Speak Your CEO’s Language

CEOs today are worried about whether they have the talent and skills in place to take their companies into the future — and they have doubts about whether their learning leaders can help them close existing skill gaps.

Deloitte’s “Human Capital Trends 2015” report shows that business leaders rate corporate learning as one of their top three priorities, yet only 40 percent rated their organizations as ready to take on the challenge — compared with 75 percent in 2014. Further, just 30 percent of executives believe their HR team has a reputation for “sound business decisions.”

This should be a wake-up call for chief learning officers who want to take a more strategic role in shaping their companies’ future. To be viewed as a partner to the CEO and the rest of the C-suite, learning leaders have to take a more business-centric approach to learning, said Holbrook Hankinson, chief learning officer for Delta Global Services, a subsidiary of Delta Air Lines Inc.

“CLOs get in trouble when they work in a vacuum and only focus on the training,” he said. When CLOs align learning with business strategy, they can establish themselves as a vital member of the C-suite and a key enabler for success. “If you know what’s going on in the rest of the business, you can come up with the solutions to help it succeed.”

Metrics Are Good

When Hankinson joined Delta two years ago, the first thing he did was get invited to meetings with business-unit leaders and chief executives across the company. In those meetings, he didn’t talk about learning. Instead, he asked business-focused questions related to finance, operations and management challenges. “When people realize that you care about what they care about, they take you more seriously,” he said.

He discovered in those early meetings that thenewly hired president of the company was very metrics-driven,specifically when it came to compliance at the airline’s 170 locations. The learning organization was in charge of making sure everyone had compliance training, but they had no formal metrics in place to track it. So Hankinson partnered with the information technology department to create software integrated with the learning management system that could pull compliance training records and track whether each site was meeting its compliance training goals. He now delivers a monthly report that includes percentage rankings of compliance at each site to stakeholders.

“He never specifically asked for these numbers, but he talked about them a lot, so I knew I had to figure it out,” Hankinson said. The new tracking tool not only won the president’s approval but also spurred site managers to pay closer attention to their compliance goals and meet training criteria faster.

Hankinson found another opportunity to address a business problem when he heard operations managers talking about the high turnover rate among ramp workers. He did some research and found that ramp workers spent the first two weeks on the job in a warm office, filling out paperwork and completing 40 hours of online training, only to quit once they got on the ramp and found out how cold it is and how heavy the bags are. He created a 12-minute video of a “day in the life of a ramp worker” to be used on the first day of orientation. He also plans to implement it as part of the recruiting process so prospective employees know what they are getting into before they take the job. He doesn’t have numbers yet, but he expects turnover for that position to go down because of the new training.

These solution-focused learning efforts have helped Hankinson gain traction with the new president and the rest of the leadership team. “If you start by asking what problems people are facing, it changes the way people think about training.”

On Becoming an Icon

Taking such a business-centric approach is key to winning the respect and appreciation of any CEO, said David DeFilippo, chief learning officer for Suffolk Construction. However, it helps if the CEO already values learning as a key component of business success.

Suffolk is a rapidly growing, privately owned building contractor in Boston with more than $3 billion in annual revenue. Suffolk CEO John Fish wants to continue that growth trajectory, and he actively sought out DeFilippo, who comes from the finance industry, to become the company’s first CLO — despite having no experience in construction.

DeFilippo said no at first: “I can’t even fix things in my house.” But when he heard Fish’s vision — to turn Suffolk into an iconic global brand alongside the likes of Apple Inc., Google Inc. or General Electric — and how learning would play a strategic role, he was intrigued. Fish “talked about how anyone can build a building, but how he wants to build people who build buildings,” DeFilippo said. He took the job in the summer of 2015.

Fish said learning is vital to the success of any business, and every employee. He attributes this viewpoint to his own life. He struggled for years with severe dyslexia but eventually graduated from college and built his business from the ground up. “That experience gave me a tremendous respect for education,” he said. “It’s the only asset you can’t take away from someone.”

It is also why he said DeFilippo is a strategic partner helping Suffolk reach its business goals. “Our biggest challenge and opportunity is in being able to deliver a predictable customer experience for our clients so they keep coming back,” Fish said. “That’s why training is so important.”

Together Fish and DeFilippo are aligning key business goals with learning components — such as expanding their pipeline of talent so they can develop organically and creating channels for knowledge-sharing to enable more agility among team members. They’re also building a three-year learning plan to achieve them. “We are maniacally focused on business drivers and the idea that you have to develop people to optimize the business,” DeFilippo said.

One of the early programs to emerge from this partnership is a subject-matter-expert network in which senior workers are anointed as adjunct faculty to run lunch and learns and offer training and mentoring to other staff as a way to formalize the knowledge-sharing process. “Our people love to talk about what they do, and this gives them a lot of pride in their work,” he said.

Suffolk also instituted monthly site reviews with report cards to assess specific performance measures related to safety, quality, site management and specific job skills relevant to each role and project. “Every team knows the dimensions we are measuring, and if we identify a deficit, we provide training to fix it,” Fish said.

In the end, he said providing people with learning and development and support will enable them to achieve their potential and deliver quality and consistent customer experience. “If you want to be a leader, you need to exceed expectations,” Fish said. “When you give people the tools to fulfill their potential, that’s how you achieve success.”

Innovation as a Competency

Collaborations between CEOs and CLOs can help the learning function pinpoint exactly what it needs to do to help achieve the company vision. But CLOs also should bring new ideas to the table to help thecompany address future challenges that might not have been identified yet. For many organizations, changes in the business climate, new competitors and shifting customer demands require them to develop new skill sets; they rely on their learning leaders to chart that path. This is an opportunity for CLOs to suggest how to ramp up a more diverse and flexible workforce that will be better positioned to help the business compete, said Kirk Messick, senior director of the CLO Group at Educational Testing Service, or ETS.

That was the challenge Messick faced in 2014, when the leader of his group identified innovation as a key competency the ETS workforce needed to more effectively bring new product ideas to market. “People would come up with a lot of great ideas, but they could never gain traction with them,” he said.

In response, the CLO group spearheaded development of an innovation team, and brought in outside consultants to help them develop innovation processes that would help find and bring good ideas to market, and to create an innovation academy that would teach employees in every department the skills they need to be more innovative. Messick said that while the innovation initiative has a learning element to it, it began by focusing on what the company would need to thrive 20 years out.

In the year after the launch of the innovation academy, ETS rolled out one new product, with two more expected shortly after, and several others are in the planning stages. “The CLO department doesn’t generate revenue, so we always have to be looking for opportunities to support the business and drive our mission forward,” he said.

All of the aforementioned learning professionals have been able to win the ear — and accolades — of their CEOs because they broke out of the learning mold, and started thinking like business leaders. DeFilippo said the only way the CEO will take learning leaders seriously is if they are connected to what the business needs, and they align every learning effort with business goals. “Training has to serve a purpose for it to be valued,” he said.

The only way to know how learning will align with the business is to get out of the learning function, and start talking to business leaders. “If you ask them what they need, they will tell you,” Hankinson said. “Otherwise you are going to miss out.”

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