From the Vault

The CLO Succession Plan

Chief learning officers need to put in significant preparation to ensure their successors have what they need to keep the learning function running smoothly.

succession planThis From the Vault article was originally published on CLOmedia.com in February 2008.

Andrew Johnson. Clement Attlee. Georges Pompidou. These names might ring a bell for some readers, but most probably don’t know much — if anything — about the lives of these people. Yet, they are the political successors to renowned leaders Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle, respectively. They have one more thing in common: While they all had varying degrees of success in office, none of them managed to live up to the bar of leadership set by their predecessors.

As these and other examples demonstrate, filling the vacuum brought on by the departure of an effective leader can be challenging. As many chief learning officers strive to strategically integrate employee development with a holistic approach to talent management, most probably give some serious thought to the issue of succession planning within their organization’s C-suite. By laying the groundwork for a smooth transition of leadership, they are ensuring the investment of time, knowledge and effort put in by former executives won’t be wasted or lost.

However, as CLOs prepare their enterprise for the exodus of various organizational leaders, they need to make sure they don’t neglect an important one: themselves. The following examples offer some suggestions departing learning executives might want to consider before they pass along the keys to the learning kingdom.


For nearly five years, Carol Willett has served as chief learning officer at the U.S. Government Accountability Office (U.S. GAO), which investigates and audits the expenses in the budgets formulated by Congress. Even though she’s still a couple of years away from leaving the organization, she’s already been thinking about handing off her responsibilities for more than a year now.

“When I came here, I fully intended to stay for seven years,” Willett said. “At the halfway mark [of my tenure], I started working on this, in addition to doing what I came here to do. I thought it would take between two and two-and-a-half years to prepare everyone, so that’s the reason for my timing. I had a lot of building to do, I’m still building and I’ll be building until the hour I leave. But I’m also dividing my attention now to look at how I successfully transition what I’ve built.”

As part of that preparation, she’s spent a significant amount of time trying to get the managers underneath her to approach issues and decisions with the entire organization in mind, rather than only focusing on their narrow functions. Additionally, Willett has been putting together what she calls the “CLO’s notebook” that explains different aspects of the job in detail. Because she isn’t in the position to anoint a particular successor, she’s posted that to a public folder that her entire staff can access.

“I’m trying to make explicit that which is tacit in my job,” she said. “I lay out what I think the job involves, the skills and abilities they need to know to be successful and key relationship networks — the chain of command, key internal and external stakeholders and the ‘loyal opposition.’ I’ve also got a chapter on meaningful metrics, which discusses what CLOs should keep their eye on to make sure they’re doing OK. Then there’s some internal ‘ash and trash,’ which I call ‘predictable annual crises.’ These are things that happen at regularly scheduled times throughout the year, and if you don’t anticipate them and get caught flat-footed, you’ll have to work like crazy.

“The other thing I do on a regular basis is talk with my staff about lessons learned as we go along. What I’m trying to do is use everything that happens as a learning experience to prepare them to stretch in the future. Everyone takes experiences at a different level; they don’t all derive the same kinds of lessons from those experiences. What I try to do on a daily basis is turn everything into a leadership learning session, so that they’re thinking like a CLO as opposed to a project manager or program manager.”

Willett also emphasized the importance of allotting plenty of time to lay the groundwork for the next CLO to take over the role. In her particular situation, this approach has been helpful because of GAO’s workforce demographics: At the moment, more than half the organization has fewer than five years of experience. Thus, she’s been aware of the general need to prepare succession pools well in advance.

However, regardless of the organization’s circumstances, CLOs should be thinking early and often about who will succeed them and how to make that personnel shift as smooth as possible.

“I think any CLO worth their salt comes into the job with a plan to build and a plan to transition,” Willett said. “Your responsibility to build includes a responsibility to successfully transition that to somebody else. From the first day you become a CLO, it’s important to have an exit strategy, meaning how you plan on leaving in such a way that what you’ve built continues to grow and be properly resourced in the future. We can all be hit by a bus. We don’t like to think about that, but it’s true. If we’re not documenting what we do, how we do it, why we do it and the trade-offs necessary to make decisions, we’re not doing our organization any favors. Preparation needs to begin as you take over and build, systematize growth and facilitate meaningful change. You’ve got to capture what you’re doing as you go along.”

One final aspect of succession is CLOs preparing themselves to let go of a role they dedicated so much time and energy to. Willett maintains this won’t be too much of a problem for her, as she’s never put all of her eggs in one basket when it comes to work.

