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So, You Want to be (or Hire) a Chief Learning Officer?

Research by the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) in partnership with ATD has shown that in 90% of surveyed companies, the role of the chief learning officer is evolving.  

As more organizations adopt learning cultures and the function overall becomes increasingly business-results oriented, the skills learning leaders must have to be successful have changed. 

Kate Jackson, VP of talent acquisition, who co-leads i4cp’s HR executive search firm, sat down to discuss whatKate Jackson she’s seeing—what progressive employers are looking for in candidates, and what candidates are expecting in return.  

For people who want to become a learning leader, or for employers looking for their next CLO, what does the hiring landscape look like right now?

Kate: The first thing is that it’s a very tough recruiting environment. Companies are valuing their current employees more—partially because they are generally less expensive than talent in the market, but also, it's difficult to get people to relocate.  

The good news is that it’s a great time to be a forward-thinking learning leader. Learning is being invested in again after years of companies not placing as big of a priority on it since the last recession. There are a lot of companies rebuilding their learning function, but as one CLO said to me, he's no longer in the empire building business--it's not about building the biggest team with the most trainers. It's much more agile, more cohort led, especially in the areas that are quickly evolving, like emerging technology.  

A forward-thinking learning leader is in constant communication with the business to ensure their workforce has the tools, including the soft skills, it needs to capitalize on opportunities as the business adapts to a rapidly evolving landscape. As the learning function evolves quickly to adapt to the emerging needs of the business it also needs to flex to support their employees personalized development plans. They're less directive; it's being driven by the employees themselves because learning has also become a retention tool. Everybody in lock step taking the same courses as their careers follow a predictable path is not the way.  

What skillsets are you seeing being in high demand for learning leaders, and how have those demands changed from a few years ago?

Kate: The three qualities we’re noticing our clients seeking in their learning leaders are strong business acumen, very comfortable and fluent in data, and strong influencing skills.

There is more of an expectation around all HR initiatives impacting the business’s bottom line.  

Our clients expect the candidates we put forth to be able to talk about their successes in terms of business impact and how quickly the impact was felt on whatever initiative that they successfully brought to fruition. Hiring managers are assessing how credible candidates will be with their business leaders. So, strong influencing and storytelling skills are also important.  

Historically there was less of this dollars-driven emphasis in learning. It was more about the human element. People felt better, people felt smarter as a result of learning initiatives.

But now, the hiring manager wants to know, literally, how long it will take you to get this going? And when am I going to see these dashboard metrics moving for me?  

How has the need to understand technology changed in recent years? 

Kate: It's table stakes that candidates can embrace technology. I feel like it's more about a robust comfort level with data and speaking the language of the business, and experience in partnering with vendors who will keep them current on the technology.  

There is also more of an emphasis on adult learning theory. Companies are looking at their learning function and seeing a lot of people that sort of worked their way into learning but never really mastered the fundamentals of how adults learn and retain information.

They are expert program managers and drivers who get things done.  

What's an example of a unique or challenging search you've done recently to fill a CLO position?

Kate: One example that comes to mind is a Fortune 10 company that is really trying to leapfrog ahead of the competition in a very dynamic industry. Our successful candidate had a great track record of tying learning to business outcomes and she’s enrolled in a human capital analytics doctoral program.  

One of the challenges that we had in finding the right candidate was that it was very difficult to find people who had the scale at the field sales level and who had really moved the needle in a measurable way and could build rapport quickly with the senior business leaders.

In this case, the company was really emphasizing that this person could come in and improve the quality of the product knowledge and the technical acumen of their field sales team.

And then, after they've solved this big problem, move on to another big problem at the company that isn't even necessarily in learning.  

Because ultimately, they're a business leader solving problems.  

Did this person come from a similar industry? Does that matter?

Kate: No, the industry didn't matter as much as it was a global company with an educated and technical workforce, and a big global role. She was a lifelong learner with a very strong background in using and speaking the language of the business. And using technology to advance the goals of the business.  

How do you consult with the hiring manager to ensure you, as an executive search head, and they find the right person?

Kate I really leveraged i4cp research’s into high-performance and agile leadership behaviors and, of course, our deep understanding of this client, where they are in their journey, and where they are as a learning organization.

In any search, the kick-off meeting is a huge piece of partnering. You need to draw upon the right questions and even coach the hiring managers in some cases, sharing information from the perspective of an executive search professional who's in the market. The profile is really critical. 

What are candidates for learning leadership roles looking for these days?

Kate: CLO candidates are interested in the health of an organization. Because learning has traditionally been one of the first things to get cut during a recession or downturn, it’s interesting how sensitive learning leaders are to this. Is there a long-term investment in learning? And not politically risky? Which leads to the second point: how committed is the organization to supporting a learning culture with a growth mindset?  

Would you say that's the reason why learning leaders need to have such a strong business acumen?

Kate: Yes. In fact, another thing I see is a real emphasis on a background that started as consulting, because influencing skills are critical. Everybody is fighting for their share of the resources and there's other HR or strategic initiatives. Influencing and even storytelling skills are critically important at this level—being able to present ideas to the business leaders and build rapport and trust. The business leader needs to come away feeling like you're the person to solve their problem, and there is a timeline for when they can expect results and business impact.  

So, a foundation in consulting is highly desired in a CLO.  

Revisiting the discussion that CLOs are much more of a hybrid role these days, what other trends are you seeing in this regard?

Kate: I did work with a client recently that had put talent acquisition under learning because the organization was determined to do a better job of building good first-line leaders.

And they wanted to make sure that when those people were hired into their first leadership role they were getting what they needed right out of the gate. i4cp's research of course highlights the value of successful onboarding to get people what they need initially and retain them longer, so the insights from that research helped us deliver results to this client.  

We do a lot of career consulting for learning leaders and we increasingly find executives with learning backgrounds aspiring to become a CHRO in their next role instead of a CLO again [NOTE: i4cp’s research found that the top aspiration among CLOs (75%) is to become a CHRO]. Even five years ago, to be a CHRO, there were a lot of different types of boxes that had to be checked before you could be considered, such as extensive board of directors exposure, executive comp experience, etc. 

Now it's more acceptable to place a candidate with a learning background into a CHRO role. They are out of the box candidates for sure because you can typically find someone who's been a traditional HR business partner. But when you present a candidate with a learning organization background where they've demonstrated business acumen, gravitas, and executive presence developed via rotations through or exposure to other parts of HR, it's not unheard of to be the CHRO successor or placement as Chief People Officer. Especially in a more progressive organization.  

And to tie it all back into talent acquisition and retention, we are in an environment where you can't just go out to the market and get exactly what you need. Companies that value their employees invest in them and seek futurist learning leaders who can both influence in the language of the business and deliver bottom line results.

Erik Samdahl
Erik is the head of marketing at i4cp, and has nearly 20 years in the market research and human capital research industry.