Training That Starts Before the Job Begins

By Garry Kranz

Jul. 20, 2009

While some organizations struggle with layoffs, or at best freeze their hiring plans, others are hiring in considerable numbers, and want their new workers to be steeped in company culture, processes and community from day one—maybe even sooner.

One such organization is consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, which is set to add 5,000 jobs by the close of 2009. That’s in addition to a similar number of new workers brought on board last year. All told, Booz Allen’s workforce should top 20,000 people this year, with most of them based in the U.S.

That rapid hiring pace necessitates a new approach to training. Eighteen months ago, Booz Allen began an overhaul of its onboarding processes. It begins delivering training and developmental tools to new employees the moment they accept a job offer, rather than waiting for their first official day at work. It is a process Booz Allen executives refer to as “preboarding.”

During preboarding, new recruits are directed to an internal Web portal to access job information, “early learning” activities and company information, including the company’s 15 business lines and messages from senior executives. It’s also an opportunity for newcomers to begin making professional connections with their Booz Allen colleagues.

The prehire learning exercises set the stage for a first year of filled with mentoring, coaching and peer support. The purpose is straightforward: By the time new employees sit through a required weeklong orientation session, they typically are familiar enough with their new roles to make meaningful contributions immediately.

“Preboarding is all about getting someone engaged and excited about being here, prior to their actually showing up for their first day,” says Aimee George Leary, who is the McLean, Virginia-based consulting company’s director of learning and development.

Vestas Wind Systems is experiencing similarly stunning employment growth. The company, which is based in Randers, Denmark, hired more than 5,000 people in 2008 to meet anticipated demand for its turbines and integrated wind technology systems, swelling its total employment to nearly 23,000 worldwide.

Although most of its employees are in Europe, Vestas is also in the midst of a recruiting binge in the United States. Vestas, which has its U.S. headquarters in Portland, Oregon, had a U.S. workforce of nearly 1,900 people in 2008. Nearly three times as many employees could be on board in 2010, including a horde of technical professionals to support a growing U.S. presence that includes a new factory near Denver and research centers in Boston and Houston.

The resulting “people and culture tsunami” is prompting Vestas to take a more comprehensive approach to training and development, says Helle Bay, the company’s senior vice president of business performance and operations.

Simply hiring people and training them as they came on board—an approach that worked fine when Vestas was a firm of a few hundred people—is proving to be unsustainable.

“We had to focus on our people and our culture: finding out what’s good for them and walking the walk” to help them grow professionally, Bay says.

Booz Allen and Vestas are anomalies against a backdrop of seemingly endless layoffs and shrinking training budgets. Both companies’ surging employment is traced, at least in part, to unprecedented levels of anticipated federal spending.

Steady growth in tough times
With $4 billion in annual revenue, Booz Allen’s growth isn’t really a surprise. Its consultants provide technical expertise in areas ranging from systems integration and intelligence gathering to leadership development and change management. Many employees have backgrounds in the military or defense and national security and were recruited to consult on information assurance, cyber-security and other sophisticated challenges.

Fueled by the U.S. government’s war on terror, the company has been expanding nearly the entire decade. New business seems all but assured. Private contractors, many of them small businesses with limited staff, are seeking advice on how they could snag a chunk of federal stimulus money, underscoring Booz Allen’s need for people with high-level skills.

The company hires analysts to provide advice and technical and professional services to numerous federal agencies. “And what else is the government doing now but trying to solve tons of problems?” says Lee Ann Timreck, a Booz Allen principal who is helping to redesign new-employee training.

Booz Allen chose the preboarding approach to help new employees ease into their work environment. Introductory videos include greetings from senior leaders and a broad overview of Booz Allen’s customers, service lines and corporate philosophies. The breadth of the material couldn’t effectively be delivered in just a weeklong orientation session.

“Previously we just had a one-week training program and that was it. We just trained people on the [functional] skills they needed to be successful, which meant they would go to a client site and maybe not have all the information they need,” George Leary says.

Another new learning tool for new employees is, Booz Allen’s internal social network. Embedded within it are user-created wikis, blogs and community forums that enable employees to exchange information about customer projects more immediately. The site serves two main functions: to foster collaboration among Booz Allen’s widely dispersed workforce, and to help new employees build their own personal networks with other employees in the company.

“There’s no value to us in hiring a bunch of people and having them leave in a year” because they aren’t satisfied with the company, Timreck says. “Also, as we get more widely dispersed, it’s really critical to have these social tools.”

