6 Key Skills Chief Learning Officer
Training & Learning

6 Skills That Make a Great Chief Learning Officer: We Ask the Experts

Once upon a time, L&D was seen as just another part of HR. That’s all changed: L&D leadership now plays a key role in many strategic company decisions. Alongside this trend, we’ve seen the emergence of a new role reflecting this importance: that of Chief Learning Officer.

But what makes a great Chief Learning Officer, exactly? What are the key competencies and techniques that help a Chief Learning Officer drive better learning outcomes?

As part of our CLO Connect interview series, we speak to leading L&D experts from all kinds of industries, from retail to finance to real estate. These discussions give us a clear sense of the key skills all great Chief Learning Officers share. Now, we’re here to share them with you. 

In this post, we ask six Chief Learning Officers (or equivalents) to weigh in on the most critical skills that make a great CLO. From translating business priorities into learning strategy to putting your data to work, here’s what it takes to be the best CLO you can be.

Let’s get started with a key question: what is a CLO, exactly? 

What is a Chief Learning Officer, and what do they do?

A Chief Learning Officer, or CLO for short, is a senior-level executive who oversees all L&D programs within an organization. It’s their job to create learning strategies, oversee their execution, and ensure that all educational programs align with larger company goals.

CLOs are also sometimes referred to as Chief Knowledge Officers or Directors of L&D. The CLO is a relatively new position–it was first introduced back in 1994. Now, as L&D continues to grow in importance, the CLO position is evolving to meet the needs of growing companies.

With all that in mind, let’s turn to our first key CLO skill: making training a good time.

#1: Knowing how to make training fun

For Genevieve Bochanty, Director of Learning & Development at grooming specialist The Art of Shaving, being a great CLO is all about knowing how to make training fun.

“People always tell me my training is fun,” she says. “Designing training that is engaging and effective is huge, because the more enjoyment people have, the more they remember. If you’re just throwing a bunch of information at people, they won’t remember anything.” 

As Genevieve explains, a big part of generating this sense of fun is surprising people with the unexpected. “Building this enjoyment into my training is something I feel like I’ve got down to a science. I might throw in something fun that wasn’t in the training plan, or if people are having a hard time with a particular subject, I might ask them to come back with a song for inspiration.”

With many of us still stuck at home behind our screens, making training fun is now more important than ever. But fear not: even remote training can still be a source of joy and human connection.

Designing training that is engaging and effective is huge, because the more enjoyment people have, the more they remember.

#2: Listening for the real problem

As Kelli Dunaway, Director of Learning and Development at law firm Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner explains, one of the most important skills a CLO needs is to be able to listen. 

“I think the greatest skill that I bring is my top-level listening,” says Kelli. “I really listen to people not just for the words they’re saying, but how they’re saying them, and the emotion behind what they’re saying.”

In times of stress, this focused and deliberate approach to listening is particularly important. When people aren’t feeling their best, it takes time to get to the real heart of the problem, whether it’s a module that isn’t clicking, frustrations with course material, or something deeper.

“I try to get to the bottom of whatever challenges they might be facing, as well what their peers are going through,” says Kelli. “Then, I think about the challenges we face as an organization, and I go back and use creative problem-solving to try to find solutions to those problems.”

Related: Our Roadmap for Becoming a Strategic Chief Learning Officer

I really listen to people not just for the words they’re saying, but how they’re saying them, and the emotion behind what they’re saying.

#3: Translating business priorities into the right learning strategy

One of the trickiest things as a CLO is knowing how to turn high-level business priorities into a meaningful learning strategy. According to Gaurav Maheshwari, Senior Director of Content and Knowledge Management at Visa University, this skill is also what makes a great CLO.

“For me, it’s all about knowing the business priorities, and knowing how to translate that into our learning strategy and learning materials,” says Gaurav. “That’s probably the key skill, along with being agile and sensitive to business needs, which are always changing.” 

