Learning Leadership with Thoughtful Courage

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1 Featuring the Leading Thoughts of... Tom Evans Former Chief Learning Officer, PwC Learning Leadership with Thoughtful Courage Interview with Tom Evans, Former Chief Learning Officer (CLO), PwC Interview by Larry Durham (Partner, St. Charles Consulting Group) For a period of 10 years, Tom Evans and Larry Durham were colleagues at PwC, both working in the area learning & development Tom with an internal firm focus and Larry with an external client facing focus. In January 2014, Larry left PwC to join the partnership of St. Charles Consulting Group, where he leads the firm s learning strategy practice. In June 2015, Tom officially retired from PwC to pursue new ventures. In early Fall 2015, Tom and Larry reconnected to discuss the learningedge perspectives that Tom has developed and refined over the years. The timing of the interview caps Tom s reign as CLO of the Year a wellrecognized honor awarded by Human Capital Media, publisher of Chief Learning Officer magazine. We are fortunate to hear Tom talk about the challenges and opportunities of workplace learning & development and the importance of thoughtful courage in blazing new trails. Thanks, Tom, for sharpening the focus and raising the bar. Tom Evans Former CLO at PwC Thank you very much, Tom, for agreeing to participate in our Learning Edge Perspectives interview series. Having recently retired from PwC after almost 38 years, including a long time in the CLO role almost 11 years, if I remember correctly you have insights and experiences that many leaders and practitioners in the learning space would love to hear more about. So, let s get started. Since you began in the audit practice many years ago at PwC, let me ask about how you got started in the learning role. What is it that got you into learning in the first place? Yes, you re right, my career with PwC started many years ago back in August I m a CPA by background, and I was in the Assurance practice. And I ve been asked that question before how did someone with your background find himself ultimately being the Chief Learning Officer of a firm like PwC. In answer, it happened initially by chance. I was asked to help our national education unit focus in on the expansion of industry specific training for practitioners, and it was one of those situations where you have some initial reluctance about whether or not it is the right thing to get involved with. Even though I wasn t certain of the direction it was going to go, I have found that many good opportunities surface that way, where you re not sure how things will turn out. In any event, I took the step. It required a little bit of courage, a little bit of curiosity, and a little bit of desire to want to advance my firm at the time. Add it all up, and I said, sure, I would do that. After I became involved with the project, I met some folks who gave me a greater sense of the value 2015 St. Charles Consulting Group

2 of professional development and the importance of it, and I found that I had a natural interest in it. It was because of that I chose to explore it more fully. Throughout my career, I was able to bring a practitioners perspective to the table. But mostly I was self taught, did a lot of homework, spent a lot of time with smart people asking a lot of questions, and invested time in myself to embrace a career direction that I hadn t anticipated. You touched on this a bit, but let me ask you to elaborate. With your strong CPA background, what kept you in the learning space? What really kept you linked in to the learning side of the business? Let s clear one thing up first. It wasn t the Kirkpatrick scale or Bloom s taxonomy that kept me in the learning business... All kidding aside, what really captivated me was the ability to work on something that, when we delivered it, I could look into the eyes of the participants and see that it was helping and making a difference. I really became enamored of the thought that, in the learning role, I had a greater ability to help young and experienced professionals advance their careers and do well. And it was beneficial to the firm I knew that, if I did this well, it would enable my firm to be more competitive. It would advance our brand, and it would help these professionals do their jobs well. You know you re doing something right when you design something in such a way that it registers with someone and you can see that twinkle, that light bulb go off. I just became so enamored of creating that time and time again that I wanted to stay. Now thinking about your own career, could you share maybe one or two learning moments that you yourself experienced during your career that were especially important? While there are quite a few learning moments over the years that were important, I ll mention two that head the list and, interestingly, neither is a training program per se. Neither occurred because of a specific program. The first learning moment happened early on in my tenure with the firm, and it came as a moment of self realization. I was engaged in a professional development activity with some really smart people, and I found that I could gain a lot if I were more willing to engage, more trusting in the environment that says: you seem to know this better than I do. In effect, I found myself learning how to learn how to engage for my own development and this has had significant lifelong impact. The other point is linked to an individual who was an early mentor that I admired greatly. That individual made it clear to me that, when you are engaged in a profession at its pinnacle, there is a requisite standard of play that mandates that I should never find myself becoming complacent in my desire to learn my craft and to share my learning with others. A leading researcher, Peter Senge, coined the term learning organizations about 25 years ago and that concept continues to provide a valuable way to think about strategic learning in the workplace. From your perspective, having worked in this space for quite some time, how has the concept of learning organizations evolved over the years? I don t think it has evolved. I think it s evolving. It s ongoing. And it s continuously being reshaped and redefined because of key forces in play. The early thinking about a learning organization really involved having robust, competency based curricula and looking at those drivers. Then it began to look at aspects around emotional intelligence and other characteristics of leadership. As I see it, where it has most evolved is in understanding how being a learning organization integrates with the nature of business strategy, brand, and talent acquisition how all of those forces are converging. There has also been a great deal of movement in the expectations on the part of talent and of course in enabling technology as well. This is difficult but, in your mind, what do you think is the single most important change in learning that you ve observed over the years? 2

