How to Become the Next Chief Learning Officer (CLO)

Using advice from chief learning officers from major companies, we provide these steps to put yourself on the road to being the next head of learning.

Published on 27 September, 2016 | Last modified on 1 November, 2022
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As a learning and development practitioner, you are probably more aware than the average person of how important it is to keep planning for your career. After all, you need to know where you are headed in order to get the training you need to succeed.

One obvious path is to the very top: to become the Chief Learning Officer (CLO). According to research by eLearning Mind, CLOs earn upwards of $150,000. Plus, more CLOs are women than any other C-suite position. For the female-heavy L&D industry, that is pretty promising.

So what steps can you take to become a CLO?

Get Business Experience

Most CLOs have ended up where they are partly because they have experience in departments directly related to the core business. Mike Hamilton, former CLO of Ernst and Young who came up as a consultant through KPMG, explained this as a function of the need to be the “connector” between the business units and the L&D department.

Even if you don’t change roles, you should learn to see the perspective of the business leaders who will be using your training. Consider the business units as your customers, and figure out what you can do to make them happy.

Embrace Change

One common theme across CLO advice is a positive attitude towards change. Hamilton suggests embracing a “Yes, if” mentality rather than saying no. Justin Lombardo, CLO of Baptist Health, points out that as the leader of the learning culture for an organization, you must continuously think about change. L&D is constantly innovating, so you must not only create a strategy but also be responsive to new needs and new learning environments.

Examine how you react to new initiatives now. Are you excited to try out new learning modalities, or are you more likely to dig in your heels? If you lean towards naysaying, consider what holds you back from being an adopter and start working to change that.


It’s Not Just about L&D

While “learning” is in the title, the CLO is almost always in charge of much more than just training. In fact, the CLO is often responsible for overseeing the talent pipeline, from recruiting to career development.

If you want to be CLO, you’ll need to be comfortable managing HR functions as well as supporting the learning program you currently love.

Consider a Degree

Many CLOs also have an advanced degree in human resources or business. These courses teach tools for dealing with common problems that organizations face. They also help you widen your perspective of the different roles across the business.

As the CLO role grows, programs are also cropping up to give you specific training. For example, Penn State University recently added a CLO Executive Doctoral Program.

Find a Mentor

In this day and age, many executives–including CLOs–are more approachable than ever. Try pinging your CLO and asking for thirty minutes to find out how they got to where they are. You might be surprised at how eager they are to mentor you through a similar career.

Even if you love instructional design, you probably won’t stay in that position forever. Now is the time to think about where you want to go and how to get there. If you are destined to be a CLO, just remember to practice what you preach: always look for something new to learn.

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