People in the learning community often talk about the importance of understanding the businesses their companies are in, but what about when an executive from the business side transitions to a learning role?
As companies are pressured to deliver sustained, profitable growth, the performance of their people and retention of key talent becomes inextricably linked to strategy and health of the business. Today’s CEOs realize that to deploy learning and development that is critical to the business, learning leaders must bring a savvy that emanates from their knowledge of the business — things they didn’t necessarily learn in a classroom or other formal learning environment.
This movement to infuse the training and development agenda with embedded business know-how can only be gained by years in the functional areas of operations, and a new generation of executives finds itself balancing learning agendas and hard business realities.
“A strong business background, internal credibility with key stakeholders and strong relationships aren’t the only personal assets required for anyone making the move from operations to learning,” said Anna A. Tavis, global head of talent management, organizational development and learning for AIG Investments, part of American International Group Inc. “Leading in a time of crisis is very different than leading in the good times.”
“People are hired for what they’ve done before,” she said, and now more than ever, corporate leaders consider strong business acumen, familiarity with multiple parts of the business and strong business relationships as key tools for leaders in any function to weather the pressures and uncertainties of their markets.
That’s especially true in financial services, Tavis said, because of how those assets will need to inform and drive performance within an industry that will need to attract much more diversely experienced and uniquely motivated individuals in the future.
“It’s going to be a totally different talent profile that we’ll be looking for,” she said. “People we’ve been attracting are not going to find this industry suitable anymore because people will be paid well but not [systemically] overcompensated.
“Learning anticipates by several years what the organizational requirements must be, and that’s the trick,” she said. “If one moves directly from operations to learning leadership, he or she may only execute on current needs. That’s the risk.”
The premium placed on broad business and operations knowledge and effective enterprise-wide collaboration may accelerate the trend of business and operational leaders transitioning into their first learning leadership roles.
But what is it that makes some business leaders successful in their first learning leadership roles in major corporations? Are there common traits in individuals who transition successfully from the business side of the enterprise to the learning function? What do the experiences and perspectives of learning leaders who have successfully bridged the significant gap that often separates business performance and enterprise competency development suggest?
Much of their success will be determined on their ability to leverage what they bring to the learning function and their particular leadership roles. They must effectively extend the same threads of dialogue they wove on the business side and translate critical business needs into an aligned strategy to enable the organization to meet its learning objectives but also its fundamental business goals.
Jim Mitnick spent the first 30-plus years of his career erecting buildings, constructing offices and running a region for Turner Construction Co., managing several offices with 1,000 people.
Then Thomas C. Leppert, the company’s chairman and CEO, approached him with a strategy to codify knowledge and transfer that capital seamlessly to wherever it was needed around the world. It was a transformational moment for Mitnick, and as the company ultimately realized, for its workforce and bottom line, too.
“What happened is suddenly I was urged to make this transition from operations into learning,” said Mitnick, who works today as CEO of Ironwood Learning LLC, a developer of learning management systems for small and midsize companies. “Tom’s focus was on, ‘Strategically, how do I position myself to grow the company?’
“Tom knew people are your key resource and if you don’t have properly skilled and trained people, you’re not going to be successful in growing the business. Sure, I can go out and hire 1,000 people, but the question is whether I’m going to be profitable.”
With the bottom line top of mind, Leppert provided the resources and visionary challenge that enabled Mitnick to build a performance-focused learning function from scratch.
“We stood on our heads and said we were going to do this — and it worked,” Mitnick said. Five years later, the company’s workforce doubled in size to 6,000 employees. “More importantly, we increased the profit of the company 20-fold.”
Along the way, Turner Construction counted the return on investment in several hundred millions in net earnings.
“A lot of what we we’re doing is focusing on those areas that were costing us money,” Mitnick said. “That could have been behavior, safety, quality control. So we identified what was costing us money through our operations.”
Mitnick said it was critical, at least in Leppert’s eyes, that Mitnick knew the business, had a passion for learning and would be able to identify and mobilize the resources required to move an action plan that would make Leppert’s vision a reality across the enterprise.
“The way I learned was on-the-job training, and fortunately, I was given pretty good autonomy under Leppert. My job was to create the organizational learning vision, validate it among senior leaders in the organization and strictly implement it,” Mitnick said. “If they said to me once, they said to me 50 times, ‘Push them. Keep pushing.’”
Mitnick said that directive translated into a significant change in the culture of the organization and the development of a learning portal that came to be known as the Turner Knowledge Network (TKN). By the time he left the company, Mitnick was running his own P&L (profit and loss), and the company was investing $1 million per year on online training. Six years earlier, when he first started in the role, that spend was zero.
What’s the lesson for business leaders who make the jump to learning? “I think the first thing you have to have is the respect of other people in the organization,” Mitnick said. “You don’t take someone who has failed in another role and put them in this position. Rather, you have to follow Jack Welch’s advice. Take a successful person and put them somewhat uncomfortably into this learning role. I remember what Tom Leppert said to me: ‘Go study. Formulate your ideas. Come back to us and make your case and seek our buy-in.’”
