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The Overlooked Highest Performers

Ironically, the most important workers sometimes don’t receive adequate training. Herman Miller is looking to change that.

May 29, 2004
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The people who are most important to running a company today--and would most immediately be missed--often receive the least amount of leadership training, says Linda Milanowski, director of learning and development for Herman Miller, the 82-year-old-furniture maker.

    These people are experts in functional areas--such as IT or operations--but have no interest in growing into general management positions. They are, in the classification system used by Herman Miller, "high performance, low potential" employees or "deep pros."

    When Herman Miller launched a leadership development training program, the company knew that it wanted to include the often-overlooked deep pros, but it also appreciated that these people did not want or need the same kind of training as the traditional "high potentials."

    Herman Miller implemented its leadership-training program at a daunting period-- in the aftermath the dot-com bust. Company sales plummeted by 40 percent from 2000 to 2003, and the number of employees was slashed by 60 percent. In this period of retrenchment, Herman Miller spent $500,000 on the leadership-training program for the first 40 leaders.

    "Given our downsizing, we knew we had to invest in people’s development to ensure succession planning, bench strength and retention" of key workers, Milanowski says.

    Herman Miller divided its employees into nine classifications, adapted from the book "The Leadership Machine" by Michael M. Lombardo and Robert W. Eichinger. The first phase of the training was earmarked for those who would be future general-management candidates--the "high potentials" who fell into slots 7, 8, and 9.

    The senior managers, however, realized immediately that they couldn’t ignore the deep pros, or the 4s. These are the "high performance, low potential" who are important technical performers or unit functional managers who may not want to or cannot do anything else.

    "We didn’t want the 4s to wonder why they were left out of the training and think their performance wasn’t high enough," Milanowski says. "While you will miss the 7, 8 and 9s in the long run if they leave, you will miss the 4s right away, because those are the leaders who were selecting our software and handling our facilities, which are very important to us."

    Indeed, one employee, designated as a 4, was miffed that he was not included in the earlier training with the 7s, 8s, and 9s. He was a high-level director who wanted to be a vice president, but his boss was candid that he didn’t anticipate that happening.

    "We have to pay attention to the 4s, and make it attractive to be a 4," Milanowski says. "We have to develop career tracks that are attractive to people who want to grow in their field."

    Also, as people change jobs, they can move to new classifications. Six people who went through the first class of training as 7s--"high performance, middle potential"-- have since been reclassified as 4s.

    The deep pros, Herman Miller discovered, had some common deficiencies around communication skills and strategic thinking. These people would often sit at a table with leaders from other areas of the business and talk in the jargon of their area of specialty, using too many technical details. Because of this, the training for deep pros will focus on five areas: conflict skills, change skills, dealing with ambiguity, managing a vision and connecting with senior leadership.

    In the first wave of the program for the high-potentials, the training material was developed and conducted in-house. Herman Miller appreciated that the deep pros needed more individualized training, and outsourced development of this part to Aon. Total cost of the leadership training for the deep pros will be $5,000 to $10,000 per trainee, spread over two years.

    The deep-pros training will begin in March with an introduction to the leadership program and a 360-degree review of each employee’s capabilities. Over the next few quarters, the training will continue individually and in groups, along with counseling from coaches. The deep pros will proceed to learning projects aligned with corporate strategy where they "will be exposed to things like customer thinking to get them outside their functional box," Milanowski says.

    The deep pros are often overlooked in general training programs because many assume that their needs are so specific to their jobs that their training is taken care of in their functional area, Milanowski says. "It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that and to not do anything else for them."

    And when that happens, the deep pros can become disillusioned and leave. Milanowski says they take with them not only their expertise but also their steadying presence, since they tend to be the type of consistent leaders that others in the organization look to for stability.

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