1999 Service Optimas Award Profile The Valspar Corporation

HR has created 12 job families that embrace the company's 3,830 different jobs. By focusing on core behaviors that cut across jobs, HR created aptitude tests, interview guides, and performance appraisal forms for its 12 job families.

At Valspar Corporation, developing worker competencies is like thumbing through the Yellow Pages. Managers can find what they need in a flash. It’s easy, systematic and comprehensive, says Gary E. Gardner, vice president of human resources and public affairs at the Minneapolis-based painting and coatings firm. However, Valspar’s tools for employee development and training didn’t come about without spilling buckets of HR sweat. “[Our management tools] weren’t conceived in a moment of trumpets,” says Gardner, who has worked for Valspar since 1979. “We didn’t know what we were doing when we started this effort.”

It began when Valspar’s Chairman Angus Wurtele delivered a speech to employees a few years ago. He noticed people talking at the back of the room. Upon further inquiry, he discovered that the Spanish-speaking workers required a translator. He thought, “If they can’t understand memos or read signs, how could they function effectively in their jobs?” The incident launched a discussion by management about how to improve the competencies and skills of its 3,833-person global workforce. Valspar, which reaped $1 billion in revenues last year, has faced the broader issue facing companies all across the world: A knowledge-based economy increasingly requires workers who demonstrate basic literacy, occupational skills—and winning personal traits.

Valspar’s HR thus began addressing this corporate imperative in 1993. By establishing a strong partnership between HR and company managers and employees, managers now are better equipped in the areas of employee selection, performance management and professional development. This wasn’t an easy endeavor considering that Valspar’s employees (from manufacturing workers to chemists) serve four distinct business groups: consumer, packaging, industrial and special products. Today, managers can refer to printed binders that walk them through every stage of worker competency development for every job in the company. And, yes, each one comes in a different color to boot.

The first collaboration began with Gardner and psychologist Tim Follick, president of Consulting Psychologists Inc. (CPI), a Minneapolis-based organization of industrial and organizational psychologists. The latter had already worked with Valspar for 16 years. Between Gardner’s business and functional knowledge, and Follick’s expertise in articulating the skills and attitudes that drive effective performance, the two men created a manager’s game plan. It’s for that achievement Valspar has been given the Workforce Magazine Optimas Award for Service.

Aptitude tests improve the selection procedure.
Gardner and Follick were concerned that many companies, including Valspar, failed to state job goals succinctly, offer feedback on accomplishments and evaluate employees based on the hiring and job goals. That’s why they initially focused on the manufacturing and production division: Turnover was high, and the quality of worker was disparagingly low. New hires were still costly, time-consuming—and a risk. Therefore, the two men decided to use aptitude tests as a way to begin measuring the desired competencies and skills. They consulted with successful managers and employees to create a list of desirable traits.

The aptitude tests, managers acknowledged, were helpful not only in screening, but also in placing workers. For example, if a manager learned from the test that an employee performed well with numbers, he or she could be placed in the warehouse where orders were fulfilled.

Once the manufacturing managers saw the benefit of these tests, word got around to the other departments. Within time, the entire company began to take notice. “Once we had those two successes [in manufacturing and sales], the organization went nuts,” says Gardner. To meet the increasing demands for similar service, he and Follick reexamined all of the job descriptions and clustered them into 12 job families, such as industrial sales, manager, chemist, technical service, administrative support and hourly production worker. “That was a breakthrough,” he says. HR could now take all 3,830 jobs and classify them into one job family or two.

Aptitude tests were just the beginning. Once applicants were given the tests, how were managers to conduct their follow-up interviews? Gardner and Follick took the next logical step. They created pre-employment interview guides for all 12 job families.

Competencies can be concretely measured.
Valspar, Gardner explains, is one of the largest coatings manufacturers in the world. As such, dedication to quality is one of its key corporate principles. Meeting customer requirements requires improved production efficiency and trained personnel. If a manager needs to hire an engineer, for example, he or she needs to align the interview questions with the competencies formulated within that job category.

