Leadership Development

CLO Competencies: The Path for Future Learning Leaders

CLOs need to have skills in a number of areas to make an impact on the business.

An empty metal safe on a light colored isolated wall backgroundThis From the Vault article was originally published on CLOmedia.com in July 2006.

For many training managers and directors, the position of chief learning officer represents a career path. Many who currently hold this executive position are between the ages of 45 and 55—thus, attrition will soon impact the top end of this group. With the continuing need of organizations to think more strategically about how they use and deploy their human capital assets, executive-level learning appointments will continue to grow. The confluence of these factors forms a set of individual needs and organizational forces that will spawn the next generation of learning executives.

What work experiences and associated broad competencies will this next generation need? That very question was asked in a recent survey by Chief Learning Officer magazine of executives who are members of its Business Intelligence Board. Representing a mixed group, with backgrounds ranging from traditional training and development to general management, all were fairly uniform in their answers. They agreed that the future CLO should have experience in: strategic management, general management, knowledge management, leadership skills, and learning methods and concepts.


Strategic Management
The polled learning executives saw two dimensions in this area: the actual implementation of specific general management activities and their strategic application — the latter being the most critical.

For example, it was considered very important for future CLOs to have been involved in enterprise-wide projects such as improving operational performance, changing a culture, managing a high-profile campaign, improving a business process or launching a product — the experience side of the equation.

Of equal importance was the strategic thought process that followed the implementation of these projects. Were these future CLOs able to see these projects in a larger context and over a longer term? While implementing these general management projects, were these future learning executives able to anticipate issues, determine the right data and associated metrics, predict outcomes, and recognize key trends and patterns? Finally, were they able to articulate “what” the strategy was and “why” it was important? In other words, were these future learning executives able to think strategically about the competency side of the equation?

General Management
Another area that was considered important for the future CLO was knowledge of and experience with day-to-day general management activities such as business-case development, operational planning, financial planning, budget management, personnel management and ROI calculation.

Along with their experience with these activities, future learning executives also must have acumen in sales and marketing. This includes both external (company products and services) and internal (projects, campaigns, programs) sales and marketing activities. They need to be utility players, as comfortable and able in supporting the sales side of the organization as they are in presenting the features and benefits of an internal training initiative to their peers. Thus, they need to have experience launching major internal or external sales campaigns and understand the critical relationship between a campaign’s success and an effective marketing program.

Although the competencies necessary to implement these general management activities were considered important, the key competency was again the ability of the future learning executive to see these activities in a strategic context — a recurring theme in the research findings. Although many general management activities are tactical in nature (short-term and limited scope), the ability to see these “tactics” as part of a larger business strategy was an indication of executive readiness.

Knowledge Management
This competency set is driven in part by the exit of baby boomer employees and the desire to capture their knowledge, and in part by the strategic need to forge better links between individual competencies and corporate business needs.

For our future CLOs, this means familiarity with tools for evaluating, capturing, organizing and disseminating critical organizational knowledge in order to manage individual and corporate intellectual assets more effectively. They must be familiar with gap-analysis systems, career and succession planning systems, skills management systems, skill banks, learner management systems, and the importance of integrating data from these oftentimes disparate systems.

Against this integrated data, the future learning executive must continually ask the critical strategic question: Does the organization have the workforce competencies it needs to achieve its business goals? The learning executive’s job is to champion programs that always answer this question with a strategic affirmative. Successful implementation of these programs requires knowledge about competency frameworks (commercial and internally developed), how they link to the organization’s business goals and ultimately their relationship to the competencies of the individual worker.

Future learning executives must develop a top-down strategic understanding of the relationship between organizational competency gaps (high-level competencies that the organization needs to achieve its business goals) and individual competency gaps (low-level competencies that the individual needs to effectively perform his or her job). Initiatives that eliminate these gaps will help ensure that the organization always has the right people, with the right skills, in the right place, at the right time. This focus on closing gaps is again rooted in the ability of the future CLO to think strategically.

Leadership Skills
Current learning executives indicated that future CLOs must have experience leading people. Whether as a high-performance team leader or the head of a department, the future CLO must have the qualities of a leader.

In competency terms, they should be able to develop and communicate a strategic vision, motivate their people to achieve results and align them around a clearly articulated strategy. In addition, they should be capable of implementing new business directions and developing related measures of success. To accomplish this, future learning executives must be skillful problem solvers and coaches, adept at developing high-performance collaborative teams, and able to impact decisions within and outside of their own organizations.

In strategic terms, the future CLO is responsible for making sure that everyone in his or her organization understands the link between what they do as individuals and the larger strategic vision. They also must clearly state achievable goals and metrics associated with the vision so that each of their managers can develop lower-level tactical measures with their direct reports.

Finally, they must be good delegators and know when to put others in leadership roles, thereby setting the stage for the development of new leaders—even their own successors.

