Injecting Purpose Into the CLO Role

The missing learning leader ingredient? Purpose.

There I was, having an engaging conversation with a fellow chief learning officer at a conference lunch, when things began to take an interesting turn. “As long as I show increases in the LMS metrics and with the course evaluations, my C-suite doesn’t care about anything else,” said the CLO.

I sat there stunned. “Surely that’s not how you’re running the team?” I asked.

The CLO, unfazed, looked me square in the eyes and said, “Of course I am. If that’s all they care about, why should I rock the boat?”

During that same conference, I was fortunate to share a few cocktails with the late Jay Cross. Our conversation ventured to my lunchtime chat, and he became upset. He felt far too many CLO’s were “managing up,” doing only as their overlords expected. Then our lively exchange then drifted to titles. “Dan, you don’t need a CLO title … in fact, why don’t you push for a CEO title?”

We were well into our second cocktail, so I thought he was kidding. “Chief Engagement Officer,” he said. “Go become the CEO in your company and prove that CLO wrong. Any learning leader who thinks learning is only about the LMS and course evaluations has no right to be in that position in the first place.”

That was at the Fall 2011 CLO Symposium in Dana Point, California. Five years later, not only am I still in agreement with Jay, I think the title may be missing something: purpose.

To hold the chief learning officer position, learning leaders ought to operate with a defined sense of purpose. If, for example, a CLO has no sense of why they’re in the position, how can we expect them to deviate from an learning management system and course evaluation mindset? If the CLO is in the role because they like the perks of a fancy “chief” title and larger salary, they have completely missed the point of why the role exists in the first place.

Jay Cross was partially right. CLOs ought to think of their positions as the organizational equivalent of chief engagement and purpose officer. The position is so much more than the LMS and course evaluations. It can become the catalyst for culture change.

The role of a CLO is to help employees across the organization define their own sense of purpose. When an employee discovers their personal purpose and it is lockstep with the role they perform in the organization, both the employee and the firm benefit.

There are three types of purpose:

  • Personal purpose: What motivates someone in life; their “why.” An individual’s values, experience and beliefs inform personal decisions and actions.
  • Organizational purpose: Why does the organization exist? An organization’s principles, ethics and culture inform its ways of operating.
  • Role purpose: Why does a role exist in the organization? To achieve its goals and objectives, an organization establishes a variety of roles to support its mission.

Employee engagement scores remain at anemic levels, hovering around the 30 percent mark since 2000. This is partly because employees have not discovered a purpose mindset in their roles at work, and partly because organizations are often fixated on profit and power.

If CLOs think like a chief engagement and purpose officer, they may unknowingly hold the keys to a more engaged organization, one replete with an army of purpose mindset employees. If they demonstrate leadership by helping more of the organization reach purpose in their roles, there is no telling what heights the organization may reach.

Ultimately, employees will exhibit one of three different role mindsets:

  • Job mindset: Performing transactional duties in return for compensation and not much else.
  • Career mindset: Focused on increasing one’s career girth by advancing salary, title, power, team size and/or span of control.
  • Purpose mindset: Passionate, innovative and committed to a meaningful and engaging workplace that serves and benefits all stakeholders.

How does a CLO get more of the organization’s employees into a purpose mindset?

  1. Stop acting like an order taker. CLOs are not simply there to produce courseware, and they are more than a factory that feeds the LMS.
  1. Start acting like a leader of purpose. Don’t just “manage up.” Declare your own personal purpose and help others on the team and across the organization understand why you got into the role in the first place.
  1. Build out and deliver purpose discovery workshops. These face-to-face sessions are intended to help employees see the difference between a job, career and purpose mindset.
  1. Provide employees with the chance to share their personal and role purpose with others. Use or build collaboration technologies to help others see purpose is not an issue to remain in the closet.

In summary, how many individuals in today’s organizations are empowered to put their hearts in their role and to go above the call of duty at work? I believe this is part of the CLO’s responsibility. Now, it’s up to you to make it happen.

Dan Pontefract is chief envisioner at TELUS Transformation Office, a future-of-work consulting firm, and author of “The Purpose Effect: Building Meaning in Yourself, Your Role and Your Organization.” Comment below, or email