UB Insider #14: Alumni Series – Dr. Michael Noble
About this episode:
In this episode of UB Insider, Utah Business’ online editor, Lisa Christensen, speaks to Dr. Michael Noble. Noble took a summer job at Allen Communication Learning Services with every intention of returning to academia afterward. Eighteen years later, the 2015 CXO of the Year honoree still at Allen Communication, and says he’s found hidden interests and skills in his role as Chief Learning Officer there. Subscribe or download this episode oniTunes and Stitcher.
Lisa Christensen: Hello and welcome to UB Insider. Today’s episode is sponsored by CXO of the Year, our annual awards program recognizing the men and women of the C suite propelling their companies to greatness.
I’m Lisa Christensen, online editor at Utah Business magazine, and with me today is one of our past CXO of the Year honorees, Dr. Michael Noble, Chief Learning Officer at Allen Communication Learning Services. Michael, we get a lot of nominations for all of our programs, but I remember reading through yours last year because your title, Chief Learning Officer, was a little different than a lot of the other C level titles that I’d been reading. What exactly does a Chief Learning Officer do?
Dr. Michael Noble: Well, in a large organization, a CLO would lead learning and development. Allen Comm is a learning agency. We help our client organizations innovate in their L&D strategies. So in our organization, my role as the CLO is quite different. My expertise in learning and development is used, not for internal training, but to lead our custom services team. I lead a team of instructional experts, graphic designers, programmers, and client project managers to create innovative solutions to address our clients’ business problems.
Lisa Christensen: You’re also Executive Vice President now. How has that changed your role from what it was a year ago?
Dr. Michael Noble: We recently created an executive committee to foster innovation and to consult with our company owners on the future direction of the organization. The EVP part of my title gives me a specific leadership role on that committee. But it also gives me a new directive for the coming years. I’ll be working, no only, on responding to immediate client needs, but on defining and shaping our strategy for the future.
Lisa Christensen: You have described your start at Allen Communication as a quote, summer job that got away from you. What kept you with Allen Communication?
Dr. Michael Noble: You know, in some ways I’m an unlikely business leader. I trained as an academic and expected to spend my career teaching English literature. I made several discoveries over the years that have kept me at Allen. I discovered a passion for client work. I discovered a passion for creativity and collaboration. By working with a team of professionals I can do things that I could never do on my own. That’s really what’s kept me. I think the most important discovery about myself is that I really like to build things. I moved from building things for clients to building Allen Comm’s business.
Lisa Christensen: So the transition, so the common thread from academia to your role now sounds like a love for learning and for education.
Dr. Michael Noble: Yeah. I mean, I guess the other answer to your question, what does a Chief Learning Officer do? I learn. I learn all the time. That is what has kept things fresh even when staying with an organization for, you know, decades.
Lisa Christensen: Yeah. So you’ve been there for about 18 years now?
Dr. Michael Noble: That’s correct.
Lisa Christensen: How has the world of custom training changed in that time?
Dr. Michael Noble: You know, it’s interesting. I don’t think our objectives have changed that much, but the technologies certainly have. With each technical innovation, there’s an opportunity that we can do maybe more targeted or more elegant solutions. I think that Allen Comm has stayed relevant over the years by finding opportunities to work ahead.
Training and development isn’t known for being on the cutting edge of technology. That said, we’ve been able to find a small percentage of our clientele willing to experiment. We have pilots going with clients right now for technologies that may not mature for a few years. At least not within the realm of learning and development. These pilots included cloud-based solutions, virtual reality applications and hybrid projects that blend training and marketing strategies.
Lisa Christensen: How have you used newer technology in delivering custom training?
Dr. Michael Noble: Well, every time that there is maybe some innovation, take mobile for example. It always hits first in the realm of marketing or maybe entertainment or some of those kinds of fields. There’s almost always a crossover application for that kind of technology. It’s like, ok, how would someone use this to learn better? Right? The big problem we had with computer-based training is that it was tied to a computer. Now that we can take that training anywhere, we can do different kinds of solutions and serve it up kind of anytime and anywhere.
Lisa Christensen: How do you feel that has helped deliver the training?
Dr. Michael Noble: From a delivery standpoint, I think it’s about not having just a one size fits all solution. But, you know certain things that I don’t know, right? And me being able to get what I need to know, in the moment of need? That’s where delivery becomes important. Because I can target that very specific moment of need.
Lisa Christensen: Last year in your interview for CXO of the Year you mentioned that Allen Communication had grown 50% over the last few years. What’s been going on since then?
Dr. Michael Noble: We’ve been dealing with the challenges that growth presents. These are good problems to have and they impact every part of our business. Sometimes I think it’s easy to stay in survival mode long after the threat of not surviving has passed. Right? I think this is especially true in a services business.
In a deadline driven environment with client deliverables, it can feel like a survival climate even when the company is doing well. The problem is that many of the strategies that enable survival can work against you as you seek sustainable growth. Right? We need ongoing strategies for recruitment, research and development, branding and marketing. Things that may not be the highest priority for an immediate return, but are going to give you a long term return on your investment.
