Redesigning the CLO Role

CLOs today must help drive business value, provide visionary thinking, and focus more on results than on input.

The chief learning officer (CLO) and Leadership and Development (L&D) functions haven’t delivered on their promise,” argues Scott Edinger, thought leader at The Edinger Group. “Last year, the Harvard Business Review asked whether it was time to blow up Human Resources (HR). But the real issue,” this former Training executive believes, “is how the CLO role can be transformed into more than an administrative function.”

The CLO’s role needs to evolve to meet the new demands and opportunities continuously emerging in today’s transformative environments.

Gaining a role within the C-suite is one of the typical answers. “That may—or may not—be the right role for CLOs,” Edinger says. “It’s a rare company that says its core competence is learning and development. That doesn’t mean CLOs shouldn’t have a seat at the table, but if they have it, they must be able to support the organization’s core strengths rather than advancing their own strategy.”

For example, “one VP of Talent Management for a Wall Street investment firm told me he needed to spend the next 12 to 18 months clarifying the L&D strategy,” Edinger says. “That’s unacceptable. That means the business can’t expect much value creation from L&D during that period. Instead of clarifying the L&D role, the CLO needs to understand the business and how to contribute to its success now.”

Functioning as an internal consultant often is suggested as another way to transform the CLO role. To take this approach, CLOs need visionary thinking, Edinger stresses. “Developing that vision is difficult unless the CLO has worked in the business units. L&D is one of the few functions truly isolated from everything else in the business. When people talk of L&D becoming a business partner, that’s evidence of just how far that function really is from the business. We never discuss ‘finance as a business partner.’”

To begin to bridge the gap between L&D and the business units, Edinger recommends rotating L&D personnel (including leaders) through the business to inform their thinking. “To understand the function they are trying to help, today’s CLO and L&D team need different experiences than they traditionally have had,” Edinger says.

“CLOs’ business expertise often is abstract. Business units know this and often are reluctant to be trained by L&D. While actually working in a variety of business units throughout one’s career provides credibility that helps eliminate that reluctance, CLOs must continue to work with managers to ensure learners learn from the best in their niche.

“Today’s learners need trainers with a narrow focus who understand the business drivers,” Edinger continues. “The days of big-box learning are gone.”

Marriott’s Federated Approach

Marriott International knows this and has spent the last five years transforming L&D and the role of the CLO. “I’ve been championing a much more proactive, strategic, and federated L&D model across the organization,” says Global Talent Officer Adam Malamut. That model works with business partners strategically to identify human capital needs and develop training solutions where appropriate.

During that time frame, Marriott has used L&D as the mechanism to catalyze change management to take a more disciplined approach to innovation. “The fundamental, philosophical shift is that we’re business partners rather than service providers,” Malamut says. “L&D can shepherd cultural shifts because our connected model is the best launching point for cultural transformation.”

One reason is speed. “Reactions must be faster today,” Malamut emphasizes. Marriott’s current acquisition activities are a case in point. “A few years ago, L&D wouldn’t be part of such strategic conversations. Now we’re at the table,” Malamut says. So while the hotel chain is still in the midst of a major acquisition, Malamut’s team already is planning the onboarding for the thousands of employees the acquisition will bring. Traditional L&D organizations would have waited.

Malamut’s involvement in the acquisition planning is partially the result of Marriott’s reporting structure. He oversees all areas of the talent management life cycle and reports to both the global chief HR officer and the chief commercial and marketing officer. “That helps ensure talent management is discussed as part of our more progressive strategies,” he says.

Drive Business Value

CLOs today must help drive business value. That requires understanding the business. Malamut was fortunate because, before his current position, he worked closely with the business units as the senior HR business partner. That ensured he understood their business drivers. “Any solution must be about driving business value,” he stresses.

With the insights gained by working in the business units, CLOs can improve return on investment by retooling the approach to learning. “The decade-old model of corporate universities no longer suffices in a dynamic market,” says David Nour, CEO of The Nour Group, and author of the forthcoming book, “Co-Create.”

“Companies spend millions of dollars annually on training and development, yet when most participants go back to their day-to-day functions, they get bogged down with minutia. Their training investment is out the window in less than 30 days!”

A related issue is that organizations often spend money on training without ensuring the material is what employees really need.

Develop an Agile Approach

Learning and organizational performance must be balanced, Nour says. “As the organization’s strategy evolves, so must its fundamental approach to talent, culture, and brand.”

He advises focusing more on results than on input. For example, Nour asks, “How will a business unit be dramatically—versus incrementally—better off because of the CLO’s realm of responsibilities? I’m unsure how many CLOs really think about how competitors would disrupt their business and ways they can elevate the skills, knowledge, and behavior of their talent to think and lead differently throughout the entire enterprise.”

Focusing on results may require a mindset shift. “Agility and nimbleness matter more than ever before,” Nour says. CLOs must be able to respond to changes quickly, reinventing business lines and ways of working.

As Malamut adds, “if you’re just a training service, you’re not serving the greater need: to continuously learn, to identify new ways to grow and do new work, to compete.”

Johnson & Johnson: Understanding Human Energy

In addition to positioning L&D closer to value creation, “the CLO of the future also must understand the idea of energy—physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual—to help learners fully access the learning solution,” notes Jack Groppel, Ph.D., co-founder of the Johnson & Johnson (J&J) Human Performance Institute.

J&J’s Human Performance Institute offers a fresh role for L&D and emphasizes a new facet of the CLO function not taught in business schools. Working in consultation with the C-suite, “we talk about the science of emotion and being focused,” he says. That includes strategies to align individuals’ needs to the organizational mission in ways that are meaningful to both.

“Time is a tool,” Dr. Groppel stresses, “but in today’s 24/7, always-on world, nobody taught us how to set boundaries to take care of ourselves. The CLO has a responsibility to the CEO to help employees increase their capacities, without harming their health and happiness. My dream is that the CLO of the future will understand the importance of the biology of the human being.”