There is no single path to becoming a leader. Lisa Doyle is a case in point. She’s been a public servant, consultant, a Fortune 100 executive, as well as recipient of the CLO of the Year award from Chief Learning Officer magazine.
Each situation was different. What is consistent is her approach to leadership – combining a passion to serve others with the courage to try new things and the humility to realize she doesn’t have all the answers.
“In order to teach people you have to meet people where they are – where they’ll hear you, understand you and make it their own” said Lisa, now vice president of global learning at Virginia-based management consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton.
In this episode of the Chief Learning Officer Podcast recorded in front of an audience at the CLO Breakfast Club event in Washington, D.C., Lisa talks about her path from federal procurement officer to chancellor of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Acquisition Academy and her head-first dive into the private sector as head of learning for Lowe’s Companies. Through it all is a commitment to serving others by building something that lasts, a mission that guides her new role as head of global learning at Booz Allen.
Lisa shares the leadership lessons she’s learned along the way, how she builds productive partnerships with business executives, why “Tea with Lisa” is a key team-building strategy and how much of CLO success comes down to having an individualized exposure plan in addition to a development one.
Plus, co-host Mike Prokopeak learns what the phrase “a pig looking at wristwatch” means and Justin Lombardo talks about the difference between being a builder CLO and a maintainer.
This episode of the podcast is brought to you by the Chief Learning Officer Breakfast Club. The CLO Breakfast Club is part professional development and part hackathon, where you and other local learning leaders talk about what’s on your minds. The next Breakfast Club takes place in San Francisco on November 7, 2019. For more information, go to www.sanfrancisco.clobreakfastclub.com.
Podcast Producer: Jesse McQuarters.
Note: This transcript has been edited for space and clarity.
Mike Prokopeak: Welcome to the Chief Learning Officer Podcast, I’m Mike, Editor in Chief at Chief Learning Officer Magazine. I’m joined by my cohost, Justin . Justin, you seem like you’re in fine spirits today.
Justin Lombardo: I’m in wonderful spirits. It’s marvelous weather here in Chicago, and there’s no snow predicted until tomorrow.
Mike: This is just about the perfect time of year, I think.
Justin: It is, it is. Almost everywhere in the US.
Mike: Yeah. Yeah. Fall color season soon to be here, the weather’s just about right, it’s a beautiful time to talk about learning and development, inside our office here at Human Capital Media.
Justin: And if I were one of our listeners, I think I’d say, “Go for a walk and come back to the podcast later.”
Mike: That’s the beauty of a podcast is that you can walk and listen.
Justin: I like that. That’s very good. You’re very astute today, Mike.
Mike: Yeah, well I’m a big podcast listener on commutes.
Justin: See? There you go.
Mike: What podcasts do you listen to, by the way?
Justin: I listen to some from artists, typically. Particularly theatrical directors, and people that are in that space now. Yes, I know, it’s not learning and development, or talent, but-
Mike: You’re allowed your outside interests.
Justin: I have outside interests. Most of them are legal.
Mike: Good, good, good. We wouldn’t want to publicly acknowledge any illegal ones.
Justin: We would not.
Mike: I’m a big fan of Conversations with Tyler. You know who Tyler Cowen is?
Justin: I do not.
Mike: Tyler, he’s an economist at George Mason University, he’s written a few books. And so, it can be very wonky economically but he is just an incredibly well-read person and a great interviewer. He had – the one I was just listening to this morning, Samantha Power, who was President Obama’s Ambassador to the UN.
Mike: Actually got her start as a journalist, a war correspondent, and then moved into the Obama Administration.
Justin: That must have been fascinating.
Mike: She’s got a new memoir that she’s got out and so he was interviewing her about that. Just the depth of his experience and knowledge is just fascinating. What I like about him, and I try to emulate, starting to try to emulate, is he just starts with a really provocative big picture question. And really kind of launches into it there. Which I think is hopefully what we’re going to be doing today when we’re talking to our interview subject today.
Justin: Who is?
Mike: Somebody you know well, I think. Lisa Doyle.
Justin: Lisa Doyle, yes. She’s absolutely a fabulous leader.
Mike: Yeah. Lisa is for those of you who may not know her the vice president of global learning, at Booz Allen Hamilton. She’s relatively new in that role, only about four months, but …
Justin: But she’s got a long distinguished career as a chief learning officer.
Mike: She does. Both in the public and private sectors. She actually got her start in the government sector. She was working as a procurement specialist in different agencies in the federal government and then eventually got into learning and development, became chancellor, which is the chief learning officer, of the Department of Veterans Affairs Acquisition Academy.
Justin: Yes, which is well-known.
Mike: Yeah, which is basically the organization that has to buy things for the Department of Veterans Affair, which I think is either the number one or number two largest …
Mike: Agency, federal agency, even. She was running that function. After leaving the Department of Veterans Affairs, she actually became the vice president of learning and development at Lowe’s, the-
Justin: Yeah, I remember when she was at Lowe’s. She was there with Cedric, wasn’t she?
Mike: Yeah, Cedric Coco.
Justin: Coco, was another luminary in the …
Mike: Yeah. And Cedric hired her away from the VA and worked there for a little while. And actually, in fact when she was at the VA, won a CLO of the Year Award from us, for Chief Learning Officer magazine. I think just a really inspiring leader. Somebody who’s got a lot of experience and just a great person.
