The CEO’s Role in Learning

Unconcerned With the Process, Top Management Must Be Made to See Its Impact on the Bottom Line.

In order to reap the benefits of a well planned and executed corporate learning strategy, C-level executives first have to be convinced that learning directly affects such success factors as productivity, execution and adaptability.

That is sometimes a hard sell, given the current state of the economy.

According to a survey of corporate CEOs by the American Management Association (AMA), “learning” and “training” are nowhere to be found on America’s current list of business challenges. Yet the No. 1 concern of those CEOs is “excellence in execution,” of which learning plays a vital role — whether they realize it or not.

Other top challenges in the AMA list also might reflect on the effectiveness of a company’s learning function: “speed, flexibility and adaptability to change” at No. 3; and “improving productivity” at No. 8.

“CEOs first need to get their head around what ‘learning’ is,” says Ted Cocheu of Altus Learning. “It is not just about skills training or other mandatory training, but getting the workforce knowledgeable and productive. The CEO’s role in learning is to then create a culture of where growing employees’ knowledge is valued. An investment in employees should be an investment in the company.”

Industry consultant Lance Dublin agrees. “Learning is a subset of talent strategy,” he says. “It’s all about the bigger picture, so it’s much easier to put a line in the budget for training than learning.”

On the Back-Burner?

The economy is another issue. With CEOs turning their focus to bread-and-butter survival issues, longer-term challenges have moved onto the back-burner, according to the AMA survey. Nowhere is this more apparent than in people-related issues.

Finding qualified managerial talent, which placed among the AMA’s top 10 challenges two years running, falls eight places and out of the top 10 altogether in the most recent survey of CEOs. Only two of 20 people-related challenges rise in ranking: employee efficiency and the cost of employee health care benefits — both of which directly affect the bottom line.

Top management succession sees the largest relative ranking drop of any of the 94 challenges, falling 11 places to 29th. A close second is corporate reputation for desirable employer or employer of choice, which falls to 31st place from 21st. The crisis is amplifying a de-emphasis on people issues, worsening what economic conditions had already put into play.

In today’s even looser labor market, CEOs appear assured that talent will be there when, how, and if they need it. This short-term view may mean that organizations are missing opportunities to better position themselves talent-wise when the economy turns around.

But even considering all the current economic issues, it’s still not impossible to engage your CEO in learning initiatives. According to experts, the three keys are: (1) know your CEO; (2) define your role; and (3) speak the language.

1) Know Your CEO

It’s not the CEO’s job to make sure that each and every employee knows how to do his or her job. The CEO’s job is to set the direction of the company, including its corporate culture. That very seldom encompasses the nuts-and-bolts of learning or training.

“We’re seeing CEOs playing a very important role in terms of communicating a unifying message,” says Marsha Ershaghi, a member of the learning team at LRN. “When it comes to creating a cultural presence of how we learn, think and communicate as an organization, the CEO plays quite an important role. And they are becoming increasingly more visible as organizations become more global in their reach.”

Rick Rabideau, Ershaghi’s colleague at LRN and a former learning professional for MetLife Insurance Co., agrees.

“CEOs are involved at a strategic level,” he says. “The learning leader takes input from the business leader and tries to put together the right solution. The direction, spirit and emphasis is put into place by the CEO, and then it’s up to others to implement.

“But CEOs must be present in the conversation. They need to weigh in and make sure their perspective is involved in an overall strategy, especially in the areas of ethics and compliance. If a company’s CEO and leadership team are behind a learning program and promoting it, that will make the whole program work much, much better. Where we see a strong commitment and reinforcement and support, we see a much stronger culture in terms of operating ethically and within regulations.”

The sad fact is that CEOs are a lot less interested in the process (learning) and more interested in the output/results (performance).

“Learning is a process; talent is a product,” observes Dublin who, with 30 years’ experience has been around the block a few times. “There’s no debate that human assets and knowledge assets are important. The challenge has been to elevate and talk about it in a way that engages CEOs. They want change-ready, developed people. They want the output.”

“One of the problems in the learning community is that we confuse the process with the product. There’s not a chief computing officer — he/she is a chief technology officer. We’ve painted ourselves into a corner using the CLO title; eventually we may see it as a Chief Talent Officer (CTO). At the C-level, learning is not important; it’s the talent that’s important.”

Early involvement is key.

“If the CEO is not behind an initiative, there will be more of an issue in terms of developing and implementing a successful program,” adds Ershaghi. “As a result, CLOs are bringing the CEO into the thought process early, and then integrating them into a lot of the materials — a three-minute leadership video, for instance — that are ultimately designed.”

2) Define Yourself

Perhaps the number one problem that learning executives and officers face — beyond getting the support of CEOs — is an ill-defined or inconsistent job description, says Dublin.

“I don’t believe we’ve seen the chief learning officer (CLO) role mature in most organizations,” he continues. “Those who carry the title range from vice president of learning, to director of learning, to a few people who have just been given the title. Even within the CLO community, I think you would find different reporting structures and different reporting relationships. Only a handful of people are truly functioning as CLOs and sitting at the C-level table influencing the development of people at a very strategic level.”

Dublin even goes so far as to state that the title of CLO may disappear sometime in the near future.

“We’re looking at our toenails when we should be looking at the bigger picture,” he notes. “The industry made a mistake pushing CLOs when it should have been pushing CTOs (chief technology officers) or CPOs (chief people officers). As a result, the whole talent/human-capital world has been rising while the learning world has been stable or falling, in terms of perception.”

Emphasizing the development of talent is a good way to catch a CEO’s attention and get his/her buy-in from the very start, Dublin says:

 “Whoever grabs the talent blanket to wrap themselves in will end up at the table first. The human resources group is trying to remake itself as talent people, and so is the learning group. Both of them are reaching for that word — ‘talent’ — because it has more power.”

3) Speak the Language

When communicating with C-level managers, learning professionals must speak their language — but often don’t.

“Learning people refuse to talk the language of the senior level executive,” says Dublin. “CEOs talk in terms of resources, assets, business activities — and learning is not one of those.

“When learning professionals seek a buy-in from upper management, they often don’t remember that results are uppermost in a CEO’s mind. It’s like taking a car to your mechanic and you get a bill for ‘fixing.’ Learning people refuse to talk the language of the senior level executive.”

According to Doug Wilwerding, founder of The Optimas Group  some of the questions that your CEO might ask about your e-learning plans include:

1) How does this proposal or idea connect to the larger strategy?

2) How does it impact our employees?

3) Why is it more than just a fad or another “initiative”?

4) What are its resource implications?

5) Do you really understand what it is going to take to carry it through, and do you have the requisite skills?

6) What is the ROI, and how are we going to measure it?

The more you’re prepared to provide solid answers to those questions, the more likely you are to get a CEO buy-in from the very beginning.

—For more information on the AMA survey of CEOs, visit

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