The CEO’s Role in Developing a Learning Organization

By: Prof. Sattar Bawanyapril 2016 blog

Have you actually asked your CEO or senior business leaders to be directly involved in training? Before lamenting the absence of senior management support, be sure that you are being direct and asking them to get involved.

Let me share a story that was told by the Head of Learning & Development of a client organization, a large hospitality group in the Asia Pacific Region. The training department was conducting orientation for a group of new employees early on a Saturday morning. The facilitator prepared an excellent agenda and instructional program. The CEO of the organization, in his office working on other projects, noticed the flurry of incoming vehicles and people. Curious, he sought out the class. The facilitator was shocked when the CEO showed up, and even more shocked when he pulled out a chair and stayed for most of the class. Afterwards, his remarks were candid; his view was that the hospitality staff was the customers’ direct point of contact, and therefore they have a direct relationship with his responsibilities as CEO. Nobody from HR or Training had ever thought to ask the CEO to get involved!

We often hear that organizations widely publicize the fact that talent is their most valuable asset — and that’s often true. However when we have a situation where the employees see a real disconnect between such claims and what actually happens behind closed doors, there are bound to be repercussions in talent engagement and retention. To avoid this, organizations demonstrate to their employees how they’re valued — and this initiative can start at the top, right from the CEO.

Creating an “Employee-First” Culture

Putting the customer first has been the mantra of many companies for a long time. But however correct the mantra may have been in the past, perhaps it’s time to question the wisdom of it in the present-day context. Some companies have already done this, that is, they are putting the customer second, after the employees. The results are surprising and enlightening – employees have become more engaged and satisfied, helping companies post impressive results and get cited for their best practices. Moreover, customers are satisfied.

Steady, long-term competitiveness requires an organization to be committed to putting employees first and developing quality training programs that are linked to its strategic objectives. Without a true commitment to the employees at all levels throughout an organization, the journey to enhance organizational performance will be an elusive adventure. Quality employees equate to organizational success. Unqualified and poorly trained employees equate to organizational failure.

Creating an employee-first culture has more to it than just coming up with a catchy motto. A CEO must be committed to the development of the employees at the deepest level. This means addressing their needs through increased flexibility in corporate learning and development policies, caring for the employees’ personal and professional development, as well as investing in their future by prioritizing promotions from within.

Driving a Learning Organization: The CEO’s Role

CEOs can play an active role in retaining their talent by setting the tone early on that their organization values ongoing, continuous professional development as a means to meet their employees’ future or aspirational goals. Every year, as part of the performance management and career development process, employees should identify a role, or an aspect of a role, that interests them. Then, with proper help and guidance from their managers, employees can create a process to learn the skills needed for the role. By placing the onus on the talent to drive their own career development, a CEO can enjoy the rewards of high levels of personal accountability and a thriving learning organization.

When an organization undertakes a large training initiative, it’s imperative that the CEO is not only involved in the rollout, but truly believes in the content and its impact. Some of the most successful and lasting training initiatives are those that demonstrate high levels of sponsorship — with company leadership remaining vocal about its importance and tying it to their own development. When the leader “walks the talk,” the message is loud and clear for the rest of the staff — and they are often inspired to follow in the leader’s footsteps. Senior managers and chief executives should take on a variety of responsibilities in support of the training function. Corporate leaders that embrace these responsibilities create a culture of learning within the company.

The CEO has to provide general direction for the training function. This goes beyond the typical mission/vision statement rhetoric. A vision does not mean “I want the training department to…”   Vision is the CEO’s expression of what the true culture of the organization should be with regard to training, education, and overall improvement of the people within the company. Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric (GE), had a vision to transform the company using the Six Sigma model. Welch’s vision was for every employee to be trained in the process and have responsibility for at least one project. His $500 million dollar investment had a 100% return on investment in four years.1 The CEO must not only have a vision, but also clearly articulate it so that the vision can be implemented successfully.

Not every CEO will take on an active role in training and development. However, when you review the list of CEOs that do take a personal interest in these roles it’s hard to question the logic or benefit of doing so. A CEO that becomes a visionary, sponsor, governor, participant, and representative for their training functions will find that by elevating their own performance, the performance of the entire company will follow.

About the Author:

Professor Sattar Bawany is the Managing Director & C-Suite Master Executive Coach with Executive Development Associates (EDA) in Asia Pacific. He is also the Chief Executive Officer of the Centre for Executive Education (CEE). EDA is the Strategic Partner of Centre for Executive Education (CEE) in offering a suite of Executive Development solutions to the marketplace.

1Meister, Jeanne C., The CEO-Driven Learning Culture., Training & Development; Jun 2000; 54, 6; ProQuest Central pg. 52