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Great Organizations | Great Leaders

More Than an Isolated Event

Vopak is seeing results from a leadership journey approach to developing its people.
More Than an Isolated Event

Implementing a global development initiative can be fraught with challenges—how to ensure consistency and quality, overcome language barriers and cultural variables, and navigate the internal politics and organizational implications (among others). But sometimes, the greatest challenge is getting the training right, doing what’s needed to make sure learners not only acquire new skills, but also apply them on the job.

This was a major concern at Vopak, a 6,000-employee multinational organization, with its headquarters in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, which specializes in independent tank storage services for oil products, liquid chemicals, and gases. Vopak understood that designing new leadership and individual contributor development programs represented not just a change in approach, but in philosophy, as well.

A previous leadership development program was emblematic of all that needed rethinking. Training sessions lasted one week, and then the participants simply returned to their jobs without follow-up. In addition, the participants’ managers usually didn’t know much about what the training involved and, therefore, couldn’t actively support it.

Like the other talent champions at Vopak, Ans Knape-Vosmer, global director of human resources, believed that a development program needed to be ongoing and much more comprehensive.

“Development is a journey, not merely an isolated event,” says Knape, of an important best practice that defines Vopak’s new program. “It is not just a one-off.”

Embracing this philosophy, Knape and her colleagues at Vopak partnered with DDI in 2013 to roll out a new global individual contributor development program, I Manage, and global leadership program, I Build.

Sending Learners on a Journey

The I Manage and I Build programs feature learning journeys. While the content for the two journeys is distinct, each has the same basic, three-phase structure: a launch phase, followed by a sustainable active learning phase, and then a refine-skills-and-measure phase.

As they progress through the journey, learners are assessed and receive feedback, and also are given developmental assignments and activities aimed at translating learning into action. The learners’ managers go through a course in the first phase of the journey to learn how to support development.

Knape says she and others were also aware that, in reality, only a small portion of learning comes from classroom training—learners develop the most from on-the-job experiences and from interactions with their own, and other, managers. Knape also says Vopak recognized that any new development programs needed to be integrated with the participants’ daily jobs, and with more involvement from the participants’ managers.

The programs feature a 70:20:10 approach to leadership development. Seventy percent of the learning comes from experience, 20 percent is learning from others, and 10 percent comes from formal learning.

The I Manage curriculum includes a course on Vopak’s values and business imperatives, as well as nine customized courses from DDI’s Interaction Management®: Exceptional Performers series. The courses, which include Communicating with Impact, Working as a High-Performing Team, Navigating Change, and Valuing Differences, are grouped into three modules: Laying the Foundation, Handling Challenge and Driving Forward, and Mastering Challenge and Growth.

The I Build curriculum features 10 Interaction Management® courses clustered into three modules reflecting the needs of Vopak’s first-level leaders: Leadership Foundations, Driving Performance, and Manage Your Personal Success.

The learning journeys bring together multiple modalities, including: classroom, DDI’s Virtual Classroom technology, and web-based training.

Each of the three modules in the programs lasts two-and-one-half days. In between the modules, there is a 60- to 90-minute “learning check-in” during which the participant, the trainer, the manager of the participant, and the HR director of the division meet to discuss progress. The goal, says Knape, is “to make sure that we create a lot of added value, and also to make sure the manager, who also learns from the journey, is engaged.”

This last point is particularly important. “If the manager doesn’t have a clue what’s going on in the training, or what the learning topics are for the participants,” the program will not be as effective, says Knape. “So we build those bridges.”

As part of its “learning from others” emphasis, the program also focuses on coaching, feedback, and peer-group meetings.

Participants are encouraged to pursue the development process in other ways. For example, HR recommends that participants and their managers meet on their own.

“It’s up to them,” says Knape. “We are not going to check on it, because we put the development of a person in his or her own hands.”

Similarly, HR has set up a special “room” on Yammer, a private social network for organizations, in which leadership program participants can discuss their experiences. This is intended to be a safe environment where participants can talk freely, “with no interference or monitoring from global or divisional HR,” says Knape.

She notes that the younger generation of employees, in particular, likes to communicate through social media, which also allows discussions about the leadership program to take place on a global level.

For example, she says, without the social media component it might not be easy for participants training in Mexico and Brazil to communicate with one another. “Of course, you can pick up the phone, but the barrier is a bit higher,” she says. “But if you can just sit down at your screen and chat a bit—we all know that everyone is doing this nowadays—it makes it a lot easier to ask questions and share knowledge.”

A New Focus on Younger Workers

The decision to design and implement the new programs acknowledges a desire among younger employees for leadership training, says Knape.

“The younger generation is more demanding,” she says. They have asked, “‘Hey, where’s our leadership program? When is it coming? We want to develop ourselves further.’” I Manage, which is intended for individual contributors who do not yet have direct management responsibilities (although they may be in informal leadership roles), is designed to meet that need.

“There is always a tendency to focus on the development of senior executives,” says Knape. “We said, let’s turn that around and first focus on individual contributors and frontline managers, because we think there is a higher need at the moment. That’s where it starts. Then we can move on to the next level.”

In another major shift—from the previous leadership development program that was conducted in English, at company headquarters—Vopak wanted the new program to be delivered in its local offices, and in multiple languages. This local focus is critical, says Knape.

“Take Latin America, where the native language is either Spanish or Portuguese. When you start with this kind of material and content, you want people to understand what they are learning. And the best way to do that is to provide it in their own language.”

About 90 percent of the content in the programs is the same worldwide, with the remaining 10 percent geared to the local country so that cultural differences and local managerial issues can be accounted for.

Applying the Lessons Learned

To date, the I Manage and I Build programs are generating positive results. In feedback from a pilot program, participants said the skills they learned were already helping them in their jobs. Knape believes this new program is much more effective and is better aligned with Vopak’s current business and organizational goals.

Like other I Build program participants, Cristian Haugsnes, technical manager of Vopak Sweden, says he benefited a great deal from the program, and is able to apply some of the lessons he has learned on a regular basis.

For example, he has taught his team the STAR (Situation/Task, Action, Result) method of feedback. “We have something we call Feedback Friday, and we dedicate 15 to 20 minutes to give each other a compliment or positive feedback,” says Haugsnes, whose department is responsible for the maintenance of all four Vopak tank terminals in Sweden. The goal of Feedback Friday, he says, is “to keep up the good spirits and create an open atmosphere so that people can actually get the credit and also give credit.”

Showing his team how to use the STAR method was one of his most important takeaways from the I Build program. “I explained the method and how we should do it, so now the whole group gives STAR feedback every Friday,” he says. “And that’s quite good because it gives folks a reminder that this is important.”

Haugsnes notes that although the program participants had different levels of responsibility, they had much in common. Some were on the technical side, while others were on the commercial side. But no matter what position someone holds, “you tend to have the same kind of problems leadership-wise, and that unites everybody in the course,” he says. “It created an atmosphere where we could feel we all had the same perspective on things.”

This sense of working together, as part of the larger Vopak team, is a key goal of the leadership program. Knape says that one way this is conveyed is by storytelling. During lunches and dinners, executives and managers are brought in to talk about their experiences in the organization. “We are a big believer in storytelling, because we have a lot of entrepreneurs who have already done a lot in our organization,” she says.

The storytelling is just one example of how Vopak’s Global Leadership Development Program is closely tied to the company and its people, Knape says. “We want to bring it closer to the heart of the people and the business.”


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