Our M2 Editor-in-chief Andre Rowell chats with former Air New Zealand CLO, Dr. Sydney Savion. Savion was named Chief Learning Officer of the Year in 2020 for her work with Air New Zealand. She shares with us the qualities she believes are essential to achieving excellence in any field, how her upbringing in rural America impacted her career path, what she factors into her decision-making process when changing career path and the importance of escaping the ‘comfort zone’.
Can you talk about how it felt when you found out that you were not only a great Chief Learning Officer, but you were considered the world’s greatest Chief Learning Officer?
The first thought was, ‘is this true?’ I actually had this feeling of a suspension of disbelief and as a result of feeling like that, I actually sent a note to the organisation responsible for that award to make sure. Because at the time I had some problems with my email, so I wasn’t getting emails and I just started getting notifications on my phone saying ‘congratulations’. I had to pull over into a gas station just to look and see what I was being congratulated for. It turned out it was being chosen as Chief Learning Officer of the Year for 2020.
So once I verified that it was not a prank, what came to mind for me was just gratefulness. I was very grateful for the opportunity to have been chosen, not only by human capital media, but also by my peers because it is also a peer-based award as well. So very grateful.
I don’t know if this understanding of Chief Learning Officer is as important as the qualities for what it takes to be the best at something. I think, like yourself and many of the people you’ve interviewed who are the best at what they do, I think we share some similar qualities and I think I would chalk it up to basically three things. It’s service before self, so serving others. Excellence, being excellent in what you do. And the third thing would be integrity, doing that thing with integrity. There’s probably some others that come into mind, like being a lifelong learner, seeking constructive feedback so you can continuously learn and improve.
The other thing is grit, I think successful people actually have a lot of grit; pushing the boundaries, being very innovative, imagining things beyond what other people can see and striving towards those things. I think another thing would be knowing yourself. I think often people struggle to find out who they are, but I think many successful people understand themselves. I feel like one of those things is to know thyself. So that’s what I think has gotten me to this place. Those are some of the qualities that I believe led to me earning this award.
It’s interesting that you use the opportunity to distance yourself from the role and provide insight into a whole lot of other sectors. Do you think that is an attribute of being a good Chief Learning Officer?
I think there’s something to that. I think there is something to this notion of humility, but, there’s a lot of successful people that are not necessarily humble. But for me, I think that’s just my nature.
When you look at organisations and their cultures, you look at the environment. What kind of things are you embedding in that culture to allow other people to thrive?
I think it’s a lot of the qualities that I’m mentioning in terms of pushing yourself. I also believe oftentimes people, or an organisation, wants to improve their culture. They want to improve the employee or the learner experience and they want to be able to improve engagement; how individuals engage with not just their learning content, but how they engage with others in the company. Part of that is getting people to recognise perhaps something in themselves that they might not see.
Oftentimes in terms of developing people, it’s about helping them see what they can be, that they’re capable of doing far more than they think they are and being far more than they think they are or doing something beyond what they’ve been doing. I think that has been a big part of my role, helping people visualize their desires and step into the flow of those desires. I mean, oftentimes people want to stay in the comfort zone and they don’t want to, because everything in us, in our chemistry, in our brain wants to keep us safe and the way we are kept safe is by staying in the comfort zone and everything in us says, “if we just do this, we’re good, we’re safe”. But once you start to push people out of that zone, sometimes people feel afraid. So, a big part of this learning craft, as far as I’m concerned, is helping people realize their full potential. I think it goes back to what I was saying about knowing thyself, understanding your own motivations, what spurs you on, what cheers you on within yourself and helping them discover that, and move in that direction. I feel like that in and of itself will help improve a company’s engagement, a company’s culture, and a company’s employee experience.
The work that you do with other people really allows them to embrace their greatness and move on from that comfort zone. Do you think that work has rubbed off on yourself? Has that enabled you to look at what you do with so much clarity that it has enabled you to become the best in the world at what you do?
That’s a good question. When I was in the military, one of our mantras or philosophies was, and still is today, ‘in order to be a good leader, you have to be a good follower’. I think even in the role as a leader and being designated or hailed as the best of something, there’s still opportunity, there’s still that space. You can hold your space and be accountable for your space, but in that space, there’s still space to grow and learn from the other. So even though I might be helping someone else see beyond their current situation, it’s also helping me because perhaps what I see in them is reflecting back at me.
