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We now have a chief learning officer, but why? And do you need one?

We now have a chief learning officer, but why? And do you need one? Blog Feature

John Becker

Revenue and Features Editor, Co-host of Content Lab, 15+ Years of Writing and Teaching Experience

March 3rd, 2020 min read

Late last year, Chris Duprey — IMPACT's chief operating officer — transitioned to a role that was both new to him and new to the company: chief learning officer.

Although the title was new, Chris had already been devoting much of his time to coaching team members on calls with clients and prospects.

So, it felt like a natural fit. 

The new title formalizes Chris' role as director of the professional development of everyone on the IMPACT team. 

As he moved into his new position, I sat with Chris to talk about the rewards and challenges of becoming IMPACT's chief learning officer.

What is a Chief Learning Officer?

Me: Can you first talk to me about what this new role is?

Chris: Organizationally, we believe that with the ever-evolving digital sales and marketing landscape, training and learning always have to be a part of it.

But also, in the bigger picture, we’re a consultancy; we’re in the business of education.

We need to always be at the edge of professional development, making sure that the whole team is always at their A game, always getting better every day.

As we looked at the organization, we realized we didn't have anybody guiding that process.

We have leaders guiding the development of their people, but nobody truly focused on guiding our leaders, on guiding our subject matter experts, on thinking about new ways to innovate.

Thus, I am transitioning to the role of Chief Learning Officer. 

As we train ourselves, we hope we will find new ways we can better help our clients and customers.

Me: So, what will this look like day-to-day?

Chris: We're still at the beginning stages, but I will be doing a lot of on-call coaching. Sitting in with our senior consultants or our sales reps before calls, in a preparatory role, then being on the call as an observer — but also sometimes as a participant.

As I listen, I have certain things I’m looking for, and I might hop in if there’s something that I need to correct (or I could prompt it in a private chat). 

Then, at the end of the call, we'll do a quick debrief. 

But the real magic thing is after watching three to five to seven calls by the same person, I can see what are areas for growth, and then we can develop coaching plans.

Holistically, as I see more and more and more calls, I can also monitor trends across the whole company and prompt broad training schemes if needed. 

That can prompt discussions about leader development.

What should our training look like in 2020? Should we add tiers of knowledge? Certifications?

We want to really develop solid systems of professional development, not just check-the-box professional development.

Me: How do clients and prospects react to your presence as an observer?

Chris: It's interesting. Each different rep or consultant says something a little bit different. Sometimes the clients know me, so there's really no introduction. It's just, "Hey, I haven't seen you in a while." But they don't always know me. 

In general, my hope is that it shows a prospect or a client that we are serious about delivering a great experience.

So we have a senior member of the leadership team interacting with clients and prospects daily.

Me: So, we want our employees to be the best, and by extension, we want to extend the best experience possible to the people we work with.

Chris: Yes. Honestly, I don't know how more organizations don't have [this role]. When I was wearing the COO hat, this was still stuff that I did, but I could only spend a certain amount of time on it. 

For small organizations, it's the CEO, or it's the founder [doing this sort of coaching].

I can only imagine how taxing it would be to try to develop really great professional development programs and be worried about the books, and be worried about sales, and be worried about marketing.

The power of self-reflection in learning

Me: John Dewey said “we learn by doing, but only if we reflect on what we have done.” Can you go further into what you do after a call to prompt reflection? 

Chris: I think it's really easy to go in and watch a call, check a box, score people on how they did, and just say, "Hey, John. You are a 3.7 out of five. Here are the scores that I gave you. Work on the ones that aren't fives." I mean, that's easy. 

But remember, I’m not coaching entry-level employees.

I'm coaching seasoned sales reps, I'm coaching seasoned consultants, subject-matter experts, and seasoned leaders in the organization.

These are people with 10-plus years of experience who have been killing it.

How do I show up as a coach in a way that is going to get them to see what just happened? 

I just actually ask them questions.

"So, on a scale of one to 10, how do you feel the call went? Did you achieve what you wanted to achieve? If you could change three things on the call, what would they have been?"

You just ask these questions, and you create a function of reflection on what just happened — and if you can do it right in that moment after it's happened, it's even more beneficial.

It forces people to immediately debrief what happened and critique themselves. It gives them the opportunity to realize on their own where they could have done better. 

You'll rarely hear me ask questions like, "Why did you do that?" I try to avoid putting people on defense or leading them to believe there was something wrong.

