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What Can the World’s First CLO Teach Us About Learning?

Written by Paul Rosevear

Before 1989, there was no such thing as a Chief Learning Officer. That all changed when Steve Kerr, then a consultant for General Electric, approached the company’s legendary CEO Jack Welch about creating a permanent executive leadership position devoted to overseeing employee development.

Welch liked the idea. But what he didn’t like was Kerr’s suggestion to name the position Chief Education Officer. He wasn’t too keen on the idea of two CEOs, so he came up with Chief Learning Officer instead. The CLO was born, organizations all over the world quickly followed suit, and Kerr went on to run Crotonville, GE’s landmark 59-acre management training center up until March 2001.

Six years later, in an interview with Chief Learning Officer Magazine, Kerr reflected on his time with Welch, the evolving role of CLO and the learning profession as a whole. The insights he offered are as relevant today as they were then, so we’ve pulled out a few key takeaways from Kerr’s philosophy that we think are right on the money. As always, everything begins with the learner.

The learner always comes first

Kerr quickly saw the value in Welch’s suggestion to focus on the verb learning versus the noun education in the naming of the position. It made the role feel more active and people-centric. “If you think of yourself as an education officer or a knowledge officer, the important stuff becomes the knowledge itself, whereas if you think of yourself as a learning officer, then you client is the person doing the learning,” said Kerr. As a proudly “learner-first” company since our founding in 2010, we couldn’t agree more.

Business is still business

As learning professionals, we might geek out over the latest developments in cognitive science or human behavior, but ultimately our role is to drive the bottom line. That means we’ve got to continually tie learning strategy with business strategy. “They’re not interested in a new approach,” said Kerr of business leaders. “They’re interested in good people leaving, cost reduction, top-line growth, more innovation.” Take a look at the latest industry reports and you’ll find the same themes. We’ve got to connect the dots for executives now more than ever.

Great learning starts with active listening

Being a learning professional is a bit like being a detective: you’re always looking for clues for how to better serve the organization. And a lot of comes down to listening to learners and managers on the frontlines. “You’re listening firsthand to the problems they have, the opportunities that develop, the way in which they say their people need help,” said Kerr. Not just listening, mind you. Listening firsthand. If a pioneering learning exec has no problem getting his hands dirty, neither should the rest of us.

We’re all marketers here

Stories sell. And the better the story, the more buy-in you’ll get for your learning initiatives. “It’s Marketing 101,” said Kerr. “You always have to tell somebody what’s in it for them, not what’s it in it for you. You can’t go in and tell everybody that you’re excited by some new concept or academic model—you have to show them that this stuff is useful in addressing their issues.” So much of our job is about finding fresh and compelling ways to get people fired up about the work we do. And it has been from day one.

Learning is work worth doing

Hopefully, you believe in what you do. But inevitably there will be days your resolve gets tested. You’re not alone. “You get discouraged sometimes,” said Kerr. “It’s more amorphous. Even within HR, [learning] doesn’t have the sense of specificity. If you’re HR and you do wellness, or you do employee relations and manage out difficult employees or you do rewards and comps and get people paid on time, or you manage union negotiations—these are parts of HR that feel more tangible. But it really is important work. It’s great to be involved in people’s learning. They grow professionally. It does help the company if you do it right.”

Doing learning right is what we aim for at Grovo, and we share many of Steve Kerr’s ideas about how to make that happen. It’s great to hear from somebody so renowned in this field, and hopefully we’ll hear a whole lot more—there are rumors he’s working on a new book. Count us in for a couple dozen pre-orders!

As for GE, they’re still pushing the boundaries of what’s possible with employee development. As part of their new Brilliant U online learning platform, more than 30 percent of their employees developed and shared content with their peers in the first year alone. Suffice it to say, learning has come a long way since 1989—and thanks to pioneers like Steve Kerr, it looks like it has a long and exciting road ahead.

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