An innovative program has taken on-boarding to a new level.
Donna Porter, manager, learning and sales performance, Whirlpool Corporation
Much like fitting a refrigerator through a door, Whirlpool Corporation understands that getting recent-graduate new hires up to speed requires a lot of heavy lifting. The challenge is especially acute given the importance of its sales development representatives. These entry-level professionals visit the stores of home appliance retailers to assist and educate the retailers’ salespeople, build relationships, and be ambassadors for the full range of Whirlpool Corporation products and brands, which in addition to the Whirlpool nameplate include familiar names such as Maytag, KitchenAid, Jenn-Air, and Amana.
To address the challenge, Whirlpool Corporation turned to one of the things it does best as a leading global appliance manufacturer: innovation. The result is an immersive on-boarding experience, inspired by MTV’s reality television show The Real World, in which groups of new hires don’t exactly hoist a refrigerator, but they evaluate it and raid it every day for 10 weeks as they live and grow together. Along the way, they develop a deep knowledge of Whirlpool’s products, the company, and the organizational culture. They also learn a lot about themselves—and some critical skills for working effectively with others.
Since Whirlpool Corporation started the program in 1999, it’s proved to be an effective method for preparing new sales development representatives, while also filling the talent pipeline with candidates for future leadership positions within the company.
The Real World debuted on MTV in 1992 and has been a staple on the cable television network ever since. Its premise is simple: a diverse group of strangers hailing from different backgrounds and experiences are housed together in an apartment or townhouse, and their interactions and conflicts are filmed and edited for television. Leaders at Whirlpool Corporation in the 1990s, well aware of the program’s cultural prominence among young people, came up with the idea to take the TV show’s core concept of strangers living together and use it as the basis for an immersive on-boarding program.
Through the resulting program, Real Whirled, newly hired sales development representatives are housed in adjoining condominiums near Whirlpool Corporation’s global and North American headquarters in Benton Harbor, Mich. Over a period of two-and-one-half months, they are surrounded by—and interact with— Whirlpool appliances, as well as those of their competitors, 24/7. (Unlike their television counterparts, however, the Real Whirled participants are not filmed.) In the true spirit of the ultimate product demo, the housemates must use all of these products on a daily basis.
Participants are selected through a rigorous campus recruiting process in which hundreds of applicants are screened. Many have degrees in communications, marketing, and business. Greater diversity—gender, cultural, and regional—is a priority for Whirlpool, and one of the driving forces behind the creation of the program.
“At the time Real Whirled was conceived, we knew it was important to be able to have a sales force that mirrors the diversity of our customer base,” says Donna Porter, manager, learning and sales performance. “For example, our female-to-male ratio was extremely low and limited.”
Whirlpool is constantly trying to spread the word about the program at top colleges and universities throughout the U.S. It also promotes it heavily internally, as there are people in Whirlpool’s own call centers, supply chain, or other areas of the business who could be a good fit.
The best and the brightest of these mostly millennial generation candidates are winnowed down to eight curious participants to be welcomed into the 10-week Real Whirled program class, with up to three classes completing the program each year.
Many of these young people haven’t yet lived on their own, and in some ways, having never turned on a stove or done their own laundry is advantageous, as it makes them excellent judges of an appliance’s ease of use and functionality.
But there’s much more to Real Whirled than learning the features of a dishwasher or clothes dryer. Participants develop competencies needed for success in the sales development representative job, including Building Influential Partnerships and Facilitation of Learning. They develop these competencies in part by going through a customized version of DDI’s Facilitation Skills Workshop, where they gain practical presentation and learning transfer skills. They also complete two web-based courses from DDI’s Interaction Management® leadership development system, Communicating with Impact and Resolving Conflict. The latter course proves especially relevant, given the participants’ living situation while they are in the program.
On-the-Job Learning Real Whirled Style
While Real Whirled imparts selling and interaction skills, it’s also a full-fledged on-boarding to the Whirlpool Corporation.
