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Why the Chief Learning Officer Is Becoming Chief Talent Officer

November 06, 2020 Learning and Development
By Dom Nicastro

Talent management is top of mind for corporate learning leaders. According to the 2020 Learning State of the Industry report by Chief Learning Officer Magazine, learning leaders said training will be better integrated into other talent management functions over the next 12 to 18 months.

It's more validation that the talent and performance agenda is linked with learning. In some cases, it might even mean the chief learning officer role is expanding and morphing into the role of the chief talent officer. After all, performance management (46.3%) and talent management (42.6%) topped the list of HR functions managed by CLOs, according to the CLO Magazine report

The CLO is “more than just learning,” according to Jack Phillips, chairman of the Birmingham, Ala.-based ROI Institute, who co-authored a book about the intersection between the executive roles in talent and learning, titled "Chief Talent Officer: The Evolving Role of the Chief Learning Officer." He points to the example of recruiting as further evidence of how the role is expanding.

“Talent acquisition — that’s now falling under that CLO role,” Phillips said. “And that's been a classic battle because if your recruiting is subpar, then it's hard to train them. And so you've got to recruit some good capabilities and good, trainable people who can progress.”

What a Chief Talent Officer Does

The chief talent officer focuses on talent, organization design and development, culture, business alignment, managing resources, innovation, technology, utilization, customer service and ROI, according to Phillips’ book. It is the “next generation CLO,” as Phillips and his co-authors put it.

Some major organizations are realigning their corporate learning roles as a result. Just a couple of months ago, Ford appointed a chief talent officer, Christopher Yates. A veteran learning professional, Yates previously served at Microsoft Corporation as general manager of global learning and development and was chief learning officer, director people and organizational development for Caterpillar. At Ford, he's reporting to Kiersten Robinson, the company's chief human resources officer, and will be responsible for driving Ford Motor Company’s “enterprise-wide talent development vision, strategy, and programs by bringing a global perspective and embracing diversity of thought and experience.”

Related Article: What Is a Chief Learning Officer?

Talent, Engagement and Performance Management

Phillips said three primary areas of focus for the chief talent officer include talent, engagement and performance management.

Engagement is sometimes in the HR arena but it's coming together with learning because so much of learning is how to be engaged and how to measure learning. Performance management is classically an HR function but it fits better under the chief talent officer, according to Phillips.

“Because it’s about rewarding people for performance, it's managing their performance and it's making sure that we are building high-performing teams,” Phillips said. “So those are the three things that we see folded under the CLO (talent, engagement, performance management) and is cause for a different title. Chief talent officer, we think, is probably the right one.”

Employee Experience Trumps Executive Titles

Titles and acronyms aside, Phillips said the shift to talent management isn’t exactly new for many CLOs. Stacia Sherman Garr, co-founder and principal analyst at Salt Lake City-based RedThread Research, agreed, adding that learning, performance management and employee engagement have been coming together for years.

“A big part of the reason for this is that organizations have begun to look at the employee experience like how employees actually live it — as one seamless experience that doesn’t distinguish between talent practices,” Garr said. “In addition, we know that each of these concepts impacts and reinforces the other.”

She doesn’t see a huge impact on what leaders in these arenas are called, whether it’s chief learning officer or the chief talent officer. What does matter? Leaders in these roles need to focus on ensuring a high quality, consistent employee experience, Garr said. That experience must enable people to understand their goals and how they are doing on them and that they have access to and encouragement to pursue learning. Leaders must do all that is necessary to create and enable trust, respect and a compelling employee experience.

“Chief learning officers and chief talent officers cannot focus on just a single silo of the employee experience,” Garr added. “They need to ensure they are always keeping an eye on that unified talent experience.”

Related Article: Online Learning Market Soars as Pandemic Fuels Rapid Reskilling

Building Business and Driving Performance

Tamar Elkeles has lived the transition from CLO to chief talent officer. She was chief learning officer at San Diego-based Qualcomm before moving into a series of talent and HR roles in technology and private equity. She's currently chief human resources officer at XCOM Labs, a San Diego wireless technology company. She’s also co-author of the chief talent officer book with Phillips.

Elkeles told Reworked there’s a current inflection point on learning itself in organizations. Employees are moving to user-generated content. CLOs, she said, don't "manage" learning anymore. “Employees are creating their own content so we are facilitators of knowledge sharing not delivering/creating learning anymore,” Elkeles said.

With her personal transition from CLO to head of talent, what forces helped lead to that transition? “As chief talent officers, we build businesses,” Elkeles said. “We are there to help leaders increase performance and productivity of their organizations not just for individuals but for the company as a whole. We've evolved as organizations have evolved, and they need us to help companies’ pivot, stay competitive and grow.”

CLOs and chief talent officers have to be business-people first, she added, and they are not all about L&D. It's about moving talent through the organization. “We are critical to business success if we focus on the business goals, revenue and profit, not on learning,” Elkeles said. “We need to understand talent gaps, opportunities and the industry/market we're in.”

Need for Innovation and Growth

In addition to business savvy, Phillips said culture and innovation are two other big mandates for the chief talent officer. “We would argue for creativity and innovation to fall under the chief talent officer because most innovation comes from employees and you've got to pull that creativity and innovative spirit out of there,” he said. “But you got to channel it into something that's valuable to the company. I think the classic chief innovation officer is not going to do that. The chief learning officer is. I think we're going to make a lot headway there.”

And ultimately, the CLO or head of talent should be seen as a great business partner. They are able to demonstrate value to the business through talent management and learning. Done well, they will be seen by colleagues as a business partner and possibly even an ideal person to plug in as head of marketing or technology, or even a division manager or president.

“At the top of the discussion has to be, 'How do we connect to the business and help drive the business?'” Phillips said. “They have historically not been so connected. It's easy to get absorbed in the administrative compliance and legal side of HR. But the chief talent officer needs to drive business. And if your own executive team doesn't see that, then you've got some work cut out for you."

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