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Top Skills and Traits of a Chief Learning Officer

August 17, 2020 Learning and Development
By Dom Nicastro

Strategic management and measurement are the top competencies chief learning officers need to develop, according to research by Chief Learning Officer (paywall). But that's not all. They also want to grow their executive leadership skills, develop better business acumen and advance their knowledge of learning methods and concepts.

But what are the skills and traits a CLO should have now before investing in future competencies?

“The exact definition of the CLO or chief learning officer can be broad, fluid and vary from company to company, but there are certain qualifications that a CLO should be expected to meet and expectations they should be able to deliver,” said Andrew Jezic, founding partner at the Law Offices of Jezic & Moyse.

For starters, they need an understanding of enterprise-level IT architecture and facility across the relevant tools and platforms. “An ability to integrate IT structure and top talent with high level strategic thinking, and the organizational skills to coordinate an entire team is how CLOs bring high level projects to fruition,” Jezic said.

Ability to Work Across Business Units

Juancho Montecillo should know about the skills and traits CLOs need. He spent more than 17 years in global learning and development for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), a development organization with offices in more than 170 countries. At UNDP, Montecillo provided guidance and shared practices in the development of learning strategies, curriculum and program design as well as learning infrastructure for multiple organizations.

“As chief learning officer, you are involved in all areas of business,” said Montecillo, now a consultant. That includes compliance training, leadership development, role-based and technology training, competency training and the associated certifications. "The CLO is required to work with all senior executives and managers in the company, all of them with different priorities and concerns.”

Related Article: What Is a Chief Learning Officer?

Develop Broad Management and Leadership Skills

It's not enough to master the fundamentals of adult education and develop the ability to work across different business units. According to Montecillo, a CLO must also be able to:

  • Understand the strategic business need of the company that learning can support.
  • Be able to sell learning strategies and programs to senior management to secure funding and resources.
  • Be skilled in all areas of learning and development including learning policy, planning, designing and implementing efficient business and system solutions.
  • Keep abreast of the latest in learning program design and delivery.
  • Present learning technology strategy to diverse audiences and communicate technical terminologies to non-technical audiences.
  • Articulate learning and development goals.
  • Maintain connection with industry groups, educational institutions, certifying bodies and learning technology consortiums.

There's a further set of management and leadership skills CLOs should continually build. Montecillo shared this list:

  • Ability to learn from the past 
  • Strong listening and communication skills
  • Relationship-building skills
  • Realistic optimism
  • Willingness to take calculated risks
  • Reading people and adapting to necessary management styles
  • Coaching employees effectively
  • Thinking outside the box

“You can say that the CLO traits are similar to any C-level executives in any company,” Montecillo said. “That is why in some companies the CLO reports to the CEO or the COO. In many companies, the CLO reports to HR. It is all based on how companies prioritize learning.”

Most CLOs who report to HR are more focused on compliance training, onboarding and leadership development, according to Montecillo. He called it “transactional learning.”

“A CLO who reports to the CEO or COO is more in a strategic position and learning is often part of the overall company’s strategy,” Montecillo said. “One way to find out if a company is serious with learning is to compare the learning budget to payroll. Some known successful companies allocate up to 6% of payroll to learning.”

Related Article: 6 Learning and Development Practices for a Distributed Workforce

Assess Needs and Bridge Skills Gaps

Lisa Vasquez-Fedrizzi, managing director of HR advisory and talent for Cheer Partners, said CLOs must have the ability to build a curriculum based on needs of employees, evaluate dashboards and programs, develop learning strategies and assess talent and bridge skill gaps.

They also need to foster an environment for continuous learning and development and can benefit from having an internal communications, learning or HR background and a “passion for learning and enhancing engagement.”

CLOs also should be able to test new ideas and pivot as necessary. “Feedback from training sessions is important,” Vasquez-Fedrizzi said.

In addition to that, CLOs must:

  • Identify training and develop needs.
  • Design and deliver training plans and curriculum.
  • Assess and measure progress and training effectiveness.
  • Serve as subject matter experts on the training modules.
  • Be forward-thinking with new offerings and opportunities for the team.

Related Article: Workflow Learning Turns Up the Volume

Appetite for Complexity

Max Woolf, career expert at ResumeLab, said there's a shortage of talent in the industry, making it relatively easy to get a chief learning officer job. And according to data that edtech company AVADO reported last year, CLO is one of the fastest growing titles among a new generation of C-suite titles:

  • Chief learning officer: 900% growth
  • Chief digital officer: 867% growth
  • Chief data and analytics officer: 500% growth
  • Chief innovation officer: 500% growth
  • Chief transformation officer: 500% growth

But Woolf offered a word of caution. “If you want a cake job at a unicorn company with sky-high pay, flex hours and remote work, you need to have more than just technical skills," he said. "In fact, softs skills like communication are equally important.”

CLOs often have to work closely with recruiting, compensation teams, HR and employee engagement in an effort to nurture talent. “Therefore it’s essential for chief learning officers to be able to transform complex ideas into easily digestible information everyone can understand,” Woolf said.

Master Learning Theory and Scientific Inquiry

The term chief learning officer sounds like a typical 21st century moniker (everyone's a chief something of something) but the role has in fact been around since the early '90s, according to Ken Eulo, founding partner of Smith & Eulo Law Firm. General Electric named the first CLO in 1989.

“In any event, it is a title that comes with an expectation of enterprise level skills in technology, analytics, learning theory and scientific inquiry,” Eulo said. “It has risen to an executive-level position and requires skill in not only these areas, but also leadership qualities like decisiveness and people skills including being able to spot and recruit talent.”

CLOs need to be drivers of technological innovation and systems optimization for the organizations they serve. “Without the dynamic energy to encompass all of these different facets and the commitment to actualize their vision and direct it outward, a person will struggle to do justice to this high-powered and influential position,” Eulo said.

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