The Expanding Role of Chief Learning Officers

As the CLO position becomes more purpose-driven and woven into the fabric of business decisions, it is providing companies with a powerful competitive advantage. Joseph E. Fournier of InveniasPartners discusses the role’s evolution and its connection to strategy as well as organizational transformation.

November 4, 2019 – The profile of a contemporary chief learning officer is both emerging and evolving. But one thing is for sure: the role is expanding, rapidly, as organizations fight to retain their best employees. Why? It seems that no other C-suite position is better positioned, better equipped, or better suited to foster a strong learning culture – and that, according to executive recruiters in hot pursuit of chief learning officers, leads to higher engagement levels, happier employees, and higher retention rates. If you’re looking for a competitive edge, hire yourself a CLO – fast.

The role is relatively new, and was first introduced in 1989 by then CEO of General Electric, Jack Welch. He brought in Steve Kerr, a consultant to the company, to be the organization’s very first chief learning officer. His main task was to oversee employee development, something Mr. Welch focused on like a laser beam as he pushed GE into all sorts of new businesses. Jack Welch believed that people were the life blood of every great company and he wanted someone to take charge of finding creative ways to keep all of his best talent content, engaged and, most importantly, retained.

Today’s CLO is much more advanced than what Mr. Welch had conceptualized three decades ago, but the role remains mission-focused and now plays a critical role in the C-suite, according to new research and insight from search firm InveniasPartners.

As the title indicates, the chief learning officer is responsible for an organization’s learning program and strategy. It is a vital role on the corporate leadership team, usually reporting directly to the CEO or talent officer. The chief learning officer—sometimes known as chief knowledge officer—plays a big part in overseeing transformation – particularly in the digital sphere where demand for learning to operate in the flow of an employee’s work life is increasingly important. As a result, the role of CLO has grown from focused on training to becoming much more strategic.

The role calls for constant attention to the company’s goals and strategy, and aligning the learning plan with the overall mission. Assessing whether the organization’s employees are suited for carrying out that strategy is a vital part of the job. The role demands ongoing attention to keeping the learning program up to date and in line with where the business is headed. Evaluating and analyzing the program’s results are also critical.

Sue Lawler, learning academy director at Rush University Medical Center, whose team is part of human resources, recently discussed the range of responsibilities the job entails: “Our work includes the typical, necessary programs such as new employee orientation and new manager training,” she said. “Additionally, we facilitate leadership cohorts and advise on training for specific departments. We work closely with HR business partners, the organizational effectiveness team and employee and labor relations. At the core, each educational experience provides Rush employees an opportunity to learn the culture and values of our institution.”

In a recent interview with Training Industry, Sydney Savion, CLO of Air New Zealand, said the chief learning officer role today is “more purpose-driven and woven into the fabric of business decisions,” which can be a powerful competitive advantage. To be a strategic business partner, chief learning officers need learning agility, emotional intelligence and cultural dexterity, said Dr. Savion. They manage all of the C-suite’s constituencies, he said, and require the capacity to “understand the connections and dependencies across all dimensions: technology, demographics, the contingent workforce, increasing global economy and the implications to the business.”

What Do They Make?

According to Payscale, a CLO makes on average $152,000 per year. However, as CLO responsibilities and the general need for (better, more engaging) training increases, so do the numbers. In fact, when bonuses and other pay are added in, like profit sharing, the pay range can easily exceed $300,000 annually, and in big corporate environments that figure can escalate rapidly. This upward trend in salary average speaks volumes about the direction of learning and development as a whole: More and more organizations are understanding the importance of a dedicated CLO in further the company’s goals.

Interestingly, nearly half of currently employed CLOs have had 20-plus years’ of experience; 54 percent are women; and most, according to one survey, expressed extreme satisfaction with their jobs. Current standing CLOs typically emanate from human resources roles like director of HR or chief talent officer, but they can also rise from other C-level titles, including chief information officer and even CEO.