Justin: She is a great person, and I enjoy … because you know, she and I are both on the faculty of the Accelerator program that we’ve been doing, for a while. What she’s a good example of is I think as one of the topics we’re going to get into a little bit is what is leadership for a CLO? And one of the things that I like, and just as you look at Lisa’s career path, career trajectory, she really demonstrates that a good solid CLO, a good leader in the field of people development, can move from industry to industry, from type of organization to type of organization, and contribute well in each one without worrying too much in the initial moments of I don’t know this business yet.
I have a bias with that because I made the transition too, but I think she’s a wonderful example of … if you look at it, she goes from a highly bureaucratic organization to a highly cut-throat environment in consumer purchasing where margins are slim, where the amount of people she’s got to deal with is huge, where the turnover of store staff can be very, very big.
And she was able to make that leap and now make it to an organization that’s made up of global skilled, highly educated professionals. I think it’s a really good example of what leadership in our discipline is about.
Mike: Yeah, and she talked about that thing that you just mentioned, about not wanting to sit still. She’s got a little bit of that thing that you’ve talked about a number of times. You always have a little bit of an itch when things are going well, when things are kind of … you feel like you got your arms around a role, a job that you’re doing at a company, that at that point there’s an urgency to do something else.
Justin: And I think this is why she and I tend to be kind of simpatico when we talk with each other. She and I are both very much … we’re not maintainers, we’re builders or inventors. And then we move on. Now, there’s nothing wrong with being a maintainer, it’s a whole different mindset and skillset. But yeah, she very much is – I’ve built it, it’s running, now I need a new challenge to go and use that creativity.
And it’s where I think particularly for leaders in the field that have a higher quotient around creativity, as opposed to for lack of a better word deep organizational skill. Both are equally valuable but people will, depending on their own talent, will move in one direction or the other. And Lisa does. She looks around and says, “I’ve done what I can do here, what’s next?”
Mike: Yeah, you come to the understanding that you know what you’re good at, what drives your passion, and you go that direction.
Justin: Right. But I will have one caveat for any of our listeners out there, that this does not mean that, as we joke about sometimes we see it with newer employees coming into the workforce, that after six months they go to their supervisor and say, “I’m ready for my new job. What’s next?” It’s like, it’s not that kind of transition we’re talking about.
It’s after you’ve really not only built something but lived with the consequences of building that. I’m always suspicious when I see a resume from a leader, whether it’s in learning and development or whether in some organizations where it’s part of the interviewing team for other senior leaders. When they were brought in, and they either built something or turned something around but didn’t stay long enough to see what the results of that would be.
You’ll interview people sometimes and say, “Well, I’m brought in to kind of be the turnaround artist,” or “I’m brought in to be kind of the creative force to getting this going.” That’s all well and good but you need to be there long enough to live with the handiwork and the outcomes of your work. If I see somebody that moves too quickly, and turning large organizations is like turning an aircraft carrier, it’s going to take you quite a while to get it done.
If they’re not there to at least live through the first six months of the actual change, the fallout, I’m a little suspicious then.
Mike: To your point, I think good leadership, it’s not just about making the 180, it’s following the path of the 180 after that.
Justin: Right. And seeing what that 180’s really done to the organization and to the people. You don’t say, “Okay, here you go. I’m going to put you on this new ship, and then oh by the way, now I’m taking off on the airplane off the aircraft carrier. You stay with the boat.
Mike: Mission accomplished. Not to get too political here, but …
Justin: We’re going to let that sail right off into the sunset, no pun intended there. But yes, exactly that.
Mike: That’s actually I think a good transition point because I talked quite a bit with Lisa when we were in Washington, DC at our Breakfast Club event where we did this interview about leadership.
What does leadership look like? How that’s changing? This idea that we’re just talking about how leadership is not just pointing the direction, but actually living it and also being a part of it, being participatory as leader, not just directional and telling people what to do. Which brings up the question, I think, when we’re talking about leadership, are the leadership qualities or what is required of leadership in a chief learning officer role different from any other leadership role in a company or a large organization, from your point of view?
Justin: I break it into two pieces, Mike. That anybody who’s brought in to be a functional leader, needs to have some technical understanding of that function. Whether it’s IT, whether in healthcare it’s nursing, whether it’s in any organization, leadership development, or training and development, or people and development, or HR, you need to have some technical abilities.
Lay that aside, OK? That’s something they need to do. We’ve all had experiences of working for a leader that’s brought in who has great general leadership but when you want to have a discussion with them especially if you’re reporting to them a little bit down and in about the function they’re running. If they’re running one function, and they look at you with the eyes of sort of a pig looking at a watch, going, “I have no idea what you’re talking about, because I don’t understand this field.”
Well, you can be the greatest leader in the world, but OK everybody’s now tuning out because what’s the sense? You can’t really coach me.
Mike: I’m too caught up on the metaphor. Pig looking at a watch? Is that a thing? Is that a metaphor?
Justin: A pig looking at a watch. You’ve never heard that before? Think about standing in front of a pig and showing the pig a watch.
Mike: Yeah. They wouldn’t know what they’re looking at.
Justin: Have no clue what they’re looking at.
Mike: I didn’t know that was a term, I guess is what I’m saying.
