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What does it take to get learning and leadership development discussed in the C-suite? This was the central theme of a lively conversation amongst senior learning professionals from large organizations convened last week by the FTIE Corporate Learning Alliance at the Financial Times’s headquarters in London, in partnership with the Global Drucker Forum and IEDP Ideas for Leaders. (See video below).
It is a topic of increasing relevance for LD professionals as their influence to create positive transformation in organizations is to a very great extent dependent on the visible sponsorship of their initiatives by the executive committee members, primarily the CEO. As such it was important that the morning’s discussion was initiated with a provocation from a chief executive, the President of Airbus UK, Paul Kahn. Kahn is a strong proponent of the importance of executive development having bolstered his own development with an EMBA from London Business School and executive program at INSEAD – and now heads up a significant part of Airbus, a company that is currently investing in its own multi-site leadership academy.
That said, Kahn was open about his unfamiliarity with Chief Learning Officers as a group, and saw that the role of learning within an organization was not a frequent part of C-level conversation, though it clearly plays its part in transformation processes. Kahn emphasised that for learning and development to make a significant impact in organizations it was imperative that its initiatives are always tightly aligned with the current corporate strategy. If there is no immediate alignment between learning and strategy then the work being done by the LD professionals is unlikely to come into the C-suite’s focus.
Kahn closed with a challenge to the CLO audience to ensure that their programs and learning initiatives drive execution strategy and “make a difference where it matters most in the business.”
This challenge was taken up by roundtable discussions and sharing of experiences of the senior learning leaders in attendance, who came from a wide variety of business sectors, ranging from global FMCG providers, through highly technical/engineering based companies to financial services. The spectrum of learning maturity within these differing organizations was striking from a 30+ year old, billion dollar turnover business that was only just starting out with a dedicated L&D function, to companies where learning was so much part of the culture that it was difficult to know how to build it further.
What was evident across all the businesses however was that the impetus to energize the learning culture could only come from the C-level officers, and strikingly that that impetus most forcibly appeared as a result of a specific event, or ‘tipping-point’ as Vandyck Silveira, CEO of FTIE, described it. This may be the arrival of a new CEO, the forced re-structuring of a business, or the switch to a new strategy or markets.
These are clearly drivers exactly as Paul Kahn described, but there was a sense that the bleep of L&D initiatives only really appears on the C-suite radar as a response to other changes and transformations. The C-suite’s focus is, reasonably enough, on the success of the transformation and not on the learning that enables that. Learning is the ‘enabler’ never the ‘objective’ in these instances, and it is unreasonable to expect the C-suite to focus overmuch on enablers rather than objectives.
Perhaps this plays to the short-term horizons that public companies are required to perform to these days. The CLO ideal is to embed learning into the weave of the organizations DNA, where benefit from a robust learning culture can be continuously accrued; but that is a long-term culture change project. The more mature learning organizations attending last week certainly felt that was being achieved for them, and the support coming from their C-suite fostered that process. Airbus with its new leadership academy is an exemplar of this. The challenge remains however, how to get those organizations where that culture is yet established to lend their ear to the benefits?
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