A little bit of improvisation has been part of the chief learning officer’s role from the start. The first CLO is a case in point.
There wasn’t a crystal clear idea in mind when legendary General Electric CEO Jack Welch sat down with Steve Kerr, a business professor and management consultant, to scope out the new role they wanted to create to lead the transformation of GE’s management culture. They weren’t even sure what to call it. They settled on chief learning officer and Kerr became the first one in 1994.
In the way Kerr and Welch thought about the role, it was a distinction with a difference. Education and information are nouns, Kerr told me several years ago as he recalled the genesis of the CLO.
“If you think of your job that way, then your client becomes the stuff — the knowledge itself — and your job becomes storing and protecting it and moving it,” he said. “If you use learning, then you won’t get mixed up. You’ll remember that your client is the people doing the learning, not the stuff itself.”
Kerr went on to make Crotonville, GE’s executive development center in upstate New York, the nexus of the company’s global management culture. His work — and that of other early pioneers — became the benchmark for countless others, not to mention the foundation for this magazine.
While times are different, and companies and industries vary, some things remain remarkably consistent: Successful CLOs retain that ability to improvise, adapt and develop ideas to solve the tough challenges facing their organizations.
I’m reminded of that CLO creation story at this time every year. Each December, we celebrate the winners of the Chief Learning OfficerLearning In Practice awards (see special section beginning on page 33), culminating in presentation of the industry’s highest honor, the CLO of the Year, to a learningleader whose work has been and continues to be deeply influential. Past winners have since retired or moved on to new roles, including Ted Hoff, former CLO of IBM; David Vance of Caterpillar University; Frank Anderson of Defence Acquisition University; Rebecca Ray at MasterCard Worldwide; and Pat Crull of Time Warner Cable.
Others carry on their work as CLO including Tamar Elkeles at Qualcomm, Cedric Coco and Lisa Doyle at Lowe’s, and Rob Lauber, formerly of Yum Brands and now McDonald’s Corp.’s global CLO.
No matter when they received the award or what company they work for, each of these CLOs has the same experimental spirit that those early CLOs had.
Tom Evans, the 2014 CLO of the Year, is no exception. Shortly after accepting the award on stage at the recognition dinner, Tom pulled me aside to talk. On the very night he received the industry’s highest award, with the band starting to play and the post-dinner party kicking into high gear, he couldn’t help but share what great work was in the pipeline.
That restless spirit has been part of the role since the beginning. Fear of missing out drove Steve Kerr to do new things, test fresh ideas and take on that first CLO role at GE. “I’m afraid of being … the Beatle who left the group just before they made it,” he told me.
Like Kerr, Tom Evans continues to be driven by what’s next. Despite being in his 38th year at the firm and on the verge of stepping down as CLO next year, there was no talk of slowing down or taking a step back from corporate learning when I visited him in October at his office in PwC’s Manhattan headquarters.
Instead, Tom sketched out the continually evolving framework he uses to think about the intersection of learning and workplace culture. He talked in detail about the pressures created by rapid advances in technology and the evolution of human interaction, and the way his team links how people learn to the way they work.
Above all, he talked about the need to disrupt corporate learning. We can’t sit still and expect smooth sailing. For Tom and his fellow CLOs of the Year, winning the industry’s highest award is no occasion for rest. It’s a golden opportunity to get started on what’s next.