I did not become a chief learning officer by accident. I set my sights on the role very early in my career, which began in 1980 after graduating from University of Florida with an accounting degree. I began as a tax accountant but found the only thing I enjoyed was the fall sessions I was called upon to conduct when the new laws were released. Teaching those sessions gave me my greatest feeling of satisfaction. My mind was made up when I attended a workshop led by a corporate trainer who taught us about personality types.
My path was not direct. I began as a teacher and three years later transitioned into corporate learning as a tech trainer. My first true CLO role came when I joined Booz Allen Hamilton in April 1998.
As a young CLO, I did not know what I did not know so I had to navigate a highly complex system and learn by having many accidents. Hence, I called myself the “accidental CLO.” I am sure many of you can relate to this.
A Lesson in Accidents
Building influence in a highly charged, fast moving organization is not easy unless you have the right allies. As luck would have it, the ally I needed most was not what I would call a fan of learning and development, and she made it abundantly clear every chance she got.
She had joined the firm right out of college and been there for more than two decades. She had risen to a senior executive role leading 1,000 of the then 6,000 employees in the firm. Earlier in her career, she had some negative encounters with the learning group and simply had written off the “training department,” as she informed me. She let me know very clearly that her people would be going elsewhere for their learning needs. I tried everything to win her over. I met with her regularly — when she would allow me a slot on her calendar and not cancel — to update her on everything we were doing, asked her to attend our team meetings and invited her to lunch, which she never accepted.
With great nervousness, I got on her calendar. At the designated time for our meeting, I waited outside her office for her to be available. With less than 15 minutes left, she opened the door and invited me in. With no apology she stated, “I only have a few minutes to meet today.” Soon as we sat down, I began, “You have so much knowledge of how to be successful here and I feel as if I am struggling (she was my primary struggle). Would you be willing to be my mentor?”
The transition was immediate. She went from adversary to instant stark raving fan. She began clearing paths for me that I didn’t even know had existed. She never again canceled a meeting, took me out to lunch, represented what we were doing as an ambassador (even on videos) and encouraged her people to take full advantage of the learning opportunities available to them. When appraisal time came around, she actually sought out the person doing mine to give tremendously positive feedback.
Would It Work Again?
Two years later, I faced a similar situation. A newly promoted vice president began to speak out about how learning and development had never added any value to his career. He was leading large scale internal initiatives and every encounter with him felt like being on the losing end of a boxing match.
The day of our meeting, I went to his office. I scheduled the meeting and flew to New York — I was based in Northern Virginia — to ensure we met face to face. When he invited me into the office, the judgments about everything the team was doing began. I sat and listened until he ran out of steam and then said: “I really could use your help navigating the system. You have built tremendous influence quickly and I feel like I could learn a lot from you. Would you be willing to be my mentor?”
There was a lengthy period of silence and then he said, “I am really busy and have a lot on my plate right now. I can’t really spend time hand holding.”
“That’s OK.” I said. “One or two calls a month just to gain your insights is all I think I will need.”
Another long silence and he said, “I really think I can help you.” He went on to spend the remainder of the meeting telling me about all the pitfalls I might encounter. When we ended the meeting, he shook my hand, thanked me for making the trip up there to meet with him and said, “If anyone gives you any trouble, send them to me.” He had gone from adversary to my protector in the blink of an eye.
Win over an adversary by asking him or her to take on a critical role positioning that person very closely to want to support you and what you are doing. I had many mentors during my 16 years in CLO roles. Several of the best began as adversaries toward learning.
How about you? What accidental CLO lessons have you learned along the way?