Justin: It is, actually.
Justin: It’s a pretty standard one because it’s so visually impactful. It’s like this is absolutely useless and they’ve actually done some cartoons. And usually the pig’s head is cocked just a little bit to the side and the eyes are sort of staring at the watch with no comprehension at all.
Mike: I learned something new today. I learned a new metaphor.
Justin: There you go.
Mike: And I totally distracted you off your point.
Justin: You’ve got to have some knowledge, so let’s lay that aside. Beyond that, I don’t think there is any difference. I think if you are a leader in an organization, you need to have general leadership abilities and capabilities. When you’re developing leaders, the thing that makes most sense within an organization is to make sure that all the leadership complement each other because we’re not all going to be as strong in every leadership criteria we want. But we all need to have the baseline of the same kind of characteristics.
And I think that’s really important because leaders, by definition tend to be more visionary, inspiring, motivating, the ability to see a little bit into the future. To, if you will, coach, not just a person but coach an organization. And I think that’s a really distinctive characteristic.
Mike: Wouldn’t you say then that CLOs have a built-in advantage from a leadership point of view? Because that’s kind of where they come from. They come from that coaching mindset, that sort of … Lisa uses the term the servant leadership mindset.
Justin: Servant leadership mindset, yeah.
Mike: Yeah. Are they more of an advantage than perhaps people who are coming out of a leadership role that is more functionally focused? Or discipline focused?
Justin: See, that’s interesting. I tend to think not. I don’t think we have an advantage there because it can be the classic “we can teach it but we can’t do it.” And I’ve met my share of learning and development or talent development leaders who teach it but aren’t really good it at.
Mike: Can’t practice it.
Justin: Can’t practice it. They can’t inspire their organization. And by that, I mean not just inspiring the people that work for them, but I expect the senior leadership team of any organization, any one of them to be able to inspire any subset of the population.
The HR leader, the learning leader, should be able when they run into the situation, be able to work with the manufacturing associates in a company and inspire them as much as they do their own people because that’s what good leadership is about. To use an example we can look at, and irrespective of what you think of his policies when he was there, Ronald Reagan was a great leader in the sense that he created a vision, and he could inspire and motivate.
You don’t need to have liked his policies but my point there being he didn’t have depth of knowledge about specificity of things. He was able to lead because he had that. We’ve all seen presidents or public figures that were more on the policy wonk side. They could inspire other economists or they could inspire other bureaucrats but they couldn’t inspire the general population.
I think anybody who’s going to be a leader in an organization, the bar should be the same, irrespective of whether you come out of a function or something else. The worst thing I’ve ever heard people say is when you see a leader and you see them in town halls, company town halls, whether they’re virtual or real, and they get a question. And they say, “Well, I really don’t know much about that field or that part of the company because I lead function X.”
I’m sorry, that’s not your role now. Your role now is to be able to handle and inspire that associate that’s there, if that makes sense.
Mike: Yeah. It’s like I don’t know the answer to that but let me tell you where we’re going or what we’re trying to do or how what you do fits into the overall strategy of what we’re doing.
Justin: Or relate to the question and say, “You know, that’s a question that’s been in my mind, and at least as one of the leadership team, this is what I’m thinking about it. What do you think?” That’s inspirational. That’s motivating to the person. Where just to sort of say, “Well, that’s not my field”, or, “I’m going to hand this off now to the functional leader for X.” No. Sometimes you do that but most of the time you should be able to stand up and do that as part of the general leadership team.
Mike: Right. All right, homing in on the question of CLO as leader and I think your answer is no, it’s not distinct from a leadership point of view. The skills are largely the same.
Mike: But, that point that you just brought up about communication and inspiration being the hallmarks of good leadership, influence being a hallmark.
Justin: Influence. Huge.
Mike: And I’ve heard one of your other CLO Accelerator faculty members, Kevin Wilde talk often about when you first make that jump into a CLO role, how you’re moving out of being the doer with the power to make things happen within this area of what you do …
Justin: Right, within your own function.
Mike: … to moving into a position that is higher in the hierarchy of a company, you’re moving into a VP or CLO level. But you suddenly don’t have as much power in that sense as you do influence and you need to-
Justin: Right, because you’re an influencer now, right.
Mike: … learn how to practice influence. And that’s a difficult jump to make sometimes.
Justin: It is. You always know when a CLO may be getting into trouble is because they’re in that new role and they’re not quite sure how to handle that so they revert to digging deeper back into their own organization and say, “Well, show me this, I’m going to do a project review, and I’m going to get down in it.”
Mike: You go get comfortable with what you know.
Justin: Yeah, right, exactly. They’re going to go back to what they’re comfortable with and that’s not there. What I’m really to some degree talking about is a level of authenticity for the leader. You don’t have to know everything about everything but you need to be able to relate to it in an authentic way. That if a question comes up from an associate and it’s about the direction of the company, you wouldn’t say, “Go talk to the SVP of strategy.” And you shouldn’t say something like, “Well, you should not be uncomfortable with that. It’s really great.” Da-da-da-da-da-da. Because that’s not-
Mike: Express some doubt. Doubt is OK. We all feel it, yeah.
Justin: Say, “This is where I’m coming from with it.” When I heard about this change, it made me a little uncomfortable, too. Until I really understood it.
