The Continued Evolution of the Chief Learning Officer

As CEO of Korn/Ferry’s leadership and talent consulting practice, Ana Dutra has a window into the internal workings of many of the world’s largest companies.

The present shows a much different picture, however. For the 10-year anniversary of the magazine, Chief Learning Officer asked Dutra how and why the role of CLO has shifted from “order-taker-in-chief” to a strategic business partner.

Q. What was the pivot point of the shift?

There were two big triggers — and unfortunately both related to negative events. You saw the first shift when the Internet bubble grew and when it burst. When it grew, it started to become very clear that successful executives did not necessarily follow a traditional path, educationally or from an experience perspective. You had extremely successful people who were not your traditional profile at all.

When the Internet bubble burst, so many people were laid off and there was a need to do much more with less that companies needed to be more mindful of where they spend the training and development money they had available. That was trigger No. 1.

What that does — and this is directly related to No. 2 — is it shifted the decision-making around who is going to take the leadership role or who is in line for succession planning from just answering the question about how executives have performed in their last job to look at what are the real competencies that we need moving forward. It also shifted thinking to who among our high performers truly has the potential and truly has the agility to succeed in the future.

And the second trigger was actually this world financial crisis that kicked off in 2008 and has not ended yet. Think about stages. Stage one is a light bulb goes on and [we see that] successful people do not necessarily follow the same road. There are things people bring to the table in terms of the way they are wired and different experiences that companies were not vetting at all and that they could not ignore.

Stage No. 2 is we get into the world financial crisis in 2008 and suddenly succession planning and leadership development and decisions around where to put money moves up the CEO agenda. It is no longer an HR issue and the decisions are no longer made just in the HR purview.

The next thing that happens is that CEOs cannot just delegate it. If you look at what leaders have said about talent and leadership and learning, they were always saying it’s at the top of the agenda. The truth is that it was not. It was just a check-the-box exercise.

What happened in the last 10 years with those two major events is it becomes pretty evident that learning and development — from an enterprise but also from a team and individual perspective — had to be tackled at a much, much higher level. It can’t just be the role of somebody three or four layers removed from the CEO who has no

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understanding of the long-term growth strategies of the organization.

Q. What are the key competencies of that talent executive now, and how have they changed over time?

It’s totally different. The profile is totally different. First of all, it has to be somebody who has executive presence and is respected at the C-level. That’s No. 1.

No. 2 is organizational savvy, because this person most times will have to lead through influence. At the end of the day, the plan and the strategy for talent development, for succession planning [and] for leadership development needs to be owned by the profit-and-loss owners.

[No. 3 is] the chief talent officer or chief learning officer will have to be extremely savvy about how to manage and influence the organization, be very strategic and have very good business acumen, because it’s no longer just what everybody else is doing — it’s what needs to be done to enable our organization to execute on the strategy.

If you just think about those three, [it is] absolutely different from the type of person we would choose in the past. I would argue that the technical competencies now are a nice-to-have, but if I have the choice between a chief learning officer who is very business oriented; very strategic; understands how to navigate the organization; [and] can build a strong team and then bring in the people to execute the learning strategy, that’s the person who I would favor.

They have to be a partner to the business leaders. It’s a peer. It’s no longer somebody who is just there following orders or managing contractors or sending people to business school.

About the Author:

Mike Prokopeak is the vice president and editorial director of Chief Learning Officer magazine. Reprinted from Chief Learning Officer

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