An innovative leadership development program provides emerging leaders with a holistic view of the customer experience.
Aligning a customer-centric vision across the organization requires a dedicated leader who understands the inner workings of the various functions and can connect the points along the customer journey. What if, instead of one leader, your entire leadership team had that capability?
At Cross Country Home Services (CCHS), an innovative leadership development program aims to do just that. CCHS, the country’s leading provider of home warranty products and maintenance plans, has long been driven by its customer-centric mission to “Do it right, first time, every time.” As such, the company places a strong emphasis on employee training and development—all contact center associates and new-hires receive more than 40,000 hours of training annually, and staff have access to 360 self-paced courses via their desktops.
In October 2013, CCHS’ learning & development team, working with contact center leadership, launched the Leadership Development G.E.A.R. program, which is designed to equip the company’s existing and future leadership with hands-on experience of the day-to-day operation of each function, and provide a big-picture view of how those pieces impact the customer experience, says Learning & Development Director Diana Conn.
G.E.A.R., which stands for goals, engagement, accountability, results, requires a 12-month commitment in which select individuals among the contact center’s top talent leave their current job to immerse themselves in on-the-job training within various business units. The G.E.A.R. approach to learning and development provides participants with the opportunity to grow their leadership skills through ongoing, continuous, hands-on learning within the context of a day-to-day business, Conn adds.
It’s a remarkable approach that impressed the judges at the Stevie Awards for Sales & Customer Service. In 2014, CCHS’ Learning and Development team was recognized with a Gold Stevie Award for Customer Service Training Team of the Year, as well as a Silver Training and Education Award at the 2014 Golden Bridge Awards for Business and Innovation.
Building an Internal Talent Pipeline
To design the G.E.A.R. program, Conn partnered with CCHS’ contact center senior leadership to ensure that the program’s objectives were aligned to the contact center’s specific needs. G.E.A.R. offers a two-pronged approach to development—one part focuses on CCHS’ incumbent leaders, allowing them to continuously improve and expand their existing skill levels. The other component is designed for emerging leaders—those high-performing frontline associates who could potentially take on a future leadership role within the organization.
A unique component of the program for both existing and emerging leaders provides the participants with the opportunity to apply what they’ve learned under the guidance of a mentor from the contact center’s executive leadership team with whom they interact on a daily, weekly and monthly basis as they go through the program.
Enhancing Existing Leaders’ Skills
Incumbent leaders who participate in the G.E.A.R. program grow their skill sets through a variety of soft-skills, business and operations training, using a blended approach that includes traditional classroom instruction along with technology-based modules, such as e-learning, virtual classroom and simulations, and interactive methods like assessments, networking and coaching.
The incumbent leader program consists of six tracks that include hands-on project work with a mentor’s support. Here’s how it works: A participant is assigned to a specific project—for instance, employee engagement. The participant takes part in a variety of workshops and employs external resources and tools to research trends, strategies and practices. He or she then reviews the organization’s employee engagement survey results and identifies an opportunity and target action items. “Participants are guided by their executive mentors as they work through the project to apply what they learn in the classroom environment to the research that they conduct and the collaboration with other areas within the company,” Conn explains.
Incumbent leader participants also participate in one-week rotations within various business units where they have the opportunity to “work crossfunctionally with other teams and leaders toward specific goals,” she adds. The rotations ensure that participants develop a clear understanding of each department’s structure, processes and performance metrics, so that they can “effectively set goals to improve partnerships,” Conn says.
Developing Emerging Leaders
With emerging leaders, the G.E.A.R. program provides the opportunity for top-performing frontline contact center associates to leave their job for 12 months to immerse themselves in leadership learning and development activities.
The emerging leader participants spend their year working through six two-month rotational assignments in various departments, such as membership services, quality assurance and workforce management.
“There, they learn processes, apply skills, evaluate their performances, and incorporate feedback toward improvement,” Conn says. “By grasping the bigger picture of how each unit supports the other, these employees are trained and motivated to provide better customer service and work toward their career goals.”
Rigorous Selection Process for Emerging Leaders
With a year-long commitment to developing an individual’s knowledge and skills, naturally, a thorough selection process is in place to identify those individuals with the best potential, as well as the drive and motivation to complete an intense training program.
To be considered, associates need the recommendation of their current manager. They must then fill out an application and submit an essay in which they explain why they want to participate in the program, how they intend to apply what they’ve learned upon completion, and where they think that they will be able to make the most significant impact within the company.
A steering committee led by Conn and comprised of leaders from the contact center, human resources and learning & development, reviews the applications for previous experience within CCHS as well as other work experience, and significant contributions. “We’re not necessarily looking for previous leadership experience,” she points out. “We’re looking for real-life examples of ingenuity, creative approaches, problem-solving, process improvement, communication ability and different perspectives.”
Once the steering committee has reviewed the applications, the top candidates are brought in for a panel interview to discuss the pertinence of their current role to the organization’s mission and goals, observations that they’ve made about processes, and what changes they would make if they were in a leadership role and why. The panel discussion is designed to challenge candidates to think beyond their current role, and to help panel members gauge the candidate’s drive and motivation.
The selection process itself is a valuable learning experience for frontline staff. “For many candidates, it may be their first time taking part in a panel interview or putting together an essay, so we offer coaching throughout that process,” Conn says.
Those who are not selected to participate are provided with a developmental plan and skills to focus on for the next selection period.
Positive Outlook for Participants and the Business
The first group of participants graduated from the G.E.A.R. program this past December. Upon completing the program, each participant met with Conn’s team to review their experience, their exposure to the different departments, which areas they felt most passionate about and where they felt that they could have the most impact. Conn took that feedback to the steering committee members, who enthusiastically negotiated for the graduates. “It wasn’t a matter of how do we place them—the discussions were about how to place them where they felt they could be most impactful as well as where we could leverage their skill sets,” Conn says.
All of the first-round participants have been scheduled to advance into new leadership roles and responsibilities in 2015, she says. In addition, G.E.A.R. graduates are participating in the program again, this time acting as mentors for the new group of participants who started the program in January. “They will be an additional support mechanism for entering group. They will be conducting roundtable discussions and sharing their knowledge as they’ve gone through the program the year before, and helping to coach the participants,” she adds.
Besides producing a new leaders with a comprehensive skill sets, what other benefits did G.E.A.R. produce in its first year? Providing the participants a holistic view of the organization helped them to recognize redundancies and streamline processes as they worked through their rotations, Conn says. She recalls how one frontline employee who was his fourth rotation was able to identify opportunities in the process that he was learning. “By leveraging his executive mentor and asking the right questions, he put together what he thought might be an important process change. He was able to sell that to the team, which made the change to the business process,” she says. “It’s very exciting to see a frontline associate who is able to recognize the impact of what happens three steps up the road, and then have the confidence to make that change happen.”
Executive Sponsorship Is Key
Understandably, an intensive learning and development program like G.E.A.R. requires a significant investment from the organization. The key to obtaining companywide support and resources, Conn says, is having executive sponsorship and collaboration from the beginning. “Having that steering committee of business owners as well as human resources and learning & development is the key to immersing learning and development into the culture,” Conn says.
“We strive to provide programs that prepare, inspire, support and develop our associates, so that they can deliver on our brand promise to provide hassle-free, cost-effective home solutions, as well as grow their careers,” she adds. “We designed G.E.A.R. with the idea of fostering continuous learning, and having an impact on employee engagement and collaboration. Our continued investment in programs like G.E.A.R. provides the foundation for our talent management, our progression planning, our career growth—and makes CCHS a great place to work. All of our employee-centric efforts culminate in the learning and development experience and driving our culture.”