“I’ve never had just one job,” she said. “I’ve always done multiple things. I’ve had a job and been an adjunct professor at a college or co-authored books or designed houses. There are a lot of pieces to my life, and I’m not defined by a particular job.”

Additionally, she keeps a picture of her beach house on North Carolina’s Outer Banks in her office to remind herself what she has waiting for her when she leaves GAO.

“I’ve got this beach that really needs combing, and I aspire for it to be the best-combed beach on the Atlantic seaboard. I would like to take six months to comb that beach, listen to what the universe tells me and see what I’m called to do next.”


It’s been about a year since David Vance left his position as president of Caterpillar University. Although he is currently a self-employed consultant, he’s spent a lot of time in recent months exploring the great outdoors surrounding his new home in the foothills of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains.

Vance looks back on his six years with his former employer fondly and acknowledges that it wasn’t easy to leave it all behind. “I really enjoyed the job, enjoyed the people and was proud of everything we’d done,” he said of his days at Caterpillar University. “In that respect, it was hard. If you talk to a lot of people who are retired, they’ll probably tell you that they miss the people they work with and miss the good challenges and the work they had an opportunity to do. That would be true for me as well.”
Still, Vance is happy with the way things turned out, both in terms of what he left behind and the person who ended up taking over for him. (Like Willett, he was not able to handpick an heir apparent.)

“They searched around and came up with someone who was actually in the same human services group I was in,” he said. “He was an excellent candidate, and in our case, he had responsibility for the other functions we wanted to merge into the corporate university anyway. That was fortuitous. He already had succession management, workforce planning and organizational development (skills). Beyond that, he also had managed the predecessor organization to Caterpillar University, when it was a smaller training group.”

While he ultimately was pleased with the result at his company, he said it’s not a bad idea to prepare a handful of direct reports to take over the CLO role, even if you can’t guarantee they’ll actually get the job.

“If I were making recommendations to someone else, it would be to groom a successor within your corporate university,” he said. “It might be someone who was in your corporate university a few years ago and has since gone on to other rotational assignments, but they would’ve had that experience. If you have five or six direct reports, it would probably be good to select one or two of them as people who could succeed you. Then the company has a few more options and a good way to provide continuity.”

Another good way to maintain some sense of permanence in the midst of a CLO transition is to have some sort of decision-making organization within the function that shares power with the learning executive.

“It helps in a case like that to have a board of governors or another governing body because that provides another source of continuity,” Vance said. “I think that’s really encouraging for my direct reports. Without that, they might have wondered about a new person coming in and changing directions dramatically, or even wanting to change staff. When I left, the business plan was finished and had been approved by the board of governors, so we didn’t leave anyone in the lurch. My successor could come in, pick up the plan and execute on that next year.”

Additionally, Vance did not notify his staff of his departure until shortly before his retirement date. He believes this helped him remain effective in his position until the very end of his tenure.

“I didn’t make my intentions known until about September 2006 because I didn’t want to be a lame duck in that position during the last year,” he said. “There were several projects under way at the time, and I wanted to make sure those got ramped up. There were several key initiatives that I considered to be a part of my original five-year plan. I worked really hard in my last year to make sure those were either completed or advanced as far as I could possibly advance them.”

Once he did make the announcement, though, he made sure to keep his direct reports motivated and informed of all future plans. “I wanted to encourage them to keep moving ahead. I didn’t want to lose time while the company looked for a replacement and have people holding back for four to six months because they wondered what would happen during the transition. And we kept pushing ahead very aggressively right up until my last day.”

Vance spends more time thinking about leisurely pursuits nowadays. In fact, during the interview, he mentioned that he was looking forward to trying out his new snowshoes with his wife. He explained that his decision to leave Caterpillar University was ultimately a product of his unique interpretation of work-life balance.

“I was ready to do something else in my life. You work incredibly hard, and it’s all very satisfying. But there are tradeoffs; it means you aren’t doing other things. There are a couple of approaches to balance in life. Some are able to balance everything that’s important to them in real time, within the course of a week or a month. But some of us aren’t so good at that, or don’t aspire to that. If I like something, I’m going to throw myself into it. That’s what I did at Caterpillar University. The alternative to balancing your life in real time is balancing it throughout your life. There are periods in your career where you’ll work long hours and maybe don’t spend much time with friends and family or on travel. But other times — maybe when your children are born or you have ailing parents — that will shift, and you’ll spend less time at work. For me, this move was the logical extension of achieving that balance.”