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Training leaders to lead
May 20, 2004
Marcus Luft
© Honeycomb Worldwide Inc.
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In today’s working environment, companies need leaders to keep employees motivated and productive more than ever. But great leaders don’t just happen and without the proper support, employee dissatisfaction can quickly rise, leading to a loss of productivity and a loss of revenue.

Multinational companies are massive, and to provide training to a long list of leaders and would-be leaders must seem impossible. Not so, says Charles Baldwin, Vice President of Corporate People Development for Wal-Mart Stores Inc., one of the world’s largest companies. Baldwin believes that training people for leadership, regardless of the company size, should be something of constant importance and the ability for leadership development should be available to those who wish to have it, regardless of their position.

“We train at all levels, everyone has an equal opportunity,” says Baldwin.

Given Wal-Mart’s size, training their leaders could be a daunting task, but it is one that Baldwin says the company tackles head on.

“We have some basic leadership skills training included from an e-learning online basis along with a company-wide satellite system that we utilize from a distance education standpoint. We also have assessment processes, interviews and job progression that identify people through a promotion opportunity and we also have succession planning.”

Patti Cotter, Vice President of Human Resources Recuitment and Training Relocation at Nationwide, faces many of the same problems Wal-Mart does when it comes to training their leadership.

“We have a number of different businesses and within the business units we have a whole succession planning process,” Cotter says. “Twice a year we really go through a rigorous process at every level and look at their current performance, their career ambitions, desires and career path.”

Both Wal-Mart and Nationwide put a strong emphasis on ensuring that current leaders work on constantly updating their skills and making sure that lower-level employees are aware that there is room for improvement and that the improvement will not go unnoticed. The first is especially important as corporate America is going through a credibility crisis. A recent survey by Careerbuilder.com, an online website dedicated to career improvement, found that 43 percent of workers report that they do not feel valued by their employers. The report went on to further illustrate that 40 percent of respondents said their corporate leaders play favorites and nearly 25 percent of respondents said that their direct supervisors do not take the time to help them develop or improve. Both Nationwide and Wal-Mart work to avoid these situations.

“Our philosophy is that you are the CEO of your career,” says Cotter. “You are accountable for your career. In that accountability though we give you the tools and provide you the opportunities to develop yourself and provide you the opportunities to show you what other jobs exist and the avenue to potentially get those jobs.”

Baldwin agrees and says that Wal-Mart’s employees take training seriously. “Because we are such a growth company, employees see the opportunity to continue their development to continue their career opportunities. We celebrate our successes which shows people the opportunity.”

But how does one go about potentially training tens of thousands of employees to become better leaders? Shaun Stiland, VP of Novations, a company that specialize in leadership development and performance improvement, says that it isn’t a uniform approach across the board.

“I don’t know that there is a standardized way of doing it,” says Stirland. “I think it varies from organization to organization. Some have a very specific leadership training program in place while others are more informal and some have little to no processes in place.”

Wal-Mart and Nationwide are two examples of different companies that required different approaches to develop and implement the training required to develop their leaders. Because Nationwide has a variety of different business units under their corporate name, one solution may work from one segment, but not for another. For Patti Cotter, it is more of a business unit coming up to them and saying what they require and then asking how they can go about achieving it. Once they are able to focus on specific requirements they can then set out to further development, both in the short- and long-term.

“We have a formal leader development program where we will identify talent and we will work to continue developing that talent for future opportunities,” says Cotter. “Development should be on-going, it shouldn’t be about ‘I need this development to get to the next job.’ It should be about continuing to grow and develop so that when the opportunities present themselves you are a potential player.”

Stirland believes in a similar approach, putting emphasis on both the employees and employers to realize what is required and where the strengths lie, which will lead to the desire for continued training and developing.

“People have certain talents or skill sets and certain passions and the organization also has needs or expectations that they are placing upon the individual,” says Stirland. “We find that where talents, passions and the organization intersect, is when people often have what we call ‘career best.’ Where the organizations needs are being met fully and where the persons talents are fully engaged and their passion is on their ‘A’ game.”

Charles Baldwin says that Wal-Mart takes an equally important role in ensuring that leadership development is something that doesn’t stop just once a certain level is reached. It is an ongoing process with a dedicated staff and numerous approaches to see to its success.

“We have a learning center at our corporate headquarters that we will put several hundred thousand people a year through and then there are trainings happening all over the field at all times,” says Baldwin.

For Wal-Mart, Baldwin says training is a 24/7, 365-days–a-year assignment, with a small break around Christmas time. Maple Leaf Sports Entertainment, owners of the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Toronto Raptors, ensures that their leadership is constantly in a state of readiness, both now, and especially for the years down the road when their leaders may decide it is time to step down. This is something that is increasingly finding its way into the minds of HR departments with the baby-boomer generation now nearing retirement.

“We do a session twice a year and go through a complete organizational chart and go through almost every single management position, from supervisor up, identifying who would backstop that position and how many years until they’ll be ready,” says Mardie Walker, Vice President People, Maple Leaf Sports Entertainment. “We then slot their names in. We identify people we believe have high potential to be VP’s or Directors and identify what other opportunities they need in order to help them along and then we try to engineer those things.”

Stirland says a lot of research done indicates that baby boomers are getting older but are staying in the organizations a little longer. Relative to the whole, however, there is a large group moving towards retirement.

“We have a human planning capital tool,” says Cotter in dealing with the aging workforce. “Roughly the average age of our associates at Nationwide is 40 years old with 16 years of tenure and we hear a lot of people say they don’t want to totally punch out. At the very senior level we generally know when people want to retire. We just had someone who we knew was going to retire so we had the luxury to talk about grooming a replacement.”

Continuity in capability is important in ensuring that leadership continues to motivate employees. Leaders that are hastily replaced because an organization didn’t pay attention to the retirement age of its leaders can cause a loss in productivity. But sometimes companies don’t pay enough attention to their human data. Cotter says that at one point Nationwide knew more about their fleet than they did about their people, a fact which makes leadership development and grooming nearly impossible. However, you can know the retirement date of every employee you have, but if your training for their replacements is inefficient, it is all for naught. So, how can a company make sure that the training they are providing is having a positive effect on people and will prepare their new leaders to pick up where the previous individual left off? It would seem that the easy answer is surveys, but no one should take the results of this tool as dogma.

“We don’t rely on surveys to tell us when there is an issue,” says Baldwin. “We have an open door process that is part of our company culture that encourages associates to tell their leaders at any time any concerns they have and to work to a solution. People have no problem calling our CEO and that’s because we post all that info at the store level.”

Cotter agrees with Baldwin. She believes that although surveys are a tool to facilitate a process, they can’t replace face-to-face interactions. Listening to employees is the most important way to determine what is broken and needs fixing and how to deliver effective training.

“One of the things we are trying to do is measure the impact of the training so it isn’t just an activity,” says Cotter. “Often times 30, 60 or 90 days after completing a course we would contact the person taking the course or their boss and ask if they had seen any behavior change in that person. We are trying to measure the return on investment for the company. Some are easy to measure with statistical data, others are not so easy.”

Easy or not, it would seem that large organizations are all making sure they are getting on the training bandwagon. Stirland commented that in the past three or four years, as the economy has been very strained, companies are increasingly turning to their leaders to look for improvement in existing employee production. With new markets opening up overseas and the international competition increasing, it is important that corporations get the most out of their leaders and the employees under their command, which makes training, in the words of Patti Cotter, more important than just, “training for the sake of training.”

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