Successful chief learning officers understand that business longevity is defined by an ability to innovate and adapt. They know that unless organizations can learn faster than the competition — and faster than the rate of change — they are destined to take a back seat in the marketplace.
Organizations that have been first to market and to capitalize on their lessons have historically dominated their competition, and their products have become permanently etched into common language. Examples include Kleenex, Band-Aids, Q-Tips, Levi’s and Post-Its. The key to harnessing this advantage, however, resides in partnering effectively with members of the C-suite, helping them to view learning and development as a critical business investment.
The most important rule of thumb for CLOs working with profit and loss business leaders is that learning is a critical business investment made to help the organization achieve its goals. If the investment can be better spent in another area with more impact, then learning should gladly offer up the budget. With a single-minded focus on investment showing ROI, the CLO becomes an unbiased business partner, strategic consultant and team player in the C-suite.
The VUCA Effect
The CLO has a compelling reason to focus on the business impact of learning investments: VUCA. Coined a decade ago by the U.S. Army to describe changing battlefield conditions, this acronym, short for velocity, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, has been adopted by the learning and greater business community as a description of today’s changing business landscape.
John Sullivan, an HR thought leader and professor at San Francisco State University, characterizes today’s VUCA environment as one in which, “there are more changes, a faster rate of change and the size of the changes [is] so impactful that they must be labeled as ‘disruptive.’ Consequently, in this VUCA environment, learning is becoming a significant business differentiator.” Organizations whose employees prioritize learning will respond faster, in different ways, and with more accuracy in this complex environment.
Positioned as a process consultant focused on competitive advantage through learning, the CLO remains strategically focused on business objectives, outcomes and costs. By paying close attention to emerging business problems, such as declining success in new business, or strategic business initiatives such as product introductions, the CLO should approach the responsible C-suite party and explore the following questions: what are the biggest needs at the moment; in what ways can learning help address these; and what are the desired success metrics? This doesn’t have to be a formal process. It can be better if it is a continuous, informal, in-the-moment connection showing ongoing, strong alignment to the business.
One example highlighting a successful partnership between learning and the line comes from Emanate, a mid-sized integrated marketing communications agency. Emanate’s CEO, Kim Sample, was building a culture of fast-response, never-satisfied client service. As part of Sample’s business goal to help clients find the shortest path to success, she partnered with her CLO to deliver teaching moments as a cultural expectation for all employees.
Teaching moments were defined as associates at all levels seeking out and taking time to debrief work experiences in the moment, pointing out insights that could improve performance, such as seeking quick answers to the question “How could we have done it better?”
Learning leaders delivered 30-minute sessions at all levels using two models, “head-heart-feet” and “plan-do-reflect-yield insight.” Emphasis was on practice, utilization and outcome as well as two-way capitalization on teaching moments. Junior levels were able to ask for explanations or offer insights, and senior levels could initiate. The initiative was delivered in a series of four monthly workshops to keep the learning fast yet outcome-specific.
After two sessions, Sample saw evidence that these practices were becoming embedded in the culture. The partnership created a business-relevant solution, and the outcome focused on return on investment, not cost of intervention. “In partnering with the learning group, my team was able to create something that was sustainable over time — that really fit our culture,” she said.
Understanding Client Needs
Another example of synergy between profit and loss and learning involved a chief financial officer and the CLO at Ketchum PR, a global public relations firm. In this example, Scott Proper, Ketchum’s chief financial officer North America, approached CLO Robert Burnside, one of the authors of this article, with concerns that his client procurement departments were whittling down the company’s pricing structure and were negotiating about price without considering the value being delivered.
Recognizing that expensive outside consulting assistance was not a viable option, Burnside worked with internal accounting and client management leaders, asking them to describe the problem and brainstorm potential solutions. This revealed that the finance and account management functions in the various offices were somewhat siloed and needed to partner more closely to address procurement’s downward pressure on pricing.
The leaders agreed to develop relevant, best-practice content and co-teach a program demonstrating what could be accomplished with improved synergies. Proper requested program completion by office directors and their management teams by the end of the year, resulting in a cultural overhaul regarding procurement negotiations and a heightened awareness by account managers on the true value being delivered to their clients.
