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Chief Learning Officer: The Learning Bird Catches the Worm

12 minutes
Chief learning officer

Table of Contents

Are you a corporate educator with a “need to lead”? Then this article is for you.

We’ll investigate what a Chief Learning Officer (CLO) is, the responsibilities involved, the profile of a CLO, and the different pay scales (salary + perks). Then, we’ll analyze an actual job offer together and make suggestions on how to achieve this C-suite position.

What Is a Chief Learning Officer?

In short, a chief learning officer is a C-suite executive who makes sure that the corporate learning program serves the organization’s goals. Working closely with the CEO and his or her vision for learning and development initiatives in the company, he or she disseminates knowledge and information to the learners (company employees) using technology, social media, and instructors.

The CLO position could be considered a specialty within the human resources department and a chief learning officer will usually work closely with HR, the chief technology officer, chief marketing officer, and the chief information officer (if there is one). 

One could argue that the role of a chief learning officer has been around for a long time, especially in big corporations, sometimes being referred to as Head of Learning and Development (L&D), Director of Training, Training and Development Manager, or Chief Knowledge Officer, but the job title itself is relatively new, having been coined in 1989 by then CEO of General Electric, Jack Welch, when he dubbed Steve Kerr, already a consultant for the company, chief learning officer to oversee employee development.

Why does the CLO position exist? Well, it’s all about ROI. Corporations – especially larger ones – realize that haphazard and/or mediocre training will not provide the needed know-how, shared corporate vision, and resulting impetus that will propel a corporation forward. And it is a lot less expensive to empower your existing employees and promote from within than to lose them to competitors and go through the time, effort, and expense of hiring replacements who, if not treated adequately, will also end up leaving in short order.

Why Is Having a CLO Critical?

As we are now firmly entrenched in the Information Age, our need for more sophisticated learning processes challenges corporations’ abilities to stay at the forefront.

And employees – fully cognizant of the disappearance of more straightforward tasks and “cradle to grave” job security – are keen to work at organizations that will collaborate with their need to continually develop and advance in their careers. If that is not provided – often stipulated up front, when the new hire enters the organization’s workforce – they will likely move on. Sooner, rather than later.

This is evidenced by the numbers: the average job turnover in the US in 2019 was an impressive 45.0%.

And here are some statistics from the “2020 Engagement & Retention Report: Failure to Engage” by Achievers.

Engagement and retention statistics

Their conclusion? “Employers must work to build a culture where workers feel appreciated and their feedback is valued – or risk a mass exodus of talent.”

Of course, corporations want to keep top-performing employees and, while a number of factors will certainly come into play to determine if a staff member will stay or not, the existence of educational and advancement opportunities plays a significant role. And it is arguably the CLO’s ability to provide this that will make a substantial difference.

That having been said, it is important to point out that employee development is essential for both the employee and the employer. It is ideally a synergistic (not symbiotic) relationship that results in a win-win workplace dynamic. On the one hand, companies need to keep a market advantage in order to survive and thrive, i.e., maintain and increase sales and consequent revenue. On the other hand, what provides this advantage is a cutting-edge staff. While HR’s task is to hire the most qualified individuals in order to ensure a competent workforce (and let lackluster performers go), a CLO’s task is to optimize that same workforce’s competence, thereby helping to ensure the corporation’s continued success.

What Does a Chief Learning Officer Do?

Consider how different the current corporate reality is, compared to even a decade or two ago. Companies are now commonly:

  • Multinational
  • Multicultural
  • Multilingual
  • Multigenerational
  • Almost entirely digital

The CLO is now confronted with the challenge of training and developing employees of different nationalities within a single location, employees in corporate offices located in different countries that communicate in different languages, staff members of up to five generations – and all with different skills, talents, worldviews, and levels of education. What is more, they are all to be groomed in a single direction: to contribute toward the enhanced success of the company. 

A short list of a chief learning officer’s responsibilities

Here’s what a CLO is responsible for:

  • Craft a learning strategy or adjust existing assets so they align with company goals
  • Assess the staff to understand how to best train those who need it and reskill existing staff or hire new employees to fill talent gaps
  • Overall knowledge/information management
  • Select and oversee learning technology
  • Establish curriculums, supervise content creation, and run courses/modules using eLearning authoring tools and LMSs
  • Select and direct employee training/teaching
  • Oversee the onboarding process
  • Direct succession planning

As learning technology has become so very electronic and entire departments and branches of multinational/multilingual corporations have become partially or entirely virtual – especially evidenced by the current requirements for remote work, which is now more the norm rather than the exception – CLOs need to fully embrace eLearning in all of its aspects.

A digitally based learning environment allows learners to connect directly to knowledge resources, as well as to experts. Some aspects of eLearning used by CLOs are:

Does a CLO have specific personal traits?

As you may be well aware, the higher one gets up the corporate ladder, the less you can rely on merely being a good technician in your field. And a CLO is no exception.

