CEOs talk about training & development

CEOs view training as a strategic advantage that is the responsibility of everyone in the organization, not just the HR department

Michael McCourt
D&D Automation

The specialty engineering firm, based in Stratford, Ont., has 40 employees and manufactures industrial automation control systems.

In the high-tech manufacturing industry, if employees aren’t up to date on all the latest technologies, the company is doomed to fail. That’s why training and development is part of the culture at D&D Automation in Stratford, Ont.

“I don’t have to look at it very long to realize that it’s a strategic advantage for us (and) it might be deadly for us to not do it. Our clients expect us to be leaders in technology,” says Michael McCourt, CEO of D&D Automation.

As a result, the specialty engineering firm’s 40 employees are all responsible for maintaining this learning culture.

“It’s an aggressive training environment,” he says. “We’re very busy but we have to make the time to train a priority for our managers and our people.”

Too many companies and employees don’t take training seriously and see conferences as a mini-vacation, says McCourt.

“I think industry in general has the wrong attitude and culture toward training. You want to make each individual better so you can make your company better so we can make our country better. It’s a very competitive market out there. If we don’t approach it properly, there’s a danger of being beaten in the marketplace,” he says.

To stay on top, D&D introduced its Tech Leader program about five years ago. The company benchmarks all employees against the technologies they have to use and tracks their progress. The company highlights the technologies that are more important to the business and people can see where they should be learning.

“People who achieve the highest level become gurus and gurus actually start to teach and train others,” he says.

The company has 18 gurus; however, one employee could be a guru in several technologies.

To be at the minimum level in the Tech Leader program, an employee needs in-house or external training on the technology. To move up, the employee needs to log a specific number of hours using the technology in different applications. And to achieve the level of guru, he needs formal, external training, which is paid for by the company, says McCourt.

“We hold that bar pretty high on our gurus,” he says.

To keep employees, and the company as a whole, up to date on new technologies, the company invites technology suppliers to weekly lunch-and-learn sessions. The supplier provides the lunch and three to 10 employees attend to learn about the new technology.

Suppliers compete to get into the lunch-and-learn sessions, with the best coming back several times a year. And the employees who participate are there to learn, says McCourt.

“No one comes to these things for a free lunch,” he says. “Our industry is constantly changing and it’s not the smartest or the strongest that survive, it’s the ones that change quickly and easily. To do that you have to be learning.”

Because training is part of the company’s culture, the training programs, and Tech Leader in particular, don’t reside with any single person or department.

“If you need a person driving a program like this, you’re probably doing it wrong,” says McCourt.

D&D Automation’s culture of learning extends into the community as well. The company supports robotics and skills competitions at high schools and co-op education programs at post-secondary institutions.

“Education is my favourite charity,” says McCourt. “I think more businesses need to look at education that way. It does need our support.”

Employees go to high schools to let students know about the opportunities available to them in the technology field and graduates of co-op programs go back to their alma maters to share their experiences.

Throughout the year, D&D has up to six co-op students and they’re given the chance to really get to know the business.

“We don’t hire co-ops to mow the grass and sweep the floors,” says McCourt. “They work with our senior people, they’re fully supported, they’re given all kinds of opportunity.”

Paul Soubry
Standard Aero

The aircraft maintenance and repair company employs 4,000 people in Winnipeg, eight locations in the United States, and facilities in Singapore, the Netherlands and Australia.

To explain the training needs at a company like Standard Aero, president and CEO Paul Soubry uses two analogies involving construction. In heavy construction work, you might need one engineer for every 100 workers; in an aircraft maintenance and repair shop, you would need one engineer for every 10 skilled workers.

In a construction site, you might bring in someone new and bring that person up to speed in a week or two.

“In our environment, it’s almost a full year before a person can work on their own,” says Soubry.

So in a business downturn, a company such as Standard Aero can’t easily make the decision to let staff go.

