Getting the Job Done on Class Time

MetLife's Joie Townsend says "we don't do learning for learning's sake."

May 29, 2004

When Metlife Inc. decided to jump into customized executive education for its managers, the New York-based insurance and financial services company set out with specific and ambitious goals. The 49,000-employee firm, which has more than $39.2 billion in annual revenue, wanted a leadership training program that blended general business instruction with specific case studies from the company. It wanted professors with demonstrated expertise in fields the company wished to stress, and for those professors to share lecture duties with corporate executives. And it wanted course projects to be real initiatives hatched by the company and made ready for implementation by class participants.

    In 2001, MetLife sought many of the components that large companies now demand from executive education programs. By using real company projects, it had a built-in way of measuring how well participants performed: whether a project was implemented by the company.

    "We were looking for a way to get our high-potential, high-performing people from middle management to the junior officer level and to expand their perspective on how a business operates," says Joie Townsend, MetLife’s vice president of learning and development. "Essentially we wanted to give them things they would encounter in an MBA program but customize it so it can be applied to everyday life at MetLife."

    Plenty of schools were eager to oblige, and MetLife considered about two dozen before settling on Babson College, a private liberal arts school in Wellesley, Massachusetts. The college has a well-regarded business school with an extensive executive education program. At Babson, MetLife found professors with the expertise the company desired and a willingness to design an education program tailored to the company’s needs.

    "Customization was really important," Townsend says. "One of the big criteria was to find a school that could customize to the level we wanted. We didn’t just want a class on how to read balance sheets, but what that means to MetLife."

    Babson worked with company executives in 2001 to craft a two-week course that has the requisite blend of faculty instruction, corporate executive participation and company project work. Groups of 22 to 40 MetLife managers spend 12 days at Babson in two six-day blocks of classes split by a six-week break during which they work on specific projects. Company executives come up with lists of proposed project ideas, and small teams of class participants choose which ones to work on. The finished projects are presented to juries of company executives who decide whether to move forward on the initiatives.

    The classes themselves follow a progressive pattern, starting with a faculty member discussing a business principle or issue, then moving on to how the principle works in MetLife’s industry and then how it operates within MetLife, with a corporate executive arriving to discuss the topic and answer questions. Babson and MetLife have updated and modified the program since its launch in 2001, but the general framework remains the same.

    So far, the company has found the Babson experience rewarding not just for the managers who go through it but for the company as well. Since the program’s inception, 208 MetLife managers have participated and tackled more than 40 projects. Of those, 82 percent have been implemented by the company, and another 10 percent are waiting to be implemented. Less than 10 percent of the projects were dropped.

    Townsend considers those statistics a validation of the program’s worth, a strong indication that the company is getting a high return on investment. "We don’t do learning for learning’s sake at MetLife," Townsend says. "All of our learning is targeted to meeting specific business needs. One way of making that link pretty tight was in having folks work directly on business projects. Models and concepts are nice, but they don’t move the company forward."

Workforce Management, March 2005, pp. 58-59 -- Subscribe Now!