I’m always learning from the other, regardless if I am seen as the person in the leadership role. I think to be the best, you have to be open to continuously learning. I read a lot, I listen to a lot of podcasts, I talk to amazing people because it stimulates me, it energises me, it keeps me asking questions. I think if you run out of questions to ask, I’m not so sure you’re still living. People who are hailed as the best are designated the best at whatever they do, whether it’s Olympians or in my space, a Chief Learning Officer, it’s getting into the flow.
I also believe in ‘purpose’, I think there’s something to you being aligned with what you’re called to do on this Earth. Not a lot of people understand that sometimes the reason they have challenges is because they’re not aligned with what they’re supposed to be doing. They might be doing what’s making them a lot of money or they might be doing something because it’s just a job, but they might not be in alignment with what they’re calling. Once they discover that alignment, they will discover that everything else will flow. It’ll be just like a melody. They’ll be in the flow of what they’re meant to do on this Earth and everything else will flow from that. That’s my philosophy as I’m thinking and trying to develop people and being the ‘conductor’ of transforming learning at a company.
I get the sense that maybe this concept of being the best in the world at something sits a little bit uncomfortably with you, that you value the process and the journey and the progress more than the achievement. Am I right?
It may be two-fold. It could be that, but oftentimes, even with people who are the best, they do question their value. I think there’s still some of that, ‘am I worthy?’ The fact that I literally thought I needed to email the organisation to validate and verify that it was true speaks to that thing inside of me that still questions whether I’m worthy, especially of an award of that magnitude, when you’re talking about hundreds and hundreds of other Chief Learning Officers around the world. But I checked myself and of course, friends and family checked me on that.
Speaking of stepping outside of your comfort zone, how do you take that leap from 20 years with the US Air Force into a very different world of IT/Corporate?
How do you take that leap? It’s called faith. There’s something for me since I believe in purpose and providence. I also believe in serendipity. It’s a whisper and people will get this feeling, you know when it’s time. Even with the weight of pressure trying to keep me in the military, because I was on a very successful trajectory in the military and I’m very, very grateful for my time. I take great pride in my experience and the opportunities I’ve had.
It was just one of those inflection points that led me to it and the whisper saying, ‘it’s time to explore other things in life’ and take everything that I’ve earned and the gifts that God has given me, whether it’s my experience, my education, or the exposure that I’ve had around the world, and now use that in corporate. So it was definitely an inflection point and then a leap of faith saying ‘everything’s going to be okay’ in a world that was unknown to me, quite frankly.
What on earth goes through your brain? Is there some sort of risk analysis calculation going on?
Oh, man. Yes, a decision matrix is what we would call it in the military; here are the pros and cons of staying and leaving. But if I was going to be really honest with you about what went through my mind is fear. Leaving a known and comfort for an unknown and some discomfort. That’s really, truly what was going on in my mind.
But I was feeling again, this whisper and this calling to step out and believe that I had all of the gifts, I’ve been given everything I need to be successful in this next phase of my life. As I look back over that arc of that period of time, it’s true. It brought me to this place, right here with you. So, every time I have questions about whether it’s the right next step, I just need to just look back and see, I’ve been given enough proof and evidence that it’s okay to step out on faith because I have everything I need for that next chapter to be successful.
Does that faith have any weight in terms of that ‘decision matrix’, when you’re weighing up the fear of what you’re losing, and then on the other side of the scales, the greatness of what you’re stepping in to?
Without a doubt, it shows up in that mental calculation about what’s the next right move. Everybody has a different view on what they might call faith or spirituality, but I believe there is something bigger than myself at work in my life and in this world, leading me to that place where I’m meant to be of service and to be of significance in this world. I think that is what keeps me believing and having faith that whatever I do next, it’s going to be all right. In fact, it might be better in the last chapter, which is what has happened so far.
Could you visualise what that next chapter looked like, and what was so attractive about taking that leap?
Just like high-performing athletes or anyone successful in their craft, you do visualise, and I do visualise my desired outcome. In this case, leaving a known for an unknown I did some research on what was the top role and at some point I realised that is what I want to be. I want to be in that top seat of learning, which is the Chief Learning Officer of a company. So I did visualise that and I knew in order to get there, what was keeping me from manifesting that particular aspiration, was me. That’s the only thing keeping me from that. So what that meant is just being accountable, holding myself accountable for that space between where I was and the arc of manifesting what I was visualising with continuous learning. Going back to what I said earlier, true grit, knowing myself, being open to truth and constructive feedback.
The other thing is building an authentic network. I think that in this life, in order to be successful or be the best at anything, you can’t do it by yourself, you have to have a strong network around you. Iron sharpens iron. So not necessarily like-minded people, but people who are positive forces in your life for good and who you can also be a positive force in their life. So, part of that journey from leaving the military and reaching that top seat of learning, required all of those things and especially a network of people, relationships, mentors, coaches to get to that place.