“It is very important for them to understand the strategy of Whirlpool Corporation and to see the faces of our senior leaders. Our chairman has sponsored a series of 10 online courses called The Foundations of Whirlpool that is part of their learning journey that starts at Week One,” says Porter, pointing out that these online courses cover areas such as company values, diversity and inclusion, and ethics.
There also is the high degree of structure and the breakneck pace that defines the program. In addition to the deep immersion through product usage and comparison, the young professionals also secret-shop at stores, listen in on call center complaints, and visit a manufacturing facility where the appliances are made.
The dense and involved program syllabus runs 14 pages. And, participants have regular check-in discussions with Porter to review progress, answer questions, and lay the groundwork for planned meetings, training, site visits, and projects.
Although the Real Whirled program is hard work, it’s also cool work. Among their assigned tasks, the young sales development representatives must cook, clean, study, and work together to entertain visiting groups of Whirlpool Corporation executives, senior leaders, and customers. By virtue of the need to use the products in real-time and collaboratively, they become product experts.
Participants also are given some unusual assignments that reinforce the out-of-the-box nature of Real Whirled.
“We hosted a competitor dinner where we actually had to stain two tablecloths,” recalls Breanne Wilson, who went through Real Whirled in 2013. “We washed one in a Maytag top-loader and one in a competing toploader.” Similar to a clinical trial, the teams had to use the same water temperature and the same amount of detergent in each machine, and study the level of dryness at the completion of the spin cycle. The exercise wasn’t just a product comparison; they needed to clean the tablecloths in advance of the dinner they were cooking for senior leaders—in two competing kitchens. Assignments such as these serve a critical purpose as they help the new sales development representatives attain a highly detailed level of product knowledge that they can draw on once they are out of the program and doing the job every day.
In 2004, Allison Gillespie graduated from Michigan State University with a marketing degree—two weeks before she started the Real Whirled program. She recalls that she was amazed when she would catch up with her friends, also recent grads, who described their new employment experiences as vastly different from hers.
“They were making copies and trying to do anything they could to get into the conversations, and be part of meetings with senior leaders. With Real Whirled, our meetings with senior leaders were baked in. We had lunches with them; we had events organized where we’d be cooking meals together and interacting with them. I felt like Whirlpool was making an investment [in me] from day one.”
Given the intensity of the program, it’s a defining experience for participants, even as they move on to other roles and positions with greater responsibility. As such, an active alumni community, made up of the nearly 50 classes to date that have shared the remarkable training experience, spans the globe. Gillespie, whose day job with Whirlpool is brand manager for Maytag (she has recently been helping direct the reintroduction of the iconic Maytag Man), manages the alumni network. She sees and feels the connection she shares with her colleagues who went through Real Whirled.
“From within our own little class, we relied on each other to navigate the job. We all separated to different parts of the country out into the field, but that similar experience is the foundation of a bond,” says Gillespie. For some, such as Gillespie, the lasting connection is particularly strong. In fact, Gillespie married a graduate of an earlier Real Whirled class, and his best man was a fellow participant in her Real Whirled class.
All About Relationships and Partnerships
Real Whirled is a challenging program, but the sales development representative positions the program graduates move into are also demanding. “We need our candidates to be willing to relocate anywhere in the country. For some that’s a deal-breaker,” Porter admits.
Conversations with Porter and her colleagues who administer the program, and the sales development representatives who have gone through Real Whirled, illuminate a consistent theme: the emphasis on building relationships and partnerships. To more experienced or mature professionals, this is surely a hallmark of how to succeed in business. But it isn’t something that is taught in college; it’s simply not built into even the toughest degree programs. Real Whirled helps to bridge this gap.
While they start their careers as sales development representatives, many Real Whirled alumni have worked their way up and through the ranks in Whirlpool, in various departments and locations around the world. Porter estimates that of the roughly 380 people who have completed Real Whirled, 175 are still employed in various positions and levels in the company.
Just as important is the quality of these individuals, which is assured when they are selected for Real Whirled.
“Anyone who comes to the organization needs to match our value set,” says Porter. “Because it’s not just what results we get but it’s how we get them in relationship to Whirlpool’s values.”