Article written by Robert U Craven CEO at MegaFood
When I came to MegaFood in 2011, the company wasn’t thinking much about professional development. That’s not unusual in itself. The company had a great reputation but was small, and growth was the top priority. However, I had been bitten by the learning and teaching bug in my twenties after earning an MBA and striking out on my own as a freelance business consultant. I had developed a habit of seeking out (and giving out) tips, advice, know-how, and opinions every chance I got.
I also worked at Proctor & Gamble, which is one of the best training organizations in the world. P&G is committed to developing their future leaders from the inside, a practice that’s made them a kind of leadership factory in addition to being highly successful in their space.
I wanted to adapt my passion for learning and teaching to MegaFood but wasn’t certain how to start. My solution was to start small.
I bought eight copies of Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and started a voluntary book club with my leadership team. On Tuesdays, we sat around the kitchen table and drank coffee and talked about the book. We found it inspiring enough that we wanted to do this regularly. I eventually asked my coach Nick van Nice if he would lead the sessions.
We followed up over the next several months with books like The Oz Principle, How Did that Happen?, The Advantage, Death by Meeting, and Crucial Conversations — the kind of books that seek to help readers tap into creativity, unlock innovation and collaborate better by recognizing and cutting through the fears and other baggage that makes us unproductive. We gave the book club a name — Flight School — to signify that its goal was to give our leaders wings to fly. We began each session by saying, “Welcome to Flight School where we come to grow our leadership and capacity to lead others.”
A year after starting the book club, we made Flight School mandatory for top level directors and vice presidents. As word got out about the program, more and more people wanted to be a part of it. We slowly began to add managers and “star” contributors recommended by their supervisors.
After a short period of trying to make the old format work with more people, we made three very good decisions. First, we surveyed participants for feedback about the curriculum, format etc. The survey told us that participants wanted the course content to align more closely with their levels of responsibilities. We revamped the program to include three tracks — leaders of leaders, leaders of others, and leaders of self. The survey also told us members vastly preferred to meet in small groups where the focus was on interacting rather than “being taught.” We addressed this concern by adopting the 70-20-10 rule and flipped the class format to emphasize interactive discussion rather than formal training.
Second, we kept the initiative in-house. Resisting the urge to hire an outside training firm, we tapped the expertise of our own people to develop and deliver the Flight School curriculum. After all we were hiring people with tons of expertise and passion for their work and who were participating in Flight School themselves. Who better to lead others in learning about things like crucial conversations, delegating, managing up and a host of other topics? For each weekly session, instructors spent 10 or 15 minutes teaching, and the remainder of the time focused on small group discussion of several questions posed by the instructors at the end of their lessons.
The third smart thing we did was create a certification piece for those who wanted to push themselves to the limit. This included readings, writing assignments and experiential learning activities over the course of a full year. We even offered different certification levels to reflect deeper commitments to the program, and awarded “Wings” to graduates as a badge of pride.
Looking back, I’m amazed that we got this puppy off the ground. We were in the process of trying to double our revenues and grow our team by 30%, but through it all we insisted on devoting an hour a week to making ourselves smarter, nimbler and more collaborative.
I’m glad we not only stuck with it, but actually grew it into something much bigger and, even more important, something the whole company could take pride in.
In 2014, Stephanie Manners, who leads our People Team, and Ashley Larochelle, our Vision Activation Manager, took over Flight School leadership, using their own experiences as members to gradually begin to create yet a new and more inclusive vision for the program. Today, the program has about 80 participants who come from all managerial ranks of the company. Our idea is to scale the program in 2018 and be able to offer it to all who work at MegaFood, which right now is around 204.
Growing Flight School was cool, but the real story is how Flight School managed to reflect our company’s changing mission and culture, while simultaneously driving these very changes. How and why this happened will be the topic of my next blog. Until then, let me know how your company invests in training its people — we are always looking to learn about new and exciting ways we can take our leadership to the next level.
PS: All credit to my ghost-writing partner, Dave Moore, who is instrumental in getting my thoughts out in a coherent manner & into these blogs. Thanks Dave!