“Once you do that, you’ll never get them back and you can’t ramp up fast enough when things change,” he says.

Standard Aero’s answer to this challenge of how to respond to the ups and downs of a business cycle is to build a multi-skilled workforce. In that vision, an engine inspector can not only clean the engine, but can both inspect and clean another aircraft part.

But getting there means the company has to be aggressive on skills development and continuous improvement, starting at the front line and up through to the executive table, says Soubry. Work is structured along a cell system pioneered by the Japanese, a cell being a work unit with people with different skills and experience and a variety of resources to be able to handle a certain product or a certain process.

“What we do is we work at the cell level to identify the skill needs based on the business forecast — so we need an X cleaner and an X assembler and a Y inspector — and we try to create a gap analysis for every single cell and the team members within the cell.”

It’s the job of the cell leader to keep track of the skills gap within a cell. So training is not “a central department, off-line function” but an absolutely integral part of the day-to-day running of the business, says Soubry.

“The trade-off is you effectively eat into productive time. We try to design time into the job rather than expect people to work 100 (per cent of their time) productive but never get to the training. So we set a standard around here where we say productive time — the time that we can charge for work labour — we don’t want that to be more than 80 per cent. The remaining 20 per cent should be spent on training and development, continuous improvement, team building and those kinds of things. We build that into the job so when they get to productive work, the efficiency is very high.”

Plus, training is taken out of the classroom and made into an on-the-job activity, with formal certification processes built around it so a trainer can sign off when someone has demonstrated proficiency at a given skill.

With a far-flung workforce, Standard Aero works at standardizing how a cell works.

“Someone walks into one of our cells, they know the leaders are deployed to the shop floor. They know we do regular audits on safety, cleanliness, environmental and that kind of stuff. When you have people working in a consistent manner around the world, when you go and try to deploy the skills or the certification, it’s a hell of a lot easier to reinforce, because you can show people what you expect.”

When it comes to training managers in how to build a team and how to get high performance, the company turns to a curriculum developed for its corporate university. The company makes this leadership training curriculum available to its customers for a fee, which not only underwrites the development of the curriculum but improves it.

“Because when you train internally, you get caught up in your own vernacular that doesn’t mean anything to anybody in the outside world. To build these programs and courses for outside people, we had to take a far more professional and structured approach. It has been really good for us.”

The general manager in charge of training reports to the senior vice-president of human resources, who has a seat at the executive table.

“We’ve put the ownership of training right at the highest level. So when the (senior vice-president of HR) leaves the room and he hears ‘This business is up in this area,’ or ‘We’re not getting enough quality improvement in that area,’ and the general manager builds the training plan, it’s driven by the business and it’s not just a service bureau.”

Diane Doyle
Providence Health Care

This Vancouver-based health-care organization has three hospitals and five long-term care facilities and employs 6,000 people.

The nature of the skills health-care professionals need means the industry will always be dependent on formal classroom-style training and development. But at Vancouver’s Providence Health Care (PHC), which consists of three acute-care hospitals and five long-term care senior facilities, there is a move to make learning a part of everyday life, says Diane Doyle, CEO at PHC.

“We’re trying to embed in our daily work the notion of lifelong learning, accountability for your own learning and embedding learning in everything we do,” she says.

One way this is done is through regular huddles — a quick get-together of staff working in a unit — to bring up any concerns and work on solutions together.

“Through that process, there’s learning happening,” says Doyle.

During one of these huddles, a nurse raised the issue of the calculations needed when administering medications. The team determined that simply attaching a calculator to each medication area would minimize the risk of errors.

Responsibility for training is spread throughout the organization, says Doyle. The chief of professional practice, who is on the senior team, is responsible for ensuring staff in each discipline are up to date on their discipline’s standards, while the organization development group handles management and leadership training and the HR department leads orientation for new staff.

