Leadership Development

Secret Fears of Successful CLOs

Many successful CLOs are like swans gliding across a pond. On the surface, they look serene, elegant, refined, organized and, well, successful. But underneath the water, they are paddling like crazy just to move ahead.

In truth, we all churn to get things done and strive to look good while doing it. We live in an increasingly demanding world, and the prospect of missteps often engenders a variety of fears. Unfortunately, we often choose to hide our anxieties, even from ourselves. A more productive response to the inevitable challenges of corporate life calls for us to recognize our anxieties and use the associated energy to accelerate changes that will advance the learning agenda.

In coaching CLOs, I consistently hear them express concern that they will be discovered for not knowing what they think they should know. This is particularly true when it comes to the technical and financial aspects of the business. This is a genuine dilemma: Many CLOs chose the HR development path because they found staying awake during college finance lectures only slightly more tolerable than a root canal.


Yet, here they are surrounded by sophisticated looking people who talk incessantly about the discounted net present value of future revenue numbers as compellingly as though they were the batting averages for the Boston Red Sox. (Now that’s compelling!)

But finance is the language of business, and if you have little enthusiasm for the numbers, at least you can alleviate some of your anxiety by finding someone for your team who does. Have that person help you interpret financial figures for their implications to the learning agenda, and work these insights into your presentations. Now you’re talking business.

The second fear I hear about from my CLO friends is that they do not have, or will lose respect and admiration of, key business leaders. This fear of being excluded from the “real” business team goes straight back to the playground. Remember how chilling it was when sides were being chosen for a game and you thought you might be picked last, or not at all? If this is not enough to strike terror in your heart, how about the prospect of being chosen and then un-chosen because of an error?

Mistakes are inevitable, but our response is a choice. A successful CLO with whom I work made a huge mistake that cost her company a significant amount of time and money. When she realized her mistake, she quickly did her homework and went straight to the affected business leader. She explained what happened, why and what she learned from it. She then laid out a plan for recovery and correction.

The business leader and her peers were thoroughly impressed and supported the recovery plan completely. She clearly understood the gravity of her mistake, but chose action rather than cover-up. Her story illustrates that competence, quiet confidence and authenticity win the respect and inclusion CLOs so greatly desire.

A final example of a CLO fear that I encounter is that a business downturn, like the present one, will wipe out learning efforts. Experience supports this fear. In a business crisis, training is often one of the first things to go.

I have a close friend who is a CEO. He faced a major business challenge last year at a time when he was scheduled to attend a leadership development program, one that I strongly recommended he attend. Given the challenges, he pulled out of the program at the last moment to deal with his embattled business. I would have done the same. The good news is that he weathered the storm and is attending this year’s leadership development session.

It is predictable that businesses will reduce training commitments when a serious business contraction occurs. Rather than whining at the inevitable, effective CLOs anticipate this by suggesting how to make these reductions rationally by building a flexible plan augmented by an elastic, contractual workforce and by displaying the nimbleness of Tom Brady to call audibles at the line of scrimmage. Business leaders admire CLOs who are attuned to the realities of business and who work with them to find solutions that respect the limitations under which they live.

The intense load and the sheer exhaustion associated with driving a major learning agenda can, as Vince Lombardi said, “make cowards of us all.” In uncertain times that test our mettle, successful CLOs can choose to face their fears and convert the energy of anxiety to glide smoothly like swans on a pond.

Filed under: Leadership Development