Mike: All right. I am eager to share with our listeners this podcast. You ready, Justin?
Justin: I’m ready.
Mike: Let’s get learning.
Lisa Doyle: Thank you, Mike.
Mike: You’ve got a lot of varied roles within the learning and development space. Got your start working in procurement and federal agencies. You worked with the Department of Defense, worked with the Department of Commerce, you eventually became the Chancellor of the Department of Veterans Affairs Acquisition Academy, where you led all learning education initiatives for the VA’s acquisition workforce. Pretty big workforce. During that time, you were recognized as the CLO of the Year by our magazine in 2011. Then you transitioned into the private sector, worked for a time as vice president of learning and development, the CLO effectively at Lowe’s, the hardware store chain.
And then now you’re working at Booz Allen Hamilton. Your own personal leadership has been something that has sort of developed and been the unifying thing that goes through all of that. My question for you to kick us off is pretty broad. How innate is leadership? Or is it something that you personally learned and that you believe that others can learn more and better as you go through your career? How innate is leadership?
Lisa: Great question. I think I learned about leadership at a very young age before I even thought of being a leader or what that looked like. My mom taught me about leadership through writing on my wall. As a child, I was I think a handful. She used to say, “Lisa, you’re like the girl with the curl in the center of her forehead. When she is good, she is very, very good. And when she is bad, she is horrid.” One day while I was at school, my mom painted on my wall, “Pretty is as pretty does.” And that was her way of communicating to me that beauty comes from within and that you have to be authentic, sincere, genuine and most importantly humble.
But what that taught me, in addition to her expectation of me that then became my expectation of myself, was that in order to teach people you have to meet them where they are. Where they’ll hear you, understand you and make it their own. I saw that message every day. She painted it next to my mirror. As I got ready for school, I saw that message every day and I made that my own. I made that into what does that look like for me. Then I had my own daughter who was apprehensive about things in life. We were going on a whitewater rafting trip and she said, “Mom, I don’t want to go. I’ll fall out and drown. That water’s too rough.”
One day, while Amy was at school I painted on her wall, “Live for your dreams, not for your fears.” I think for me, leadership is about passion – passion for me to paint on walls. Determination – determination to work in service to others. I’m a public servant at heart. And courage, courage to continue to push myself and challenge myself to do new and different things.
You can see my career path isn’t straight, by any means. It wasn’t planned. Also, you can probably tell that it wasn’t planned in a way that I went from the public sector, to the private sector, to a consulting firm who had consulted successfully in Washington, DC for many years. But decided to change the mindset from one of a consultant who comes in, assesses quickly, saves the day, and then leaves with the client left standing with their arms up in the air saying, “What do I do next?” – to one of let’s teach our clients what we’re doing and how we’re doing it.
I was able to build a training institute to teach the methodologies and the approaches that we used to successfully consult with them, to create an interdependent relationship and lead them in a self-sustaining position when we left. That was my first opportunity in learning and development, coming from the business and training those who were in the business. And then, I just had opportunities, been very grateful, been very fortunate to have an amazing career, to continue to be able to touch learners and prepare them to succeed and for companies to succeed as a result.
Talent, they’re our greatest asset, and if we invest in them, they’ll invest in us.
Mike: That idea of sort of that participatory model of leadership, meeting people where they are versus where you think they should be, in learning and development, I think that’s just sort of we get that. That’s why all of you are in the role is because that is part of what inspires people to get into it. But I don’t think that is, outside of that, that is the traditional model of leadership. It’s very much command and control, it’s very much you do what I say, and you go in this direction. That’s changing, I think. At least anecdotally, I think it’s changing. Are we in need of a redefinition of leadership, not so much in learning and development, because I want to get into that later.
But leadership as we develop leaders in our organizations, are we in need of a refresh for what leadership means, and what does that look like?
Lisa: Mm-hmm. As I mentioned, I’m a servant leader at heart. That does mean that command and control wouldn’t work for me. Although, command and control is necessary in certain instances. For example, often learning and development is the greatest lever for transformation. And as a company that’s transforming, they often use learning and development to transform, change skills, upskill. For example, when Lowe’s was interested in moving from a command and control operation and moving more to a customer-centric organization, they used learning and development to help with that transformation. And so, initially the strategy was building new stores and that did require a command and control. You have to build quickly, you have to set them in the same way in every location.
Mike: You’ve got to mobilize resources.
Lisa: Yes. And mobilize and make certain that when a customer steps in a Lowe’s in Washington, DC, and when they step into a Lowe’s in California, it’s the same experience. The same high-quality experience. And so when we were looking at what do we need to do to change, our growth strategy had been building new stores however Home Depot had caught up in terms of the number of stores. There really wasn’t a need to. The market was saturated. And then how are we going to differentiate ourselves in the market and that was really focusing on differentiating our customer experience. And so we needed to focus on leading differently, we needed to focus on being more enterprise leaders, focus more on matrix management and not silos. We had to really focus on serving our customers but in order to serve our customers, we had to serve our teams.
Because our teams were the ones that were interacting with our customers every day. And they were the ones that were going to have to be able to have our customers live and feel our purpose of helping people love where they live.
