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A Culture of Leadership

Unisys says its goal isn't to develop 25 key leaders, it's to develop 2,500 of them.

September 18, 2003
Related Topics: Behavioral Training
Large Company
Name: Unisys Corp.
Location: Blue Bell, Pennsylvania
Business: Information technology services and solutions company
Employees: 37,000

Company culture is founded on an infrastructure of leadership, says RayJackson, associate dean of the leadership school at Unisys University. The firmencourages employees from all ranks to take advantage of the comprehensivetraining program.

“Leaders set the tone of an organization. If you want to influence thebusiness, you have to focus on leadership development,” he says. “Our goalis not to develop 25 key leaders, it’s to develop 2,500 leaders throughout theorganization.”

It’s a radical approach in a world where leadership development is usuallysaved for a few high-performing individuals. “Corporate America beats theleadership skills out of most managers,” Jackson says. “The work routine isso task oriented, they lose sight of the primary strategic goals of the company.”In the three and a half years since the leadership school was launched atUnisys, 2,200 employees have gone through the program, which is open to anyoneinterested in expanding his or her leadership skills.

Unisys CEO Larry Weinbach started the program and opened it up to all levelsof employees to foster a culture in which leadership skills are celebrated andencouraged, Jackson says. Weinbach is the leadership school’s acting dean, afrequent class speaker, and a vocal champion of the program. He believes thatdeveloping leaders across the company will create an environment that can changeand adapt to the economy, making Unisys a better company.

The leadership curriculum at Unisys features six courses within two tracksfocusing on culture and leadership skills. The classroom-based courses are twoto five days long and cover core topics such as developing management and teamleadership skills, understanding culture-change issues, and understanding theimpact that leaders have on performance. “We built a simple curriculum thatdrives consistency and shapes our culture of leadership,” Jackson says.

The skills courses use traditional leadership-training formats, such aspracticing communication skills with peers and working with assessment tools,whereas the culture courses are more informal, employing a conversational tone.In fact, the culture courses are referred to as “conversations,” in whichcourse leaders introduce specific topics, such as how to influence the Unisysculture through leadership or the roles that leaders play as learners andteachers. Participants discuss how those issues relate to their own jobperformance and brainstorm solutions to specific workplace problems.

Even though some courses last five days, the school has no trouble fillingseats. Leadership training is seen as a priority at Unisys, even in lean times,because it’s part of the culture, Jackson says. The entire executive team hasgone through both training tracks, and they regularly return to day sessions,both as speakers and as peers, to share a problem or to monitor the leadershipconcerns of other employees. “That’s a powerful and unique show of executivesupport,” Jackson says.

The programs are not mandatory, nor are they limited to management. Almostanyone can sign up with the support of his or her superiors, and many of thosejunior employees who attend come at the urging of their bosses. At a recentjunior session of the five-day cultural-leadership course, for example, 95percent of attendees had been referred to the course after their managerscompleted it.

Jackson feels that recommendations are a large part of the school’ssuccess. “It’s a real shot in the arm when a manager tells an employee totake the class, and it says a lot about the value of the program.”

And when managers know that subordinates have taken the training, they feelmore compelled to incorporate what they learned into their management style. Forexample, in a recent cultural-leadership course, a participant said that hermanager had taken the training but nothing changed. Then, two weeks later,Jackson received an e-mail from her. She said she was working late one night andher boss stopped in to chat about changing their approach to a project. The mostcompelling part of the e-mail, says Jackson, was the last sentence. She saidthat in the six years she’d worked at Unisys, he’d never stopped by heroffice to chat. “That tells me he was enlightened by the program,” Jacksonsays. And because he knew that others on his team had gone through the training,he realized that it was time to change his behavior and to take action. “Wheneveryone is exposed to an idea, they hold each other accountable.”

To further support and encourage attendees after class and to maximize theimpact of the training, Jackson helps attendees set up ongoing networkingopportunities. It’s not a required part of the course, but people are soexcited about the leadership experience that they want to continue to discussit, he says. The school hosts a moderated online message board and promotesweekly lunch discussion groups in various offices, many of which regularly have30 or more attendees. “The response has been enormous,” Jackson says. Hereceives dozens of e-mails weekly from former students, some of whom took thepilot course in 1999. “The training is so compelling, some people keep comingback,” he says. “It has had a powerful impact on the Unisys culture.”

Workforce, October 2002, p. 84 -- Subscribe Now!

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