Lisa Christensen: You oversee the bulk of your company’s workforce, correct?
Dr. Michael Noble: I do.
Lisa Christensen: What are some of the rewards and challenges of that task that you didn’t expect?
Dr. Michael Noble: Well I didn’t expect to like it. I’m naturally more of an introvert than an extrovert. But I really love people management. And, in fact, I think it’s one of my favorite parts of my job. On the reward side, I think you invest a lot in these relationships from the very beginning. Right? With recruiting someone, and mentoring them and advising them and managing them. The purpose of these investments is that you want a really high performing team, right? That trusts each other. That can work together and collaborate and create new and interesting things. Those are the same traits that you want in your best group of friends, right? And you spend a lot of time at work. We spend more time with these people than we do sometimes with our family and friends. So, the rewards are kind of built into that investment as you make those investments in people.
On the challenges side, I think that there’s always opportunities for self-evaluation. It’s easy to question your own performance when people are walking out the door. Why are they leaving? Why are they leaving this great, high performing team that we’ve created? Right? And it doesn’t happen often, but when that happens, you go through this process of self-reflection and how do we change. Part of my job is knowing why people are making those kinds of decisions. How can I make adjustments or shape our culture or do other things that are going to make it so the best and brightest want to stick around and be co-conspirators with me.
Lisa Christensen: You use the phrase “thought leadership” when you’re talk about your style of management. What does that mean to you?
Dr. Michael Noble: In a services company like ours, it’s important that clients know that they’re benefitting from the collective expertise. From the expertise of the group. It’s not just the individual expertise of the talents that are assigned to a specific project. That means that someone has to kind of own and manage that shared vision and kind of defines, what is our specific value that we are going to be bringing to those clients? We have team members pitch ideas internally before we take them to a client. We do that so that they can benefit from the collective experience and expertise. Because an individual team member might have only been there for a year or two. But we want our client to benefit from the collective expertise. So I think of thought leadership as a way of promoting collaborative authorship on a project, of a way of, kind of, managing our intellectual capital, if you will.
Lisa Christensen: How does that style of leadership and management feed into that challenge that you mentioned earlier about keeping the best and the brightest on?
Dr. Michael Noble: That’s where I think leadership is about persuasion. It’s not about, kind of, rules and enforcement of rules and policies. It’s more about the merit of ideas and being open to where those ideas are coming from, and making sure that everyone feels like they are participating in that. It’s really hard to walk away from a job where you were building something. And if you feel like you’re building part of that, if part of that is yours, that’s one more thing you’re going to want to think about before you go somewhere else. And I think it’s one of the things that we do particularly well.
Lisa Christensen: Where do you see the world of custom training going in the future?
Dr. Michael Noble: You know, I think the lines between training and other kind of related things are going to continue to blur, right? Between training and other talent management strategies. Between training and internal communications and marketing. It’s also going to change in terms of how we find answers, do our work, how we learn on an ongoing basis.
Terms like continuous improvement and lifelong learning have been around for a very long time. But the different tools that we have to address those, we have gotten much more sophisticated at being able to do that. In fact, the future of the training industry, I think, is custom. It’s personal. It’s adaptive. It’s giving you just what you need. And being able to serve that up to you. Having data about your performance so that we can not waste your time.
We can give you the stuff that’s going to be the most important to you. And that you feel like you really own your own development and performance. And I think that’s the future. That’s the path that we’re headed on. We’ve gotten better and better at it and the technology is going to keep getting better. That’s where being a learning organization is us, ok we have to stay at the front lines and keep learning about this to be able to maintain our leadership role.
Lisa Christensen: Thinking back to when you came into this industry kind of by accident, what advice would you give yourself then about where you are now? If you could, I guess, guide your past self, what kind of guidance or advice would you give?
Dr. Michael Noble: I think if I look back, the kinds of decisions that I made kind of with blinders on, would be to be much more open. I think as I have progressed in my career I have learned how important confidence is and how, kind of, your lack of confidence and lack of experience can really hold you back and keep you from trying and doing different things. And I think, one of the things that I’ve always, maybe not been the first, or at least early in my career, was maybe not the first to raise my hand. And learning to be oh, I want to work on that. I want to do that. That’s something I can learn from. That’s just going to create so many more opportunities for yourself than kind of waiting until you’re asked to do something. And I think that would probably, could probably have made a big difference.
Lisa Christensen: Well thank you so much for coming in and talking with us today. I really appreciate it. Again, we’ve been talking to Dr. Michael Noble of Allen Communication who was one of our CXO of the Year honorees last year. You can find the list of this year’s honorees in our June issue. And our event to honor those people will be on June 30th. Production help today is from Pat Parkinson. Make sure to check out our Facebook, Instagram and Twitter sites or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with any thoughts about today’s episode. Thanks for listening.