Nathan Tanner

Career Q&A with Kelly Palmer, Chief Learning Officer at Degreed (#6)

Our next Career Q&A is with Kelly Palmer, the Chief Learning Officer at Degreed. Kelly offers great advice on managing career transitions, developing confidence, and the three “power skills” that will make you successful in the future of work.

Kelly Palmer is on a mission to change the way the world learns. A well-known thought leader on learning, business, and career development, she is currently on the executive team of Degreed and was formerly the chief learning officer of LinkedIn. She is the co-author of the book The Expertise Economy: How the smartest companies use learning to engage, compete, and succeed, which was named one of the best business books of 2019. Kelly speaks regularly at companies and business conferences around the world, has been featured in Harvard Business Review, the Financial Times, Fast Company, Entrepreneur, Inc, and Barron’s among others. Kelly lives in San Francisco.


What’s a book that has influenced your career or life, and why?

This may sound cliche, but “To Kill a Mockingbird” really influenced my early life as a child and then again when I was older. I remember watching the movie with my mom when I was a child and realizing for the first time that there was injustice in the world and that there were people like Atticus Finch who stood up for what was right even when so many were against him. Later in high school we read and analyzed the book and then again in college as an English major I studied it extensively. It has always held a huge place in my heart and in my thinking about life.

Was there an experience you had before age 21 that shaped who you are? What was it?

My mom was diagnosed with cancer when I was 17 and died when I was 19 and a freshman in college. I was incredibly close with her and losing her at such a young age (she was only 39) and at such a formative time in my life forever shaped my worldview and my perspective on life. For the first few years after her death, I was angry, lost, and confused, but then I was determined to embrace life’s opportunities because, after that experience, it seemed that not much in life could ever be so tragic. There is a certain strength that comes with early loss, and I think that’s influenced so much of my life.

How has a failure, or apparent failure, set you up for later success? Do you have a “favorite failure” of yours?

It’s interesting in retrospect to see what choices or events in life change the path you are on. For example, when I was early in my career, I applied for a job at Microsoft and didn’t get that job. If I had gotten that job, I would have moved to Seattle and been on a different path. Instead, I got a job at Sun Microsystems where I spent 20 years of my career, met my husband, and stayed in the Bay Area.

Later in my career when I was running a large product development organization, I interviewed for a job in a different group in engineering at Sun and didn’t get that job, but ended up going into the learning field instead. At the time, not getting those jobs seemed like huge failures to me, but over time I realized those “failures” just set me up for different opportunities in my life.

What advice would you give to a smart, driven college student about to enter the “real world”? What advice should they ignore?

I actually talk to quite a few recent college grads (my son and his friends are in that category). There is so much pressure to get a great job and be on a career path and to move up quickly, and my advice is to instead look for experiences that will help you build your skills and not focus so much on promotions and the job that pays the most money.

Those things can come over time, but if you get experiences that show that you have and are learning skills that are critical to the future of work, that’s what is going to help people be successful in the long run. For example, if you demonstrate learning agility (the curiosity and motivation to learn new skills over the entirety of your career); if you show that you can communicate and collaborate effectively; and, if you have emotional intelligence and empathy, those things will take you far in your career. Those uniquely human skills are what I call “power skills” that will make you the most successful in the future of work.

What are the bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?

I hear executives and leaders at companies try to solve business problems by suggesting we just send everyone to a training class! It really drives me a bit crazy. We write in The Expertise Economy an example of one company wanting to send all managers, at every level, through a training class that will help them make better hiring decisions because a few managers were making bad hiring decisions. This one-size-fits-all approach does not work. Many managers already have that information and know what they should be doing, but are just not applying it; other managers may be really great at this skill already; and others may not be hiring people at all at this time, so the information is not relevant. This is not a good approach, but it’s the first thing people jump to when trying to solve a problem. As people in my profession know, this might not even be the real problem you are trying to solve.

If you could go back in time to when you were entering the workforce and give yourself one piece of advice, what would it be?

Have more confidence. When I was mid-career, I had a leader at Sun Microsystems coach me on going after new opportunities and having more confidence in my abilities and it really made a difference. I’m not sure he even realizes what an impact it made on me and my career, but I’ve tried to pass on that advice and coaching to people I’ve managed and mentored over my career. The research shows that women in the workforce feel they need to have 100% of what is needed when they apply for a job and that men feel they need about 60%. That’s about confidence in your abilities and the mindset that you will be able to do that job.

What’s one of your proudest professional accomplishments? 

For a while, I’ve had a dream of writing a business book to help impact the way people think about learning, and last year that book was published: The Expertise Economy: How the smartest companies use learning to engage, compete, and succeed. The thing I’m most proud of is the feedback I’ve been getting from people in the industry that it’s helping them in their companies move to a new paradigm in learning.

What’s something unexpected that has happened in your career, and how have you responded?

I was asked to move completely out of my comfort zone and area of expertise to integrate one of the companies we were acquiring at Sun. At first, I was thrown off balance wondering if I could actually do it. But, then I gained some confidence and got some coaching and mentoring along the way and I realized I not only could do it, but I could do it quite well. That turned into a career move to corporate strategy at Sun where I ran the acquisition integration function for all the companies we were buying at Sun.

Since entering the workforce, how have you changed or transformed?

That’s a big question since I think throughout my career I’ve been changing and transforming. Probably the biggest area where I’ve changed is that I’m more confident about working on new and interesting challenges that I haven’t tackled before and that learning about new things keeps life interesting.

What habit or practice helps you manage stress? 

I have two golden retrievers and I take them for long walks so we all get some exercise and get the endorphins going. Getting outside and walking (sort of like a walking meditation) always helps me think and reflect on both my personal and professional life and is a great way to manage stress.

Who is one person, dead or alive, who you admire? Why do you admire them? 

I just watched the documentary “Inside Bill’s Brain: Decoding Bill Gates.” What an amazing human being. When I was at Sun Microsystems he was always painted as the bad guy since Microsoft was one of our biggest competitors, but I’ve got a completely different view now. What he’s doing to try to solve some of the world’s biggest problems (climate change, world disease) is so admirable and I also admire his relationship with his wife, Melinda, and how they are working on these challenges together. While some use their fortunes for their own personal gain, he has devoted himself to higher causes and that I greatly admire.

When have you felt stuck in your career? How did you break out of it or push forward?

I felt stuck for a while after I moved into corporate strategy. I was always open to new opportunities but didn’t feel like I was necessarily doing what I was personally and professionally passionate about. That’s when I completely changed my career and went into the learning field. I thought maybe I should quit the tech industry and move into non-profit and focus on education, but realized I had no experience in either non-profit or education! Then I got an opportunity to move into an executive position at Sun to lead part of a large learning organization — the leader then took a chance on me. It was the turning point in my career and I’m forever grateful for it. I ended up going back to school to get my master’s degree while working and studied adult learning theory and education technology. It’s been my passion ever since.

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