When you were still at the Air Force and you were looking at this role, was there any part of your brain that could have imagined that you could be the best in the world at it?
I wasn’t thinking about that, to be honest. I didn’t even think about being the best. I just wanted that particular seat and in order to achieve that, I knew I had some work before me to get there, to position myself because oftentimes I think it’s all about the opportunity in life. I don’t believe in luck, I think opportunities in life are when you’re prepared to meet that opportunity. I don’t think it’s an opportunity if you’re not. It’s certainly not a high probability opportunity for you if you’re not prepared to take it.
So always being in a place of readiness for that next new opportunity. If I think about my life now, I’ve finished up with air New Zealand and I’m looking to my next opportunity. I’m ready, whatever that might be, I’m ready for it. I feel very, very comfortable again with all the gifts that God has given me, I feel fully prepared to take on whatever that next calling on my life is and what I’m supposed to be doing in this next phase of my life.
A lot of entrepreneurs talk about not knowing what that next step is, but they know that if they just build on their resilience, build on their network, then they are ready for whatever comes up. That’s very similar to what you’re talking about. Does that conflict with military training, where you know you are prepared, you have things set in place?
I don’t think there’s a conflict because, in the military, the goal is to always be ready for whatever that next thing might be. You’re always preparing, every day is about preparation and readiness.
In civilian life, the way I operate is pretty much the same; always ready. Again, going back to this notion of service before self, excellence, integrity and being ready when you have that opportunity to step into that with high intention and excellence, it’s about knowing that when you step into that next opportunity, that’s the formula.
Those other things we’ve talked about, yes, that comes with it; being a continuous learner, the networking, the knowing yourself, the true grit; all those things are important too. But I think those three, which I learned in the Air Force; service before self, excellence, and integrity, are key readiness elements for any new role.
Can you talk about the power that comes from thinking beyond yourself, when you’re looking at vision outside of yourself?
For me, what feels rewarding is being able to serve others. It’s just like being in the military, you’re serving not only your nation but the democracy around the world, allies. It’s something far bigger than oneself. But it wasn’t the Air Force that fueled that, it was the way I grew up. I grew up in a small farming community, where the community helped each other and lived off of the farmland. It was with the virtual cycle of helping each other and serving one another and serving the community.
That still lives within me and it’s something that gives me immense joy. It gives me immense happiness to know that I can help someone else, whatever that is. It could be in the form of a corporation, because I’m still serving the greater good of the company and by extension, investors and so forth and so on. But in a non-profit role or philanthropic type role, it goes beyond into the community and into being able to help people be something, see something that they could possibly be.
The saying goes, ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’. So being able to get out and serve and be with other people and help them to see their full potential, whatever that might be, because it’s not the same for everyone, I think that this notion of service before self is, is something that is quite meaningful and is something that is quite deep-seated inside of my spirit and my soul and in my mind. I feel like if I do that, everything else will take care of itself.
When you look back at the trajectory of your journey, what do you think your younger self, growing up on a farm, would have made of one day dealing with NATO and getting an email saying, ‘Congratulations, you are the best CLO in the world.’?
That’s interesting. What would I have thought? It’s interesting, my sister, Tiffany, just reminded me the other day of how I used to sit in the floor in my room reading. Many of you guys might not know anything about encyclopedias, but sitting down reading encyclopedias, going from A to Z, was something that really fascinated me and I would do it for hours on end. That’s all I did. That’s what I did in my free time, other than sports and obviously my chores. I think my younger self would not be surprised, to be honest. I think she would not be surprised.
Any advice for how we can raise our children? It’s so hard for them to be able to visualise what the future might hold, but how do we best to prepare them?
I don’t have kids myself, but I do have young nieces. Like I said, you can’t generally be what you can’t see, so I think what I’m doing with them now is exposing them to science projects. I have subscription stem projects going to my nieces every month so that they can explore science, technology, engineering, and math for themselves at very young ages, two and four.
Also, helping them ask lots of questions, exposing them to things other than what are in their current sphere; whether that’s taking them to museums or parks or communities that might be different than theirs. I think allowing kids to see a world beyond their own, that does help open them up to contexts and constructs that are different from their most immediate construct.
Living on a farm in Virginia, out in the middle of nowhere, an encyclopedia took me out into space. It took me into science labs. It took me into museums. It took me to other countries. It took me beyond this farmland into other places that I would not have been able to go to. It fueled my interest in science. I was very good in science, in math, and by extension, my parents and my grandparents also saw that in me and encouraged that. As a result, that’s what I studied in school; biology, chemistry, and behavioural science.
