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What Makes a Great CLO? Start with an Agenda

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Thu Apr 05 2012

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Over the last dozen years I’ve had the good fortune to work with some of the very best CLOs in the business, and with a lot of folks who aspire to that role. My experience has, I hope, lent me some insights into what makes the difference between a really good CLO….and a great one.

The most fundamental of my observations is this: Great leaders of the learning function have an agenda.

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Yes, the role of the learning function is to support the organization. To address critical issues, provide the capabilities needed to avoid or resolve problems, and to achieve goals.  But a learning leader with an agenda does more than that. Such a person serves the organization in ways it doesn’t even realize, let alone ask for. Their agenda is not derived from organizational goals; it is based on their own deeply held beliefs.

I was incredibly lucky in my career. My first (CLO) boss, Bill Wiggenhorn, was a great leader of learning. Bill had an agenda.  He believed that training could be used as a means to open new geographies and create new customers for the business. His agenda included using learning to strengthen partnerships with suppliers and customers, and even to rejuvenate a brand. And he made those things happen. Not alone, he’d be the first to say…but it was his agenda and without him these things would not have happened.

But great leaders of learning don’t pursue their agenda at the expense of the organization. They are careful to assess the fit between their agenda and the needs of the organization they serve. They’ll leave a job or refuse one if they don’t see a fit. They seem to know intuitively that for them to succeed, their agenda must be consistent with the culture and direction of the organization. I call this “consistency of purpose.”

Consistency of purpose requires an understanding of the organizations beliefs about employee development. How is learning connected to the way decisions get made, to business planning, and to budgeting?  Is training regarded as an investment, a cost or even a competitive advantage? Is learning used proactively or as a reaction to problems? What are the unspoken obligations of employees and managers when it comes to learning? Is training shared with customers, partners, or suppliers? Is learning a separate activity or imbedded in the workplace?   Is self-development rewarded, punished or ignored? Great leaders of learning succeed because they figure this out. They go where there is harmony between the needs of the organization and the agenda that they will inevitably pursue.

Whether the agenda is that technology should be used to make learning widely available and easy to consume….that the individual should be given control of their learning…or that critical decisions about how the organization will learn are not delegable, great leaders of learning champion their causes, help others to understand them, and take those they serve to places they would never otherwise go.

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So what’s your agenda?

John Coné is  the principal of The Eleventh Hour Group. [email protected]

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