From aerospace to Air New Zealand
Sydney Savion was named Chief Learning Officer of the Year 2020. Her interest in corporate learning stems from her time in the US Joint Training Simulation and Analysis Centre. Ahead of her appearance at the L&D Innovation & Tech Fest, Sydney talks about her journey from operations and plans officer to Air New Zealand, what she has taken from 2020, and her proudest achievement.
After 21 years in the US military, Sydney Savion made the move to corporate learning and was brought on as CLO of Air New Zealand three years ago following a successful run at Dell Technologies from her home state of Texas.
Even over Zoom Sydney has a both a warm and commanding presence. You get the sense that whether she is organising a fleet of fighter jets or designing and delivering workforce learning and development programs, she does so with excellence, demonstrating leadership, vision, business acumen and strategic alignment. Which is exactly what it takes to be named CLO of the Year.
But it begs the question … how do you go from Joint Forces Operations and Plans Officer to CLO?
Sydney: My interest in corporate development was piqued during my last assignment in the Joint Training, Simulation and Analysis centre. I was privileged to participant in countless advanced, complex, sophisticated mission rehearsals that involved live, virtual and constructive training methodologies. Part of my role was designing, planning and distributing learning across multiple countries to thousands of people and bringing it together to form a common operational picture -one unified training exercise. This is how I arrived at this notion that you could use these technologies to innovate and scale learning in a corporate space.
Twenty-one years of military training must have prepared you for expecting and reacting to the unexpected. Back in March this year, when the pandemic effectively shut down the world and world travel and New Zealand went into lockdown, what was your first reaction?
My first reaction was: what does the business need? How can learning help the business weather the storm.
What have been your biggest challenges this year?
When the company says ‘OK, all transformation is going to stop. Focus on what is critical’. You struggle to determine what is business critical, because we assume everything we do is business critical but when you’re not generating revenue, something has to stop. With learning, in some respects that’s easy because you have to meet regulatory competence with training, but it has been tough stopping all the incredible initiatives that were underway, even more so significantly reducing our workforce.
In Australia this year, many airline workers have been redeployed to other service-orientated industries such as retail and healthcare. What do you think about that sort of cross industry agility?
One of the things we’ve all learned from COVID is that we need to know in advance what is business critical, identify critical business skills and develop them before a crisis. During COVID our ability to cross-skill people and pivot meant retraining those that otherwise would have exited the business sooner. For example, cross-skilling them to flow the demand of the call centre helped to maintain the customer experience to the maximum extent in the face of a pandemic. Those critical skills need to be identified now and people need to be and stay cross or upskilled, so people and the business are always ready in the event of the unforeseen. Most companies aren’t doing this yet, but I would strongly encourage doing it now given the lessons learned from this pandemic. It may take a forensic post mortem of the pandemic’s impact on the business though to get something you’ve never had- near foolproof business continuity readiness; you need to do something you’ve never done.
Remote learning has come to the fore this year out of necessity and many L&D professionals have felt challenged by its limitations. What’s been your experience?
The digital revolution has proven you need technology to stay competitive. COVID has shown that companies who do not understand that nor the viability and usability of their technology stack are at a disadvantage and so are their employees and customers . When remote is your only alternative, you have to go with it, but the technology has to work well. The most important part once you have viable technology is making sure people feel present – having people sitting around for two hours watching or listening to others read PowerPoint slides isn’t going to be conducive so use best practices, experiment and get feedback from participants to determine what is working and not.
Being named CLO of the Year is an incredible accolade. As you reflect on your body of work, what has been your proudest achievement?
There is a lot I am proud of including being able to measurably leverage learning to meet business needs, using data to transform learning in multiple companies and industries. Most recently I’m grateful and proud of Project Mana a numeracy and literacy program I spearheaded with Literacy Aotearoa, and business leaders here at Air New Zealand. It is a labour of love to help someone to read, write and learn effectively. Literacy not only benefits the individual it enhances the economic development, community well-being and society. In any organisation there are under-represented populations, some from low socio-economic backgrounds and English may not be their first language. Some have never graduated high school. Project Mana offered people the opportunity to gain some lifelong skills by improving their literacy and numeracy has made a huge difference to their lives. I’ve heard personally from so many participants in this project about how its helped them and their families – for example helping their kids do their homework for the first time and feeling a new sense of confidence to vie for a different or management role.
What has been the biggest lesson you have taken from 2020?
The biggest lesson for me is gratitude - I am thankful for my health, family, friends and everything I have even in the midst of this crisis. I’m a big believer in purpose and providence. I believe what has unfolded in 2020 are clear kismet signals pointing me towards fulfilling a higher calling. There’s a saying not all storms come to disrupt your life, some come to clear the path. This year, the convergence of uncertain political landscapes, social equality movements, pandemic, and perpetual global disruption have cleared the path to show me I have been called to be of service to society in a more meaningful and impactful way.
Don’t miss the opportunity to see Sydney Savion in conversation with Chris Pririe at the L&D Innovation & Tech Fest.