for this. I’ve got to find a new solution.” You stayed too long at the fair, OK? You know, you’ve outlived the party there. And I guarantee you, once you settle into a pattern like that even if you move into someplace else, you’re not going to be at the top of your game right away again.
You’ve given up a precious opportunity, which is to Karie’s point, finding something that’s going to stretch you each time. I’m going to add one thing though to what she said about career moves. I only did this once, and it was a stupid thing to do.
Never, even if it’s a growth opportunity in my mind, never move to a place for a job that you are sure you do not want to live. I don’t care if you say, I’ve got to do this rotation in wherever it is for you, even if I stay for three years for my job.
Karie: You mean a geographical place?
Justin: Geographic, cultural place that you don’t want to be. And you say, “Well, I’m going to suck this up and do it for three years because it’s good for my career.” It’s not good for your life, so don’t do it. It’s a dumb move, OK. Wait for the next thing. I mean, I honestly believe that that’s the case.
I did it once. I thought I was going to like the place and I got there and I went, “You’ve descended into the sixth ring of hell.” And we’re not going to say where it was.
Karie: We don’t want to alienate anybody by saying where it was.
Justin: I didn’t say where it was.
Mike: You have been very careful. He was very careful there not to mention-
Justin: Which is not like me-
Mike: That isn’t.
Karie: You know, I did actually read a research study on this. It looked at how long are you good in a leadership role. And it said there’s kind of an arc of effectiveness. And the arc primes at seven years and then it’s downhill after that. And it’s because by the time you hit seven years, then you start holding on to things that you invented in the first place. So you don’t want to disband them. think that’s kind of an old paper, that might even be shorter now. And I think the only way to get around it is, like Jack Welch did, where he enabled the organization to tear it apart by putting in place programs like Work Out and Six Sigma, all the kinds of things that he did that he legitimized – you can tear down what I’ve built before and then reinvent. But that’s a rare leader that will be that open to take away my country manager program that I did in the first year and reinvent that.
Mike: Great. Questions? Start in the back there.
Audience Member: You went through a story really early in this little podcast where you talked about coming into Visa and having people reapply for their jobs. Now for most of us that’s a really hard thing to do. But oftentimes when leaders come in and they see the future, they realize, “I’ve got to do something with my team.” Could you just give us a couple tips on getting through what I would call that very hard leadership task early on – to come into a place, to have an impact to build relationships – but then showing people the door that don’t fit the vision of what you’re casting?
Karie: Well, I have to admit that’s not my favorite part of the job. Sometimes the people that you’re showing the door are really nice people. But they just don’t fit the vision of where we’re going. And so it’s one of those things where it’s like put on your big girl pants and have the courage to go do it. What I have found is, the longer you put off hard decisions, the harder it is and the more you regret that you didn’t do it earlier. You know, like if you just keep on waiting, thinking, “I think I can develop them into this,” and so I’ve learned to trust my instincts earlier.
And then I do go to battle with HR on the best possible package I can get for people. I mean, I’ll do rages to help them. And so, you’ll find in my network that some of my tightest connections that I stay in touch with, and that I socialize with, I’ve laid off from jobs before. Because I keep a human being relationship with them. And it’s an honest one about, “Here’s where we’re going,” and they can self assess even. For 98% of the people, they can self assess that, “Yeah, I don’t have that.”
Audience Member: I was hoping you could talk more about the four strategic directions. You talked about the series of conversations you had, the coffees. I’m wondering how you were able to kind of qualify and collate and decide on those four strategies, get alignment and get everybody moving in the same direction. And I’m also curious about the connection and correlation between your four drivers and the strategy of the overarching organization.
Karie: Of course it helps that when I sit in strategy, when I go to my staff meetings, it is the people that are driving mergers and acquisitions, government relations, our social impact group, our head of strategy and so on. So I’m embedded in that in my day-to-day conversations. One of the people on the staff is the former U.S. trade representative for the United States working directly for Obama. I mean, you just have got like this level of people that you’re working with that’s phenomenal. So they push your thinking. So I could come up with four, and they’d say, “No, now you’re going to slap me around and say you know this…”
So that’s all happened before I even go out to socialize it. And my boss is so well respected that he has the corner office and the CEO sits next to him. Because my CEO is a servant leader, that’s just really big thing for him. So he didn’t take the corner office. He put my boss in the corner office. So, when my boss asks for any meeting to be had or me to be anywhere, it just magically happens. Because it just does. So then I can go have a presentation at the CEO staff meeting and get alignment. I can get in with any one of the executive members when I was first there in the first few months, just because he asked. And now it’s because I’ve built enough credibility that I can just go do it myself.
So that’s how I got started with it. That it was by 100 days, we had alignment on what are the four things we’re going to go work on. And in the first six months, I raised an additional… you know, I think a big part of the CLO job for capabilities is tin cupping. And nobody tells you that.
I’ve met CLOs who don’t realize that it’s not just sit and wait [to see] how much money people will give you. It is create a business case for why this has to happen and go see who will… if you actually believe it enough, can you go do that? I raised $15 million in my first six months for just my first year. So by tin cupping. Somebody would say they want something and I said, “I would be happy to help you with your problem. Can I have a charge number?” And they’d go, “Sure, of course, no problem.”
Mike: Yeah, to go where the energy of the organization is with your cup in hand. And say, “Listen, I can help you.”
Karie: Yeah, and be bold.
Mike: All right. We’ve got time for one more question over here.
Audience Member: Yeah, this one will be really quickly. I remember you saying that one of the things that attracted you to the company was that it was reporting to strategy. And I know that that’s not the case for most CLO positions in the industry. And I wanted to see if you can give any advice as to whether that’s something that we should strive for or if it’s not reporting into strategy … to get into those decision-making tables, what is the best approach to get into there?
Karie: So I think first off not all strategy groups are the same. And sometimes the strategy group isn’t really strategic. So I wouldn’t say that this should be the model for every company. For us it’s partially a function of who’s the person in the head of strategy role. As I’ve described, it’s just a very revered person at Visa. But secondly the way to get recognized for consideration in other places is to be doing work that’s aligned with the business. So don’t be doing work that is just the HR agenda for developing leaders or having some professional skills … and so on, but be working with the leaders in the organization. Because I think that is what pulls it up into a higher level. And usually most HR leaders will let you do that if the business is responsive.
Mike: It’s one of the most frustrating aspects but also one of the most exciting aspects of the CLO role is that it is so malleable. There is no playbook. That’s frustrating to a degree, especially when you’re trying to develop yourself into that role. But at the same time it has a lot of opportunity to fit to where you’re going as an organization.
So, with that, I just want to say a special thank you to Karie for taking time away from your first nine months on the job to come here and share your perspective. So, thank you so much.
Karie: Thank you.
Mike: Thank you again for joining us for the Chief Learning Officer Podcast. If you like what you heard, please consider giving us a rating on iTunes. And if you have a comment, a topic or something that you’d like to see us tackle in an upcoming episode, be sure to drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. We look forward to having you back again soon and keep on learning.
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