An asynchronous perspective of a leadership development program

One year ago we started thinking about a new leadership development program for eMAG. The needs of our leaders changed and became more diverse as the company grew. We started with a deep research phase. We talked to HR Business Partners and people managers in the organization to get insights. We took our time to analyze what we have discovered and built a long-term strategy we knew was so bold it was still a bit out of reach. But we were ready to take the first steps when COVID hit.

We took some time to figure out what was the best pathway, and we launched the program in mid-June. I’m a people manager in eMAG, and I can honestly say I love it. Mostly because it allows me to handpick whatever resources I need, without being bound to go through the whole experience just because the L&D team says so. Since I felt it was the kind of program we should talk about more, I brought a piece of it to Offbeat. I had a talk with Bianca Guta, Organizational Development Director in eMAG about what happened so far and what’s next.

Let’s dive in!

Why did the need for a new leadership development program come up?

We designed Leadership Habits, our leadership development program, at the intersection of multiple events or needs:

  1. COVID wiped out every plan we had regarding traditional learning & development. In March, when we have just finished planning this fiscal year’s initiatives, we had to shift to an entirely new way of working. We abruptly realized that we need to reinvent ourselves, both as a team and our whole practice. From an “in-class” approach for every need in the organization, we stopped and observed how the environment around us is changing.
  2. Our organization went into overdrive; new projects, teams, and tasks appeared overnight. Although the long term promise development programs make are often bypassed by short term plans, the need for extra support arose more often than before.
  3. In the early days of the pandemic, every employee’s level of uncertainty and anxiety increased exponentially. Each of us was in a survival mental state, so learning wasn’t on anyone’s agenda in the short term. The pressure put on people managers at this time was huge.
  4. I genuinely believe it’s our team’s mission first to understand what makes a great manager and then be ready to design and apply a made to measure plan to support and develop each of them. Last year, we first started thinking about building a centralized development program for all people managers.
  5. People in our company change jobs a lot. We think someone’s experience should not differ in a lot of ways when he/she changes managers. After going through most of the research about what makes a good manager (e.g., Google’s Project Oxygen), we wanted to replicate it internally. We found ourselves sitting on a mountain of insights after looking at different data sets and interviewing internal stakeholders or managers.

What’s the purpose of the program?

This program aims to help managers develop habits that will guide them into building performant, engaged and autonomous teams.

We decided to shift the focus from developing competencies to developing small but meaningful habits. Our purpose was to speak in our client’s tongue and make it seem simple, accessible, and impactful.

Even though we did not scale our resources compared to last year’s initiatives, our purpose was to reach and support every manager. While also making them hungry for learning and curious about their development.

How does the learning journey look like?

Based on our research, we identified four categories of behaviors that will help managers achieve their potential. We incorporated these findings into our plan, and now they represent the program’s modules:

  1. Essential habits for managers, where we focus on understanding the employee lifecycle and all people-related processes in our organization. This is the module where we talk about employer branding, recruitment, feedback, or engagement;
  2. Habits for personal growth are focused on self-awareness and developing behaviors that will help us grow on a personal level. For e.g. change management and emotional intelligence).
  3. Habits for effective teams means learning about team dynamics, collaboration, and trust or conflict resolution.
  4. Habits for great results help us build critical skills for delivering results. So we talk a lot about strategic and critical thinking, customer focus, or decision making.

Each module contains different initiatives designed to appeal to any taste in learning.

  • Learning resources: a collection containing the best-curated articles, online courses, podcasts, and books that can be accessed anytime, anywhere.
  • In-class workshops on different topics with internal or external trainers.
  • Open sessions: live presentations and QA sessions, custom made for our organization, with nationally recognized experts.

Tell me a bit about what are your more specific goals and ways of measuring this program’s impact.

In essence, every people manager’s mission is to create engagement, productivity, and retention over time.

Having a strong analytical background, I believe in data-informed decisions. If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.

Independent of the program, it’s been four years since we started measuring specific KPIs that can also help us assess this program’s ROI. As a goal, we’re trying to look at two types of measurements: perception measurements and reality measurements. For example, we started looking at data about employee engagement for each manager (we call it manager index), employee retention, and exit reasons. I think these are long-term KPIs, and we will be able to tell you after one year or two if we were successful.

If we talk mainly about this program, a big, hairy, audacious goal for us was that every one of ±500 managers should be active in the first six months. If we look at the participation rate in the first four months, we are at 92%.  

We also analyze the NPS score for each initiative (internal/external), and we pivot by taking into consideration our clients’ feedback. For example, looking at this feedback, we pivoted along the way. We changed some subjects we approached, the type of learning experience, trainers, or started developing new initiatives.

How are you communicating the initiatives?

We have a monthly newsletter addressed to the people managers in the organization. Your newsletter (Offbeat) is really cool and serves as a source of inspiration.

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How did the internal clients receive this leadership development program?

With curiosity and better than we expected.

People made time for learning and self-care, and we wouldn’t bet on that at the beginning. We are constantly receiving informal feedback that they want more. And we hope to start co-creating the experiences based on their needs.

What are the most common challenges you’ve seen along the way?

The most common challenges were:

  • Designing the program remotely – switching to working from home was difficult at first, particularly for creative or complex tasks.
  • Promoting at the best time some of the initiatives, from the participants’ availability perspective.
  • Being able to measure if we deliver the best content with the most appropriate resources.
  • Creating spaces for informal collaboration.

The biggest challenge is helping people choose the right learning experience for them.

We’ve tested some things and we are starting to understand what works and what doesn’t. What are your plans for the next phases of the program?

When it comes to immediate plans, we are building a leadership community around the program. Using it, we plan to connect the participants by facilitating discussions about hand-picked case-studies on topics of interest.

In the long term, we are thinking about ways to personalize the learning experience and providing the right tools or the proper setup for self-assessment and progress review.

I’ve been talking to a lot of our peers who are also thinking about setting up such a program. What would you advise them?

  1. Take a step back and be aware of your blind spots.
  2. Get to know your managers and use everything you have at your disposal (data, qualitative research, etc.). Find out who they are, what makes them tick, what their teams or the organization expect from them. Try to be objective, and don’t forget that you are not your client. Don’t set up a program that is only on your/your manager’s/the CEO’s agenda.
  3. Be bold: sometimes, the worst timing might be the best one.
  4. Do your homework and don’t make promises you can’t keep.
  5. Don’t underestimate people’s willingness to learn or capacity to surprise you – be ready to pivot every time it’s necessary.

Good luck with your own leadership development program!

A strong believer in data-driven HR and people processes that build high-performing and engaged teams.

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