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Tuesday, October 30, 2007

What We're Doing About Training Needs

In our two job satisfaction surveys over the past three years the number one need identified by our workforce was training. A few weeks ago the HR department conducted a survey of exactly what training needs our people felt were most urgent. Here were the responses, in order, and what we're doing about it.

1. Excel
2. Power Point
3. IRMA (our home-grown ERP)
4. Red Prairie (our WMS)
5. Great Plains (our accounting system)
6. Management techniques (most mentioned by people who said their supervisor needed it)
7. Leadership Skills (basically a restatement of 6 above)
8. Word
9. Outlook
10. Hyperion
11. Team Building
12. Presentations (another way to state 9 above)
13. (tied) Conflict resolution, time management/personal organization, communication, cross-department training, and email etiquette.

These responses really break down easily in four broad categories: systems training, leadership training, workplace communications, and fundamental work skills (email, time management, etc...). So what's being done about this? Plenty.

In March Whitney Connell was promoted to Director of Corporate Events and Sales Training, and an Event Planner was hired to work under her to help with the events side of the job. That frees Whitney to devote much of her time to those training issues that most impact the sales force in which she works, and that is primarily systems training. As those programs are developed and delivered, they will then be made available to others outside the sales division.

In concert with Sales' training initiatives, the CEO's office has contracted for a leadership development program that all the ELT has taken (eight days worth!) and will soon be made available to business unit heads and above, probably in December. HR is working with Gary Minor, our NLU instructor, and developing a derivative program that combines the Leadership program and NLU curriculum to deliver to all who supervise 2 or more employees regardless of rank. This will probably happen over the winter.

These efforts are neither easy nor cheap, and by the end of the fiscal year we'll still have some holes. The new budget year will also give us an opportunity to reflect on our needs and be intentional in how we allocate dollars for FY '09. This is a major opportunity for our company, and those of you who have advocated this for so long should know that efforts are being made.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Lessons from a Phenomenal Turnaround

You may not know it, but one of the great turnarounds in American academic history is going on right up the road in Bowling Green, KY at Western Kentucky University. About seven years ago Dr. Gary Ransdell, a WKU alum and academic administrator extraordinaire took over the reigns at a campus whose facilities and maintenance had sunk to a level only surpassed in depth by its staff and faculty morale. This Fall Semester, WKU surpassed the University of Kentucky in undergraduate enrollment and launched a new multi-year plan to become "A Great American University with International Reach". Don't bet against this guy and his team. (By the way, Business and Culture SPU, we've published worse business and leadership books than this guy could write for us!)


How did he do it, and what can we in leadership positions learn from it?


1. Come to stay, and commit. Ransdell stated from his first day on the job that he intended to retire as President of WKU. Others before him used the university as a resume-builder. The critical learning for any leader is that your people match your commitment. If you want theirs, go all in yourself or go somewhere else.


2. Physical facilities matter. The university had crumbled around itself, and the first thing you sell to prospective students, or employees, is their work or learning environment. Physical setting is also a measure of how committed an organization is to the people who labor there, so if what you have around you is disrepair and disorganization, you've just told your people how little you care about the place they live half their lives, and them.


3. Take responsibility for your own destiny. The last administration took paper towels and toilet paper out of the public buildings on the weekends to save money, and stopped doing a whole host of things because of "inadequate state funding". They were victims, not leaders. Ransdell raised $85 million in alumni donations and not only fixed the existing buildings, but built new ones. He didn't whine because he was underfunded; he took responsibility. As leaders, how many times do we not do something because our budget proposal was shot down, rather than getting creative and determined in finding a way to make it happen for the money we do have to spend? Budget-as-victimization is so rampant in business and government, not just academics, that you wonder how we get anything done.

4. Increase compensation, but not for everyone. Ransdell identified "programs of distinction" where the existing faculty had the potential to be world class. These programs got increased faculty compensation, increased scholarships to attract the best students, and sometimes new buildings. How many times has the Good to Great book's "World Class Talent" admonition been used as an entitlement rallying cry by average performers wanting more money (i.e. "if we want world class talent around here we need to start paying world class salaries")? In any business, but especially in a turnaround situation, limited resources have to be allocated to those who return the greatest value. It is a martial-arts type focusing of strength to produce the greatest results. Its also the greatest example of the Good to Great principles: put your resources where you can be best in the world, not where you can go from average to above average.