Any advice for breaking away from your comfort zone?
It’s interesting because I view that as a habit, and comfort is basically a habit, doing the same thing over and over again. Why? Because it’s comfortable. There’s a book called Atomic Habits which talks about how you break out of that habit. In this case, sometimes it’s bad habits. For some, smoking cigarettes might be a bad habit or not working out enough. Is there a formula? Sure. The formula is you have to have intent.
I’m going to go take you on a journey into my learning space. This is about unlearning and relearning and opening your mind up to a different perspective than what you hold now. You’re comfortable with where you are, but you can see out there that there are other things that you could possibly do. Being open to just stepping out, taking a leap of faith, you have to pay attention to it and you have to have high intention.
Now that you know you want to do something different, you realise you’re comfortable, you acknowledge you’re comfortable, you have to be very intentional about doing it. It’s not enough to pay attention to it. You have to do something about it. I think that is what a lot of people miss. People acknowledge that they’re comfortable or acknowledge that they have this habit or acknowledge that they need to do something different. That’s a great first step, but the next step is now you have to attend to it and I think that’s what the missing element for most people is when they’re trying to break out of their comfort zone.
I think another thing that underpins that is fear; most people fear being uncomfortable. When they’re thinking, as I was talking about leaving the military and going into corporate, whether it’s a physical threat or it’s a mental threat, you’ve created a fear of leaving the comfort zone and going out into something else. Your brain is in fight or flight mode, right? Keeping you safe. ‘Don’t go, you’re comfortable. You can do this job for 20 years or 30 years or 40 years’.
It’s whatever you believe in. For me, it’s faith, it’s leaping out and stepping out and believing in yourself. I think you also have to have a real confidence, which I think also is part of what keeps people comfortable, they don’t have a lot of confidence in themselves. Therefore, even if they had faith, they question themselves rather than leaning into their faith and just saying, “I believe, I believe”.
There’s this video series called The Secret with Rhonda Byrne and she had this cast of people who talk about faith and confidence and believing in yourself, believing in the higher power, visualising what you want and going and doing it. You can’t say that you want to be an astronaut if you’re in school studying art, right? If you want to be an astronaut, switch your major, go study physics or engineering.
There’s a conflict between what people say they want to do and actually what they do or are doing. There seems to be a gap in that which keeps people from moving closer to leaving the comfort zone or reaching their aspirations. My mother used to say, “I’m raising you so you can grow up and leave me”, so pushing me out of the nest. Sometimes people get forced out of their comfort zone and they don’t have a choice but to lean into faith and their confidence. Sometimes I think some people need that, to be honest with you.
When we’re at that tipping point and we are almost ready, but this reptilian part of our brain creates this uncertainty in terms of our capability, what are some of the things that you can use to override that, just to push yourself through?
I think this is where having other people around you that support you, that can push you, that can help you lean into your truth and come alongside you to help you as you take that first step. I think that’s one of the biggest things that can help, because again, doing anything, you can’t do it by yourself. You do need other people around you who love and care about you, support you, will be honest with you, will push you, and help bolster your confidence.
Also, I think what helps too is celebrating the small wins, which I need to do more. I was just congratulating my sister yesterday, my young niece got into this amazing school. When my sister was filling out the application, she found it dreadful, but I just kept telling her, come on, just do it, think about the end game. The end game is for my niece to get into the school. This is just a paperwork drill.
We’ve just got to get beyond it and I think getting beyond that and in celebrating, “Hey, congratulations, well done.” Because if you didn’t get that paperwork done, no chance of my niece getting into the school. I think also what’s important is people are on that journey to push themselves out of their comfort zone, to have some small goals, celebrate those goals, get your tribe around you to help move you in that direction. I think it’s so important to have people in your life that are fueling you and not draining you. You want eagles around you to help you fly. I’m a big believer in that.
Have you got any regrets about any of the leaps into the unknown that you’ve taken along the way?
No, I have no regrets whatsoever. I’ve been very, very grateful. It doesn’t mean that I haven’t suffered some failures or disappointments or maybe even some wrong turns along the way, but I think that’s the beauty of wisdom. You don’t gain wisdom without some of those wrong turns and failures and bruises. So as a result of that, I feel like I’m even wiser.
I feel like the power and strength and passion towards serving others is even greater than it was, which to me means that I will rise up into my excellence, my service to others and my calling on this earth with even more power, passion and significance. Service and significance; I’m a big believer in that.