There’s no playbook for becoming a CLO, and if there’s one simple fact that shines through from the hundreds of formal interviews and countless more conversations I’ve had with learning leaders, that’s it.
The backgrounds of learning leaders are diverse, fascinating and often surprising.
There was a time when the majority of learning leaders grew up through traditional learning and development roles. They were classroom instructors, instructional designers and learning technology specialists.
According to recent research, that’s not the case anymore. A few months back, our research team at Chief Learning Officer decided to conduct a first-of-its-kind survey about the CLO role, asking practitioners to share their career path, how they developed themselves, the scope of their responsibilities and how they work.
The results validated what we’ve been seeing. Nearly half of current CLOs report they grew up through the L&D function. But a majority cut their teeth outside of learning. They worked in general management roles or business-facing jobs.
CLOs are former teachers but they’re also salespeople, marketers, psychologists, engineers and lawyers. I’ve even met one who was a professional wrestler. Those skills must come in handy when budget season rolls around.
While the paths to the role are many, there are commonalities. There’s a passion for developing others. Whether it was sparked from an early age or realized later in life, it animates the work of all the CLOs I meet.
There’s a deep commitment to the mission. Whether or not the work always receives the respect it deserves, that commitment never wavers. Continually developing the workforce is essential to the future of the organization. It’s also the right thing to do for the health and happiness of the people within the company.
What’s also shared is the realization that what worked in the past — and what continues to drive results — is not enough. Changing times call for reinvention.
They recognize the value and power of what their teams have created but realize it’s not enough. There is no status quo for the CLO.
Being successful in the role means constantly trying something new and evolving the practice. The times demand it. Some estimates put the half-life of knowledge and skills at two years. That means by the time you’ve done an analysis, identified a needed competency set, developed a curriculum and created the content, that knowledge is quite likely already obsolete.
The times demand moving beyond skill development and mastery to an environment where people learn from one another and create new things. It’s the agile, nimble and opportunistic CLO who can thrive.
That’s the reason we launched our new CLO Breakfast Club podcast series: to share the stories of learning executives who are re-inventing the role. For years as part of our CLO Breakfast Club events, I’ve traveled to cities around the country interviewing executives from companies large and small to learn how they built their careers and their organizations. But until now we haven’t shared those stories more widely. That’s changing.
Along with my co-host, veteran CLO Justin Lombardo, we talk to learning executives from companies like Microsoft, McDonald’s, Aon Hewitt, Citibank and others. We hear their stories in their own words — in conversation that reflects the changing dynamics of the world we live in.
One more thing that unites CLOs no matter where they work or how they got there is the incredible opportunity that lies ahead. It’s not an exaggeration to say that learning leaders have the power to positively affect millions of people.
That requires continual reinvestment in ourselves — to invest in others in our community; to develop a rich set of soft and hard skills; to evaluate in hard numbers and inspire through an audacious vision; to lead and agree to be led; and to take advantage of the power of technology in front of us but never forget what remains indelibly human about the work we do.
What is common to the role of chief learning officer is the fundamental realization that your work is not simply a need-to-do but a must-have for the future success of all of us.
What unites the diverse people who fill the role is the constant drive to reinvent.