Employees who see themselves as their own Chief Learning Officer (CLO), and take initiative and prime responsibility for their own development, have a major influence on whether their organizations stay on the cutting edge of skill development and maintain a competitive advantage.

In their quest for sustainable competitive advantage, many organizations have learned that the most profitable results come from emphasizing a learning culture where both the individual and management take responsibility. A number of business schools, surveys and analyses support the profitability of maintaining a learning culture. These measures point out a positive, statistically significant relationship between learning organization behaviors and ROI performance measures—such
as return on equity earnings per share, net income per employee and the percentage of sales from new products.

However, in our super-fast-moving and pressure filled world, it isn’t easy for either the individual or an organization to invest time in a learning culture. Jane Hart, a workplace advisor in the UK, says that the pace of business today means that companies will never again be able to provide everything everyone needs to know in their organizations.

Companies may not be able to provide all the necessary training and development, but they can supply the structure and resources that enable their employees to self-direct their own learning. When employees take control, they can make the maximum contribution to their own development—and ultimately to their company’s success.

The Employee’s Prime Responsibility

As his or her own CLO, the employee is self-motivated to take prime responsibility for their development, finding the resources they need to learn and grow. The concept applies to employees at every level in the organization—from senior management to
the newest intern.

Typically called self-directed learning, this “Be-Your-Own CLO” approach differs from the concept originally touted in the 1970s, which emphasized letting employees select the training programs they wanted to attend. Now employees need to be broadly resourceful in their thinking to learn what they need to learn, taking advantage not only of courses but also of any relevant activities or actions that will impact their behavior and development.

They can learn by observing others, joining a business book club, and volunteering in community activities that require effective listening and strategy development. Employees can also sign up for assignments in other parts of the organization, find a way to streamline a process in their own division or department, form collaborative groups to share information or seek feedback from a variety of sources. Generational membership also influences resource selection:  Millennials particularly appreciate participating in collaborative groups, whereas employees nearing retirement may seek to develop new skills that give intrinsic satisfaction.  

The employee’s goals will help determine the best sources for their learning, with technology playing an important role. Google, YouTube and other social media provide endless sources of relevant knowledge in an instant.

What Role Does Management Play?

Management plays a significant role to help employees determine learning needs, establish learning goals and identify resources to attain those goals

  1.  Set the tone

The first is in setting the tone and environment that results in a learning culture. Management has to support autonomy over control so that employees know they are trusted. As Daniel Pink, author of Drive: The Surprising Truth of What Motivates Us so famously says, “Control leads to compliance, autonomy leads to engagement.” Engaged employees are more excited and will take initiative to direct their learning as they see the benefit to themselves as well as to their companies.

  1.  Make one-on-one coaching a priority

The second is in creating a strong individual development process that includes coaching, enabling employees to improve in their current job or reach for a future position. According to Dr. Mark Spool, President of Management Development Solutions and author of Taking Charge of Your Development, coaching helps identify resources, provides feedback and enables employee reflection on results. The manager can push the employee out of their comfort zone so the employee achieves at a level perhaps not seen as attainable. Dr. Spool reiterates that although it’s possible to be an avid learner without management support, it’s more of an uphill battle and lowers success rates.

  1.  Celebrate success

The last is in celebrating success—promoting and communicating promotions, new roles, positive feedback from customers, vendors and other employees—reinforcing the rewards of learning for personal and career growth. Internal branding also can communicate support for self-initiative. The Lincoln Financial Group plays off its corporate message of empowering clients to take charge of their financial lives by having employees wear lapel pins saying “Take Charge” to reinforce employees taking charge of their personal development.

A Success Story

Affiliated Distributors (AD) is an example of an organization where individual initiative is thriving. AD is the largest industrial and construction buying and marketing group in North America, consisting of more than 570 independently owned distributors and manufacturers spanning seven industries in the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

They have created a strong individual development process in which their employees (associates) are both the major drivers and contributors to their own development. They’ve trained associates and managers on the process and do an annual talent review of every employee, creating individual development plans.

Neil Cohen, AD’s Vice President, Organizational Development & Human Resources, speaks enthusiastically about the results
AD is achieving through emphasizing self-responsibility in a learning culture.

He says that the most notable benefit to employees for taking initiative is improvement in their role satisfaction. AD conducted engagement surveys in 2011, 2014 and 2015, with the last one showing a role satisfaction rate of 82%—up from 70% in the 2011 survey.

Viewing results on the company side, he states that employee engagement and retention have improved and that both can be correlated to improved business results. “Additionally, we’re better able to grow our own talent and promote from within.” AD’s positive outcomes reinforce both the value of the employee-as-CLO, as well as the ROI for organizations that invest in the necessary management support and resources.

Although organizations may find it hard to implement and sustain self-directed learning, organizations that do embrace this type of learning culture reap the rewards—employee engagement and retention. Moreover, companies that empower their employees to take charge of their individual growth and development foster innovation at all levels of the organization for a real competitive advantage.


About the author

Suzanne Kaplan, a Vitalyst partner and President of Talent Balance, is a generational consultant and speaker who specializes in increasing workforce performance through multigenerational integration.