Ultimately what you get are not breakthroughs, but change.

With skilled, experienced professionals, you’re improving subtle things. 

When you’re trying to coach someone to run a 4.2 40-yard dash, and they currently run a 4.3, it’s all about subtleties. 

Coaching experts

Me: So, you feel more like a coach than an evaluator?

Chris: Yes.

If you’re in the role of arbiter, in the role of evaluator, that power dynamic is limiting.

If you're going for organizational growth and learning, and you're going for personal growth and learning, adaptive growth, simply being in the evaluator role isn't going to get you there. 

Me: Do you change the way you respond depending on how the call goes? If the deal is won, do you ask different questions than if the deal falls through?

Chris: To be honest. The approach that I take does both at both times. 

If a sales call doesn't go well, sure, we'll look at some of the things that they did do well, or I'll ask them to look at what was different between this call and another call that was successful, what caused this deviation, and try to find that. 

But nobody's got a 100% close rate.

As long as we identify the things that led to the call not going the way we wanted it to, we can throw it away. We have another one coming. 

Same thing on the consulting side. You're not going to achieve what you want to achieve on every consulting call.

We talk through that stuff, but at the end of the day, I always choose candor over comfort. 

So, while it might be more comfortable for me to not highlight the thing that needs to happen so that the person to get better, I opt to have the tough conversation, but do it from a place of love and caring.

Me: UPenn professor Howard Stevenson said, "I believe in you enough to challenge you." 

Chris: That's spot on. Anybody that wants to take on this type of role or is thinking about bringing this to their company, you have to be willing to have the tough conversations.

The challenges of the new role

Me: Yes, but I think coupled with that is a graciousness to accept that growth sometimes happens slowly, that there will be steps forward and steps back. It requires patience.

Chris: The hardest part for organizational leaders is everything moving slower than we want it to while the people in the organization at times feel like it's moving way too fast.

You always have this question of how hard do you push versus what is too hard.

You have to learn this patience. You have to learn that while yes, I want everybody to be at this certain level right now, that might not be realistic.

One of the traps that I fall into is the idea of the pace-setter leadership, which says "Well, I can do it this fast, so everybody should be able to also."

When I was a company commander [in the army], all of my direct reports, all of my lieutenants had the same initial training that I had.

They all went to the infantry officer basic course. They all went to airborne school. We had this shared knowledge and experience.

Well, guess what? That ain't the same for everybody here at IMPACT. 

And it does take a lot of patience to remember that. 

In the role of chief learning officer, now it's, how do I paint the learning development picture for the rest of the leadership team so they understand the value that it has?

How do I integrate individual progress into an employee management system of some sort that tracks development of certain skills, abilities, and knowledge?

Me: What will be the hardest parts of this job?

Chris: To truly coach people, you need to be fully present with them, and it's a lot of effort. So, you can only really effectively personally coach so many, and I don't know what that number is yet. 

As we build new programs, that's where some of my focus will probably go.

Running this initiative on my own, I have to figure out how I leverage the other leaders in the organization to take on certain things, how I figure what's a group training, what's a small group coaching, and what's individual coaching, and we maintain our priorities. 

Basically, where do the majority chunks of my time need to go.

For many roles, there are numbers you can track, metics you can track.

For sales, you have revenue numbers, a closing percentage. Marketing, you've got traffic, leads.

The work that I'm doing is all on the soft skills. How will I know that I had a good week? 

When you get into people development, and you're really focused on the development side and not the test score side, it's sort of tough to validate how effective you are in it unless you give it some time and step back and see improvement.

Me: So far, what’s the piece of advice or coaching that you find yourself giving most often?

Chris: There are really two things that I would say that I keep finding myself doing. It depends on the role, it depends on the human, but one is totally focused around this idea of self-confidence.

It is clear as day that there is a giant imposter syndrome thing that is out there, and I don't know the solution for it, but the bottom line is we're way too in our own heads, telling thousands and thousands of stories about how we're not good enough, when we have zero proof that that's a fact. 

So, I've spent a lot of time deconstructing these random narratives that ‘I'm not good enough to be this or that.’ 

Then the other is about awareness. What's really happening, what was different about this time than last time? I’m really trying to hone in on that, which ties right into leader development training and communication skills.

We all have to strive to master self-awareness and awareness of others — along with how we communicate with ourselves and with others.

If we can start to build a mastery of awareness of communication, no matter what role or what we're supposed to be doing, we're going to get better at it as those two skill-sets increase. 

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