Blazing Their Own Trails

Training and development programs are now more flexible than ever, which makes employees happy and keeps costs in check.

If a company’s training and development programs take only the salad-bar approach, says David Smith, managing director at Accenture and co-author of Workforce of One (which explores the extent to which companies are customizing various initiatives to employee desires), “it won’t really serve them best in the long-term.” Adds Ken Johnson, general manager for corporate training firm 7city Learning: “There’s not a lot of retention associated with taking an assortment of online classes.”

Do-It-Yourself Development

Regardless of how they attack it, for many finance executives, training — particularly for the so-called high-potentials — is high on their list of concerns. A recent Mercer survey found that leadership succession, training, and development were the top talent-management priorities cited by more than 400 human-resources managers. (General workforce training came in much lower on the list.)

More tellingly, perhaps, a study by Grant Thornton found that a solid majority (77%) of CFOs say that soft skills like critical thinking, problem-solving, and negotiating ability are not only their top training challenge but also a key challenge to hiring.

The need for employees with true business intelligence — versus pure technical skills — is why many CFOs will argue that the optimal training structure will vary from one company to another, based on the industry, size of the company, and tenor of the team in question. Paul Dascoli, CFO of VF’s jeanswear division, has had experience with a variety of development models during his career, including nine years at Pepsi, a company well known for its structured training programs.

At the beverage giant, “we were bringing in new people on a regular basis, and many were just beginning their finance careers, so a standardized approach that made sure they got core-competency training was the right one,” says Dascoli. Now, at VF, his staff is more tenured, “so working on personal-development opportunities is perhaps a little more appropriate,” he says.

A personalized approach also makes sense for many smaller companies, where the cost of creating a formal program could be prohibitive. Michael Lehman, former longtime CFO of Sun Microsystems and now CFO of start-up Palo Alto Networks, is well acquainted with the process of training a future generation of CFOs through classes, seminars, and job rotations. Some Sun alums who have jumped straight into corporate CFO roles elsewhere include Robyn Denholm, CFO of Juniper Networks; and Ronald Pasek, CFO of Altera.

Now, Lehman is trying to take the most effective pieces of Sun’s formal programs and downsize them for a much smaller staff of around 25 people. His guiding principle, though, is that employee training “has to be totally self-motivated. I place a big burden on individuals to determine what their skill sets are and what they want to do differently,” Lehman says.

Once an employee takes an inventory of his or her skills and goals, Lehman invites the employee to talk to him personally about development options. One staff member might be asked to take on a systems migration project to help broaden his or her perspective, for example, while transferring some of that person’s existing duties to another staff member who could benefit similarly. For another, it could entail an opportunity to work with Lehman on finding new office space and negotiating the lease. Lehman also encourages each person to find between 24 and 32 hours’ worth of outside training, be it online or classroom-based, to enhance his or her skills. “What I say to folks is, ‘I can help you reach your potential, but you have to decide where you want to go,’” he says.

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