Leaders and writers have been speaking of the digital age for decades now, and it’s safe to say we’re fully entrenched in this new world. Technology has caused unprecedented changes in the way we work, learn and spend our free time. Organizations are responding to these societal changes with changes of their own, and leaders are adapting accordingly. The training leader is no exception, and the training organization is a key business area that must be led strategically by innovative executives. CLOs and training managers must lead the change.

Dr. Mika Nash, academic dean of continuing professional studies at Champlain College, says that CLOs have three key roles: (1) strategic partner, (2) employee advocate and (3) change champion. Champlain College recently announced a new master’s degree in human relations and organization development, developed for CLOs and other HR leaders. Such new programs signify the increasing focus organizations place on the importance of the people who, in Nash’s words, “create the value of the company.”

The key word for learning leaders is “strategy.” Training Industry research indicates that strategic alignment is the most important capability of training managers, and experience plays that out. Cat Lang, the new CLO at Appirio, says that the CLO plays a “pretty critical” role as a “strategic partner” to other executives. Since a company’s employees are its true differentiator, it’s vital to have a business partner who can understand how those employees can help the business reach its strategic goals. The worker experience and the customer experience are equally important, she says, and the CLO plays a key role as the person who can help the C-suite understand both.

Lang sees the critical role of the CLO play out in her own position. Appirio was acquired by Wipro, a global IT services company, earlier this year. Since then, L&D has been crucial in managing change, from integrating the two organizations’ cultures to cross-company onboarding. As CLO, Lang is an important part of this process, bringing to the C-suite a “deeply engrained understanding of the role people play in change enablement.”

What Does It Take to Be a Learning Leader?

In a 2015 issue of Training Industry Magazine, Ajay Pangarkar and Teresa Kirkwood identified three core areas in which learning leaders should have skills: leadership and motivation, business, and technology. “Our economy is in the process of transitioning from an industrial paradigm to one that is knowledge-focused,” they wrote. This new focus means that learning leaders are more important than ever before: “The decision to implement a CLO directly correlates to how well the organization wants to execute its business strategy.”

Lang recommends being proactive in communicating with business leaders about strategic objectives, business outcomes and customer relations. The role of a learning leader requires both a background in L&D – to understand “what works” – and business acumen – to understand how what works plays out in the organization.

Business acumen is a crucial skill for any business leader, and no less so for training leaders. In fact, Training Industry research has found that 95 percent of L&D professionals rate business acumen as an important competency for successful training managers. Defined as an understanding of how a business works and what it takes to be competitive as well as a combination of financial (understanding financial statements) and business (understanding how strategies and decisions drive growth) literacy, business acumen is crucial to getting a seat at the executive table.

Nash says that it’s also important for training leaders to be able to work with metrics and analytics to make and communicate strategic decisions. For training to be successful, leaders must know what works and what doesn’t. In order for training to receive an investment in the first place, managers must be able to demonstrate an ROI.

Whether it’s a master’s degree, a certification or informal learning, training professionals must train themselves to be strategic leaders at the highest levels of the organization. Partnering with executives across the company is the only way learning and development can make an impact on business success.