So, in 1994, Gardner and Follick again approached managers and professionals as internal consultants. They asked about each job’s requirements. To illustrate: An engineer is accountable for such functions as working safely, maintaining documents, technical skills, managing projects and participating as an effective member of a team. The competencies to do that include strong interpersonal skills, good communication, good judgment, planning and execution skills—and more.

Therefore, the pre-employment interview guides took competencies such as “interpersonal skills” and further broke them down into skill-building strategies. Follick’s expertise kicked in at this point. As a psychologist, he was able to articulate the concrete values. Managers could assess a candidate or employee’s interpersonal skills by asking questions such as, “Have you ever had to work with a difficult person?”

At this point, Valspar executives and managers were beginning to “ooh and aah” over the aptitude tests and interview guides. “The beauty of the program, from a manager’s perspective, is the simplicity of the tool set. The guides are easy to follow for both the manager and employee,” says Mike Nageleisen, general manager of operations in Toronto.

As Gardner and Follick accepted praise, neither realized more was to follow. One day, while strolling through the Pittsburgh plant, Gardner noticed one of the technical directors preparing for a performance review. He saw the interview guide lying on the director’s desk. When asked what he was using it for, the director replied it also was useful in measuring his employee’s performance. Gardner suddenly saw the light. “It was one of those serendipitous events,” he explains. “How could I have been so stupid? Here, we’ve been spending all this time defining pre-employment competencies, conducting aptitude tests and using interview guides. Didn’t it make sense to now link them to performance reviews?” So by 1995, Valspar had 12 job families, 12 aptitude tests, 12 interview guides and 12 different performance appraisal forms. Once these tools were embraced, it was inevitable that Gardner and Follick would reach the highest stage of evolution: The Development Guides.

Development Guides arm managers with a roadmap.
Once the tests, interview guides and appraisal forms were put in place, Gardner and Follick didn’t rest on their laurels. They continued to interact with Valspar managers. “They had a renewed confidence in identifying an employee’s problem,” Gardner says. Before, a manager might complain that Harry’s numbers were bad. In other words, he wasn’t drumming up new clients. With the tests and performance appraisals, the same manager could now identify that Harry basically had poor organizational and planning skills.

Clearly, what was now missing was a plan of action—a roadmap for Harry’s manager. These roadmaps are what Gardner describes as the highest evolution of HR’s worker competency tools. But where would he find the curriculum to assist the managers? Again, serendipity intervened.

Gardner recalls one of his visits to a company that specialized in training. While sitting in the lobby, he eyed a small brochure entitled, “Tips on Improving Job Performance.” The three-page brochure, he says, begat Valspar’s Development Guides in late 1995. So if an employee was identified as having poor interpersonal relationships, the guides would break that problem down even further by identifying these four areas: relationship building, teamwork, ability to resolve conflict and sensitivity. Having narrowed down the behaviors, managers can then follow a five-page list of suggested activities that would improve the employee’s aptitude in this area. For example, a manager who wants to develop a chemist’s ability to influence can identify no less than 20 different on-the-job activities, such as:

  • Understand buyer’s psychology.
  • Recognize buying signals.
  • Be flexible.

“We learn on the job by doing,” says Gardner, noting that the tools were all produced within HR’s general budget. The results? In addition to the company’s record profits, he observes “more development occurring in the firm. The technical organization is using the process the most. They like the fact that it clearly lays out performance expectations and gives them the tools they need to evaluate performance and create development plans.”

In terms of training, Gardner says one-time training didn’t work. When HR first rolled out the tools, the process didn’t stick. Human resources needed to reinforce the knowledge to make it understood. “A combination of training, follow-up and boss support in using the process is the most effective approach,” he says.

The funny thing, he observes, is that Valspar’s evolution of worker competency has gone full circle. What emerged as tools for managers to evaluate and develop workers is now being used for managers. “We need to work on them, too.”

Workforce, March 1999, Vol. 78, No. 3, pp. 72-75.