Blazing Their Own Trails

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

The Academy Approach

On the flip side, there is still a place for highly structured programs in some companies. David McHale, the executive vice president and CFO of Northeast Utilities, recognized years ago that the energy industry was undergoing huge fundamental changes, just as a large portion of the workforce was expected to retire. His solution? Build a curriculum to supercharge development for the next generation of leaders. Launched in 2008 in partnership with the University of Connecticut’s business school, NU’s “finance academy” is a two-and-a-half-year program through which 90 employees split into three classes progress together. The classes take place on the university’s Hartford campus one afternoon a week during work hours.

“We have a full curriculum designed to build a utility executive [that covers] what you would normally learn in 10 to 15 years,” says McHale. The classes are highly relevant to the business: elements include a simulation in which employees must make a case for why they need a rate hike to “regulators” played by McHale and other company executives, and one in which employees try to sell bonds or equities to “institutional investors,” played by McHale, along with NU’s investor-relations director and treasurer.

McHale also uses the program to stimulate longtime finance staffers, by asking them to teach classes (and undergo training for that task ahead of time). “It delivers benefits both ways,” McHale says. “I’ve seen improvement in communication skills at both the director/teacher and the employee/student level.”

Far from feeling “controlled,” employees say they liked the standardized aspect of the program. Heather Arvanitis, a staff accountant, applied for the academy right after finishing a part-time MBA program in which she had many classes to choose from each semester. “Going through as a group with everyone doing the same thing is super-important, because it helps you really build those relationships with people across the company,” she says. That’s worked well for her — she just accepted a new position in the rate and regulatory services division of the company, a job she says she wouldn’t have even considered (or been considered for) without the training program. And others enjoyed the networking aspect so much that they are clamoring for a postgraduation follow-up course, says McHale, a project he’s working on now.

The academy approach is catching on at larger companies, says Accenture’s Smith, albeit often in a more virtual sense. Many companies are defining a core body of knowledge they want each employee to absorb, and offering 70% of the training through, say, online libraries, with another 30% coming from outside classes or seminars. “It’s an efficient and effective way to use resources, but without it feeling rote,” since some of the offerings can be customized, Smith says. He expects smaller companies to follow suit, possibly leveraging consortiums to make the structures more cost-effective.

Working with What You Have

One common theme among all companies is that CFOs are finding ways to use regularly scheduled finance work as reinforcements for short-term training programs or events. Autodesk’s Hawkins, for example, has asked the leaders of each department within finance and IT to give operating reviews of their function — including staffing, major initiatives, longer-term goals, and performance highlights and frustrations — twice a year. Then, he invites his staff to attend any or all of them. That turns an otherwise ordinary exercise into a triple win. “The presenters get visibility with my entire staff, I get the info, and my leadership team gets a way to learn vicariously and break down some of the silos among the departments,” he says. “I joke with the team: ‘You can’t buy this at business school.’”

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