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Winging it at Boeing's Leadership Center

September 29, 2000
Related Topics: Behavioral Training, Featured Article
The food is gourmet quality and the service four-star, making a one-ortwo-week stay at Boeing’s Leadership Center a refreshing change of pace fromthe day-to-day pressures of ordinary work responsibilities. But for the morethan 7,000 Boeing executives and up-and-coming managers who will attend atraining session here this year, the experience is not intended to be allrelaxation.

"The one word everyone used in describing their experience before I wentwas ‘intense’ and now that I’ve been, I’m finding myself using the sameword," said Tom Young, director of advertising for the company’s militaryaircraft and missile division, and a former fighter pilot familiar with"intense" experiences. "It was intense,but it was one of the mostuseful intense experiences I’ve ever had."

Added Larry Milligan, a facilities manager at the company’s Anaheim,California, location, "Before I went, I heard it referred to as the ‘velvetprison,’ because once you get there you’re stuck. You can’t leave becauseyou have no car. But the truth is once you are there you don’t need to leaveand you don’t want to leave. You are learning too much."

On the 286- acre campus snuggled against a hillside that overlooks theconfluence of the Missouri, Illinois, and Mississippi Rivers in northwestsuburban St. Louis, the three lodge buildings that make up Boeing’s LeadershipCenter provide just the right mix of a secluded, well-appointed, andwell-equipped location for the task at hand.

And that task is part academic and part social, providing a central locationto help everyone from the company’s chief executive down to newly mintedmanagers hone their work and leadership skills within a custom-designedcurriculum.

"Here participants can think about the whole company and their role init," said Steve Mercer, 60, the executive director of the facility."The intention is to free the students of all distractions. I tell them,‘Once you leave the airport you can lock your wallet away. We’ll take careof everything. We just want you to immerse yourself in everything Boeing.’"

The idea of concentrating its ongoing training program at one centralfacility is a relatively new concept for Boeing, Mercer noted. "Prior tohaving this facility, Boeing would develop a program and then run everyonethrough it in a year or so," said Mercer, who came to Boeing from GeneralElectric and its model-learning center in Crotonville, New York. "What’sdifferent about this is that the programs here are ongoing. It shows the company’scommitment to learning as a life-long pursuit."

And because Boeing is in control of what its students are learning, Mercerand his staff of 15 instructors can take the time to design a curriculum thatmeets the rapidly changing demands of Boeing’s particular businessenvironment.

"I am not the learning czar and I believe in decentralization, thatlearning can happen anywhere," Mercer said. "But we do need to bringpeople together to integrate our operation and build cultural and companyvalues." The facility, the former Desloges estate and gentleman’s farm,came to the aerospace giant through its merger with McDonnell Douglas in 1997.The main building was originally an underground ballroom. Today it serves as ameeting room and dining area. The old carriage house has been renovated forseminar rooms.

"There was never any question that we weren’t going to continue thisproject, which Harry Stonecipher, my counterpart at McDonnell Douglas, hadinitiated with the purchase of the property in 1995," said Phil Condit,Boeing’s chief executive officer, after addressing a fresh crop of students inthe Executive Program. "During our negotiations he asked me how I feltabout it and I said it was full-steam ahead. We both have very similar attitudesabout learning being a life-long pursuit. People are our most important resourceand we have some very talented people.

"Having said that, when they are here we want to push them to thinkabout ideas that are too risky to try out at home," he said. "Our guysare obsessed with quality because ours is a business that is focused on safety.Here, though, we want them to try out ideas that fail once in a while, becausethrough that failure is a learning experience that builds confidence to find newlimits. You can’t crash a plane on purpose but you can crash a flightsimulator and learn something."

The $60 million Boeing Leadership Center opened in March of 1999. Stonecipher,now Boeing’s chief operating officer, gave the opening address and along withCondit continues as a regular lecturer. The university-like facility has 120private residence rooms, a workshop with a large lecture hall, three largeclassrooms, and 21 breakout rooms where students work in teams on collaborativeprojects. The dining room, with its panoramic view of the bluffs overlooking theIllinois River, seats 156. There is also a fitness center.

Since opening, the center has proven so popular that Boeing is preparing toadd a seven-story residence hall, doubling the space provided by the currentwings, Mercer said. With its own training programs well underway, Mercer isputting energy into developing a Web-based program to augment his residentialprogram. In May, the center also hosted a meeting of the Global Forum onBusiness-Driven Action Learning and Executive Development, a four-day consortiumof 90 executives representing 40 companies in more than 20 countries. The eventincluded representatives of Alcoa, Motorola, DuPont and Eli Lilly.

There is one thing you won’t find at the Leadership Center: a golf course.Instead, Boeing has chosen to maintain the fields of corn that have been farmedon the property for more than 100 years, Mercer said.

"We have nothing against golf but we wanted to get away from a countryclub atmosphere," he said. "For recreation we offer team sports likevolleyball, softball, basketball, and tennis. We also have billiards and milesof natural hiking trails. But right off, we wanted to destroy the idea that thiswas going to be some kind of executive hideaway." Participants are here byinvitation only, though, and are intentionally matched up in working groups withpeople they don’t meet in their normal work assignment. And every Boeingmanager will come here at a key point in his or her career, Mercer said.

This bringing together of workers from diverse business units is a key to thecenter’s success. It’s particularly important as Boeing works on integratingits newer employees, who came to the company through its merger with McDonnellDouglas in 1997, North American Rockwell a year earlier, and those from HughesSpace and Communications, who will join the company later this year. Boeingcurrently has 180,000 employees. "The classroom program I participated in,like the computer simulations we did, could very well have been done at my worksite but I realized as soon as I got here, a critical part of the program wasthe people I met," said Milligan, the facilities manager from California."Since coming home in July, I have traded dozens of e-mails. The emphasisis on working out common processes together, whether you are working in Anaheim,Seattle, or Houston."

Mercer said the facility has been designed to promote networking so thatstudents go home with dozens of new e-mail addresses and the knowledge that theyare not alone in solving problems and challenges. For instance, outside the mainlecture hall, the center posts photos of all participants, their titles andworksites, so identifications can be easily made. The executive program for thecompany’s top 2,000 managers is scheduled at the same time as the Transitionto Management Program for those recently promoted to supervisory level. Thatway, participants at all work levels have a chance to meet in the dining areasand residence hall.

In addition to the facility’s education-oriented architectural design is adeep-seated commitment to the value of learning from both top qualityinstructors and the students themselves. "What amazed me was the level ofinstruction," said Anne Toulouse, 42, who is vice president of brandmanagement and advertising and who works at the company’s Seattleheadquarters. "I expected one or two great presentations but the caliber ofevery one of the presentations was phenomenal. We were engaged nearly everymoment."

Toulouse said she still marvels at the thought put into the curriculum of theexecutive leadership program, which she attended with 60 others in July."One of our simulations involved dealing with union negotiators, and forthis segment they brought in people in our company who negotiate with theunions, except they were role-playing their counterparts," she said. AndMilligan, 43, said it was refreshing for the company to teach its managers whenit is okay to push a project back to the boss because a request is unrealistic.

"That the company would put that concept before us shows they areinterested in our success, that Boeing feels it’s important that managers atall levels treat their employees decently," Milligan said. Added Young,"There are a zillion books and articles on coaching tips, which is onething we talked a lot about in my sessions, but somehow working on them togetherthere makes it easier to apply them at home."

Workforce, October 2000, Vol. 79, No. 10, pp. 62-69-- Subscribenow!

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