Sears was the undisputed king of retail when I was growing up.
Heading back to school? Sears had you covered with all the clothes and supplies you could possibly need. Washing machine went kaput? The Sears appliance store offered choices and styles to fit your needs.
Need a power drill? Aisles of Craftsman tools fit whatever your home improvement project might be. Fitness equipment? Check. New tires for your car? Check. Mattresses? Rest assured. Sears had it.
Sears stores were everywhere, from cities to suburbs to small towns. And in the rare event there wasn’t a store nearby, you could order just about anything and everything in the Sears catalog and have it delivered to you.
The company was the picture of stability and its massive Chicago headquarters served as a powerful symbol of that corporate heft. The Sears Tower reigned as the world’s highest skyscraper for 25 years from its completion in 1973 to 1998.
But it wasn’t just from afar that I saw that. My dad worked there. He started in the appliance department and slowly but surely moved up to managing a region of service centers. Under his watch, a fleet of vans visited hundreds of homes daily to install dishwashers, repair TVs or fix just about any home appliance, whether it was Sears’ Kenmore brand or not.
Sears was as solid and dependable as an employer could be. Until it wasn’t.
The tide turned in the 1990s. The retail business started to change as consumers turned to specialist brands. The internet killed catalogs. Dad took an early retirement package he couldn’t refuse.
Fast forward a couple of decades. The Sears Tower, vacated by the company after its 1995 move to the suburbs, took a new name in 2009. The last Sears retail store in Chicago — the city the company called home for more than 100 years — closed in July 2018. Corporate fortunes come and go but the lessons they teach can remain, particularly for learning organizations.
From the time the first corporate universities were established the focus was building something that lasts. Companies like GE and Motorola created some of the first modern corporate universities and established the new role of chief learning officer to run them.
The effort remains a worthy one. Staying relevant and competitive in business requires continuous investment in skills and abilities. A corporate-academic hybrid is the logical way to deliver it.
Now, some of those early investors are struggling to adjust. Motorola was split up and sold off piece by piece. Industrial powerhouse GE continues to grapple with the challenges of the digital age. What changed? Business did. Innovation happened, new models arose and the pace of change sped up.
Household names like Motorola, Kodak and Circuit City as well as Sears have waxed and then waned. According to one study, 88 percent of companies that were on the Fortune 500 in the 1950s are now long gone. Look at CEOs for further evidence. The length of their tenure at the top continues to drop, registering a median of five years in 2017.
That quickening pace of business transformed enterprise learning as well. Curricula and courses with year-long revision and development cycles gave way to learning in the moment of need. Seemingly evergreen skills made room for rapidly emerging skill sets and a more flexible approach to management and leadership. Learning and development has kept pace.
But the focus on permanence lingers — to create something special and fight like hell to protect it. It’s not a bad impulse but it’s one CLOs have to increasingly let go of in order to be successful.
Being a CLO isn’t a lifetime appointment. This isn’t the U.S. Supreme Court or a tenured professorship. It’s a business role like any other. You pick the best talent available, focus on a solid strategy and deploy proven tactics to make it happen. With a little bit of luck the combination of right people, right approach at the right time works — and it can feel like magic.
And then it’s over. There’s power in embracing the process and making the most of the situation you’re in. Companies are moving to a more agile business model. So are people. More often than not, your best people are looking for flexible and creative work. Learning for a limited time only isn’t a bad thing.