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June 2012
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TD Magazine

Innovation and Execution: Ingredients for Game-Changing Leadership

For Tamar Elkeles, combining vision and strategy with implementation is integral to a leading-edge career in learning.

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Tamar Elkeles

Chief Learning Officer, Qualcomm

Tamar Elkeles is responsible for global learning, executive and leadership development, engineering development, employee communications, organization development, talent management, and learning technology for Qualcomm. She created the mobile technologies company's learning center in 1992, and in 1995 initiated its online learning development. In 2007 she co-authored the first book on the chief learning officer's (CLO) role: The Chief Learning Officer: Driving Value Within a Changing Organization Through Learning and Development.

Did you start your career in learning? If not, how did you break into the profession?

I started my career in child development, working with children who had autism. I learned more from them than they ever learned from me. The power of behavior change and the impact learning can have on someone were very evident when working with those children.

I was always interested in people development and transferred that passion into the corporate world after obtaining my master's degree in organizational psychology. I started my job as an intern with Qualcomm while completing my doctoral program.

What skills or competencies did you rely on to advance in your career?

When I think about my career, there are certain prerequisites that got me here, and then there are the competencies that really got me here. The prerequisites include my education, as well as my experience conducting research (academic publications and research papers), psychological interventions (working with children with autism and adults with brain damage), and organizational interventions (job and compensation analysis, organization development consulting, and executive assessments).

The competencies that really got me here are perseverance, resourcefulness, initiative, confidence, creativity, challenging myself and others, learning every day, building relationships with the right people, maintaining conviction in my ideas, never settling for mediocrity, always saying "I can do it" and then making it happen, and combining vision and strategy with implementation.

What have you learned from your professional mentors?

My strategy has always been to go to different mentors for different kinds of guidance. I go to some for problem solving advice, others to bounce off ideas and seek new ones, and some for guidance about relationships and organizational politics. Besides my dad, my mentors have always been my colleagues in the learning profession—I owe a lot of my success to them.

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What sources of inspiration have spurred you to be a progressive "game-changer" within Qualcomm's learning function?

I have never been complacent in my role. My focus is always on innovation and execution. Qualcomm's goal is to derive the highest levels of individual and organizational performance from our employees and the company, and the only way to do that is to continually challenge the status quo. My staff has always been my biggest inspiration. They work extremely hard, and motivate me to continue to innovate and push the envelope.

How have you seen the CLO role change during the past couple of decades?

The CLO role has continued to expand, becoming more complex and broader in scope. We are no longer just in the "learning" business; now we also are focused on broader areas such as talent management, organization culture, talent acquisition, diversity, performance management, employee engagement, and learning environments.

Corporate boards and executives are very focused on talent issues and are relying on their CLOs to provide critical data, analysis, and insights about the talent opportunities and challenges in their organizations. Forget simply "having a seat at the table"—many CLOs are now leading the meetings!

What are the most important lessons you have learned along your career journey?

Never be afraid to ask for what you want, never be afraid to have an opinion, and always believe in yourself.

About the Author

The Association for Talent Development (ATD) is a professional membership organization supporting those who develop the knowledge and skills of employees in organizations around the world. The ATD Staff, along with a worldwide network of volunteers work to empower professionals to develop talent in the workplace.

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