Grooming the Next CLO

Chief learning officers often play a significant role in the succession planning activities for an organization. However, some evidence suggests that CLOs are not succeeding in developing their own staff to take on top-level learning executive positions w

Indeed, succession planning within the learning and development department seems to involve little more than an 11th-hour call to an executive search firm. CLO positions are quickly becoming some of the hardest positions to fill because of the rising demand and the fact that the pool of qualified CLO-caliber talent is so small.

Five Warning Signs of a Weak Learning and Development Bench

  1. It takes a long time to fill key learning and development positions, including a CLO position.
  2. Key learning and development positions can be filled only by hiring from the outside.
  3. There is high turnover in the learning and development function, and much of it is unexpected.
  4. The pool of high performers or high potentials in the learning and development function is dwindling.
  5. Replacements for learning and development positions often are unsuccessful in performing their new duties.

A lack of planning and a shortage of learning executive talent within a firm diminish the continued effective performance of the organization, according to Lois Huggins, senior vice president of global human resources at Sara Lee Corp. This jeopardizes an organization’s ability to execute its business strategy. Additionally, without a well-prepared executive in the CLO position, an organization may not be able to effectively manage its talent. “A strong CLO helps to create a culture that embraces talent management,” Huggins said. “This ultimately provides the firm with a competitive advantage because the firm will be more successful in attracting top talent, can develop their talent more effectively and they will be able to retain their top talent.”

As they do for other functions, organizations need to plan for their future talent needs in learning and development – and should focus on developing professionals internally. Companies that have successfully developed their CLO internally identified key elements, including creating a formal program, garnering executive support, ensuring accountability, identifying the right competencies and growing through stretch assignments. The result is a deeper bench at or near the top learning and development positions, which ensures the internal talent pool is rising.

Develop a Formal Process
Without establishing a formal process to build the pipeline for future learning and development executives, organizations could end up relying on traditional development methods, which may not provide maximum value in preparing future CLOs.

Learning and development executives should annually review the business forecast and organization drivers and, based on these conclusions, discuss the necessary staff changes within the learning and development function. These executives should look at the accomplishments and developmental needs of their direct reports and other high-potential members of the learning and development team. They should discuss the learning professionals’ performance records, promotion potential and learning needs. Then executives must define the next jobs for some of their future leaders to help ensure they are developing the capabilities necessary to advance to the chief learning officer position.

Mary Hester-Clifton, director of leadership, learning and development at Discover Financial Services, a unit of Morgan Stanley, said, “Having a formal process ensures that an organization is taking the same formalized step to develop their next CLO as it does in developing other key executive positions.” A formalized process to groom the next CLO helps ensure that high-potential candidates become part of broader talent reviews within the organization and not just within the learning and development function.

At General Electric, for example, learning and development executives participate in many of the same development initiatives as other executives. Top learning and development professionals at GE often report to the CLO functionally, and also to a business unit president. This ensures learning and development executives are supporting the business needs. Learning and development executives are also included in the “Session C” meetings that are held to exclusively review the talent within the human resource function and to identify future development assignments.

Such planning allows the organization to track the job experiences of its learning organization members and ensures that appropriate development plans are in place. The process will allow a firm to identify who is ready now for the CLO position, who could be ready in one to three years, and who could be ready in three to five years. The result is a deep pool of internal talent that is capable of filling the CLO position.

Executive Support and Accountability
Effectively developing a strong pool of learning and development talent requires executive participation and support. Having executive involvement motivates participation and ensures that other members of the organization will devote time and effort to leadership continuity programs.

Executive support is essential because executives make the final decisions about how competence and performance will be assessed for present positions, as well as how to measure potential.

In addition, HR executives must be held accountable for developing the next level of management. “Without this accountability, development of the next generation of learning and development leaders may not occur,” said Mary Beth Smith, Ph.D., vice president of leadership and organization effectiveness at W.W. Grainger.

Smith recommends that CLOs should be evaluated on their ability to develop a strong learning and development team. Evidence of talent development includes successful completion of stretch assignments and feedback from other executives regarding the skill and knowledge of the learning and development team. “Executive involvement forces them to clearly articulate what they are looking for in their next chief learning officer,” Smith said.