There’s more to the strategy than technology, however. The personal aspect is equally important, with new employees paired almost immediately with a “peer sponsor,” typically a Booz Allen veteran who helps them learn the ropes. Within their first six months, employees also are matched with a mentor, while managers face stricter accountability for helping their employees grow professionally. Personal development plans are a standard item for new employees, and are usually in place within six months. The process is being accelerated with the rollout of preboarding. Upon completion of a week of orientation, new employees are encouraged to begin drafting a career plan.

As part of a leadership development campaign launched last year, Booz Allen introduced a series of information and development tools for its 2,500 frontline managers, the people who play a more formal role than in employees’ professional development.

In turn, a new tool called the Leadership Quality Index enables employees to provide anonymous 360-degree feedback on their managers’ performance. The input is being gathered and evaluated as part of each manager’s annual performance review.

Managers at first resisted the new program, thinking it would prove to be just another item on their to-do list. In time, however, they have come to embrace it as a tool to help them accomplish objectives they already have to meet, Timreck says.

Now, feedback from frontline managers “is helping to ensure the process of coaching and developing employees runs smoothly,” Timreck says.

Booz Allen also sought to reduce “classroom size,” winnowing the number of employees under each manager’s supervision. The ideal number of employees is now between 15 and 25, rather than dozens, as was previously the case.

Finally, Booz Allen provides intensive interactive training when employees move into new and very different organizational roles.

Kristine Rohls, a seven-year veteran at Booz Allen, advanced in February to the position of principal in the company’s strategy and organization division. That’s a step up from her previous position as senior associate. She acknowledges being apprehensive about a “principal immersion” workshop that all new senior leaders are required to take within six months of their promotion.

“I thought, ‘Gosh, I don’t have a week to sit and listen to lectures,’ but it wasn’t like that at all,” Rohls says.

The session forces people to work collaboratively and learn the art of persuasion. Actors are hired to simulate the role of clients. Principals have to overcome objections and sell Booz Allen to the would-be “customer.” That includes being able to respond to unexpected comments such as “I heard Booz Allen is nothing but a bunch of old, rich white guys.”

The immersion course also teaches collaboration. Co-workers are given the task of assembling proposal requests for new businesses and persuading a panel of actual Booz Allen partners to pursue the approach they are presenting.

“As a new principal, it’s designed to get me thinking as a business owner. I’m no longer responsible just for my capability area—now I represent the firm,” Rohls says.

Wind-blown training
Like Booz Allen Hamilton, Vestas’ business is booming. The company says it has installed nearly 40,000 wind turbines worldwide, including 10,000 in the United States. In a recent financial statement, Vestas’ executives predicted that 2009 sales will jump at least 20 percent, topping $10 billion. Revenue is expected from several long-term contracts that Vestas signed last year with electricity utilities in Europe, Asia and the Americas.

That rosy revenue projection also is fueled by unprecedented federal spending in the United States. The U.S. stimulus package includes plans to make money available for developing renewable energy sources. In addition, a proposed new federal energy plan seeks to curb toxic emissions, creating more opportunities for alternative energy sources such as wind.

Adding huge numbers of employees poses a number of challenges, says Peter Christiansen, who joined Vestas in 2007 as manager of learning design and implementation. While hiring the right people is crucial, it is equally important to make sure they get up to speed quickly.

Christiansen last year instituted an “induction program” that tests the mettle of employees, whose average tenure is about two years. The star of these animated sessions is “Mr. Butler,” a highly demanding customer with a stream of questions about how and why Vestas is different from its competitors. Employees are thrust into the role of explaining products and services to Mr. Butler, whose facial expressions are enough to let them know if the answer is satisfactory or not.

Known as “One Vestas,” the induction training is mandatory for all employees. It consists of five hours of total training, which employees can do all at once or in smaller chunks. It serves two functions: to develop a culture in which employees make learning a priority, and to help Vestas document the strategic value of learning, Christiansen says.

“Failure is not an option,” Christiansen says, quoting Vestas’ mission statement.

The induction program is part of a broader attempt within Vestas to capture and analyze various employee data. Chief among them is data that shows a correlation between an employee’s job satisfaction, customer loyalty and financial results. The fact-based approach gives top leaders at Vestas a glimpse into strengths and weakness within the workforce, thus providing a rationale for continued training investments, Bay says.

In addition, Vestas is consolidating to one learning management platform that is used to develop job competencies, streamline performance reviews and create a “people development dialogue” with employees. Managers are expected to initiate performance discussions on goals and achievements with their employees two times a year.

The endgame of training is to zero in on highly technical employees who are good candidates for leadership at Vestas, Bay says.

Garry Kranz is a Workforce contributing editor.

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