Learning Methods and Concepts
Survey findings in this area were less about specific competencies and more about future CLOs having a general knowledge of specific learning methods and concepts in order to better manage their organization. It is a matter of credibility. If future learning executives are going to lead the learning function of their organizations, they will need to speak the language of training and be familiar with its major concepts.

In order to effectively manage their staff of learning professionals, future CLOs need to be familiar with key concepts of instructional design. These concepts include: needs analysis, characteristics of the adult learner, and the design and development process for learning programs. They should possess a familiarity with the methods, tools and techniques for evaluating the effectiveness of learning on both the individual and the organization. These include a general knowledge about levels of evaluation, ROI, scorecards and dashboards. Regarding learning delivery technologies, future learning executives should have a general understanding of the qualities of multimedia, simulations, role play, case studies, virtual classrooms, traditional classrooms and blended instruction, as well as understanding what each one does best. This all should be coupled with an understanding of learner, content and management competency systems.

From an economic perspective, future learning executives need to be familiar with cost structures related to in-house development of training programs versus contracting with an outside developer, the differences in cost between generic (less expensive) off-the-shelf training and custom (more expensive) training, and the content trade-offs of one-size-fits-all versus job- and company-specific programs. Similarly, they need to know the economic costs associated with different delivery media, such as classroom, blended, simulations and virtual classrooms.

Two Worlds
If the future CLOs are similar in profile to the current incumbents, they will continue to come from two different backgrounds: those with training and development backgrounds or those with experience in general management. Those with antecedents in training and development will want to focus on the competencies associated with strategic management, general management and leadership skills as they will have had little experience with those competencies. Conversely, those with general management backgrounds might not be familiar with the competencies associated with knowledge management and learning methods and concepts.

Both worlds seek new vocabularies and an understanding about when to use them. Those coming from general management backgrounds seek the vocabulary necessary to effectively communicate and have credibility with the learning professionals that they manage. Needs analysis, instructional design, formative evaluation, etc. must become a part of their vocabulary. To communicate with their future senior management peers, they already have a business vocabulary and are comfortable speaking in terms of results.

Individuals from training and development already will possess the vocabulary necessary to communicate with their staff. What they will need is a business vocabulary for speaking to their future peers. Used to speaking in terms of instructional design, course completion and numbers of learners processed, they must learn to speak the vocabulary of business results. ROI, market share, shareholder equity, etc. must become a part of their lexicon.

The Sixth Competency: Strategic Thinking
Regardless of the reality of these different backgrounds, there is one commonality that transcends background, a competency mentioned earlier and woven throughout the survey’s findings — the ability to think strategically. Why did current learning executives see this competency as critical? Habit. As one moves through the management ranks of supervisor, manager, director and even vice president, he or she primarily deals with the day-to-day issues and problems that require short-term, if not immediate, tactical solutions. This bottom-up “habit” of tactical thinking is characterized by:

  • Seeing the smaller picture.
  • Thinking in the shorter term.
  • Addressing specific issues.
  • Focusing on defined data and metrics.
  • Achieving outcomes.
  • Monitoring trends and patterns against benchmarks.
  • Articulating “what” the tactic is and “why” it is important.
  • Understanding the relationship of tactics to strategy.

This is not a bad way of thinking, simply a fact of life to anyone who has been involved in middle management for 15 to 20 years, hence, the “habit” nature of this mindset.

According to current learning executives, to be successful as future CLOs, this bottom-up perspective has to be replaced by a top-down way of thinking, taking on a strategic point-of-view characterized by:

  • Seeing the bigger picture.
  • Thinking in the longer term.
  • Anticipating issues.
  • Determining the right data/metrics.
  • Predicting outcomes.
  • Recognizing key trends and patterns.
  • Articulating “what” the strategy is and “why” it is important.
  • Understanding the relationship of strategy to tactics.

This might be artificial at first and seem a bit forced to the tactically “habituated” candidate. But, as the future CLO moves through experiences with strategic management, general management, knowledge management, leadership and learning methods with this albeit-forced top-down perspective, something happens. Learning technologies seem less like solutions in search of problems. Timeframes are longer. Metrics to monitor business impact are put in place. Data is more thoroughly analyzed. Patterns emerge from the data; tactics are seen as components of the larger picture. And the achievement of business results drives all efforts. A shift has taken place — a shift in both thinking and perspective. The thinking that is being exhibited is strategic and the perspective is top-down. What was once a seemingly disconnected set of tactics is now seen by the future CLO as a set of meaningful efforts in the context of the larger organization.

This is the sixth competency, a metanoia, which is defined as “a change of mind.” It’s a critical shift to strategic thinking that will ultimately lead those who aspire to be a learning executive to a place at the table.

Dr. James L’Allier serves as Chief Learning Officer and Vice President, Research and Development of Thomson NETg, Inc. Comment below or email editors@CLOmedia.com. 

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