Home > Talent Insights Blog > The Career Success University

Authored by: Roger Pearman and Robert Eichinger

Recently, we have been asked to help create new corporate universities for clients. Their companies are using corporate centers like GE’s Crotonville, Apple University and others as potential models. Lots of organizations have some or substantial, centralized training and development functions and, in some cases, dedicated buildings and campuses. All of these efforts are backed by the desire to create a “Career Success University” that accelerate their employee capabilities.

Organizational leaders want help on what to teach, how to teach, who should be doing the teaching and who (which employees) should be in the learning pool? Put another way, how do adults learn best that which is most essential for the enterprise to be successful?

Centralized training and development (T&D) came about in part because of mixed success with people being taught exclusively while on the job. Some employees have developmental bosses. Some don’t. It is common that bosses are terminally busy and run out of time to pause and teach. So, centralized education supports organizational culture by teaching how the enterprise does things, and why.

TalentTelligent Founders have, in our combined 90 years of experience in talent management, taught at, designed courses for, and run centralized T&D shops and universities.

The clients approaching us for counsel gave us a chance to reflect and ruminate. The focus: If we were going to start a corporate university from scratch, what would it look like?

First, is creating an internal university a good idea? Generally, yes. It may lead to some corporate incest: internals teaching internals, or it could lead to an organization becoming change-resistant because of centralized messaging in the curriculum. You can avoid that by having a mixed faculty of both internal and external experts.

As to content in corporate universities, there is always a debate about functional skills courses (finance, marketing, logistics, etc.) versus management and leadership courses.

What and Who to Teach

The 70/20/10 finding in which successful senior leaders report they learned most (70%) of what they need to know from challenging assignments, illustrates that functional skills can best be taught using work as the classroom. Leaders also learn from bosses, mentors, and key “others” (20%). The remaining 10% of learning comes from things like the Corporate University. That being the case, putting people in the right developmental jobs with the right developmental bosses covers most of the functional skills needed, as well as some of the managerial and leadership skills.

Teaching for Now or Later? 

There is regular debate about teaching for today, for tomorrow, or for the long-term future. For an organization to flourish over the long term requires significant management and leadership talent. The investment in a centralized T&D program should be to ensure a successful future, as doing well today falls to the bosses and leaders already in place.

The main learners of the centralized university should be the managers and leaders of the future.

There are specific kinds of talent at the top of a flourishing and lasting organization. At the top includes the Board, the C-Suite, the top functional and Centers of Excellence heads, geographic General Managers, Division Leaders, and those who lead product or service units. In larger organizations, about 2% of leaders make the big decisions. If you have 10,000 employees, you have roughly 200 key decision-makers.

If you begin with interns and your campus recruits, it can take 30 years to develop those who lead organizations. They come in at 22 and become significant leaders at 52.  It’s what happens in the intervening 30 years that makes a difference.

Assuming the organization focuses on hiring the best talent and working smartly to make them the best leaders possible in the 30 developmental years, you’ll be in good shape.

SORT: The four types of top leaders needed.

  1. The Strategists and the Visionaries (maybe 5% of the talent population).
  2. The Operators and the Executors (maybe 50-55% of the talent population).
  3. The Relators, the “people” people (maybe 35%)
  4. The Technicals (experts comprised of 2-5% of the talent population and the top 5% in their fields)

There are also “hybrids” (very rare) who can lead in more than one category above.

Each of the main four types has specific KSAs (knowledge, skills, and attributes) they need to do their work well. Oddly, with little overlap. It is common that those in Group 1, the Visionaries, are not good at running operations and not good at dealing with high maintenance people and stakeholders, and that those in Group 2, the Operators, are not the best strategists and are just ‘ok’ with managing well-performing people. Group 3, the Relators, are the people you want in front of all stakeholders, inside and outside the organization. Group 4, the high Technicals, typically stay in their lane of expertise, are not often effective facing stakeholders and most often will defer to Strategists and Operators to make the business go.

As learners of the Success University, each who fall into the main groups need different content and different treatment. Part of the task will be to provide differential content, as the KSAs are different for each group.

The Talent Review and Succession Planning processes should identify which group the up-and-coming (High Potentials and High Professionals) employees are in. It is best to identify and sort learners early enough to plan a development process for each.

Most existing corporate universities have a leveled curriculum. They have courseware and experiences planned for individual contributors, supervisors, managers, and leaders or executives.

When to Teach

Under the assumption of finite time and resources, there are two transitions that would benefit from collective education.

The first transition is when first-time supervisors and team leaders go from being an individual contributor to being a boss. Fifty percent fail, at least at the first try. Studies have shown that the “How to be a Manager” education should come after they have been promoted, about 3 to 6 months into the first placement. Attempts at preemptive education are less effective, as the candidates haven’t yet experienced either the appropriate pain or the need to know and have no legitimate day-to-day environment in which to apply the learning.

The second transition is into the world of top management: Politics. Stakeholders.  Material decisions (the buck stops here). PR. Legal authority for the organization.  Insider trading rules. Stewards of the culture.

Aside from those two transition points, we would leave the rest of level-specific education to take place on the job.

Our TalentTelligent team members are lifelong coaches. They have reviewed the 360 assessment results of hundreds of thousands of managers and leaders. They keep up on the research. Coaches are a valuable addition for corporate university programs and for individual development initiatives.

What to Teach

There are four things a centralized university and/or leader coaches should teach. Failure to address these four things gets lots of managers and leaders in trouble.

  1. Conflict management skills including empathic listening. All up-and-coming top managers and leaders need and would benefit from learning differential conflict resolution skills and the skills of appreciative inquiry. It is a central topic for a lot of coaching!
  2. Systems Theory. Part of being a great manager or leader is seeing the big picture in terms of meaningful patterns. It’s associative reasoning and problem analytics, putting the picture together from limited pieces and parts, knowing and understanding how things work, and understanding the organizational system, the market system, the regulatory system, and the business model are essential. It’s a lot!
  3. Mindfulness. Operating at full capacity requires a lot of self-awareness and self-management. Keeping feelings and emotions in check, acknowledging implicit biases, separating beliefs from facts, being able to operate in the “performance zone”, managing the stress of leadership yet living a balanced life, and understanding how the brain works, when it’s working.
  4. Self-awareness and the Common Language of Talent. All would benefit by learning the “Wikipedia of Talent” in having a model of talent management. What are the KSAs talent has and uses to be successful? Where do they get those KSAs from? How can an individual learn about strengths and developmental opportunities? There should be multiple opportunities to build self-awareness through tests, questionnaires, surveys, and exercises. All would benefit from knowing their personal portfolio of KSAs. The language of talent management needs to be objective, unambiguous and universally used across the system.

If we started today from scratch, we would have two level-specific curriculums–one for first-time managers and one for first-time executives. The rest of the functional and level-specific education would be on the job.

All would have access to the universal success building blocks of conflict management, listening skills, systems skills, mindfulness, and self- and other-awareness, all using a common language of talent.

Don’t forget to build with a diverse faculty with diverse perspectives–internal managers and executives teaching others and outside experts who bring in fresh views, ideas and experiences.