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The Top 10 Traits of a Successful Chief Learning Officer

Jul 19 2021

I took away many lessons in change, transition and transformation from my days at Accenture, and one in particular has really influenced the way I view learning in the enterprise. 

Here it is in a nutshell before I break it down for you in ten different parts: CLOs perform one of the crucial, revenue-generating roles in any business. I’ve said it before: enterprise learning has an undeserved wishy-washy reputation, and this is often because it’s sugar-coated in jargon. The reality is that most CLOs are serious business operators. 

At Fuse, we work with some of the most innovative CLOs around, and over the years we’ve begun to recognise the traits they all have in common that are driving success for their businesses. Here, we’re going to break this down into ten points and some helpful insight so that you can help to support your CLO in new and exciting ways. 

Trait 1: CLOs have a seat at the top table: During my time at Accenture, Adrian Lajtha was appointed Chief Leadership Officer, which also encompassed leading all learning in the enterprise. His appointment was reflective of just how serious Accenture was, and still is, about the impact learning can have on the bottom line. Adrian was a partner at the firm and had previously been Accenture’s CEO of Financial Services, in charge of what amounted to more than a fifth of the business.  

Accenture, like any forward-thinking business, doesn’t do anything that isn’t designed to boost the bottom line, and putting Adrian in charge of leaning amongst other key initiatives was designed to boost revenue and capitalise on the opportunities Accenture could see it driving. 

Trait 2: CLOs are experts in change management: Show me an organisation that isn’t undergoing change. CLOs have to be well versed in change management. Knowledge is changing fast and there is constant digital transformation. Many people think that CLOs are likely to be ex-teachers, or professional trainers that have risen to the top. But the reality is that they are usually stealth business people and they are quite likely to be formally trained in change management, and/or have a wealth of experience in large scale change management programmes. 

Trait 3: CLOs are KPI driven: I discussed Hilti a little bit in my last blog L&D Deserves a New Name and this is because as a company, it delivers such a cracking example of how learning can be a great revenue generator when it is approached in the right way. 

Hilti’s Rachel Hutchinson, Director of Learning and Development, is a frequent guest on Fuse webinars. Her approach to transforming learning at Hilti is about setting business goals for learning-driven performance and profitability. By assigning learning business goals, purposes and outcomes, and measuring campaigns against KPI and metrics, Hilti has seen L&D drive a significant increase in cost performance and revenue growth. 

Trait 4: CLOs are great negotiators: Negotiation isn't just the remit of lawyers and deal-closers. Because CLOs are in charge of such critical relationships between many layers of the business and all employees, they need to be able to negotiate so that all parties feel they are ‘winning’ when it comes to learning. Negotiation plays a critical role in establishing and maintaining business relationships and in improving profit and workflow. 

Not all businesses understand the importance of having a good negotiator in such a key role. According to recent research from The Centre for Economics and Business Research, UK businesses lose £9 million per hour from poor negotiating, and could improve profits by 7% a year by negotiating better.

With a good CLO negotiating the way forward, companies will always be in the best position for optimised business relationships designed to boost performance and profitability. 

Trait 5: CLOs are influencers: As mentioned in my last post, L&D needs a bit of a reputation overhaul. Look at Charles Jennings of Tulser/70:20:10 Institute, who is someone that Fuse collaborates with regularly and is recognised as one of the world's leading experts on building and implementing learning and organisational performance strategies. Throughout his career, he has been a professor, a director of strategic technology at Dow Jones, and CLO of Reuters - and he continues to be a huge influence on corporate learning as it evolves.

Trait 6: CLOs are expert opportunity creators: Accenture has an acronym known as ‘WACO’ that has nothing to do with Texas. ‘Walking around creating opportunity’ is the name of the game, and it’s a practice that sits very much at the heart of a CLO’s role. 

WACO means that you’re constantly creating value or uncovering opportunities to create value. It means that no one sits idle. CLOs are WACO every minute of every day, looking for new opportunities for learning to create value. They are constantly assessing content to ensure that it is linked with business goals, and always looking for new opportunities to engage learners better. 

Trait 7: More often than not, CLOs went to business school: As business operators and change management experts, it should be no surprise that so many CLOs have a background so entrenched in business. Look at Simon Brown of Novartis: he started at Royal Holloway before going on to Chicago Booth to take Executive Education and then attending both The Wharton School and Babson College for business and leadership excellence training. 

He then went on to hold pivotal learning positions at Accenture, Lloyds and HSBC, and is now CLO at Novartis. He’s also just written a book: The Curious Advantage, which is ‘is an exploration of the behaviour of curiosity and its central role in the digital age, taking the widest possible exploration of all things curious-historical, contemporary, neuro-scientific, anthropological, behavioural and business.’ Clever CLO, business operator and author. 

Trait 8: They are results and ROI-driven: Nothing demonstrates this better than Johan Laville’s LinkedIn profile. He’s the CLO at Merck and he’s listed his capabilities as ‘achieves results, strategic thinker & thought leader who can facilitate & align learning to the C-Suite goals,’ ‘develops environments & cultures that foster personal development & career progression,’ ‘embodies strategic perspective & effective at leading a L&D vision from discovery to delivery,’ ‘inclusive of the data strategy to measure effectiveness, value & ROI,’ and ‘understands & can easily navigate complex P&L’s including leading initiatives to grow revenue; inclusive of evaluating market trends & pressures that hinder or bolster success.’

These are exactly the skills you want your CLO to have! 

Trait 9: They really get how and where technology can help: Many CLOs came from consulting backgrounds, which means that they have been assessing business problems and recommending technology solutions (and processes) for many years. They understand that technology is not a magic bullet, but that it is likely to be an integral part of any L&D programme. 

Trait 10: They are budget conscious: We’ve already talked about ROI, but I think it’s important to mention again that every CLO will have a budget, and that budget will be tied to a revenue target. If you spend six figures on a learning library, you need to make sure it’s generating as much value as possible. If you can consolidate two systems into one, that is a smart move. Today, CLOs are having to make every penny count, and, quite rightly, they expect a lot from their L&D investments. 

If you would like to continue the CLO discussion or learn more about how Fuse can help CLOs achieve their goals, get in touch today.

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