5. Articulate a bold vision and enroll others in it. The fund raising campaigns of Ransdell's predecessors and the College Heights Foundation (the university's fund raising or "development" arm) had previously been, "We don't get enough money from the state and we need help from you alumni who profited from your education here". Exciting and engaging? Hardly! The fund raising emphasis under Ransdell has been, "This can be a great American institution, not just a regional university, and we want you to be a part of the unthinkable: Western Kentucky University, your alma mater, as a world-class institution known all over the world as a place of academic and research excellence". Where his predecessors couldn't keep paper towels in the restrooms and the carpets cleaned, the alumi pledged over $85 million in the first five years and more for the new multi-year plan revealed earlier this month.

What's our critical learning from the WKU example? Simple: when you come to stay, take a stand for an audacious and unthinkable goal, enroll a few evangelists in the unthinkable (the twelve disciples, for example), focus your early limited resources simultaneously on maintenance and on those who can get you part of the way there quickly (those tangible improvements and quick wins bring you more enrollees in your vision) then you can transform anything into anything else. In my lifetime a Nobel nominee in science will come from what was a crumbling local college in Kentucky because someone with vision spoke a new reality into the world. The situation where you are is almost certainly no worse, and is probably better; so what can you do?

Why Public Transportation Matters

We've done a lot of work these past two weeks culminating in the press release yesterday of a new shuttle service serving the Thomas Nelson campus in Nashville. The Donelson Shuttle is a free service provided under a six month grant from the Rail Transportation Authority (RTA) in Nashville and has been in discussions between Nelson HR and the RTA for about three years. The service will connect the fledgling Music City Star rail service and two Metro Transit Authority (MTA) bus lines to the front doors of our three Nashville buildings. So why does an HR department care about such things? How is this related to our departmental mission? Don't we have better things to do? All good questions, and deserving of an answer.

The HR department's interest in public transportation is a strategic move in enhancing employee satisfaction, improving diversity, being a good corporate citizen, and positioning the company in alignment with the values of those young professionals who share our other corporate values.

Satisfaction - Commute time, stress level, compensation, and work-life balance are major themes in determining employment satisfaction. Reducing commute time, turning that time from wasted drive-time into either productive time (laptop time) or personal time (reading, studying for self-improvement, etc...) and having someone else get you there reduces stress. For working parents, especially mothers, non-driving commute time may be the only time they are "off-duty". In combination with a future intiative to expand flex time and alternative work schedules, enhanced public transportation can reduce the commuting expense and increase disposable income of our workforce with little cost to the company. That's a win for everyone.

Diversity - In Nashville, our airport location and this city's underdeveloped public transportation system make it difficult to employ people who don't drive. A 40+ minute bus ride from downtown makes almost any location around the city's core a better alternative. Reducing commute times (such as a 20 minute train ride) and connecting bus lines mid-route as opposed to all the way into the land port and all the way back out, increase the number of people from no-car or one-car households who have access to our facilities. Public transportation connects our company to all neighborhoods, not just those that are local or where people can afford multiple automobiles.

Corporate Citizenship - The unfortunate government-think that guides public transportation in Nashville is that you build a piece of a system, see if its utilized, and use that as justification to build another piece. The reality is that you have to build an entire system to achieve high utilization, but that takes a belief in mass transit that doesn't exist in this very Southern city. Since mass transit is good for the economy and the environment, companies need to support the fledgling routes we have right now to facilitate further funding for a comprehensive system.

Alignment with Professional 20-Something Values - Community and environment are important to this demographic. Public transportation is green, and connecting communities together and with the company helps align us with an emerging workforce that will be needed to feed talent into the company's system.

So there you have it. Taking an interest in how people get to work is a new HR frontier for us, and maybe for Nashville. Companies in larger cities have been giving rail pass and bus pass benefits for quite some time, but usually to offset the high cost of downtown locations, parking ,etc... Our interest is more comprehensive and we hope it will pay off in making us an attractive employer for a diverse and talented group of professionals.