3 If I have to answer that question I d suggest that the most important change hasn t come yet. Why do you say that? Because the field is converging, and there is a blurring of the lines. For example, in the context of technology, the changes that have occurred have created much greater flexibility for learning delivery and often at reduced costs. But it s still within that structured environment of basic curricula and programmatic intervention. The evolution of technology extends well beyond the aspects of how to use technology within a structured environment. Rather, it encourages the organization to be more holistic in its approach to learning, more nimble, more adaptive. People in the field of education need to provide thought leadership in this area to ensure that their organizations remain responsive to the competitive changes happening out there. They need to approach learning more at an enterprise level and to think about developing talent in a model that is more flexible, more immersive, more holistic. While this is happening, it is CEOs who with CLO support need to drive thoughtful discussion around the significance of talent strategy and how it influences the organization s ability to execute business strategy and to strengthen their competitive brand. The next question folds right into that consideration of CEO and CLO responsibilities. In your view, what does it take to be a leading learning organization? Expectations of CEOs held by stakeholders are high to develop new norms in relation to business changes, to anticipate ever shorter life cycles associated with products and markets, to manage brands at a time when the media world is in a major state of flux. In light of all this, I believe it is also incumbent upon the CEO to create a compelling case for people to want to stay within or close to the organization. It is a world where people have more choice people today are much more flexible and portable. They re more aware of the organizations within which they work, and they re more aware of the organizations value proposition to them. Workers look at this intersection, and they evaluate that in the context of other options. CEOs are aware of such conditions, understand their responsibilities, and are demanding more of their CLOs. In demanding more, they are asking not about the academic significance of providing a particular educational experience at a reasonable cost. They are asking about the beneficial impact of the learning experience in terms of the organization s ability to compete and to enhance its brand. Let s address the relationship of learning to the business a bit more. We both know that there are many CEOs and other business leaders who, when they think of learning, they really focus on training. Many often miss the strategic importance of learning to the business. What have you found to be an effective way to hold the attention of executive business leaders as it relates to learning? I ve found it always to be a very difficult conversation to sit down and try to talk to business leaders, who are dealing with a range of strategic priorities and demands, to encourage them to embrace the importance of an investment that they think of it as a cost. I have also found that any conversation where you talk to business leaders about learning in a way that sounds like academia is a very short conversation. Instead, I have found it very valuable to demonstrate an understanding of what they are up against and then relate what I am hoping to do to issues that they are confronting. If I can demonstrate how the action serves organizational needs to advance the business and to minimize risk, it promotes a better conversation with business leaders. I also at times make it very clear to business leaders that training is an archaic word in terms of where we are today, especially if you think more at an enterprise level. When you adopt this talent perspective, you are looking at the holistic development of individuals that introduces many 3

