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World Class People Development in Alberta (Case Study)
Written by: Michael Timms
In talking with business leaders about implementing a world class people development process in their companies, one often hears: “We just don’t have the budget for that sort of program.” Or, “We’re a very low-tech company. We’re not sophisticated enough to have world class anything.” Many business leaders and HR professionals believe that creating a world class people development process in their organization is beyond their reach.
If thoughts like those have ever crossed your mind, then perhaps you haven’t heard about what’s going on at Alberta Beverage Container Recycling Corporation. ABCRC is an Alberta-based company with locations in Calgary and Edmonton employing about 170 employees. ABCRC collects beverage containers from over 220 bottle depots across Alberta and then compacts, bails, and sells them to recyclers across North America. That might not sound as sexy as a high-tech start-up, but their mission is no less inspiring. Their goal is to keep Alberta beautiful by promoting environmentally sustainable measures.
“Sustainability is not simply an ‘environmental’ thing” stated ABCRC’s president, Guy West. He believes that “thinking sustainably is a business imperative and should be a core executive competence. It means being proactive to create long-term success.”
The long-term perspective shared by ABCRC’s management team is what motivated them in 2017 to make a dramatic shift in how they develop their people to create an internal pipeline of leadership talent.
Preparing The Management Team
In May, 2017, ABCRC partnered with Avail Leadership, a leadership development firm that specializes in teaching executives how to develop other leaders within their organization. Through a series of workshops, ABCRC’s management team learned how world class people development works and what they needed to do to weave people development into the culture of their organization. They discovered that the key to turning their organization in to a people development machine was not to create some complicated, expensive training program, but rather to proactively design development opportunities into every-day work.
Establishing the Process
STEP 1 – DEFINE PROMOTION CRITERIA
The first step ABCRC took to create an internal pipeline of talent was to define consistent criteria for promotion within the company. Through a series of focus groups, managers and non-managers identified the most important leadership behaviours that produce superior business outcomes at ABCRC, such as higher employee engagement, improved efficiencies, and higher trust among stakeholders. They call the behaviours that lead to these outcomes their “Cornerstones of Leadership.”
All promotion decisions are now based primarily on how well employees demonstrate these Cornerstones of Leadership, rather than primarily on technical competence or tenure which are the most common promotion criteria in most organizations, and which are comparatively poor predictors of leadership success.
STEP 2 – IMPLEMENT CAREER DEVELOPMENT DISCUSSIONS
The second step was to establish effective career development discussions. This involved separating career development discussions from the performance review. Performance discussions are backwards looking. Career development is forward looking. They are distinctly different discussions and should be treated as such. If career development was going to be a priority at ABCRC, senior managers knew they needed to deliberately create a separate time to hold these important discussions with staff.
Establishing effective career development discussions with staff also included training managers to be “career coaches”. Managers first learned how to assist employees in their career planning and development by focusing on their strengths, rather than the traditional weakness-based development that tends to dominate career development discussions at most organizations. Managers also received tools to help employees plan and navigate their career, working with them to think of creative development activities that would go far beyond simply “take a course.”
STEP 3 – ESTABLISH A PEOPLE COMMITTEE
Employees who indicate a desire to advance their career at ABCRC, and who demonstrate the Cornerstones of Leadership, are considered for inclusion in ABCRC’s formal succession plan. Several senior managers, including ABCRC’s president, formed a special committee to review nominations of employees to be included in the company’s succession plan. The committee then brainstormed creative development activities that would fast-track the development of these employees, whom they refer to as “Cornerstone Employees.” ABCRC’s People Committee meets several times a year to review nominations and to put additional thought into the development plans of Cornerstone Employees.
Building On The Foundation
ABCRC’s new people development process is truly world class in its scope and focus. It not only feeds their succession planning process, it also benefits all employees who want to broaden their skillset or deepen their expertise.
The greatest shift in ABCRC’s people development efforts was a shift from the traditional ‘training’ mindset that most organizations associate with people development, to an experiential learning mindset—learning by doing. Following that change in mindset, the program has continued to evolve to facilitate experiential learning. Under the direction of ABCRC’s president and with input from others, ABCRC has established ten working committees with a dual purpose:
- address important business initiatives such as collective bargaining, moving to a new facility, safety, and an ERP implementation;
- help multiple people acquire the skills and experience they need to lead these types of initiatives in the future.
The great Roman leader Julius Caesar may have coined the proverb: “Experience is the greatest teacher”, but ABCRC operationalized it. “We knew that forming these working committees would provide fantastic development opportunities for our staff,” said Mike Battista, ABCRC’s HR Manager, “but I don’t think we fully anticipated the positive effect it would have on employee engagement”. To highlight his point, Battista shared the following comments from employees.
“I feel strongly that the committee approach was very effective. The members of this team were very well selected as everyone brings a specialty and a perspective that provided great value.”
“Excellent questions were asked and answered throughout the planning process and everyone was engaged.”
“I feel valued as an employee to be part of this committee because I was engaged and asked for my suggestions. Moreover, it allowed me work with co-workers from other departments which made me learn more about team-work and appreciate the views that other staff members have.”
Leading from the Top
The key to ABCRC’s success is that people development and succession planning was not dumped on HR’s plate. ABRCR’s president, Guy West, recognized that people development needed to be a top strategic priority if ABCRC was going to continue to be a leader in Canada’s recycling industry. From there, the senior management team took ownership for implementing the process and became the company’s first career coaches.
ABCRC’s HR Manager, Mike Battista, helps facilitate the process with a light touch. HR may help clear obstacles and track progress against established metrics to ensure the program is staying on course, but the driving force behind people development at ABCRC is the commitment of the entire senior management team to put their people first.
Michael Timms is founder of Avail Leadership – a leadership development firm that specializes in helping organizations implement world class people development.