Vetted Solutions Recruits Chief Learning Officer for the American Academy of Dermatology

Executive search firm Vetted Solutions placed Damon K. Marquis as the chief learning officer of the American Academy of Dermatology. President and founder Jim Zaniello led the assignment along with VPs Catherine Brown and R. Norris Orms.

In this role as CLO, Mr. Marquis is responsible for developing and leading the strategic initiatives of the academy’s professional development and lifelong learning programs. This senior-level leadership role is expected to drive the Schaumburg, IL-based group to deliver an array of traditional and emerging educational programs and products, in traditional and emerging platforms, said Vetted Solutions. These creative and innovative programs will address the evolving needs of the membership itself as well as healthcare in general, to enable the dermatology group to deliver on its vision of being the foremost source of innovative, comprehensive and responsive dermatology education.


A recent search on LinkedIn for chief learning officers generated more than 10,000 results. Some of the companies that employ official CLOs are: Citigroup, Bank of America, HP, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, GE, Hess, Caterpillar, Cisco, New York Life Insurance, American Express, CHS, Nike, AIG, McDonalds, Merck, General Mills and MasterCard. One thread joining many of today’s CLOs together is that they are typically found at very large companies. But that is changing – and driving that are Millennials. According to recruiters, these younger employees don’t respond as well to old ways of learning; instead, they thrive on continuous, on the job training. This paradigm shift is resulting in more companies, and much smaller organizations, seeking out their expertise.

Recruiting Veteran Details CLOs

Joseph E. Fournier, vice chairman and president for InveniasPartners, has tracked the progress of chief learning officers closely. During a distinguished career with leading healthcare systems, Mr. Fournier focused on operating and transforming large and complex organizations with an eye toward leading transformation, developing exceptional leaders and workforce planning to provide safe, affordable, outstanding service to patients, customers and communities. Along the way, he’s learned quite a bit about the need for good CLOs who can keep businesses competitive and relevant while driving their workforce toward common goals. Before entering search, Mr. Fournier was chief people officer at Intermountain Healthcare.

Mr. Fournier is a frequent commentator on issues related to business transformation, STEM careers and workforce readiness. He recently sat down with Hunt Scanlon Media to discuss the evolving role of chief learning officer and what it takes to recruit them.


Joseph Fournier

Joe, when did the chief learning officer role start and how has it been gaining traction in the workplace?

The role of the chief learning officer has been evolving since the 1990s with companies such as GE appointing one. Today, chief learning officers can play a pivotal role in preparing workforces for the future of work by incorporating learning and upskilling in areas such as the use of digital technology and changing customer expectations into the work of every employee at every level of organizations.

How are the CLO’s responsibilities connected to an organization’s strategy and core values?

Chief learning officers act as stewards of their organization’s strategy and core values. They view learning as an enabler—to both reinforce core values and to bolster strategy implementation across the enterprise from the top of the house to the front-line.  CLOs are moving well beyond compliance-based learning and functional skills—they are taking a strategic view of learning across complex organizations using the latest learning research and technologies to give their workforces a competitive advantage.”

“Chief learning officers can play a pivotal role in preparing workforces for the future of work by incorporating learning and upskilling in areas such as the use of digital technology and changing customer expectations…”

How involved is the CLO in organizational transformation?

Chief learning officers are key stakeholders in organizational transformation. Now more than ever, transformation is a web of complexity that requires alignment of strategy, organizational structure, process, people and information systems. Learning provides the framework for leaders to actually enact sustainable transformation.”

What is the current landscape for recruiting these types of executives? Are they difficult to recruit? What backgrounds do they generally come from?

Contemporary, forward-thinking, people-centered organizations are actively recruiting CLOs. Some of the most successful CLOs couple learning expertise with diverse backgrounds in area such as business, human capital, change management and continuous improvement. These leaders often exhibit the attributes of exemplary leaders such as creativity, empathy, excellent communication, nimbleness and a sense of humor. Executive search firms can provide tremendous value to clients because they provide broad reach and access to candidates with the diverse personas and backgrounds of successful CLOs.

Contributed by Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief; Dale M. Zupsansky, Managing Editor; and Stephen Sawicki, Managing Editor  – Hunt Scanlon Media

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