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Great Organizations | Great Leaders

Foster Wheeler’s Execution Excellence

The global engineering and construction company and power equipment supplier is building a stronger leadership pipeline.
Foster Wheeler’s Execution Excellence

When she was interviewing for the senior vice president of human resources job at Foster Wheeler, Beth Sexton met with the CEO, who asked what must have seemed to him a straightforward question: How would she hold people accountable for the company’s talent initiatives? Sexton gave an unexpected answer: She wouldn’t hold people accountable; as the CEO, he would.

Sexton’s response revealed an important insight she had gained while working in other organizations. HR can create the talent infrastructure and build and implement the talent systems; however, for a talent strategy to be successful, the senior team has to own it. This insight has served Sexton and her colleagues well as they have worked to help Foster Wheeler, the 12,000-employee global engineering and construction company and power equipment supplier, build the leadership pipeline needed to drive profitable growth around the world.

“In everything we’ve done, the major decisions have been made by the line,” says Sexton, who strives to reinforce the strategic importance of talent to the organization. “Our primary role is to design and implement robust HR processes and tools. However, line management needs to be accountable for execution. Our talent management motto is global strategy, local implementation.”

Since passing that interview with the CEO and joining the company in 2008, Sexton has, along with Kathleen Korpita, director, global talent management, and the Foster Wheeler global HR team, helped build the talent infrastructure and systems. They’ve launched an assessment initiative for the organization’s top leaders and an impactful development system for more than 1,500 frontline leaders worldwide.

Their success is due in large part to a strong focus on execution and a deep understanding of what it takes to provide consistent, relevant development to leaders, regardless of their level or location.

Nothing like this before

Beth Sexton and Kathleen Korpita, Foster Wheeler
Beth Sexton and Kathleen Korpita
have built Foster Wheeler’s talent
management systems and infrastructure.

Foster Wheeler was formed in 1927 with the combination of two companies whose roots date back to the 19th century. In the ensuing decades, the company enjoyed tremendous growth and success, but in the 21st century Foster Wheeler’s senior leadership recognized that the company needed to be unified and consistent in its practices. This was especially important for a global company that operates in 28 countries.

“When it comes to project execution, our clients want the Foster Wheeler brand delivered consistently anywhere in the world,” says Sexton. “They have the same expectations wherever they are. If it’s a client in Finland, they want the same quality as would be delivered in China or anywhere else in the world.”

That consistency, Sexton says, needed to carry over to the company’s approach to talent management.

“If we have an employee that goes on assignment to a different part of the world, they need to be able to have the same expectations of their manager, whether it’s how the manager coaches, or the HR processes they follow.”

But just as important as having a global talent strategy was the realization that Foster Wheeler had a number of gaps in its succession plan, and that it lacked accurate, actionable data to assess its future senior leaders.

To address this issue, Sexton and Korpita worked with DDI to design a customized assessment approach for the C-level leaders that was then cascaded down to lower-level senior leaders. The approach brought together multiple assessment tools, including personality inventories, 360-degree feedback, interviews, and a feedback session to share the results.

“For the development process we were able to put together the right pieces so that when we assessed someone, we could get the data we needed to form a development plan for them,” says Korpita.

She also says that the success of the assessment process led to an important insight.

“The assessment process was instrumental in helping us analyze our leadership strengths and development needs on a global basis. The assessment results revealed a global need to improve talent management skills at all levels in the organization. This led to the creation of the Learning to Lead program.”

Learning to Lead at the front lines

Leadership development wasn’t new to Foster Wheeler, but at the time Korpita developed Learning to Lead in 2011, there wasn’t a centralized, organization-wide approach. Instead, development programs were the domain of the operating units, some of which had programs in place and some of which were largely inactive.

Learning to Lead changed that. Geared toward all Foster Wheeler frontline leaders, the program is designed to develop a targeted set of leadership competencies, including Delivering Results, Developing People, Engaging and Motivating, Enhancing Relationships, and Setting Direction. It also reinforces the company’s core values.

The program features courses from DDI’s Interaction Management® leadership development system. Among the courses included in the curriculum are: Essentials of Leadership, Setting Performance Expectations, Reviewing Performance Progress, Getting Started as a New Leader, and Coaching for Success & Improvement. The courses are delivered by 29 internal facilitators who work either alone or in pairs. They deliver the courses across all 14 operating units and at all Foster Wheeler locations around the world.

