By Lorri Freifeld
Ask Ernst & Young Chief Learning Officer Mike Hamilton if there were anything he could do over again in his career, what it would be, and he just shakes his head. “I can’t imagine a better career than I’ve had,” he says. “I have traveled around the world. I had the opportunity to work with really talented people, many of whom view the world very differently than I do. My roles at Ernst & Young have always excited me and stretched me. I am not sure one can ask for more in a career.”
After serving seven years as the Chief Learning & Development Officer for the Americas for Ernst & Young, Hamilton is retiring this year, turning over the L&D reins to successor Alison Hooker. Hamilton is the first Training Top 10 Hall of Fame representative to retire, prompting Training magazine to revisit his career and tap into the wisdom and experience he’s accumulated through the years.
Introduction to L&D
Hamilton did not begin his career in Learning & Development. He first worked for Ernst & Young from 1975 to 1981, progressing from a staffer to manager. He moved on to KPMG in 1981, making partner and eventually becoming the U.S. Health Care Practice leader in 1992 and managing partner, Western U.S. Health Care Consulting Practice, in 1995. Ernst & Young lured him back in 1996 and named him CLO in 2006.
“I was asked to become the Chief Learning & Development Officer for the Americas for Ernst & Young as a result of the success of several talent development initiatives that had been launched in the businesses I managed for the firm,” Hamilton explains. “At the time, the firm was looking for someone to bridge the ‘connection gap’ between those running our businesses and the passionate and bright learning and development resources throughout the firm.”
Hamilton says this is one of a few jobs that “offer an opportunity to work with and meet interesting and knowledgeable people. This role also provides the opportunity to personally grow at a pace that few other roles offer.” Hamilton says it is a real joy to take the insights this environment offers and apply them to real problems business leaders face each day. He says he is a better business problem solver today having spent time with those who work in the L&D space each day.
Challenge to Be Relevant
Hamilton says one of the biggest challenges for any L&D professional or L&D organization is to ensure they are relevant to the business. “That means we must be viewed as someone who can help the business leaders solve the problems that are important to them,” he explains. “Once the business leaders see us as someone who can help them, the real opportunity presents itself. Too often as L&D professionals, we see the world through our eyes … what we have to offer, what we need from them, and/or what we need them to do. We need to first understand what’s important to the business leaders. Once we know that, we can apply the L&D tools and resources we have to help them.”
Sometimes, Hamilton adds, the greatest service L&D can provide to leaders is to let them know that a “learning program” by itself likely will not help them achieve the outcomes they seek. “Once we have their attention, then we can help them think through what besides ‘formal learning’ needs to happen in order to get the outcomes they want. Ultimately, we need to remember that it really is all about them and their needs.”
When Hamilton took on the CLO role, he was asked in part to bridge this “connection gap” between business leaders and L&D resources. “I would love to say this was a difficult task, but once the team understood the perspective of a business leader, and I had the opportunity to coach them along the way with various business leaders, they quickly began to see the power of focusing on the leader’s needs first,” he says. This perspective changed how the firm’s leaders viewed the L&D function: While many organizations cut back on their commitment to L&D during the recession, the firm continued to invest deeply in the development of E&Y’s people.
As a result, Hamilton counts among his biggest successes the “group of leaders today on our L&D team who are valued by and well connected to our business leaders. Having spent the last seven years with these L&D leaders, I can say that I am better for having worked with them, and my hope would be they feel more valued by the business leaders and their voice is now louder when they speak on an issue of importance to the firm.”
Another success Hamilton mentions is helping business leaders bring EYU (Ernst & Young University) to life across the firm. “EYU is now a global process for how we develop our people,” Hamilton says. “EYU focuses on the power of linking learning, the right experiences, and being supported by coaching relationships so we develop new skills and transform learning and experience into practice.”
Many important learning experiences occurred early in his career, Hamilton says. “I’m sure at the time I viewed these as painful moments—not an opportunity to learn something from the experience. Perhaps maturity gives us this perspective; I just wish I had understood this earlier in my life,” he admits. “My daughter, a doctoral student in clinical psychology, has a saying I’ve never forgotten: ‘If it hurts, there is likely an opportunity to learn something in that moment.’”
During the last seven years, Hamilton says he has learned three important lessons:
- Focus on the needs of your business leaders and help them succeed. It’s good for them and for the L&D team.
- Build your brand and your team’s brand for getting the “right things” done.
- Build strong, solid relationships throughout the organization. Creating new solutions and getting things done are much easier when the relationships are in place.
In turn, Hamilton’s colleagues have learned quite a bit from him. “Mike taught me to challenge the status quo, especially when you feel passionate and know there is a better, more innovative way to do something,” says Susan B. Heil, People leader, East Central Sub-Area, Ernst & Young, who was responsible for enterprise-wide learning, instructor development, and talent management, and reported directly to Hamilton for the last eight years. “I quickly learned: Don’t always take ‘No’ for the answer.”
Hamilton’s successor, Alison Hooker, agrees, noting that Hamilton taught her to “stand for something—no matter how unpopular—and also to be willing to re-look at what you stand for when others challenge you; you may have something to learn.”
