Today’s Chief Learning Officer: Tamar Elkeles – A CLO of the Decade

One of the privileges I have in my role is the opportunity to meet some of the great world leaders in corporate learning and development.  In the interest of helping our industry understand the changing role of corporate training and talent management, I would like to talk about the changing role of the Chief Learning Officer, and in particular honor Tamar Elkeles from Qualcomm.

What is the role of a Chief Learning Officer today?

Today, more than ever, organizations are going through tremendous talent challenges.  Our research shows that companies are struggling to drive deeper technical and professional skills, globalize their operations and globalize their culture, re-engage their workforce as the economy recovers, and actively connect the generations to share knowledge and expertise.

We are also entering a new “war for talent.”  Our upcoming TalentWatch research will show that talent and skills shortages have re-emerged as critical issues in business.  There is a tremendous “illiquidity” in the labor market – it is hard to hire skilled people, people are unwilling or unable to move (only 7% of all new jobs filled this quarter involved a relocation, vs. 13% a year ago, and 24% the year before), and many of the technical skills we need in the US are not available.

Here is a stark example.  I met with a consortium of CIO’s in southern california a few weeks ago (where Qualcomm is located), and they told me that they are finding it nearly impossible to attract and hire top IT professionals. Why is this? People cannot afford to move to this area of the country, and much of the IT talent has migrated over the last ten years to India and other developing countries. It was only ten years ago or so that IT was one of the hottest careers in the US.

So today’s CLO has to really deal with many critical issues:  developing career models and programs to drive deep levels of professional skills (Ford, as part of its turnaround, is revamping and heavily investing in its engineering college to build skills in electric vehicles, for example);  identifying cultural gaps in the workforce and filling them to build a culture of learning and knowledge sharing (read our High-Impact Learning Culture research for more details);  modernizing the L&D infrastructure to build platforms and architectures for informal learning;  revamping leadership development to build the next-generation of leaders;  and serving as the “chief talent executive” for business leaders to help them attract, develop, and carefully manage the critical workforce in place.

This is not “your father’s CLO” – this is a new job.  Today’s CLO must be a true “chief talent officer” – well aware of the global talent, skills, and employee engagement issues which drive competitiveness and performance.

A few years ago I wrote an article about how the CLO is really three people:  A Chief Culture Officer (driving engagement, learning, and collaboration), A Chief Performance Officer (driving employee performance, alignment, and skills);  and a Chief Change Officer (vigilantly driving change, seeing the future, and helping the CEO and other leaders transform the workforce as the business and workforce changes).  Today, more than ever, the CLO must be all three.

Let me make this all real by honoring someone in our industry who exemplifies this type of leader.

Tamar Elkeles, the CLO at Qualcomm

Tamar Elkeles, the Chief Learning Officer at Qualcomm, is a unique and highly-effective leader. Tamar has been with Qualcomm since the early 1990s, and initially created the company’s L&D organization to meet the complex training and skills development needs of the company. Qualcomm is a highly innovative technical company, led by top scientists who pride themselves on inventing new technologies that revolutionize the telecommunications industry. Qualcomm’s innovations are so broad and diverse that most major telecommunications companies look at Qualcomm as an “outsourced R&D” team, who develops technologies they can license to build their businesses.

Located in San Diego, Qualcomm must not only attract top PhD engineers and scientists, but also compete for top talent throughout California and the west coast.  The company has a “university” feel – attracting people with great technical skills who want to invent new technologies.   And experts abound throughout the company – so much of Qualcomm’s challenges over the years is finding ways to innovate yet also bring these technologies to market, combining technical leadership with business and market leadership in the workforce.

Tamar’s background is in Organizational Development – but when you meet her you can see that she is passionate about people, learning, business, and innovation.  She is highly respected among the top leaders at Qualcomm because she intimately understands the company’s various business challenges, and over the years has developed a deep understanding of the company’s culture.

When I last met with Tamar, she explained to me that a critical part of her role is taking responsibility for employee communications.  She realized several years ago that one of the most important ways to drive learning and innovation was to tell stories – because stories of innovation, learning, leadership, and business success create a culture of sharing and common values.  Very few CLOs take on this responsibility – but Tamar, as an innovator, realized that one of her jobs as a “Chief Culture Officer” is to drive and communicate the narratives that make Qualcomm succeed.

She rigorously studies our industry.  Tamar not only reads research like ours, she avidly reads and communicates with many L&D leaders to stay up on all the latest trends:  leadership and L&D strategies, technologies and tools, and new approaches to employee communications and collaboration.  When I met with Tamar last year her team was heavily focused on adopting and studying the use of social networking inside the company, to understand how to best drive deeper levels of communication and collaboration among the teams.  She understands that a “best-practice” is something that is always changing, and that her job is to always understand what’s coming and how to best apply new approaches and technologies to the world of learning and HR.

When I saw that Tamar was awarded CLO of the Year by CLO Magazine, I thought to myself – of course.  But Tamar really deserves an award as a CLO of the decade.  Can anyone imagine an industry more dynamic (and unforgiving) than telecommunications?  Qualcomm, impressively, has well outperformed Cisco, Nokia, and Motorola over the last ten years. This is a company that understands how to hire, train, and manage technical professionals like almost no other.

Fig 1: Qualcomm stock price vs. Nokia, Motorola, and Cisco over 10 years


What can we learn from Tamar and Qualcomm’s Leadership?

There are important lessons to consider here.  Tamar and her team demonstrate to the industry that L&D is, and should always be considered, a strategic part of a business. She understands the need to develop strong technical depth as well as leadership skills, and takes a total people approach to her job. She knows that a deep and patient understanding of the company and its culture is critical to L&D’s success.  She exemplifies the need to stay current on trends, research, and best-practices from other organizations.  And she engages and empowers her internal team to work hard, try new things, partner with key suppliers, and continuously look for ways to drive the business forward.

The next ten years are going to present difficult challenges for business leaders.  The workforce and workplace is going through tremendous change:  dealing with global skills needs;  engaging five generations of workers;  embracing continuous and new social communications technologies;  and defining new models of leadership and teamwork to deal with flatter organizations.  Chief Learning Officers are not going away – in fact we believe their role is ascending to greater importance than ever.  Think about how you can become a learning, culture, performance, and change leader in your organization – and you will find 2011 one of the most exciting years in your own career.

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