To help reinforce the skills and concepts leaders learned in the courses, Foster Wheeler’s senior managers participated in a condensed version of Supporting Leadership Development. This course helped them understand the importance of their role in supporting learning and driving the behavior change required throughout the organization. For the second year of the program, senior managers participated in Coaching for High Performance, a course to help them understand the importance of building and sustaining a coaching culture at Foster Wheeler.

Rather than designing and implementing the program at corporate and then expecting that all of the operating units would implement it, Sexton, Korpita, and the global HR team took a different approach.

“This program came about through influence, collaboration, relationship-building, and sharing the knowledge people needed to make the right decisions,” says Korpita. “We really executed on Beth’s philosophy of ‘global strategy, local implementation.’”

A big part of the “global strategy, local implementation” approach was building in flexibility so that Foster Wheeler’s HR people around the world and across the various operating units could make adjustments, such as adding optional courses to the curriculum and changing some of the course content to suit learners better. In its second year, the program became even more flexible with the addition of multiple optional courses, such as Leading Change and High-Impact Feedback & Listening, which the operating units could add to the curriculum.

Dick Lively, senior vice president, human resources, for Foster Wheeler’s global power group business, has been integral to rolling out Learning to Lead. As one of the 29 internal facilitators, Lively delivers the courses in locations worldwide, as well as in the U.S. His facilitation approach speaks to his commitment to connecting with learners, as well as to the flexibility built into Learning to Lead.

“I’ve delivered the courses all over the world in different cultures,” he says. “Dealing with different people, figuring out how everybody ticks, and how it’s relevant for people is the key.”

“Because we did global strategy, local implementation, the HR people had a vested interest in making it successful,” says Korpita. “I think because we didn’t dictate exactly how things had to be done, I can tell you that just about every operating unit has changed something.”

Delivery excellence

While the Learning to Lead program was accepted by Foster Wheeler’s HR staff around the world, what mattered most was how it was received by frontline leaders and its effectiveness in developing their skills. On these fronts, Learning to Lead has been a tremendous success.

In a global survey of 243 participants in the Learning to Lead program, participants gave the courses an average overall rating of 4.37 on a 5-point scale (with 5 being the highest possible rating). The survey also showed a 44-percent overall increase, post-training versus pre-training, in the number of leaders who said they displayed effective leadership behaviors. In addition, 338 observers of learners (those they work with) were asked to rate whether or not the leaders displayed effective leadership behavior, pre- and post-training. These observers identified a 30-percent overall increase for the leaders.

Perhaps more important: Leaders reported improvements in their overall job performance, while observers reported improvements in the performance of their teams.

But the impact hasn’t stopped there. As one Learning to Lead program participant explained, “Not only has this helped me with my job, dealing with vendors and fellow Foster Wheeler employees, but [the training has] also affected my daily communications with my wife, children, and the activities of my life.”

One of the most important factors contributing to the success of Foster Wheeler’s talent initiatives is the active support of the senior leaders, who have shown an understanding of the importance of building a stronger leadership pipeline to changing the organization’s culture.

“I don’t think any training program will work if the leadership doesn’t understand that they need to cultivate an environment for the behaviors to be demonstrated,” says Korpita. “Then they have to provide feedback to their people so that the behaviors become ingrained. Then those behaviors become the norm, and that norm becomes the culture.”

While senior leaders have been doing just that, they also have become advocates for the programs.

“Our customers, the line managers, speak for the effectiveness of the program to their peers,” says Sexton. “That’s important, because then it’s not Kathleen and me doing the raving about the assessments or about Learning to Lead.”

Umberto della Sala, Foster Wheeler’s president and COO, is among the senior executives who have become champions for the talent initiatives.

“The leadership assessment processes and tools are improving our internal promotional and external hiring decisions, as they are now based on robust, targeted data on the leadership and functional competencies required for success. In addition, the assessment data has improved development planning, which is key to building the next generation of leaders at Foster Wheeler.”

Antonio Vietti, director of human resources at Foster Wheeler Italiana, sees the impact on the organization’s business.

“The Learning to Lead program at Foster Wheeler Italiana has had a positive impact on the effectiveness of leaders, resulting in numerous team-level improvements that will ultimately improve the organization’s bottom line.”


  • Find out more about the new Interaction Management®, including the new IM:ExLSM series for developing frontline leaders.

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