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Great Organizations | Great Leaders

Driving Connections

How Nissan employed DDI’s Virtual Classroom technology.
Driving Connections

Shahnawaz Mehdi and Nadia Trimmel are rising operational leaders within Nissan: Mehdi is an IT and logistics manager, while Trimmel is a senior product manager for commercial vehicles. Both were participants in Nissan’s Global Organizational Leadership Development (GOLD) program for high-potential leaders, which imparted critical leadership skills, such as coaching, conducting effective conversations, and managing performance.

What’s especially intriguing about Mehdi and Trimmel aren’t these similarities. It’s this: Mehdi lives and works in Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Trimmel nearly 4,000 miles away in Pretoria, South Africa. And while both are among the 60 leaders from around the world who have participated in the GOLD program, they did so without ever leaving their home countries.

Many organizations turn to e-learning to save time and money; however, the GOLD program is a fully interactive leadership development curriculum that combines e-learning with DDI’s Virtual Classroom technology to deliver courses that are led remotely by a live facilitator.

It’s an innovation that makes it possible for Nissan to do what was only a dream a few years ago: bring together a geographically dispersed population of leaders, provide an effective leadership development program, and give them opportunities to interact with each other in real time—with no travel costs.

A Need Tempered by a Limited Budget

One of the world’s largest car companies, Nissan has 31 production facilities in 16 countries and sales in 160 countries. To grow further, Nissan is targeting emerging global markets, where it needs to have strong leaders. It has identified 60 high-potential operational leaders who could, with some development, move into demanding higher-level leadership roles in the future. These leaders are based in more than 25 countries covering a broad range of regions, including Latin America, Europe, Africa, Asia, and Australia.

Though their levels, locations, and functions are diverse, as a group they require a uniform set of leadership skills that are consistent with Nissan’s vision, values, and culture, and which support Nissan’s global business.

The talent champion behind the GOLD program was Darci Padilha, who was Nissan’s Africa, Middle East, and India Regional HR manager before departing the company earlier this year, and who started work on designing the program in 2010 from Nissan Headquarters in Japan.  She says Nissan recognized the importance of developing the high-potential leader population.

“We needed a program to help all of the leaders be at the same level of expertise,” she says. “We also wanted to be able to take them to the next level of leadership through a program where we could bring them together and help them create connections.”

But, she says, because the leaders were tucked away in all corners of the globe, it was logistically challenging, prohibitively expensive, and time-consuming to bring everyone together for training.

She also points out that a robust leadership development curriculum would require them to gather for multiple sessions, with time built in between the sessions for them to practice, apply, and hone their new skills through on-the-job application.

“All our budgets for travel were frozen and we needed to do something,” Padilha recalls. “So, we started looking for alternatives to develop our talent.”

Optimal Training Efficiency

Padilha and her team engaged DDI to help design the GOLD program. It was built around a curriculum of courses from DDI’s award-winning Interaction Management®: Exceptional Leaders . . . Extraordinary Results® leadership development system. These courses would provide the skills Nissan’s high-potential leaders needed to be optimally effective and establish a common leader- ship language across locations.

Three of the courses, Setting Performance Expectations, Reviewing Performance Progress, and Developing Others, were tabbed to be delivered as web-based courses supported by virtual practice labs, where participants engage in inter- active activities with their peers and receive facilitator guidance and coaching, along with valuable peer feedback on their skills.  The other four courses, which included Essentials of Leadership, Leading Change, Reaching Agreement, and Motivating Others, were slated to be delivered in real-time using DDI’s Virtual Classroom technology.

DDI’s innovative Virtual Classroom is a synchronous learning environment designed to mirror the live presentation and participant interaction of an actual classroom. Participants connect from their location via a web-conferencing platform, and experience the course as it is facilitated in real time by a DDI facilitator.