Mike: Command and control will get you to a certain place. In the case of Lowe’s, it’s we can open stores, we can expand, we can get to that place with a very distinct command and control style of leadership. But if you’re going to grow beyond that, if you’re looking for innovation, customer service, all of those things that are a little bit more nebulous or harder to put your arms around, it requires that different model of leadership more. Inspiring more, enabling, transformative.
You talked about Lowe’s. When did you learn that lesson? When did you learn that lesson of “Oh, I got to change my own personal leadership approach?” Because it’s very easy because of the way we grew up in organizations and the way we grew up in our education system to kind of follow that model. What you just talked about in that making that shift, I think it comes at different times for people. When did it happen for you that you saw I need my own leadership method to evolve? Was it a moment? Did it happen over time?
Lisa: I think situationally, situationally we had to adjust and adapt our leadership style for the situation or for the employee and their needs. I think I’ve always had that servant leadership heart, that heart of a servant leader. My father, I think, gave me that.
He was a public servant for his entire career for the Department of the Navy, served in the Navy and then worked for the Department of the Navy. And so I do feel like that servant heart was modeled and demonstrated for me for my entire life. And so that’s who I am and that’s how I lead. Although there are times when I have to adjust that leadership style based on the goals of the business or the strategy of the company or the needs of the employees.
Mike: Yeah. It’s really sort of when you see how you, yourself, in your leadership have to evolve in the moment of where you’re at in your organization. All right. Let’s talk about the move from procurement to learning. How did that happen? Because you mentioned – you alluded to it a little while ago – that there wasn’t necessarily a plan there. You actually built a pretty successful career as a procurement person. But then you decided to go this other direction. How did that shift happen?
Lisa: I did. And the shift happened because I was a continuous learner myself. And I was a product of extremely high quality learning and development programs [which] allowed me to rise through my career and achieve success. And as a result of those learning and development programs I knew how much a part of my success those programs were for me and I wanted to help others through creating programs like that.
When I was in government and went through the Council for Excellence in Government Fellows Program, it was a year-long program that helped me understand different roles and aspects of leadership at a very young age. And then I went to the Federal Executive Institute, it’s the SES charm school and had a wonderful experience there in a leadership immersion program.
I knew the value of those programs and the change that they can make in people. You’re different when you leave those programs than when you go in. And so because I benefited so much from learning and development when I was given the opportunity, and asked to come build a training institution for a consulting firm, I thought, “I probably can’t do that because I only know my area of expertise, which is acquisition.”
But I learned quickly that I could develop training. I could learn that profession quickly and I could use the examples and the experiences that I had to make certain that I was developing others in that way. I would also say when you’re developing learning, you have to look at what the learner needs and be very focused on what does great look like.
And based on what great looks like how do you develop greatness through learning programs? In social media, we have influencers now. My kids know more about that than I do. But what do those influencers have? Why do people want to follow them? What draws others to them? If you think about that, and what a great employee in your organization looks like, what are they reading? What training are they taking? What behaviors are they demonstrating that you want to build in others?
Mike: That’s an interesting approach because I think you’re sort of saying, “We need to find our internal influencers.” And you can’t legislate that. You can’t designate you are an influencer. It does come more naturally. In the case of social media, maybe it’s more manufactured. It’s not natural. But the idea is that you have an expertise or an opinion or a point of view or just a style that people respond to.
When you’re looking for that in organizations – in learning roles – what are you looking for? Where do you go to find the people who are influencers in your organization who can through their credibility, through their presence, through their expertise, can carry your work out for you in a way that is much faster, much smoother than a command and control, top down, everybody needs to do this? Where do you find them?
Lisa: You observe and you have to leave the corporate ivory tower and you have to go into where your employees are working. Whether that’s in stores or in client sites, you do have to go and be with them. And walk in their shoes and understand through their perspective what their challenges are. Already I’ve conducted a couple of focus groups with frontline leaders to understand well, what are your challenges? And what is working, what is helping you, what do you need?
Mike: Are you talking about at Booz Allen Hamilton now …
Lisa: Mm-hmm. And so they’re on client sites. Often they’re in sites that are in SCIF so I can’t go in there. I have an opportunity to have lunch with them outside of the facility but still get their perspective and really understand. I can’t do this without their input. But not only do I want their input, I want our client’s input. How are we showing up? What are we doing that’s helping you? What could we do better? If you had a magic wand, and you could wave it and we could do one thing differently, what would that be?
Mike: Just for context sake, so you’re now four months into the job at Booz Allen Hamilton so it’s not like you’ve got years … you’re in that “drinking from the fire hose” state of understanding what the job is and part of that is going out and talking to business leaders and finding out what their needs are and their influences and what they’re looking for.
You eventually became Chancellor of the VA’s Acquisition Academy. But you left. You had a pretty good gig. You won CLO of the Year at that time. You were getting the career accolades but you decided to move on. What spurred the move? You went to Lowe’s at that point. That was your career trajectory. You left the public sector and decided to go to Lowe’s. What spurred that move?
Lisa: I like to build things. I love to build homes for my family to live in. And I love to build organizations, teams and I love to leave a legacy, so to speak. I don’t maintain status quo and once I get something built to a place where it can self-sustain then it’s time for me to take on that next challenge both for my own learning and growth but also so that I can give other leaders and opportunity in the places that I’ve left.