Janice L. Smith, director, Americas Executive Coaching Team, Ernst & Young, notes that Hamilton is focused on “ensuring we deliver relevant solutions that will make a significant difference. When faced with a challenge, he always will ask, ‘What’s the problem we are trying to solve?’ I have adopted this question and use it as a compass to ensure we stay focused on core rather than surface issues.”
Smith, who has reported to Hamilton for the last year, adds that he is excellent at building trusting relationships. “He keeps it real and in doing so creates a great connection with people.”
Demonstrate a passion for what you believe in and always stand by your team are the two most significant things Hamilton passed on to David Brusehoff, director, Talent Management, Americas People Team, Ernst & Young, who has known the CLO for five years, first as a colleague and later as a direct report.
So what legacy does Mike Hamilton leave behind as he moves on to the next chapter of his life?
“Mike’s legacy is a passion for people development and that we should all be held accountable for developing the next generation,” believes Heil.
Smith notes that Hamilton is an innovator. “People say Mike has made learning and coaching cool,” she says. “He has created a demand for leadership development and made it tangible and accessible. He is committed to growing talent and has positioned learning and development as one of the most important investments we can make.”
Adds Brusehoff: “Mike is a one-of-a-kind player. He’s the first CLO in my time with the firm (since 1997) who really cares deeply about how learning is executed. He brings an ‘operator’s mindset’ to the CLO role. He is a person whose contributions will be felt for years to come. Mike has presided over some of the biggest learning-related projects in the firm’s history.”
Hooker says Hamilton has managed to institutionalize world-class learning for all levels at the firm. “What we offer our people at each stage in their career creates job readiness and job satisfaction, enhances productivity, increases retention, and ensures our clients are staffed with people who are ready to do the work. Mike has ensured that it is institutionalized in a way that no one falls through the cracks. Mike also has helped to ensure that learning and development is equated with something that is challenging and fun instead of a compliance exercise.”
As for Hamilton himself, he hopes his legacy at Ernst & Young is that of someone who helped the firm to remember that “what we do in the development of our people matters. It matters for our people now, and it will matter even more as they continue down their career paths.”
Hamilton’s successor, Alison Hooker, assumed her new responsibilities on January 1, 2013. She and Hamilton will be working together over the next six months as she transitions into her role. “My job now is to support Alison’s success by sharing my knowledge and experience in this role,” Hamilton says.
As for Hooker and the challenge of filling Hamilton’s shoes (other than the fact that his feet are much larger than hers, she jokes): “I just wrote a note to Mike the other day and said that while I know I could not possibly do the job in the same way he does—given our different professional backgrounds and personalities—I commit to doing whatever I can to bring the same level of integrity to the job as he has done.”
That is not necessarily an easy task as Hamilton believes we will see dramatic changes in training in upcoming years. “Technology and our familiarity with technology already is changing how we communicate and connect with our people,” he notes. “YouTube and online communities of interest are good examples of how technology can change the way people learn and the skills they need—just in time and just enough.” The job of those involved with L&D today, Hamilton believes, is to embrace the opportunity to be even more valuable to customers. “I urge all of us to let go of what we’ve always done and ask how we can BEST help our people build the skills they need for their evolving roles. If we are not leading this effort, others will,” he emphasizes. “As I end this part of my career, I am envious of those who will get the opportunity to explore solutions that have not been available to us until just recently.”
That said, there is no doubt Hamilton will continue his own learning and development journey—no matter where it takes him. After all, once a CLO, always a CLO.
ADVICE FROM MIKE
For L&D professionals who aspire to the CLO (or equivalent) role, Mike Hamilton offers these recommendations:
• One true test of a leader is to see who’s following that leader. Who’s following you? What are you doing as a professional to make others see value in following you?
- Understand the big picture—that’s the CLO’s job.
- Replace “No” in your vocabulary with “Yes, if.”
- Be viewed as a “connector.” Help others get what they need through your relationships.
- Be passionate about your role and those you serve, yet don’t lose sight of the fact that you are there to support a business’ success.
- Be viewed by others as one who is calm in the midst of a storm—our teams want this, and our leaders need this, from us.
Career Path: Michael S. Hamilton
1996 to presentErnst & Young LLP
Chief Learning and Development Officer – Americas (2006 to present)
Managing Partner, National Advisory Services Practice (2002 to 2005)
Managing Partner, Health Science Advisory Services Practice (1997 to 2001)
Regional Industry Leader, Health Care (1996)
1981 to 1996 KPMG LLP
U.S. Health Care Practice Leader (1992 to 1996) [Irvine, CA]
Managing Partner, Western U.S. Health Care Consulting Practice (1995 – 1996)
Florida Health Care Practice Leader (1989 to 1992) [Tampa, FL]
Partner, National Health Care Practice (1986 to 1989) [Chicago, IL]
Admitted to KPMG Partnership (July 1, 1986) [Nashville, TN]
Senior Manager (1981 to 1986)
1975 to 1981 Ernst & Young – Progressed from Staff to Manager Rank
Education & Certifications
Murray State University
Bachelor of Science in Business Administration – Summa cum laude
Emphasis – Accounting
KPMG Harvard Program
E&Y Strategic Leadership Program
E&Y Kellogg Program
Certified Public Accountant (CPA)
State of California and the Commonwealth of Kentucky