Although you certainly need a strong teaching toolkit, especially with acumen in the use of all the teaching tech at your disposal, you are, above all, a person dealing with people – because that is what a company is made up of. And as you are dealing with human beings, an essential workplace element is well-being, a lack of which is a big impetus for employees to ‘jump ship’ – right? So, a CLO (and anyone in L&R) needs to approach learning in a way that helps employees be successful in an educational challenge.

A CLO needs to motivate employees to learn – provoke inspiration, not just perspiration. He or she has to show them that any training they undertake will enhance their destiny.

As well, a CLO is an educator’s educator. He or she will be determining policy on how to teach what, potentially for a staff of tens of thousands of individuals: from forklift operators, to salespeople, to marketing professionals.

Since you might be aspiring to be an element of the C-suite, you need to ask yourself which characteristics will set you apart to bring staff members together and move them forward for the good/benefit of the whole.

Here are a few key personal traits to consider:

  • Vision – the ability to think long term, monitoring future trends
  • Agility – adapt to change quickly, make quick decisions that are aligned with the company’s mission
  • Enthusiasm – be fired up by the challenge of your task, in a way that is contagious to others
  • Comprehension – understand and address employees’ resistance to change, helping them to adopt novel learning methods/technologies
  • Cohesion – as opposed to being exclusive, a CLO will be inclusive and work to bring people and teams together as a productive, functioning whole
  • Curiosity – a CLO is constantly researching ways to stay on the leading edge of learning
  • EQ – emotional intelligence, your ability to empathize and handle interpersonal relationships
  • Cultural nimbleness – an ability to plot a learning course for a multicultural, multilingual, multinational, multigenerational staff

What Is a Chief Learning Officer’s Salary?

At this writing, the average salary of a chief learning officer in the United States, according to Payscale, is $153,579, with $25,641 being the average bonus and $21,250 being the average value of profit sharing.

The ranges are:
Salary: $97k – $215k
Bonus: $3k – $49k
Profit Sharing: $0 – $21k
Total Pay: $95k – $246k

How does amount of experience affect salaries? breaks a career into four phases: “early career” (1-4 years of experience), “mid-career” (5-9 years of experience), “experienced” (10-19 years of experience), and “late career” (20 years and higher). You can see each of these phases represented in the graphic below, with their respective average salary estimates. The bottom line: those with more experience command a higher salary.

Chief learner officer's salary

How do salaries differ by location?

San Francisco, California: +16%
New York, New York: +11%
Washington, District of Columbia: -1%

How Does One Become a Chief Learning Officer?

To become a CLO, you will need a bachelor’s degree, often in human resources, business administration, teaching, or another closely related subject – plus previous work experience. Most CLOs do have many years of experience in human resources, finding talent, or corporate administration prior to gaining this C-suite position.

But, as the CLO post is a relatively new one, still being defined as we speak, different paths can get you there. You may, for example, have previously served as a CEO, CIO, CCO, CMO, or in a human resources or L&D department. One source states that over 90% of CLOs have at least 10 years of corporate experience and closer to 18 years of corporate experience. This would seem to ring true, as the CLO position is often awarded to those already in the company – or at least with corporate experience in a related area.

Although there are now postgraduate CLO university programs, it is not necessarily a matter of having a specific degree. For example, an MBA or a master’s degree in HR would be logical approaches.

Chief Learning Officer educational programs 

The following are some educational programs that can help groom one for a CLO position:

  • The University of Pennsylvania has a PhD program called the PennCLO Executive Doctoral Program.
  • Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development offers an online Ed.D. in Leadership and Learning in Organizations.
  • The University of Virginia has an M.Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction
  • Several universities offer master’s degrees in Human Resource Development
  • George Mason University School of Business offers a four-month CLO program.
  • The Association for Talent Development offers two certifications for CLO aspirants: The Certified Professional in Talent Development (CPTD) certification and the New Associate Professional in Talent Development (APTD) certification.

Certifications are not a requirement per se, but directed course work may prove helpful to increase your chances of landing a CLO position – especially if your degree is not totally geared toward that role. 

Continued education

CLOs are constantly learning themselves, as the field is in a state of unceasing evolution. Here are some online resources, in no specific order, that will help to further contextualize the chief learning officer realm:

Final Thoughts

 As we have shown here, there are many paths to a CLO position. We have endeavored to contextualize what this C-suite post is, what it entails, and who would be a good fit. We looked at the range of earnings, analyzed a job offer, and offered some resources to get you there if it’s right for you.

If landing a CLO post seems like a distant objective with insurmountable requisites, just get going. “Plan your work and work your plan,” as the dictum goes. Consider that we are all part way there. And always will be. That’s why we hear so many references to our trajectory being about a ‘journey’ as opposed to a ‘destination.’ The wisest are those who continually chase the horizon, fully aware that it will always – by its very nature – remain an elusive target in the distance. In the meantime, they find that they realize amazing accomplishments on the way to forever.

And in case you’re concerned about being behind in your personal growth curve, consider the Chinese proverb: “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”

May you have a ‘treemendous’ career as a CLO.