Training in all forms is an important component of PHC’s people strategy to ensure there are the right people, with the right skills, in the right roles, says Doyle.

“Embedded in this people strategy is a very strong commitment to, and theme of, training, education, ongoing development and succession planning,” she says.

As part of that commitment, PHC encourages staff to seek training opportunities outside the organization, be they workshops, seminars or courses. The training can be for skill development or for leadership development, says Doyle.

The latter is critical given PHC’s demographic reality. With 60 per cent of the organization’s management staff ready to retire in the next five years, succession planning and training have become top priorities. And other health-care employers are facing similar challenges, says Doyle.

“We’re all competing for scarce resources,” she says.

One solution is to give older staff the opportunity to mentor younger staff. This keeps the experienced staff members on board longer and helps pass along institutional knowledge.

Training also plays a role in retaining high-potential employees and getting them ready to move into key roles, says Doyle. Training gives “them the kind of experiences and supports they need now to really develop the kind of skills they need and maintain a loyalty and commitment to the organization,” she says.

Training initiatives are also a big part of why PHC was named one of the top 20 employers for new Canadians, as decided by Mediacorp Canada, publishers of Canada’s Top 100 Employers, says Doyle.

During the organization’s onboarding program, new employees shadow a mentor during several shifts so they can learn the specifics of the job. If needed, recent immigrants are given extended shadow shifts to help them gain confidence and better understand the Canadian workplace.

PHC also participates in the Internationally Educated Registered Nurses Post-Licensure Program, a four-month training program for internationally educated registered nurses. The program consists of language and orientation courses, classroom work and a work placement in a hospital unit at PHC. Afterward, nurses assume permanent, full-time positions in the unit where they completed their placement.

“We feel we have a responsibility to ensure that we are providing (new Canadians) with unique supports and programs so that they understand the culture of our country, that they understand the different system of health care and how it might be different from their country of origin,” says Doyle.

John Suk
Nycomed Canada

This pharmaceutical company employs 220 people in Oakville, Ont.

Last year, the HR department at pharmaceutical company Nycomed Canada instituted a performance management training program for managers. The program used videos of performance management scenarios to guide managers through the process and help them figure out how to handle different issues.

The program was a success all around, says John Suk, CEO of Nycomed in Oakville, Ont.

“We see more thorough and rigorous adherence to the procedure. The people being appraised are also liking the process better because they’re getting more solid feedback,” he said.

Throughout his career in the pharmaceutical industry, during which time he worked for GlaxoSmithKline and Hoffmann-La Roche before becoming the CEO of Nycomed in 1997, Suk has seen the industry change the way it approaches training.

“There’s greater emphasis on it and I think it’s done better,” he says.

Part of that improvement is the shift from training delivered in a traditional classroom lecture style to a more interactive and multimedia style.

“Generally people enjoy training if it’s more fun and varied,” says Suk.

The sales team at Nycomed makes the most of this by incorporating games such as Texas Hold’em and Jeopardy into training programs that help sales representatives learn the product information they’ll need to share with customers, says Suk.

As in any industry, finding the time for training is a challenge. That’s why training is built into each employee’s performance review and a certain amount of time is budgeted for each employee to complete training throughout the year.

And everyone can benefit from training, no matter what level of experience an employee has or where he came from. This is especially true for basic business skills, which many people in the industry are lacking, says Suk.

To address this issue, the company offers quick, on-site courses in business skills for everything from how to do a presentation to how to write a memo to how to run a meeting.

Training is a critical component of the company’s culture and key to attraction and retention, says Suk. That’s why the head of HR, who sits on the company’s board, is ultimately responsible for training at Nycomed.

“We need to invest in people and we also need to make sure they’re ready to handle the challenges of tomorrow,” he says. “There’s a link between investing in people and investing in training and development.”

At Nycomed, training is given more than lip service. The training budget has been increasing every year, says Suk.

