Two different topics have been swirling through my conversations with clients and colleagues recently. The first speaks to the glaring need for leadership development at all levels of an organization; the other to the reluctance to add full-time employees to payrolls for positions that may be better served by outside professionals – if they are empowered to provide their specialized skills without being absorbed into an organization’s systemic defects.


With these two ideas churning in my mind, the inspiration leads me to the Chief Leadership Officer (CLO.)

The key responsibility of the CLO is to foster leadership development for every employee in the organization via ongoing leadership training. This creates better outcomes across the organization, most notably in:

  • Employee retention
  • Employee productivity and satisfaction
  • Community engagement
  • Fulfillment of corporate social responsibility milestones

The CLO is a position that should not be full time, or become embedded in the company. The person who fills this slot should not be allowed to fall prey to norms, culture, and, egads, gossip. A CLO should feel independent of the system and on safe ground when they recommend changes or critique the organizational culture.

The beauty of a CLO is the cross-functional focus on aligning employees’ true leadership talents with the best possible roles for them in the organization. Applying this lens of understanding individual leadership potential to strategically align individual talents to desired outcomes, you will see chronic challenges like staff conflict, fuzzy communication and lackluster performance give way to clear, aligned and passionate employees who lead.

Volkswagen’s recent record breaking $14.7 billion settlement serves as the most recent example of what happens when employees forget they are leaders. Regardless of where they sat in the organization, many people understood what was happening. From all indications, no one stood up to object that gaming emissions testing was wrong. Instead, these individuals turned their backs on the wrongdoing and allowed it to continue. Who knows the cost and time it will take to repair trust in the VW brand, if ever?

If Volkswagen had a CLO, I guarantee that many employees would have spoken up early on and averted this debacle. The head of a very large, powerful organization once said to me, “I don’t want you teaching them to lead, I want them to do what I tell them.” This executive eventually changed her tune, but that kind of thinking has ruled organizational cultures for decades – and needs to change.

Many companies and organizations are turning to leadership consultants and coaches, but only a few are truly inculcating leadership into their organizations as an ongoing best practice. But it’s just like exercise. You might not need a trainer every time you work out but it helps to have one there regularly to keep you on task.

A well-qualified CLO becomes a guide through the jungles of navigating an organization, helping top executives and mid-level employees alike to have the impact they each desire and keeping the organization healthy and fit along the way. The CLO becomes a living example of contributing his or her best and doing it in a way that allows others to do so as well.

The future belongs to those who live leadership. Those who don’t might find themselves out of a job, or condemned to stagnate in an underperforming organization. Bringing a CLO into your organization puts the cultivation of leadership at the center of how executives transform their organizations into effective, happy teams.