With unemployment rates low and specialized skills in demand, many companies today are placing an increasing emphasis on employee retention. Which executive exercises the most influence on whether employees stick around or seek opportunities elsewhere?
Arguably it’s the chief learning officer, or CLO. A survey by Robert Half found that retention rates are 30 percent to 50 percent higher at companies with a strong learning culture, making CLOs the new must-hire execs. Their job is to create development opportunities for workers, keep key employees engaged, and above all, ensure that there’s a place for learning in the corporate environment.
Intrigued? You should know that becoming a chief learning officer isn’t just a matter of earning the right degree. Most CLOs amass decades of experience working in human resources, talent acquisition, or business administration before stepping into this role. If you’re willing to put in the work, however, you’ll be paid well and you will improve people’s lives by helping them advance in their careers.
In this article, we’ll cover:
A chief learning officer is a senior-level executive who creates and oversees an organization’s education and training programs. There are different kinds of chief learning officer careers, but in most instances, CLOs work closely with human resources (HR) and report directly to chief executive officers or talent officers.
The very first CLO was consultant Steve Kerr. Jack Welch, then CEO of General Electric, created the position in 1989 specifically for Kerr, putting him in charge of running the company’s management training center. The responsibilities of chief learning officers have evolved over time, but the core of the role—to oversee corporate learning and development—has remained the same.
Today, companies around the world spend billions of dollars each year on training and professional development. Most consider it a solid investment, as they view education as one of the best ways to retain talent and address skills shortages in the labor pool.
“Organizations are realizing the benefits of corporate learning and professional development, and are willing to invest financial and people resources into creating a positive environment of employee development,” Andrew Fayad, CEO of eLearning Mind, told the Huffington Post in an article marking the 25th anniversary of the creation of this position.
The National Association of Colleges and Employers predicted an average starting salary for 2019 MBA graduates of $84,580—provided those graduates found jobs in computer science, engineering, science, or business. (
Students considering an MBA or graduate business degree can choose from varied career paths, including those focused on financial management, data analytics, market research, healthcare management, and operations management. The analytical skills and problem-solving techniques gained from graduate level business degrees are in high demand across business sectors. ( )
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The age of Big Data has added a new twist to the CLOs role: the creation of reams and reams of data. Training results can now be quantified with a precision and specificity never before possible.
In this new era, it’s not enough to engage and empower employees through education. The chief learning officer has become a partner in business strategy—and fully accountable for delivering measurable returns on investment (ROI). As chief learning officer, you will be expected to generate quantifiable results that align with your organization’s business goals.
Tip: A little bit of data analytics knowledge might make you a more attractive candidate when you’re job hunting.
Some of the core responsibilities of the chief learning officer include:
CLOs do a lot more than what’s on this shortlist, however. Being a CLO requires one to be highly adaptable, because the training initiatives that were in alignment with business goals in the past may not be relevant today. Depending on the needs of your organization, you may spend more time working with recruitment teams to fill talent gaps than creating development programs. One company may want all its training programs to be 100 percent data-driven, while another might prefer that educational initiatives be designed around employee satisfaction (which is not as easily quantifiable).
Chief learning officer is still a relatively new corporate role, and there are relatively few graduate- and post-graduate programs specifically for aspiring CLOs. In general, chief learning officers begin their careers by earning a four-year bachelor’s degree—usually in human resources, business administration, or another business-focused major. You should also do elective coursework in behavioral psychology, educational psychology, and teaching.
After your undergraduate education, you should focus on getting some work experience and building a portfolio that will land you in a great MBA program.
Is earning a master’s degree an absolutely necessary step on the path to becoming a CLO? Probably. A lot of organizations prefer that candidates have at least an advanced degree in human resource management, business management, or training and development. Earning a master’s degree, and an MBA in particular demonstrates that you are dedicated to growing in your career.
As Judy Whitcomb put it in an article on Chief Learning Officer, “That decision, to get an MBA and focus on management, was a good decision for me. I think it makes me a more effective leader from a credibility standpoint because it shows I do understand business.”
Some of the top MBA programs can be found at:
If you’re not enthralled by the MBA curriculum, one alternative degree path is the MS in HR. Check out the programs offered by:
Don’t worry if you’re currently working full time; there are great part-time and online master’s degree programs that will let you pursue an advanced degree without taking time off from your job. You may even be able to complete your degree in just two years.
Check out the online master’s degree programs at:
A master’s degree isn’t a fast-track to a chief learning officer position, but it will help you advance to the kinds of roles people usually have before becoming CLOs. The typical advancement path for a chief learning officer involves experience in multiple roles.
Most chief learning officers have extensive experience in corporate management and may have served previously as director of human resources or even CEO or CIO. If your goal is to become a chief learning officer, look for advancement opportunities that will eventually put you in a position to transition into a CLO position.
As more companies hire CLOs, universities have begun to create educational pathways tailored to those already in this role as well as to those who aspire to the role. One of the most notable is the three-year, part-time CLO executive doctoral program at University of Pennsylvania. It’s open not only to chief learning officers, but also to training directors, VPs in HR and talent management, and other mid- to senior-level executives who want to earn a doctorate in education with a business focus. The program includes coursework in leadership, business, technology, and learning. Students complete both an independent research project and a doctoral dissertation.
You could become a chief learning officer without ever earning a single certification, but having voluntary professional certifications issued by industry organizations will absolutely make you a better job candidate now and in the future.
The Association for Talent Development (ATD), for instance, offers two certification tracks for future CLOs: the Certified Professional in Learning and Performance certification and the Associate Professional in Talent Development certification. Earning these certifications requires taking an exam and submitting work samples.
The ATD also offers numerous certificates in related disciplines like learning design and leadership development, and pursuing these avenues of professional development can help you advance in your career.
When you’re considering the pros and cons of becoming a chief learning officer, pay is definitely one of the pros. According to PayScale, the average CLO earns about $156,000 annually before bonuses. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports lower earnings—about $120,000 per year—but that is for people working in all training and development management roles. A C-suite title usually comes with an executive-level salary.
If you really care about helping people improve their job performance and job satisfaction, then this is definitely a career path you should consider. If you’re not quite ready to take your place in the C-suite just yet, don’t worry, because getting to that point is going to take you a while regardless. Just be patient and work toward earning the credentials you need, because more and more opportunities for CLOs are opening up as organizations recognize the potential measurable ROI of learning and development.
In fact, the BLS has forecast that jobs in this sector will grow by 10% by 2026, which is faster than in most other industries. Nearly every Fortune 500 company has a chief learning officer, and you can expect that smaller companies will follow suit in due time.
The bottom line is that chances are good that you’ll find a corporate learning role when you’re ready for it; the pinnacle of that profession is the CLO position, and if you excel at what you do, you’ll create opportunities to advance to that role someday.
Until then, you can maximize your chances of being the best candidate now by reading about successful CLOs, looking for a mentor in learning and development, and (if appropriate) experimenting with learning plans and platforms at your current organization.
(Updated on February 7, 2024)
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