CEO and L&D: how the C-suite can foster a culture of learning

November 16th, 2021

Human resources professionals have long understood that learning and development is an essential part of business strategy. Most leaders know this, too—at least in theory. In practice, however, making the case for investing significant time and resources into these efforts isn’t always easy.

The C-suite will always be in the midst of balancing a long list of priorities. The key for HR is to show how L&D intersects with all of them, and how learning can drive exactly the kind of business transformation these leaders seek. This is especially true now: after nearly two years of massive change, touching every industry and changing the day-to-day logistics of many employees’ work, L&D is a business imperative. It’s certainly no longer a “nice-to-have.” And at the smartest companies, it likely never was.

Create a culture of learning

The most effective L&D efforts aren’t just one-off learning initiatives. Rather, they’re fundamental culture shifts that acknowledge learning as a core part of growing a business and fostering long-term success, at both the individual and organizational level. This isn’t about throwing money at the problem, however: rather, it’s about being strategic and intentional about learning efforts, and about leadership making clear to the organization that learning is a central long-term priority.

What does this look like in practice? The specifics will depend on each organization, though on a broad level, thinking about learning through the lens of staying agile (while not getting distracted and pivoting too early) will help. And when considering ways that leadership can support this culture, one effective approach is to simply have these leaders engage with learning efforts firsthand. When employees see team leaders and even the C-suite “walking the talk” when it comes to learning, they’ll be more likely to take these new learning initiatives seriously themselves.

When the chairperson goes all in on L&D

Risto Siilasmaa, former chairman of Nokia, is one particularly interesting example of a leader “walking the talk” and creating a culture of learning at his organization. It all started because he realized he was lacking key knowledge about a topic he believed would become key to Nokia’s business: machine learning.

Many of us can define machine learning at a very high level, but would have a difficult time explaining to someone else exactly how it works. That was precisely the problem that Siilasmaa once faced.

It was 2017, and Siilasmaa had a problem. He knew machine learning would be crucial to the future of Nokia, but was struggling to find anyone who could distill it quickly into layman’s terms for him—and he was frustrated.

Was Nokia too slow to understand this crucial next wave of technology? Was he? Was it already too late? This was precisely the kind of crucial pivot point that so many companies fail to recognize in time. Siilasmaa was concerned that Nokia was about to miss the next big wave—and that he and all of his top thinkers were steering the organization in the wrong direction.

Siilasmaa decided that it was his responsibility as chairman to correct the knowledge gap at Nokia. And he would start with the ignorance that was, to him, most glaring: his own. As he puts it in the Harvard Business Review, “I had grown accustomed to having things explained to me. Instead of trying to figure out the nuts and bolts of a seemingly complicated technology, I had gotten used to someone else doing the heavy lifting.”

Well, no longer. He signed up for some classes and dove in. His goal was to understand machine learning so well that he could provide to others what he had lacked: a straightforward summary of machine learning that required no special skills or training to understand.

After many hours spent reacquainting himself with long-dormant coding skills, Siilasmaa was able to assemble his newfound knowledge into a simple presentation. He made it available to the team at Nokia. Within a short time, thousands of employees had watched it. Many began to pick up classes on the side, confessing to Siilasmaa that they were a bit ashamed that their chairman was coding machine-learning systems while they had not even started. Soon, Nokia was embarking on its first projects leveraging machine-learning capabilities.

A case study in L&D transformation

Today, Siilasmaa’s presentation is available online, and it remains a case study on what can happen when someone works both for their own benefit and for the benefit of others. The presentation has been used by organizations as varied as the Finnish government, the United Nations, and a program to interest school children in science. Risto Siilasmaa set off on a self-motivated journey to better himself and improve his individual understanding of a tricky topic. In the process, he shared what he knew, inspired his colleagues to examine their own knowledge gaps, and triggered a network effect, launching waves of learning across Nokia that ultimately spread far beyond the borders of his own organization.

L&D tips from the industry’s leading CLOs

Creating a culture of learning at your organization doesn’t happen overnight, even when leadership is completely on board (as Siilasmaa’s case shows). Yet there are practical steps you can put in place right away to help shift the way leaders and team members think about L&D, and longer-term structural changes in your organization’s approach to learning that can drive transformation in the medium- and long-term. We created our Certificate Program Leading L&D to help you do just that, with the help of both innovative ideas and time-tested wisdom from the field’s leading CLOs.

The Leading L&D Certificate Program explores questions like:

  • How can L&D serve as a response to this period of ongoing uncertainty?
  • What can learning professionals do to move learning from the periphery to the center of organizational strategy?
  • How can we measure the effectiveness of learning with clear, impactful data?
  • What is the benefit of learning in cohorts rather than individually?
  • How can we move access to real learning out of the executive suite and bring it to leaders across our organizations?
  • What are the benefits to shifting our thinking away from learning systems and toward a culture of learning?

Ready to put L&D at the center of business strategy at your organization? Learn more about the Leading L&D Certificate Program and enroll today!