If someone were thinking about becoming a CLO and went looking for the perfect senior-level learning leader job description, what would it say? What competencies would the position demand? Would they relate to specific industry experience? Would the description highlight a tried-and-true educational path featuring learning and organizational development courses or perhaps hands-on work as a trainer? What role would strategy and innovation play? How would what the CLO knows blend with the businesses needs and future plans for growth?
According to Carol Willett, chief learning officer, U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), the most complete CLO job description would advertise for an emotionally stable visionary who is gifted at translating concepts and principles into practical steps. “The CLO should be able to find opportunities in the midst of chaos to tap into sources of knowledge that may not be obvious in the organization, and have the ability to convey to people ways to do their work better and more effectively,” Willett explained. “A CLO has got to be able to learn the (employees’) language, understand what it is they’re trying to achieve from a bottom line and then help them figure out how learning can contribute to the core mission.”
Willett said that much like a learning organization needs a blended learning approach and platform, a CLO needs a varied combination of skills. Among them is a bone-deep understanding of systems, a good sense of humor and the ability to lead people in the art of pursuing the possible. “Most of what goes on for a CLO is not particularly easy. Any problem that’s worthy of being solved is complicated, and so I think the ability to understand how systems operate, it’s not just personality, it’s not just budget, it’s larger than that, is very useful. Secondly, if you don’t have a sense of humor, you take everything personally, and you’ll either jump out a window or help somebody else to do that way too quickly. Third, I think progress is made in a small series of discrete teachable moments. It doesn’t come all in one great big boom. The ability to motivate yourself and the people you work with both on the line and in the learning organization to focus on small teachable moments is kind of critical to success.”
Developing collaborative partnerships with line managers who have a job that needs to get done, but perhaps little patience with or understanding of how people learn, is another competency that Willett said is important to the CLO role, as is the ability to facilitate organizational consensus or help organizations and management analyze their requirements, prioritize them and then figure out how to measure success. Willett said that she was able to develop these necessary competencies because throughout her career she has split her time fairly evenly between line operations and learning operations. “About half of my working life has been spent as a program manager with responsibilities to achieve specific outcomes within a specific budget, and the other half has been spent trying to teach people how to do those things. That has given me a balance in how I approach systems, in how I approach budget, how I approach developing stakeholders, how I price materials and efforts, and how I craft my business examples in ways that other people can understand.
“It’s how organizations operate,” Willett explained. “Organizations are systems made up of tops, middles and bottoms. People in each of those positions operate in typical and fairly predictable ways. Also, organizations go through life cycles. A system goes through a life cycle of birth, rapid growth either leveling off or declining to death. Being able to figure out where an organization is in that lifecycle gives you key hints about what the art of the possible is and how you can help an organization achieve its goals. Organizations are also cultural systems. GAO is a unique and wonderful place and quite unlike any place I’ve ever worked before. Getting to know this culture has been critical to my being successful in helping them do what they wanted to do, what they hired me to do. Had I tried to impose cultural norms that I learned in other places in my career, I would not have been successful.”
– Kellye Whitney, firstname.lastname@example.org