Developing a Learning Culture

A Comprehensive Guide to Your First 100 Days as a CLO

Picture this: You’re on a ship and it’s having trouble staying afloat. The captain is busy; he’s directing the crew to alter the sails while looking over his own directives as he tries to head into smoother waters. The crew is trying to do their part, but they have the wrong tools and aren’t working together effectively. You know how to fix things, but as you shout your ideas over the din, it occurs to you that not only can no one hear you, but your ideas won’t matter until the ship is stable and the storm has passed.

SOS: You Need a New Strategy

If an organization can be likened to a ship, the Chief Learning Officer isn’t the captain, but rather the navigator. While you may not be responsible for directing where the vessel is going or the eventual destination, you see what’s ahead and can pilot the ship and advise the captain according to your own data. However, as a change agent brought in when a company’s education program is already struggling, it’s your job to bail out the water and turn the ship around before you can start applying your own navigation strategies.

And, perhaps that’s the most common mistake new CLOs make on the job: Expecting to change the course or company based on their own ideas, without taking the time to really understand the challenges and conditions facing a company and the need to educate employees. Instead, the first 100 days on the job should be devoted to observation, brainstorming, and communication – not sweeping changes and new strategies.

Bailing Water

There’s a reason you’ve been called into the position you’re in right now. 

A CLO is usually called in because another strategy hasn’t been working or another CLO was not making the necessary progress. Before beginning new changes or meeting with business personnel, the first order of business is to ‘plug the holes’ of a ship taking on water.

When you land in the CLO’s chair, your first task isn’t to outline a new strategy, but to roll up your sleeves and find where the old strategy went wrong. Perhaps the previous CLO relied too heavily on one type of learning. Perhaps there was never a CLO and education was done by HR instead. Maybe the employees simply weren’t responding to the training and it was viewed as a waste of time and low ROI.

While getting started, one of your greatest strategies should be the power of observation. Don’t expect to make changes in the first 30 days. The first 30 days is your time to be a sponge; seeking out and sifting through the input of executive management, business partners, end-users, and the learning staff, and beginning to formulate your initial thoughts on the first steps to take.

Find the Quick Wins

Address the low-hanging fruit to prove that you can create change for the better without making any bold alterations before you’re really ready.

Consider this the principle of quick wins. While it’s important to have a long-term game plan in mind, starting your career with a new company with a few quick and decisive changes proves that you’re a worthy addition to the team. 

A quick win or low-hanging fruit could be anything from banishing a boring training program that employees hated, to calling a meeting just to hear business leaders’ opinions on how to address current problems – especially if the last CLO made them feel unheard. While it’s important to observe and see where corporate learning can be improved, it’s equally as important to show that you’re also a CLO of action.

That doesn’t mean that you should start making changes and cleaning house on day one, however. Remember: Your first few days and weeks on the job should be bailing out water and working through what may be a mess a previous CLO left behind. If you attempt to set changes on an already failing system, your good ideas and strategy could easily be overshadowed by someone else’s blunders. Instead, what changes you do decide to make should be baby steps in the right direction, helping to clear the way and set yourself up for a more efficient strategy.

Get to Know the Environment

As an HR and learning expert, you should know that a company’s education and training is centered around its people. After you’ve put in the time and worked to right the wrongs of past missteps, it’s time to start forging relationships with the right people within a company. Understanding which business leaders will be your greatest allies in the challenge for training puts you in a prime position to have the most influence, as you solidify your place within the organization.

That’s why you should never expect to make broad changes before you complete your due diligence with the people in the company. From the most experienced managers to the entry-level employees, not only are you there to create a strategy and improve learning but more importantly, you’re there to serve the people. Expect to connect first, and you’ll have a better chance of affecting change later.

When in doubt, ask for opinions. While not all information, opinions, and ideas will be feasible, it’s a helpful way to gauge the learning atmosphere in an organization. Even if the information comes in the form of employee complaints, you can turn those complaints into a strategy that reduces employee resistance to education in the future. 

Once you’ve spoken to and cultivated relationships with the employees, it’s time to move on to the business leaders. You should have already identified those who have the most influence during your observation period, and it’s time to act by soliciting opinions and ideas from the leaders who have the best opportunity to carry out and support your plans later. Some of the leaders you’ll want to track down include department supervisors, human resources personnel, and any executives that will have the ultimate say in the design, execution, and analysis of any learning strategy that you eventually push out. 

Discover what Business Leaders Expect

Pick their brains as to what they’ve seen work and what they think is ineffective. Leaders should know their employees and how they learn best, so it’ll be an eye-opening experience to forge relationships and speak with those who have the broadest perspective of corporate learning at a specific organization.

Part of understanding the workplace environment is cultivating relationships that are deep enough that you not only know who to influence but how best to influence those who are in positions to affect change and collaborate with you. Much of your strategy will boil down to presenting the right idea to the right person at the right time and in the right circumstances.

