Why is it critical for current and aspiring CLOs to contemplate becoming CEOs? Minimally five reasons:
- The top job is in trouble. In 2001, 25 percent were fired for poor performance. In 2002, that went up to nearly 40 percent.
- The job itself is changing. It is now increasingly results-driven and data-managed.
- CEOs have to fuse vision and role. What they see is also what they have to become.
- The two dominant orientations and directions of all CEOs are globality and futurity. Everything must be perceived doubly.
- The vision must focus on training, especially the kind of learning which stirs innovation.
Although the above list does not totally favor CLOs, there is enough already there for CLOs to use as a building base for going further and preparing themselves for progressing to that top position. But before going ahead to identify some of the items that require additional attention in their aspirational agenda, the question that needs to be asked is: Why a CLO? Why not a CFO, COO, CHR, etc.?
Only the CLO is a learning manager and leader. Whatever else other experts may contribute to solvency and productivity—and it is often substantive—nothing matches both the immediate and long-term gains of developing a smart and agile workforce supervised and evaluated by assertive and flexible manager-coaches. Indeed, it may not be an exaggeration to claim that CLOs are in fact training the workforce of the future. And that is likely to involve the development of new hybrids—employee-managers and manager-leaders. In other words, CLOs are already comfortable with living ahead of their time and thus having in hand at least half of the paired focus on globality and futurity.
Many, especially those involved with multinational companies and corporate universities, also have natural and often deep access to globality. Indeed, they are thus much more aware of the diverse training attitudes of different cultures to the American way of doing things, especially our emphasis on individual initiative and self-reliance. They also have encountered educational mosaics and time travelers who though anchored in ancient cultures also have acquired degrees at and been acculturated. Finally, many of the candidates in their leadership development programs, especially the women and non-American-born, are likely to head up Fortune 500 companies (as some already have). Fortunately, even those CLOs limited to U.S. companies have ample access to an increasingly diverse population here.
With globality and futurity firmly in their field of vision, what other building blocks must be put in place or refocused for the progression to CEO to take place? The following deliverables:
- Embedding globality and futurity throughout the total organizational culture as a shared world view.
- Taking a crash course in forecasting and trending 101 basics and joining the World Future Society.
- Encouraging experimenting with the creation of work environments and structures that are rotational and reciprocal and not hierarchically rigid.
- Adding the overlay of real and just-in-time data for access analysis and decision-making to all performance reviews.
- Extending further and deeper employee testing to produce diagnostics-driven training and to change the focus of the question from “How smart are we?” to How are we smart?”
- Designing and following up innovation-driven training that results in incremental improvements, anticipates deus-ex-machina interventions or surprises and finally achieves genuine and paradigm-shifting breakthroughs.
A word or two of explanation about each of the above.
Diffusion Throughout: The future CEO will have to fuse vision and role and create the conditions and performance standards on which she and her company will be judged. Toward that end, the future must not be allowed to become part of the typical abstract, knee-jerk and exclusive rhetoric of executive speeches or visions. Instead, it must be delivered, embodied and shaped. Performance evaluation now must include individual employee speculation about what that job will be like two to five years from now and what is needed to get that worker from here to there. Aside from helping to shape a future-oriented and even a future-driven workforce, the aggregated recommendations of subsequent training needed may constitute the company’s future training agenda.
Foresight Expertise: The recommendation to join the World Future Society is not facetious. Indeed, every annual conference is preceded by optional workshops on futures basics: methodologies, trending, scenario-building, etc. There and elsewhere, CLOs will discover that because of volatility, monitoring has become the adjunct partner of strategic planning, and further, that the function of prediction is to generate preventive early warning systems. Thus the future is to be perceived not as a single intact entity but as a mixture of stretch, strain and shock. The first state of stretch offers many and often happy alternatives when the writing on the wall is read. But if ignored or trivialized, a law of escalation takes over. Stretch gives way to strain. Options are still available. But if that state is rejected, we move into future shock, which is often grim and ugly. In other words, CLOs seeking to become CEOs have to align learning with forecasting curves. Indeed, they have to make them compatible training goals. And while that fusion is evolving, CLOs have to become CFOs (Chief Futurist Officers) to their companies. They have to serve as Ian Wilson did for many years at GE as resident futurist.
Work Environments: CLOs are experts not only on how people learn, but also on how they learn collaboratively. That fundamental interactive and synergic process should serve as the structural model of executive relationships. In the process, such teaming at the top might benefit from the recommended overlay proposed by Robert K. Greenleaf. Reaching back to the Roman legions, Greenleaf found that their success stemmed from the organizing principle of primus inter pares—first among equals. The one in charge was always reminded that he always led equals. Indeed, that was operationally enforced and maintained by rotation. The leader who was first was not fixed but rotated to match the expertise needed as circumstances changed. Being equals eased and even hastened such takeover and created a rotational flexibility better able to face discontinuity.
Results- and Data-Driven: Current CLOs are committed to evaluating what works. Follow-up and measurement of training effectiveness and thereby cost controls have become a norm. But to reach executive levels, CLOs have to ratchet up data gathering in three ways. First, data must be company-wide. Second, it must be provided in real and just-in-time form and access. Third, it must become a deliverable. The last item is a critical commitment for the CLO-CEO. What is being measured, why and how must not only be applied, but also communicated across the board. All need to be reassured that it is not a sinister version of Big Brother out to play gotcha, but a company-wide reflection of the common commitment to performance, applied to the CEO as well. One way of clinching a number of performance targets is to develop and display a generic company-wide global matrix set along an extended two- to five-year time line, with provisions for individual variations to be worked out by supervisor and employee dialogue. Such metrics should make clear that this is not only the way the company operates, but also the way the world operates, now and in the future.
Employee Testing: Happily, CLOs are already ahead of the game here and in the process and have made the quantum jump to diagnostics-driven training. As CEO, such employee diagnostics also should be applied to recruitment, interviewing, hiring and orienting. Above all, profile forecasting needs to anticipate workforce needs, minimally for the next five years. Because of their close observation of the resources of human talent and potential, CLOs also are in an excellent position to identify the major managerial and leadership changes in the workforce, thus advancing and empowering the trends toward the emergence of employee-managers and manager-leaders.
Innovation: Finally, CLOs also would bring to the executive table considerable knowledge about ways to stir creativity. Aligned with futurity, they even can claim that innovation in fact creates the future. The new moves the now into the then and the there. But they may need to differentiate applications, minimally into three stages. The first is incremental improvement of existing in-house products and services. The second is the wild card of technological and paradigm breakthroughs. The third is discontinuous innovation. The first is pretty much in hand, but if not, it can rapidly be made part of the performance improvement system and added to job descriptions and expectations. The second is problematic and probably can be best handled by outsourcing to advanced guard experts, just as many firms currently do with computer and MIS developments. The last is a real challenge for the CLO-CEO, but in all likelihood will follow the synergic direction of collaborative teaming, extended perhaps by the metrics of primus inter pares.
Presumption or natural progression? Probably both. But that defines what all CEOs are and what all CLOs have to be. Furthermore, as the above developmental agenda underscores, CLOs need to grow into that executive position and begin to prepare now for the journey. If the world and the future are not yet ready for the CLO as CEO, ratcheting up the performance level and role of current learning leaders may not only establish the threshold for those emerging in the wings, but also instruct current CEOs that although they may be first, they lead equals.
Irving Buchen is vice president of academic affairs at Aspen University. He can be reached at email@example.com.