The recent Chief Learning Officer Symposium in Miami was an amazing experience for me. It gave me the opportunity to learn some new things, meet with old friends and make some new ones. At the Symposium, Chief Learning Officer magazine announced the LearningElite, the company’s annual ranking of organizations for learning and development. Aon was one of the companies that made the list.
I had the opportunity to connect with Aon’s CLO, Aaron Olson, to ask him what development opportunity was the most significant in his career. For Olson, it was learning about strategic thinking, a topic that he has had so much interest in that he just co-authored a book about it. His book, “Leading with Strategic Thinking,” actually released during the conference. Here’s my interview with Olson.
What do you mean when you say “lead with strategic thinking”?
Olson: Leading with strategic thinking is about using the right kind of leadership at the right time. Just like architects and designers say that form follows function, we see the best leaders adjusting their leadership style to fit their strategic goals and the context that they operate within. In writing our book, we looked at over 300 leaders from around the world. In examining those leaders, we saw that the best ones adapted their style in different situations. Sometimes they took charge themselves and sometimes they shared power with others. Tools from the field of strategic management can help leaders make these choices.
Check out how Olson developed his strategic thinking capability in this video.
Why is leading with strategic thinking important for CLOs?
Olson:CLOs have two reasons to focus on strategic leadership.
First, they are in an excellent position to be strategic leaders themselves by leading their teams and the organization in ways that fit the things they need to accomplish. For example, if they need to develop a new program and introduce it in to the organization they should lead that initiative in a way that brings others on board and creates support.
Second, CLOs should think about the kinds of leadership that is needed in their organization. Every industry and business model has a corresponding type of leadership best suited to that business. CLOs can help their organization by identifying and teaching the kinds of leadership behavior best suited to their business strategy.
At what point should they start learning about strategic thinking (as a new learning professional, at manager level or wait until anointed)?
Olson:Strategy can no longer be limited to the top of the company. Technology and globalization are disrupting work at every level, and companies need everybody to think strategically about their work. The best companies are now teaching strategic thinking at the very beginning of a person’s career. That means starting out with the building blocks of strategic thinking — seeing patterns, making sound decisions and managing risk. These three things apply regardless of someone’s role.
How did you go about building your ability to lead with strategic thinking?
Olson: For me it was a mix of experience and education. I completed a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and a master’s degree in education — those included studies in things like logic, game theory and cognition. They addressed some of the formal aspects of strategic thinking. More importantly, over the course of my career I was fortunate to get on challenging projects related strategy — first as a participant and then as a leader — and to have great mentors along the way. The biggest thing was probably making sure that my focus went beyond the aspects of training that I was originally responsible for. By being curious and open to new opportunities, I got to work on a lot of projects by simply being good at solving problems. I think the fundamentals of problem solving and strategy are very similar to the methods of instructional design — what is the objective? What is the gap? How can we best close the gap? These are learning questions and strategy questions.
What development opportunity has influenced your career the most? Send me your responses, and I will be happy to feature the best ones in future posts.