“Central to our success was the ability of our team to get involved and solve the problems internally, getting our account leads and financial managers to work closely together,” Proper said. “Had we hired an outside agency to solve our problems, the solution would have been much more expensive and may not have created the ability to work across silos.”
This highlights the critical relationship between the CLO and CFO, and the CLO’s ability to serve as an adviser — involving team members in a way that created ownership for their solution — and a credible partner who understands the business need.
These examples highlight partnerships in which the CLO treated C-suite members as clients no different from external organizational clients. Thus, the CLO checked for satisfaction, set measurable success outcomes and used the profit and loss leaders’ business goals to drive learning initiatives. The CLO sought to deliver results faster and at lower costs, which is what most profit and loss leaders define as success.
There is also a secondary benefit in this type of partnership that can elevate the CLO’s value as a business partner. By shifting the emphasis from learning to development, the CLO employs the power of small and medium enterprises within the profit and loss lines and partners to build high-traction, intensive developmental experiences for key players.
For example, Grant Rawdin, the CEO of Wescott Financial Advisory Group, a boutique wealth management firm headquartered in Philadelphia, recently teamed up with Harold Weinstein, of H. Weinstein and Associates, to assess and build out the organizational structures necessary to promote client service and enable future expansion.
“Rawdin, in addition to his commitment to helping clients achieve their goals and his passion for growing his business, had a clear sense that employee development, organizational alignment and the cultivation of a learning culture were critical elements to accelerating his business results,” Weinstein said.
Rather than contracting with an outside consultant to work on these projects, however, Rawdin brought Weinstein inside the organization as COO and a member of the executive team.
Weinstein said the key assignment was “to work with each member of the executive committee and key functional staff to enhance a shared culture of curiosity, reflection and a focus on how to align the organization in a way that would sustain an ongoing commitment to client service and at the same time build the capacity and scale necessary to support and to drive future growth.”
Based on their work together, the organization has built out its sales and marketing functions, facilitated a deeper exploration of client needs and services and established a cross-organizational team and communication strategy that facilitates and maintains alignment across the enterprise.
“The organization has not only been enthusiastic [about] the projects that Harold has initiated, but has genuinely adopted his strategy of reflection and learning as a requirement of doing business,” Rawdin said.
While Weinstein has left Wescott’s COO position and returned to outside consulting, he continues to function as a member of the firm’s executive committee and provides ongoing organizational, learning and talent services to the firm on a part-time basis.
In more hierarchical organizations such as law or consulting firms, the CLO is often called on to train and develop greater critical-thinking skills to better deal with the growing ambiguity of the business landscape. Typically in such firms, expertise rises to the top but is infrequently pushed down to lower levels, producing a culture of upward delegation to deal with each of the VUCA elements. Increased velocity minimizes time for requisite in-house training, and greater pressure is placed on the CLO to fill the gap.
To illustrate that trend, consider the following scenario. The CLO of a 120-person, Massachusetts-based Medicare set-aside subsidiary partners directly with the chief marketing officer to identify core competencies, language and process tools that provide foundation for new hires. In tandem, this CLO/CMO team teases out the elements driving critical thought behind each tool and develops a series of principle-based, action learning events. The result is a nearly 50 percent reduction in on-boarding time for sales and marketing executives in the following season. The CMO said, “I think the CLO knows what works in marketing as well as most marketing executives. I wouldn’t hesitate to partner with [her] as a business adviser going forward and, in fact, I’d consider it a strategic necessity.”
In all of the examples, the CLO partnered with C-suite leaders to create competitive advantage related to strategic business goals. Results vary, but without exception, these CLO/business unit leader teams demonstrated significant improvements in shorter amounts of time, increased returns and decreased overall investments.
By keeping in focus the prime mandate of learning as a line item investment in the business leader’s profit and loss, the CLO can demonstrate a critical business need to put learning to work by partnering with the C-suite.
Amy Bladen Shatto is senior vice president, learning and development at Ketchum PR and president of Leadership Variations, a management development consultancy. Robert M. Burnside is partner and chief learning officer at Ketchum PR, a public relations firm. Kris Girrell is president of Innerworks, an executive coaching and leadership development consultancy. They can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.