For me, I was able to stand up in academy fairly quickly within the first year, built an 80,000-square foot facility, and as many of you know with government there are a lot of rules and regulations. But I said to GSA when we were building out the facility and to the furniture contractor and to the architect, I said, “Close your eyes and think of a government facility. And we’re going to do the opposite.”
You know? Most government facilities have gray desks and white walls-
Mike: A cheer rose up from the audience at that moment. Yeah. There you go. If you walk away with that one thing from today, there you go. That’s it.
Lisa: Close your eyes.
Mike: Imagine something completely opposite.
Lisa: And let’s do it. And luckily I had the leadership. Secretary Shinseki was in role at the time, and I had the support I needed to make an innovative and creative learning space which is very different than an office space. A learning environment you can tell when you enter that space, that it’s a learning environment. The desks were not square. They were circles and half-moon shapes and they were made for collaboration. They weren’t made to just sit in. The area that was between the desks was a half circle and it was the collaborative space where they came together and shared their desk space. It was full of color and I painted on the walls. The first thing I painted on the wall was our mission, and I commissioned a local artist to paint it in Abraham Lincoln’s handwriting because it came from his second inaugural address.
And we painted, “To care for him who shall have born the battle and for his widow and his orphan.” And I painted it on the wall as you first came into the academy. And I painted it there so that every student, every visitor, every employee and every member of Congress that came out to see the academy, knew why we were there: to support our veterans.
The second thing I painted on the wall was our inaugural intern class’s team stand. A team stand was something that I facilitated with interns to help them understand who they stood for as leaders, both for themselves but also for each other and for the organization. And their team stand was so meaningful that I painted it on the wall so that they could see it every day but every new intern could also see it.
And it read, “The battle stops here. We are a team of trusted business advisors, forging innovative solutions to serve those who served us.” So they got it. They understand why they were there. It was so meaningful and so impactful. I opened up five schools in the academy to train the professions that run our hospitals and medical centers. A facility management school, a supply chain management school, a program and project management school, a contracting and acquisition school, an internship school to grow the next generation of all those professions for the VA as well as a wounded warrior intern program.
Many of our warriors were coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan no longer whole, no longer able to continue on their career path that they had chosen. This was an opportunity for me to create a three-year holistic program to reskill them and retool them and give them career paths when they left. But most importantly, it was really about giving them hope. Hope that they could succeed in their new normal. That was the greatest part of my role was to be able to see them graduate after three years. We partnered with Mount Saint Mary’s University to give them the positive education requirement. We gave them the technical skills that they needed based on the career path that they chose, and then we gave them the support that they needed through vocational rehabilitation.
We gave them everything they needed to succeed, and they’re all continuing to succeed and thrive today. The program is still ongoing, we just celebrated our 10-year anniversary. The current Secretary Wilkie came to the academy and they invited me back as part of that celebration. After I built all five schools, all Chancellors were in place, 200 employees were hired and that team was there, four years later, four and a half years later, Lowe’s came out to benchmark our facility. They got in their corporate jet and they flew from Charlotte, North Carolina to Frederick, Maryland where the academy was. And the CLO of Lowe’s was a former CLO of the Year at the time and chose to come to the academy to see the great things we were doing and they liked what they saw.
And as a result they asked me to come and integrate their learning function and help them change their strategy from command and control to much more of a servant leadership approach, a resident leader approach.
Mike: Did you know that that trip was a job interview?
Lisa: No, I did not. I was just so proud to show them the facility, and all the innovative space and the color and see all the smiling faces of the students and interns that were there.
Mike: OK, but you could’ve very easily at that point have said, “No, I got something good here. I’ve built something that I feel like we’re making progress, the mission is empowering.” Why did you jump into the unknown? Unknown in a couple areas, because number one it’s a jump from public sector to the private sector. But it’s also a jump from something that you built and your DNA is interwoven into it with everybody else’s and to becoming the outsider again. What was it in it that attracted you at that moment? Why?
Lisa: For me, it is about challenging myself and continuing to push myself in to things that I know I don’t have the 100% knowledge and expertise to do. But I want to learn. I had never done retail in my life and had no idea what the training role would be like for that type of audience. But I wanted to learn and I also wanted to challenge myself. Working for a Fortune 50 company is challenging. Integrating a learning and development function was challenging when they are so used to being siloed. Focusing on training 260,000 employees all at the same time, overwhelming. And I have to push myself to have comfort with ambiguity. And to continue to learn and grow.
And every time I fall down, get up and brush myself off. Failure is about learning. And if you’re not failing, you’re not learning. And so give yourself the opportunity to fail, fail fast, and learn from it and move on. But I had the opportunity to integrate their learning and development function in a way that allowed them to focus on their workforce much more strategically in terms of if we’re going to differentiate on customer experience, how do we differentiate learning by role? And based on what great looks like, how do we deliver greatness in those areas that are going to have the most impact on our customers?
And so not only did I have all of our red-vested heroes to train, I had all of corporate to train as well. All of the corporate functions that you might expect that need to run an infrastructure like that, legal, IT, finance, HR, marketing, supply chain, merchandising, we had a professional development part of the organization focused on their learning. And then we also opened Lowe’s Leadership Institute to focus on the C-Suite.
Mike: What are the differences that you see? I imagine we’ve got a pretty good mix of public sector and private sector here in the audience. Beyond the surface level, what were some of the things that you were most interested to see as the differences between your work, when you’re working in public sector, now spending a good almost 10 years now in the private sector?
