Interviewing Influencers: Lessons on Leadership with Leigh Mires

Leigh-MiresWhen you’re in a leadership position, constant learning is crucial. Whether you’re researching trends in the marketplace, or getting a deeper understanding of underlying internal issues, you have to be open-minded and prepared. For another perspective on the importance of learning when in a leadership position, we interviewed Leigh Mires, Chief Learning Officer at Thornton Tomasetti.

Maurielle Balczon: What does “Chief Learning Officer” really mean?

Leigh Mires: [It means] overseeing the entire talent development lifecycle of an employee: from on-boarding through the various stages of career development. [Also,] helping to align people to your company vision. It’s incredibly important for executive leadership to have a clearly defined company growth and culture strategy—because that sets the foundation on which talent development processes rest. You think this would be obvious—that decisions should be made starting with a cohesive company vision and messaging which relays into product sales or financial results—but most often this is not the way that companies operate. In fact, it is the most common mistake I see, that companies begin with a widget and dream up an ideal revenue target, then everything else just haphazardly assembles itself around that, if at all.

MB: Why do leaders still need to keep learning, even if they’re considered to be at the top of their game?

LM: What does being “at the top of your game” really mean? Is it technical competence—which is always changing anyways? Is it professional ethics or grace? How is that being leveraged into strategic relationships? There is always a new point of perspective to be learned within the natural shape-shifting of a dynamic market. Being able to move well  within these ebbs & flows is what I call learning agility.  It is what keeps a leader connected to reality.

MB: How does knowledge transfer typically fail within companies?

LM: Upcoming leaders typically fail at learning what to let go of as they move up; hanging on to old responsibilities hinders their ability to pivot to new responsibilities as their career progression requires. Not letting go of things clogs the pipeline of decision making within an organization because too many people have to weigh in on a decision. Another big mistake is not giving feedback to team members, which inhibits their growth substantially. When I ask people at other companies “How do you know when you’re doing a good job?” the most common answer is “When I don’t hear anything from my boss.” Yikes! People need reinforcement for their good work so they know which behaviors are in fact in line with company vision and growth plans, just as they need boundaries drawn when actions are out of line with culture or expectation. No feedback is not good feedback- it is the slow death of a culture.

MB: How is mentorship and legacy planning critical to brand longevity? Does active, ongoing learning have an impact on how customers perceive a brand?

LM: There has been some excellent research on employee engagement and how it links to revenue and profit. Training and development within a firm is a form of quality control.  Many companies with superior talent management practices outperform their peers by generating:

26% higher revenue per employee

29% higher levels of engagement

40% lower turnover among high performers

Source: Talent Management Factbook, Berson & Associates


External market knowledge transfer can be just as pivotal as internal company learning; customer education is vital to building brand loyalty. Brand loyalty is what leads to repeat revenue and the easy acceptance of new products/services as the company evolves, as well as easier acceptance of price increases as the value of the company grows over time.

MB: Are there any noteworthy examples of who is doing it right in corporate America surrounding organizational education and best practices? 

LM: Apple and Zappos are prime examples of profitable companies built around their vision, culture and high levels of employee engagement. They exemplify how genuine employee engagement is felt not only with respect to internal loyalty to the brand, but most importantly in the consumer’s eyes. Think of how different it feels to shop for technology at Apple than, let’s say, Radio Shack…let alone work there. Make no mistake about it, learning from a company builds tremendous brand loyalty. Harley Davidson is another great example of building brand loyalty.   As we know from their reputation, families will purchase and keep Harley motorcycles for generations, and there are even entire communities built around “Harley” rides.

MB: How can coaching at the leadership level, whether it comes formally from an external consultant or informally from within the team, help an organization perform more profitably?

LM: Ongoing feedback from a trusted resource is vital for  any kind of personal for professional growth. Keep in mind that when you are trying to develop business, value happens in the client’s head, so as a coach you must get them to think – which is what distinguishes coaching from consulting.


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