This sense of constantly changing business needs has been particularly acute since early 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic threw our existing learning strategies out the window. As Gaurav explains, L&D has a key role to play in pivots like this. “We always need to be able to adapt quickly in L&D and stay relevant to the wider needs of the company.”

And speaking of staying ready to pivot...

It’s all about knowing the business priorities, and knowing how to translate that into our learning strategy and learning materials.

#4: Being nimble in times of disruption

Every industry has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic in its own way. For Kristen McNamara, Senior Director of Learning & Development and Talent Acquisition at human resources consulting firm Robert Half, a key CLO skill is staying nimble during this disruption.

“Last year, our team worked across 16 countries outside of the United States as a collective in response to COVID-19. We realized our products and services needed to shift immediately.”

“We had to produce iteratively, learn iteratively, and just go with our minimum viable products,” says Kristen. “With COVID-19, we had to be willing to let go of what we built, and what we were so proud of before. We had to shift our learning approach to fit these new circumstances.” 

As Kristen explains, it’s important to take the time to recognize when your L&D team has risen to meet the challenge. “We were able to be quite nimble, and that’s something I’m proud of.”

We had to produce iteratively, learn iteratively, and just go with our minimum viable products.

#5: Getting the most out of learning data

For Matt Donovan, Chief Learning and Innovation Officer at management consulting firm GP Strategies, being a great CLO is all about knowing how to get the most out of learning data–and knowing what else you need to work on to get better with this data.

“I want to focus on growing and embracing the use of our data,” he says. “It’s about developing more of a problem-solving mindset, and to use our data intelligently, efficiently, and ethically to improve as an organization.”

As Matt explains, the growing availability of data is creating new opportunities for CLOs to drive better learning outcomes. But this opportunity also creates new challenges. “We’re surrounded with more and more data, and our ability to make sense of this data is growing.” 

“We’re going to need a better understanding of how we interact with this data, and how we make sense of it. Machine learning and AI takes a lot of time to understand, but it’s something that I’m really interested in learning about. That’s what we need to focus on.”

Related: 3 Data-Based Ways to Prove Training ROI (+ Free Training ROI Calculator)

It’s about developing more of a problem-solving mindset, and to use our data intelligently, efficiently, and ethically to improve as an organization.

#6: Staying curious

Finally, we’re capping off this list with one of the most central CLO skills: staying curious. 

According to Sarah Cannistra, L&D Career Coach and Chief Learning Officer at the Overnight Trainer podcast, every great CLO needs this kind of openness and hunger to learn.

“The biggest thing for me is curiosity,” says Sarah. “We don’t want to settle for the status quo, or resort to doing something because it’s the way something has always been done.” 

As Sarah explains, this reliance on the status quo can affect some industries more than others. “It’s something that plagues a lot of multi-family property businesses, because there’s a lot of resistance to change. Learning is evolving at a rapid pace. We have new software, new technology, and new theories all the time. It’s always changing, and we all need to keep up.”

“People need to be curious and be willing to try new things,” says Sarah. “If something doesn’t work at first, it’s okay, we can just try something new. It’s not brain surgery, and we don’t need to be quite so afraid of failure.”

Learning is evolving at a rapid pace. We have new software, new technology, and new theories all the time. It’s always changing, and we all need to keep up.

To be a great Chief Learning Officer, learn from others

No matter how experienced you may be as an L&D leader, there’s always more to learn. As Sarah Cannistra puts it, you should never be done learning as a CLO. Instead, you need to stay curious and keep up with what the L&D world has to offer.

One of the best ways to keep learning? Pay attention to what others are doing, and try out these key CLO skills and techniques for yourself. 

Our #CLOConnect interview series is a great place to start. Here, I interview a new L&D leader every week to find out how they’re driving better learning outcomes. You can subscribe (below 👇) to our weekly newsletter to receive our latest posts directly in your inbox. 

Thanks again to our six experts for taking the time to share their tips and insights!