4 other critical aspects of learning (versus the basics of training). Let s move on to managing change. You ve already mentioned a couple pretty significant drivers of change advances in technology and generational shifts in the workplace. When you were at PwC, how did your personal approach to leadership respond to accommodate new ways of working and learning? In addition to changes in technology and generational shifts, I think you also have to look at organizational dynamics and culture as well. These in effect moderate the pace at which change occurs. The leaders of PwC are very well aware of how the world is changing, the forces that are influencing ways of thinking about talent, ways of looking at business models, and so on. They re also aware of the culture and things that are necessary to be in place that have been built over time. From my perspective as CLO, I felt it important to invest the time required to understand the technological advances and the impact of workplace shifts so that I could advise on the convergence of these tidal forces and take action that positions the organization to be successful. It s a matter of developing a perspective on the desired future state and then establishing the right pace for the organization to move in order to achieve it. My guess is that many readers of this interview know that you were named CLO of the year for 2014 by CLO Magazine and Human Capital Media based on your success at PwC. Congratulations. With this in mind, of all the contributions that you have made as a learning leader at PwC, what do you think will have the most significant and enduring impact within the organization? One thing that I am very proud of is that the organization has evolved to the point where we now think more systemically about how learning fits in to the talent and engagement strategy, from onboarding right through to retirement or exit from the firm. I ve been fortunate enough to help advance the thinking, and PwC is now working within a capability framework that is easy to understand and that promotes effective engagement and dialogue. The ability to embrace how you holistically develop talent is something enduring. The idea of being able to move beyond curricula, to move to the enterprise level where you can be strategic about how to develop talent in the workplace, and then to have all the right things in place those are things I m very pleased and proud of. Tom, looking out now from your role as a longtime learning leader at PwC, what are some of the things that you foresee will be important for learning leaders in the next five or ten years? As I suggested earlier, I think it s going to be a very fascinating time, and I believe that it would benefit CLOs to engage in some self reflection about how they can remain relevant. Here are some questions for CLOs to consider. How do you shift your attention away from things that you control versus the things that you can create to influence the direction of where the organization has to go? I think CLOs are going to have to embrace that shift. How do you deal with the social aspects of technology that enable people to build trusting relationships in a different way? How do you model that and actually integrate it effectively? CLOs are going to have to address that. How do you build models for learning that sync up with rapidly evolving business models in ways that account for differences in how people think about the way they want to work? CLOs are going to have to accept that it s not just what you provide people for the benefit of their learning but how do you recognize that every one of those individuals is a source of information and knowledge. These are the kinds of questions that will influence the agenda of a CEO, and the CLO in turn needs to be able to provide actionable strategic frameworks and plans for sustaining effective knowledge and learning. Otherwise, the CLO will serve in more of a compliance and an operations role. In my view, companies that leave learning leadership at that level will suffer competitively because they will not be nimble enough to compete. 4

5 One last question: If you were meeting with a chief learning officer (CLO) today, is there a single piece of advice about operating in today s learning environment that you would offer? I probably would coin my advice as thoughtful courage. In terms of thoughtful I believe CLOs need to invest more time in reflection cycles that allow them to digest more information and to determine its importance and its relevance and its potential application. With regard to courage Courage in this context is stepping back and thinking differently about where your value proposition is, creating that new proposition, and engaging effectively with the organization to get it done. The competitive landscape will change, business models will change, CEOs are going to be regularly challenged in different ways, and talent dynamics are always going to be an important factor. In this, CEOs are going to look to the learning leader to be a vital part of the team that makes the organization successful. To me, thoughtful courage is the name of the game. And, as I transition from PwC and move on toward my next horizon, I hope that I will have the ability to engage with CLOs to help them develop and express their thoughtful courage. I also hope to be able to engage with CEOs and help them understand how critical the role of CLO has become. It s so important for the profession. As I think about the title of our interview series Learning Edge Perspectives it s hard for me to imagine a set of perspectives as engaging and as learning edge as those you have shared here. Thank you for your insight, your foresight, and your time. Biography: Tom Evans Tom Evans, a pioneering leader in organizational learning and development, is best known for his groundbreaking work at PwC. In his tenure with PwC, over a 38 year career with the firm, Tom positioned the Learning and Development (L&D) team as a trusted partner and integral driver in executing PwC s business and human capital strategies. The work in L&D has generated extraordinary results at PwC and has received industry acclaim. PwC received the #1 spot in Training Magazine s Top 125 from 2008 to 2010 before being inducted into the Top 10 Hall of Fame in In addition to being a repeat Brandon Hall recipient for excellence in learning, the L&D team recently received one of The Hall of Fame s most prestigious awards for PwC s Discover leadership experience program. Tom began his career with PwC in 1977 as a Certified Public Accountant in the firm s Assurance practice. He later joined the L&D team to launch its industry specific training efforts and, in 1989, took on the role of Director and Chief Operating Officer of PwC s National Professional Education group. In 1998, he became the L&D Global Leader for PwC s Advisory Services Practice. Tom was admitted to the firm s partnership in 1998, and in 2003 he became PwC s first Chief Learning Officer (CLO). In October 2014, Tom received Chief Learning Officer s prestigious CLO of the Year Award, which recognizes learning leaders who have made substantive and measurable change in business, vision, strategic alignment, or leadership. In June 2015, Tom retired from PwC to begin the next chapter in his career. Tom is a former advisory board member of the Center for Leadership and Ethics (COLE) part of Duke University s Fuqua School of Business and a member of the Association of the US Army (AUSA), the ASTD, and the AICPA. He is also very active in his community as a current member of his church s Finance Committee and as a former member of the Public Library s Board of Trustees in Nutley, New Jersey. Presently, Tom is his hometown s deputy mayor and Commissioner of Revenue and Finance. 5

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