However, the company doesn’t measure the return on investment for training. This is mostly because the effect of training is more qualitative than quantitative, says Suk.

“I can’t give you a formula where you put in X and get out Y — I don’t think it’s that clear cut,” he says. “There are so many variables in performance.”

Hugh Wood
Vecima Networks

The Victoria-based employer of 870 people manufactures network equipment and modules used by cable and telecom operators to optimize network efficiency.

As a manufacturer of computer hardware and software that connect cable, wireless and telephone networks to the computer, Vecima Networks is built on the sales, product design, engineering and manufacturing skills of its people.

The training needs that are of most concern to management at Vecima, says chief operating officer Hugh Wood, aren’t those of the sales staff or the engineering and computer science staff. Canada’s universities and technical colleges do a good job in equipping these people with the skills the company needs.

“From a training perspective, our primary focus is on the manufacturing side,” says Wood. “In Canada, manufacturing is understood to be about building cars. There was a survey from Statistics Canada that came to us and all the questions were about robots and turning bolts onto wheels. So our industry is small. We don’t have a large pool of trained people working in electronic manufacturing.”

As a result, the company has had to rely on its own training programs to get its 400 manufacturing workers up to speed. A few years ago, the company partnered with the Saskatchewan Institute of Applied Science and Technology (SIAST) to create a journeyman curriculum for electronic assembly. The program has trained about 20 people, but that’s not a lot considering the company hires 12 every two weeks.

The bulk of the manufacturing staff are “people at the entry level who have no training at all in our industry. They come from homemaking, hamburger flipping. They’re right out of school or dropouts from school.”

Six full-time trainers take the new hires through the initial training of 40 hours, covering a range of topics from how to hold a soldering iron to how to inspect a circuit board. Once that base training is completed, they go on the line and are trained in a buddy system, which brings their training hours up to 60.

But technical training alone isn’t enough. Through supervisor feedback, the company has come to realize “there are a number of issues we deal with that aren’t technical,” says Wood. “Things like, ‘We can’t understand all these instructions from the engineers,’ or ‘We don’t agree with how the manager handles the group,’ or ‘Our supervisor just got promoted off the line because she was good technically but now she’s struggling.’”

The company decided it needs a new training program on personal development and literacy, and rather than delivering the training in-house, it went looking for this kind of expertise in the community.

A couple of not-for-profit agencies, READ Saskatoon and Radius Community Centre, have been offering similar training in literacy and employability skills respectively. So Vecima teamed up with them and got a $50,000 grant from the Saskatchewan-Canada Career and Employment Services. The funding goes into developing the 16.5-hour course and the classroom training delivered by the community agencies. Once that money runs out, Vecima training staff will take over and give that course in-house.

Another component of the training is focused on career development. Employees learn employability skills such as communication, time management, business etiquette, decision-making and team building. They each have a personal portfolio to keep a record of their training and their career goals.

“Employees were asking for more than just technical training. They want to know how to advance in the company.”

The company has put all its supervisors through this training so they can see what their reports will learn, says Wood, and the feedback from the supervisors has been: “This is really good stuff. Everybody should be put through this.”

While it’s difficult to quantify the outcome that Vecima is looking for in offering this program, “the primary goal is a more productive workplace, where people understand how other people work and not get bogged down in personal conflict. They’re more aware of opportunities for advancement. We do a lot of internal promotion and a lot of junior people don’t realize that,” says Wood.

The company acutely feels the competition for skilled people, particularly from the more lucrative gambling industry and, more recently, from the utilities that are gearing up their hiring after a long dormancy period. Vecima Networks has no choice but to put dollars into training.

“The number of people coming through electrical technician trades training is diminishing,” says Wood. Plus, colleges and universities are noticing a decline in enrolment in engineering and computer science.

“There’s a lot of competition, so it’s actually more economical for us to train our people. It’s very specific work. We have half a dozen core products and it’s more economical to train our own people to do testing and repair.”

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