Lisa: The mission is different. The mission in the federal sector is really what we all need to thrive in this world and in our economy. If you think about all of those missions that both the DOD and national security and civilian agencies perform. When you’re a federal employee, you’re really focused on that mission and making certain that you’re developing learning to execute to that mission. In private industry, it’s much more focused on the bottom line and generating revenue. That’s why they’re in business. That’s why we grow. And so it’s important to understand what their growth strategy is, what their metrics of success are, what their customers feel are valuable, what their board expects, that’s a completely different mindset than in the federal sector.
It causes a different sense of urgency, I would say. You have to be able to react quickly. Our stores are open seven days a week. You’re on-call basically 24/7. But you want to do it because even though the mission is different, it’s still a mission and a purpose that you align to. And I would say as you’re choosing roles and that was one of the things that I not only wanted to push myself but I also wanted to work for organizations that I could learn from my peers, from my leaders, and I also aligned with their mission. Of course, the VA, my father and brother were both in the military and as a public servant at heart it was my way of giving back.
And at Booz Allen, the majority of our clients are the federal sector. And so, I’m able to still give back.
Mike: Yeah, coming back around, we’re coming full circle now. You’re only four months into the job so I know you’re still in that learning phase right now at Booz Allen, but are there frameworks that you bring in to new roles like you’re doing now, like you did at Lowe’s, like when you built the VA, that are useful for you to put in place for how you’re going to approach your work? Any tips, techniques, frameworks you bring in to analyze that situation and figure out what to do?
Lisa: Really, the learning and development function is a partnership role to the business. Right? We are learning business partners, and so the way that you create value and the value proposition of learning and development is to understand what the business needs are and then help them achieve those goals through learning, in learning and development, and you don’t own the workforce, the business leaders own the workforce. And so one of the things that I’ve been doing in my first 90 days is meeting with every single business leader in every single market and based on that each leader’s market is different. Their workforce needs are different and based on those needs I want to create learning that achieves business impact.
And so, when you think about measures of success for learning, that’s the greatest measure of success. If one of the business leaders say, “You know Lisa, I really need to double my revenue this year, and I’m not sure how I’m going to do that but I think I might need some selling skills”, for example. We would make certain that we developed learning that built those kinds of skills that helped employees build business, to sell business. Not only just deliver business. I think a framework for me would be business impact, first and foremost. But then understanding my learning and development function and how it is structured in order to serve those needs.
And making certain that I have the talent in the right roles to be learning business partners and to be learning architects and also to make certain that they are interested in continuous learning and development themselves. I call it drinking our own champagne. Last week we went through an intact team, 30 of my learning and development professionals, we went through a leadership training together so that we are continuously growing and learning and we’re learning with each other. I also think that you have to be authentic and you have to build relationships quickly. Authenticity for me is giving my team access to me, not just my top leaders, but the entire team.
And so I have all-hands meetings on a monthly basis, I have leadership team meetings with my top team bi-weekly and I meet with my directs one-on-one every week. And then I also have carved out time that I created, what I call “Tea with Lisa.” Tea with Lisa is just an hour to an hour and a half where we carve out time. Our employees can sign up, my learning and development team can sign up, first come, first serve. We serve tea and crumpets and it’s an hour and a half where we just sit down and talk. And we don’t necessarily need to talk about work. We can talk about each other. But the value of that is they get to learn about me, I get to learn about them, the team learns each other cross-functionally because it’s not siloed. It’s first come, first serve so the team is learning much more about each other and I’m learning about all of them.
And so, in my last Tea with Lisa I learn that we have two folks on our team that like to jump out of perfectly good airplanes. We have two yoga instructors, we have three people who are in a Tae Kwon Do class, so watch out. And so we’re learning about their lives and we’re understanding commonalities and can engage differently. Now I see them in the hall and I can say, “How was that Tae Kwon Do class this morning?” Or they can ask me how was my Peloton bike ride this evening? I think authenticity is key.
But I also will say I do have, in terms of building relationships … there’s this great book called “Empowering Yourself.” It’s by Harvey Coleman. And this is one of the things we teach in the CLO Accelerator Class. That class teaches the next generation of CLOs-
Mike: Yeah, shameless plug. That’s a next-generation educational development program that we’ve developed for Chief Learning Officer magazine. Education for future and aspiring CLOs.
Lisa: But I’ve had the privilege in teaching in that for the last three to four years. It’s been a wonderful experience-
Mike: And thank you for bringing it up.
Lisa: But part of what we teach the next generation of CLOs is the PIE model. And the PIE model has to do with performance, image and exposure. Performance is 10% of your success because that’s really table stakes. You’re not where you are without performing at a high level. Image is 30%. And exposure is 60%. And so what we do in class is not just develop an individual development plan based on what they’ve learned throughout the class, but we also develop an individual exposure plan and thinking about who you need to have relationships with. And why you need to develop those relationships. And it’s not just once and done and it’s nurturing those relationships, right? And so, one of the things we also talk about are what are the key competencies of CLOs, and I happen to have the future competencies from the CLOs survey, done by …
Mike: Another shameless plug for our research group. Thank you.