He said it’s no more difficult for a business-unit leader to transition into a learning role than it is for human resources officers. Learning has to be aligned strategically to the goals of the organization, and the only way you do that is through senior leadership.
“You have to be a consensus builder and sometimes a bull in a china closet,” Mitnick said. “There are some times you have to say, ‘Guys, this is what we have to do. You have to trust me on this.’ You have to constantly keep them engaged, which means bring them into your operation, ask them what they would do, make them part of the solution. You just can’t be one man on an island with a mission. You really need everybody to participate. If you don’t have 100 percent support of senior leadership, don’t waste your time. It’s a team effort.”
And you also have to be committed long term. “You’re not going to turn the ship overnight. You’ll measure this transformation in years, not quarters. You have to stay the course, have a strategy that you’re true to and consistent with,” Mitnick said. “You don’t change when the wind blows. Get initial buy-in and report back on progress being made, and don’t be afraid of making a mistake. Too often we feel we always have to be right. When you’re pushing the envelope, you will make mistakes. If you do, fix it and try to avoid making the same mistake again.
“When I was on the business side, I had a tremendous passion for building buildings. But I also had a real passion for building relationships with people. You just structure in your mind that you’re moving from the physical bricks and mortar to a softer bricks and mortar in terms of what you’re doing: letting other people build the buildings and giving them the tools and knowledge they need to make themselves successful.”
That’s a risk Mitch Bardwell, senior director for the sales training division in the Imaging Systems Group of Canon U.S.A. Inc., has assumed with his own transition from sales and sales management to learning — a transition he’s seen a lot of other people attempt, many unsuccessfully.
There are outward signs that a transition isn’t going well, for the recently transitioned learning leader as well as the organization, Bardwell said.
“First, if they don’t get invited to the business meetings or if they don’t want to go, that’s a real sign of potential trouble,” Bardwell said. “Another risk is if they view every learning objective as an awareness objective, rather than giving employees new skills that speak to the company’s objectives.”
Another sign that an operational leader may not be making the cut in a learning leadership role is that he or she may focus reports on the number of people trained.
“That tells you nothing,” Bardwell said. “To sit at the decision-makers table, you must always strive to align your training initiatives to the business objectives of your division and company. If [you] can accomplish that, you are truly adding value to the company’s goals as a training organization.”
In times like these, it’s more important than ever before to link organizational learning with business issues and business outcomes. “Learning leaders must be strategic. They need to create a learning strategy to support the business strategy,” he said.
The straightest line for senior executive management to ensure it has an experienced business strategist at the helm of the learning organization is indeed to move someone directly out of an operational role. But, according to Bardwell, top management would be wise not to move such a leader directly into the CLO role, in part because of the learning curve required to do it well and also to avoid burdening his or her direct reports, who have far more experience in training and development.
“The business leader needs to spend time in the training trenches if they’re really going to make it as a learning leader,” Bardwell said.
Brenda Wisniewski, CLO with CoreNet Global, made a successful transition from the tax and consulting practices at Arthur Andersen, and later helped an Internal Revenue Service division move from a 100 percent classroom learning platform to an online model at a time when a major part of its training budget was spent on travel.
She said, in many ways, there’s a lot of benefit to having a CLO or other learning leader who is a business person first because that person may be thinking about things a little differently than if he or she were coming at things from a learning or education perspective.
“When I’m sitting in a CoreNet board meeting, just talking about the economy, the turnaround and what we see beyond it, I’m sitting here thinking about all the opportunities for training and educational support to help us get to where we need to be,” Wisniewski said.
“We have existing programs. The question is how do I create project extensions, new markets or delivery programs? Or what should I explore — what new things [should I] think about? The advantage is that I’m always thinking about things from a business perspective and thinking about how things are going to impact our customers.”
The biggest hurdle facing business leaders entering their first learning leadership assignments, Wisniewski said, is the perception among people — often the top leaders — that learning is easy.
“Some people just don’t know why it takes so long and costs so much. There’s a lack of understanding about what it takes to deliver good, quality content and why the way adults learn is different. They just think it’s easy,” Wisniewski said. “One way to turn that perception around is getting them to actually experience programs in some way. If that’s not feasible, you have to educate them in a direct and succinct way.”
Wisniewski said keeping senior management awareness of learning outcomes ahead of perceptions is critical, even more so for the individual who may have recently landed in learning leadership from an operational role.
“There was probably a much higher level of understanding and support for what they were doing before they moved into the learning role,” she said.
For that reason alone, Wisniewski said, “The more you can show return on investment — which I use loosely because finance people have a much different perspective on that — and the more you can create strong performance measures and be able to report against those, the more people will be watching where you’re going rather than on where you came from.”