As you make relationships and get to know an organization from the inside-out, you’ll also have the chance to get the corporate “lay of the land” by taking the pulse of the organization. You’ll better understand everything from office politics to which leaders hold the greatest sway and how employees feel about corporate education. It’s much more than just shaking hands and getting people to like you,it’s a method you can use when you apply your strategy later on.

The office environment not only tells you who’s doing what but how they’re doing it. That information is invaluable as you go forward in creating a learning strategy based on the people and not just the perceived endgame.

Brainstorming Basics

You’ve successfully made it through the first few weeks of your new position and paid your dues to the existing culture. Finally, it’s time to act and get down to business. Remember those business leaders and executives that you identified as you took the organizational pulse of your company? Invite them to a brainstorming meeting. They’ll come in handy as you start to define exactly what’s working, what isn’t, and how you expect to turn a failing program into effective and enjoyable corporate learning.

Before you call a meeting, prepare yourself by analyzing current efforts and how effective they are in the following four areas:

  1. The actual information
  2. The delivery method
  3. The knowledge retention
  4. Overall course completion

While the leaders you invite to your brainstorming session will rely heavily on protocol, executive decisions, and your own personal experience, remember that a brainstorming session should be a meeting of the minds. Invite those who are most likely to have innovative ideas, piercing insight, and enthusiasm for affecting change going forward. 

Break your brainstorming session into several pieces and several meetings, if necessary. You’ve got a lot of ground to cover.

Learning Priorities

Different departments will have different learning priorities, which is why you’ll need to get a broad idea of what leaders expect from you and your strategy. 

Of course, you’ll need to talk to executives about their learning priorities, but it also helps to get the same opinion from other employees as well. Leadership development usually takes up 35 percent of the budget as a clear priority, so it’s a good place to start. After all, executives might be the ones directing and analyzing learning efforts, but they may not be the ones actually completing the curriculum or being sent to conferences. Outlining expectations on all sides offers up a clearer picture of perceived roadblocks as well as what your endgame should be.

Current Learning Efforts

As CLO, you should already have a solid idea of what learning efforts are currently in place. Knowing what your organization has budgeted per learner doesn’t only help you define your efforts, but allows you to gauge training priority. Brainstorming what has been tried–and how much was spent–in the past makes for a better idea of how education has previously been implemented.

Needs Not Being Currently Met

Is the company hemorrhaging great employees based on a lack of training? Is employee education taking up too much time? Are employees attending training but not retaining the knowledge?

Talk to the group about the current needs and how they’re failing. You don’t need to solve all the problems in one meeting, but you should be able to see the gaps where training and education are missing the mark. Not only do these offer ideas for areas of improvement, but it gives you better insight into leaders’ own needs and opinions on the current strategy.

Areas of Concern

Corporate education can effectively be broken into four categories: organizational development, talent management, performance improvement, and learning and development. By taking the time to address each of these issues separately within your brainstorming meeting, you can quickly offer a pass or fail grade to current strategy while getting feedback on the priority level for each. 

Perhaps talent management needs to take a backseat if your learning and development strategy is currently floundering. Or, maybe performance improvement is a major priority for leaders. By addressing each area of concern, you paint the fullest picture of the current state of corporate learning and exactly what needs to happen next.

Consider your brainstorming meeting(s) as a way for you to pool your resources and come together as leaders. If a ship has entered choppy waters, the only way to survive is if everyone is on the same page strategy-wise. While you should have used your first few weeks to plug the holes, it’s time to talk about ways to make sure the same issues don’t crop up again and again.

What’s more, your meeting should have clearly drawn lines of an alliance – you’re not there to usurp or ignore other leaders, but to work as a team member toward one common goal.

Filling the Gaps

Your brainstorming meeting should have put you in a prime position to act. Create a learning delivery matrix, matching the gaps where learning is faltering or nonexistent with the best possible methods of delivery.

Finding the gaps requires two types of action: listening and reporting. Listening should have been your first course of action as a new CLO, but it’s an ongoing process. As you speak to various management and human resources, you should easily be able to spot grievances. Let’s look at the example of a new hire. If HR complains that they’re hiring the same type of person for the same job, again and again, there could be a disconnect between the job description and those interviews, the onboarding process, or a skill mismatch. If you’re doing your job well, you’re really listening to what management is saying.

Reporting requires you to find ways to determine current learning strategy ROI. In some cases, it’ll be tracking employees through their first year and for others, it’ll be the resources utilized for a training program. Utilize HR as much as possible as you look over reports to see what glaring gaps you can find.

While the idea of “gaps” might create negative connotations, the bright side is that there are plenty of solutions for each.

Finding Solutions

For every problem, there are a number of learning delivery systems that could help improve corporate training woes. From workshops to trade shows, blended learning to gamification, there is no shortage of delivery methods – you’ll just have to plug them into the right places.

