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On The Front Lines

The Education of a CLO

The CLO role is one part educator, one part coach, and the final part is as the standard-bearer for organizational performance.

By Dave DeFilippo

co_0117_column1_302One of my favorite books is “The Education of a Coach” by the late David Halberstam. The book focused on Bill Belichick’s formative years as an athlete and student, as well as his progression from an assistant football coach to his current role as head coach of the NFL’s New England Patriots.

The main points are that Belichick’s love of the game and his unwavering pursuit of excellence drove him to become one of the greatest coaches in the NFL. There is a funny part in the book where we learn that in 1975, when Belichick was in his first role as a special assistant to the head coach with the Baltimore Colts, he earned a mere $25 per week. Even in that era, $100 per month was probably more like an unpaid internship than a full-time job.

Fast forward to 1988. I had recently graduated from Union College in Schenectady, New York, and I started my first job as a high school Spanish teacher and track coach. I wasn’t much older than the students I was responsible for, and I was literally one page ahead of them in the Spanish texts as I prepared for class each night. After about three months, I remember a conversation with my father where I said, “This doesn’t feel like work to me — I love teaching and coaching these kids.”

In my first job, I was earning a bit more than Belichick did in his, but the common thread was our love of teaching, coaching and a desire to create an environment where the students could put their best effort forward to reach higher levels of performance. This formative career experience shaped how I see the role of a chief learning officer.

In my view, the role is one part educator, one part coach, and the final part is as the standard-bearer for organizational performance. First, as the head teacher, a CLO is responsible for the architecture and design of the technical, professional and leadership development of the workforce. Further, a CLO maintains the learning infrastructure, facilitated by talent management platforms and curriculum libraries, as well as partnerships with universities and other experts. In this way, the role is much like that of a traditional teacher, except there are no parent-teacher conferences at midterm.

Second, as head coach, a CLO is focused on optimizing the organization’s potential at the individual, team and firmwide levels. Potential is something I often think about, as the concept was spurred on by a conversation with my college track coach many years ago. I’d had a bad race, and he said, “I don’t want you to have permanent potential, so pick your head up and let’s get ready for next week.” CLOs are in a unique position to focus both on the near-term skill and knowledge requirement while also reading the organization to determine its future capability needs. This facet of the CLO’s role is focused on defining and facilitating how an organization wins; it’s a lot like coaching a team.

Finally, this idea of leaving potential on the table is why CLOs are well-positioned to set workforce performance standards. It’s part of how they can create a culture of learning where both the individuals and the firm can achieve their potential. This culture starts with a CLO modeling the behaviors and expectations for high performance. This point was made clear to me back in 1988 when I got into a little trouble with our dean of faculty for not setting the right example in front of some students. His feedback was sage, concise and has stuck with me ever since, “You ARE the role model now!”

I feel fortunate to have both purposely and accidently found the CLO role. Most days feel like 1988, where I truly enjoy the time I spend teaching and coaching colleagues. In the course of this column, On the Front Line, I’ll provide a point of view on learning and development-related issues, share examples and solutions, and offer knowledge and stories from my experience as a working learning and talent practitioner. I invite feedback and dialogue, so don’t hesitate to reach out to me.

Dave DeFilippo is the chief learning officer for Suffolk Construction. Comment below, or email editor@CLOmedia.com.

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