Lisa: … your own Sarah Kimmel. And so, the future competencies of a CLO are influence and partnering, strategic management, measures and analytics but not just measures in terms of butts in seats in classes but business impact. Technology competencies, and I think in the future we’re going to be out of a job because our employees are going to say, “Alexa, what’s my training today?” If I want to be a cyber analyst …
Mike: Well, they don’t have Tea with Alexa, that’s the difference. There’s no Tea with Alexa.
Lisa: No tea.
Mike: Well, I guess there could be but it wouldn’t be as much fun.
Lisa: No tea. Or “OK, Google. I want to be a cyber analyst. How do I do that?” Because acumen, executive leadership, executive presence, and learning methods and concepts.
Mike: We only have a few minutes left here. I want to shift gears a little bit and get your opinions on broader topics. We’ve been talking mostly about your career and some of the lessons learned. But I want to get your opinions about some of the things that are sort of happening in the learning and development space. I’ll give you a couple concepts. I want you to tell me if you think it’s overrated or underrated in learning and development circles. The first one is artificial intelligence. machine learning. Do you believe the concept of artificial intelligence [and] machine learning in learning and development is overrated or underrated?
Lisa: Underrated. Because OK Google and Alexa will be taking over our jobs.
Mike: But is there a hype to it?
Lisa: I think there should be.
Mike: What about mentoring? Do you feel like this as a methodology for developing people is overrated or underrated?
Lisa: Underrated. I think mentoring has a valuable aspect to your career and to your employees’ careers. I’ve had great mentors in my career and you can learn from great leaders, but you can also learn from bad leaders of what not to do. But I think in addition to mentoring, not in lieu of, coaching is incredibly important and understanding what your team needs are and how to coach them to bring out their strengths. You wouldn’t want to invest in a team, a football team for example, and train them and skill them, have the right skills, go out on the field, huddle and say, “Break.” And have them all go do their own thing. You would want to coach them in a way that allows them to function at a high level as a team.
Mike: From your point of view, the distinction there. The coaching is more tactical in your mind? It’s more about a mission or about carrying the mission. How does mentoring differ from that, from your point of view?
Lisa: I think a mentor is someone who you look up to and who you care about and who cares about you. That relationship has to be one of trust. You have to build trust in order to take feedback from that mentor and that mentor is giving you feedback from the heart so that it isn’t judgmental or critical, and shouldn’t be taken that way.
Mike: Can you scale mentoring? Because I think that’s where I get a lot of the skepticism about mentoring, is that yes, it’s very powerful on a one-to-one basis. If you find a mentor and you work with that person on an ongoing basis, it can be empowering, really push you in new directions. But can you scale it across an organization? I think that’s where there’s a little bit of a stumbling block there. What’s your point of view on that? Can you scale it?
Lisa: It’s hard to scale simply because it is so personal and that connection has to be really based on authenticity and trust, as I said. I do think though that you should have mentors both internally as well as externally, so you should always be looking externally and have mentors if you’re in the public sector, have mentors in the private sector. Have mentors in academia, and other places that you wouldn’t necessarily think that you should have a mentor.
Mike: Alright, last overrated/underrated question. ROI, the concept of ROI, return on investment for learning. Do you feel like that concept is overrated, overused, or is it underrated?
Lisa: It’s probably underrated because it’s so hard to determine ROI on learning. However, you can determine business impact and return on expectation. I do think that if you’re not showing your value-add, you are not going to be leveraged as a learning and development asset.
Mike: The rigor that goes along with that is underrated. Perhaps that particular measure of a financial measure of learning’s impact may be overrated. But do the work of demonstrating what it is, the impact of what you do.
Lisa: Absolutely. And look at the measures of success in terms of both the employee and the business. Engagement, customer satisfaction, revenue, things like that.
Mike: Alright, so last question before we wrap this up. As you’re looking at the landscape for chief learning officers and your career and those of the people in this room, what do you think is something that’s on the horizon that we as an industry need to be grappling with if we’re not already? What’s something that we need to be doing ASAP because it’s going to completely change the way we work or transform the way we approach things?
Lisa: I would just say learn about innovation and technology. We have an innovation lab and so understand how you can infuse technology into learning, how you can leverage technology through learning. One of the things I have done in the past is used virtual reality to create a new employee onboarding experience. And it was scalable, it was affordable. We used Google Cardboard and we had the virtual reality through their phone in Google Cardboard, but gave them an entire experience through a story, through a customer’s eyes for example, of how that new employee could impact a customer’s experience. And so who would’ve thought learning and development would use virtual reality? We don’t do that. We take people in stores and we do store walks. Well, I took the camera in the store. And the camera did the store walk. And I still showed the employee the experience in a different way.
Mike: Yeah. I think we’ve always sort of put technology as a piece of what we do, whereas I think you’re right there is a way that we’re not thinking about it entirely as it’s just everything that we do. It’s not just. “OK, we need to have a technology strategy for learning.” It needs to be in everything that we do in learning, and perhaps we’re not grappling with it as fully as we can.
Mike: Best career advice that you’ve ever received, that you would want to share with the audience here?
Lisa: Try something new. Just do it. Be scared and be sick the entire first week on a new job. Seriously. But stick with it because you can do it and just apply yourself and learn, and push yourself, and grow.
Mike: Great. Well thank you, Lisa, for joining us today. Thank you so much for sharing.
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 email@example.com. We look forward to having you back soon and keep on learning.
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