How exactly does a CLO know which delivery method is best?

Well, it depends. The type of learner, the information necessary and the time, scope and budget are all potential concerns. 

The type of learning should also be directly related to the type of gap that needs to be filled. If the gap is skills-based, an instructor-led, demonstration course or conference may be necessary. If it’s knowledge-based, it may be time to add daily microlearning into the current learning strategy.

The point isn’t that your strategy has to be perfected in the first 100 days on the job, but it should be firm enough to fill in current gaps while you work on anticipating future problems before they occur.

By blending several types of learning and remembering that your strategy won’t be a one-size-fits-all method, you can effectively draw the lines between your current challenges and the fastest fixes based on your learning delivery matrix.

Partnering Up

As you finally improve strategy and put the organization’s training back on course, assuming it’ll be smooth sailing from here on out can be a dangerous idea. While you may have plugged the gaps with quick fixes and temporary solutions, you’ll need more to keep your learning strategy afloat.

You’ll require the ability to successfully anticipate potential issues and bring on innovative learning solutions, but how?

Enter the Learning Partner. The learning partner acts as an emissary between you and a potential strategy. Whether you’re looking for a new way to teach new hires or you’re losing the battle on employee training, learning partners can assess the situation and suggest and create the appropriate learning method, from instructional design to tracking efficiency. Corporate education is constantly changing based on trends and findings, so you can’t expect to keep up on your own; you could end up woefully behind.

What to Look for in a Learning Partner

When choosing a learning partner, looking for objectivity, breadth of experience, and thought leadership can help you find the best fit for your organization.


Some learning partners are already in bed with another product or service. They work for you, but they also have a bias that causes them to lose perspective. The right learning partner should provide an unbiased service. Ask a potential learning partner about the products and services they endorse. If they’ve partnered with a licensed method, they may not be able to give the unbiased perspective you really need at the start of your new position.

Breadth of Experience

Not only do you want a learning partner that has plenty of experience, but you also want a learning partner that has plenty of experience in your industry. There are specific challenges to each type of industry, and while experience is important, if most of it is in a completely different sphere, it may not be a good match. Instead, you want a learning partner who has been there, done that and knows how to get the job done for you, too. 

Thought Leadership

A learning partner has to do more than just stay on top of the trends and funnel the choices and strategy to you. A solid partner is an active force for innovation in the realm of learning and development. From staying on top of trends to knowing how to tweak the strategy to work for a new audience, learning partners should be well-known in the industry for innovation and leadership.

Onboarding your Learning Partner

When you choose your partner, you’ll need to go through an onboarding process that proves you’re on the same page. Clear communication from the start allows you to dictate what you need so your learning partner can create a plan. Some of the issues you’ll want to discuss include:

  • Current measures being used for training and education, along with a general measurement of ROI for each
  • Departmental concerns, as outlined in your brainstorming session
  • Needs and gaps not being filled with current measures
  • Your overall L&D budget

Without clear communication from the start, you could be setting your strategic partnership up for failure.
Give your learning partner a few clear objectives that, if reached, would be considered a success for you and your colleagues. Those objectives should align with some of your biggest concerns in learning and development. Whether it’s constantly losing solid employees to other companies or new hires not completing onboarding education, your learning partner should know which issues are your top priorities as a CLO. That doesn’t mean you can’t get your entire wishlist fulfilled, but it helps your partner know where to start.

Your learning partner should be able to indicate which initiatives are working, and which should be shelved for better opportunities. 

Expect to be in near-constant contact with your learning partner as you both outline your mutual relationship and make a commitment to continuous development together. As you navigate the sometimes choppy waters of learning and development, your learning partner becomes a virtual map-maker so you can guide your workforce and make better decisions in your new position.

Smoother Sailing

By the end of the first three months on the job, you should have successfully navigated out of perilous waters and into calmer seas. While it won’t be perfect–issues can crop up again and much of your position will be trial-and-error– it’s a solid start to your new position.

As a CLO, you take a lot of burden onto your shoulders. The responsibility for the education and development of an entire organization can be hefty. Seeking out the right people and making sure that the employees and management are firmly entrenched on your side can make you feel more comfortable with the mantle of CLO.

When combining excellent listening skills with the ability to brainstorm, problem-solve and act, you’ll prove to executives that utilizing a CLO helps reduce operating costs, lessens the strain on company resources, and creates employees that are properly onboarded, impeccably trained, and who feel as though their knowledge and skills are appreciated and utilized at work.

Learning and development doesn’t only function to teach employees new concepts but contributes to a better sense of job satisfaction and camaraderie.

Hopefully, after 100 days, you should feel like a contributing factor to employee satisfaction. While there is plenty of hard work ahead, most of the storms of onboarding and defining a new position should be behind you.

Now, it’s time to look at the map and plan your next move.