Anticipate Future Needs
Having a formal process and holding executives accountable will do an organization little good if future learning and development leaders are groomed with skills that will be outdated by the time they reach the CLO position. Although it is difficult to say precisely what those skill sets need to be, companies that do this well start with the business’ needs.

HR executives must know the strategic direction of the firm. The firm’s strategy will serve as a guidepost that will tell you not only where you are today, but also where the organization will be headed in the near future, and you can adjust your CLO development needs accordingly. Such an approach helps to match the organization’s currently available talent to its future talent needs and creates a strong bench within the learning and development function.

For example, an organization that anticipates a major shift in strategy might be well served to groom a CLO who is skilled at understanding the concept of corporate culture and change management techniques in order to help the organization successfully navigate a cultural shift. Or, if an organization anticipates significant turnover in executive positions, grooming a CLO with solid succession-planning capabilities will help ensure leadership continuity.

Learning by Doing
The most common way to cultivate learning and development talent from within an organization is through planned developmental job assignments. If used effectively, job experience strategies are geared to emphasize the building of competencies leading to advancement to the CLO position.

By using job assignments strategically, an organization can ensure that as learning and development professionals achieve greater seniority, their management skills will become more generalized in relation to total organizational objectives rather than to purely learning-based objectives.

A process should exist that ensures that the company’s learning and development professionals experience a mix of jobs, including line and staff assignments, as well as both field and headquarters assignments. By providing exposure to different business units through stretch assignments, the organization is enhancing the business acumen of its future CLOs.

Ten Developmental Areas to Consider When Grooming Future CLOs

  1. Solid foundation in training and development methods and learning theory.
  2. Ability to create a systematic succession planning program.
  3. Capability to partner with external learning organizations, such as universities.
  4. Knowledge and understanding of corporate culture.
  5. Aptitude to create a talent mindset within an organization.
  6. Ability to develop meaningful learning metrics.
  7. Skilled in managing external learning vendors/providers.
  8. Capability to communicate with corporate executives with ease.
  9. Strong understanding of how to leverage technology and the Internet to drive organizational learning.
  10. Ability to stay abreast of new learning trends and external best practices.

Leveraging job experience for developmental purposes means organizations must look at their job opportunities differently. In an effort to give high-potentials exposure to specific locations and cultures, companies must consider where jobs are located when determining next assignments. Key questions include whether the person would benefit from working in a field location and whether an international job assignment would give a potential future CLO a more global perspective.

Job assignments are sometimes made not because of the job’s location but because of the people with whom the learning and development professional would work. Pairing high-potentials with individuals who have special talents or management styles worthy of emulation should be a key consideration when determining job assignments. For example, providing a learning and development professional an assignment within the finance or information technology functions might allow him to learn more about financial metrics or how to leverage technology more effectively. Both skills would serve a future CLO well.

However companies should avoid the “ticket punching” mentality of job assignment development. If companies focus only on granting exposure with their assignments, they miss out on the practical experience that a key assignment could provide. Only when you focus on the depth and breadth that a job provides will a learning and development professional be able to make an impact and achieve the type of learning desired.

Investing in the Future
Organizations with solid bench strength in the learning and development function do not necessarily have smarter or more talented workforces than other companies. Their advantage stems from the investment they make in growing their own learning and development leaders.

Learning competencies do not arrive overnight. Future CLOs need years of nurturing and mentoring to understand the intricacies of organizational learning and how they are incorporated into the overall business strategy. However, the proper emphasis on grooming the next CLO will make sure that the individuals with high potential get the appropriate training and experience to successfully manage the job in the future.

Every CLO should endeavor to build a learning and development organization that enjoys an abundance of credible business partners. CLOs today have an obligation to prepare the next-generation CLOs who should be more qualified, more insightful and more able to do the work of the future. Doing so ensures an investment in the learning and development profession and a full pipeline of future CLOs.

Robert Rodriguez is a faculty member in the Human Resource Program in the School of Business at Capella University, a leading online university based in Minneapolis. He has published numerous articles and given multiple presentations on topics related to succession planning, talent management and human resource strategy. He can be reached at

October 2004 Table of Contents