During the course, they can ask and respond to questions, just as in a live classroom. They also can interact using feedback tools, such as virtual white boards, annotation tools, and online polling questions. The Virtual Classroom platform even enables the facilitator to partition participants into small groups to complete team exercises, and engage in role plays.

Best of all is that the Virtual Classroom is designed to drive behavior change, just as effectively as a traditional classroom course or a self-paced web-based course. DDI research shows that courses delivered through the Virtual Classroom are equally effective at changing behavior.

Another important component built into the GOLD program was DDI’s Leadership Mirror® multirater feedback tool. Participants were able to use this tool prior to going through the courses to identify their own individual strengths and development opportunities. This helped them target the specific skills imparted in the courses that they most needed to develop.

“Exciting and Interesting”

The 60 high-potential leaders were divided into three cohort groups of 20 that met virtually eight times, about once a month, in 2011. Prior to the first session, the participants completed a 30-minute orientation session on the Virtual Classroom platform.

The 20 leaders who made up the first cohort group hailed from 10 different countries and none of them had ever met one another. Each leader was asked to introduce himself or herself to the cohort group, and also provide a photo that was uploaded to the virtual classroom platform so that participants could associate a face with a name and a voice during the course sessions.

Even though the courses were delivered virtually, the relationship-building proved real, as participants began interacting and networking with one another.

“We had people from Australia who started the modules at 8 p.m. their time and finished at midnight. I was really concerned for how to keep them motivated using remote technology for four hours, when they were starting that late,” recalls Padilha. “But because it was really dynamic, the technology allowed for lots of interactions, and the facilitator really pushed everyone to participate.”

Padilha says that participants developed such a high level of comfort with the virtual classroom experience and with each other that they would even engage in off-topic conversations—with their co-participants that they had never actually met—in the time they were waiting for the course sessions to begin.

“While e-learning is common in Nissan, I can tell you that the virtual classroom approach that we applied in the GOLD program was viewed as especially exciting and interesting,” says Padilha.

Mehdi felt that the virtual classroom captured many of the advantages of a live course. “Most of the time we did not feel the distance between the teacher and the learners. It felt like all of us were sitting in the same classroom. That was helpful. You are able to measure yourself immediately in terms of where you stand.”

“You could interact in real time even though you were in different countries,” says Trimmel.  “You could see what others were putting on the board. You had the functionality of working with a group of three, four, five people at time. You also could learn about their roles in the different countries.”

Results Comparable to the Classroom

Nissan worked with DDI to measure the program’s effectiveness at changing leader behavior in targeted skill areas such as listening, providing feedback, and having effective conversations. These results were compared with the average measured behavior change realized from classroom delivery of DDI leadership courses.

After the training, there was a 31-point improvement in the percentage of participants who said they displayed the targeted leadership behaviors (from 54 to 85 percent). This was almost equal to the 32-percentage-point improvement that had been realized in the average classroom delivery.

Observer ratings showed an even more dramatic difference. Observers said the percentage of leaders displaying the targeted behaviors jumped by 30 percentage points (from 57 to 87 percent) after the Virtual Classroom training. This was much higher than the 17 percentage-point average gain in observer ratings for leaders who completed the courses in a traditional classroom setting.

The impact of the training goes beyond the numbers, Padilha insists.

“When we talked with the leaders in person, we received good feedback. The participants were motivated because Nissan was investing in them and they could apply what they learned to both their jobs and their lives.”

Mehdi says that the courses had a definite impact on how he does his job. “The training has helped me when meeting with my subordinates who are having some difficulty,” he says. “I get specific feedback from my subordinates and they say they like my management style and they are comfortable working with me.”

Trimmel says that what she found most valuable was how the GOLD program reinforced the importance of interacting effectively with and working through others.

“It’s the people around you who make it possible to achieve goals. They actually give you the results that you want.”

Looking back on the effectiveness of the GOLD program, Padilha is understandably proud of the results.

“From my point of view, I would say that this program was nearly perfect, as it addressed all of our goals we had set initially for our talent in the growing regions.”

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