Ron Lawrence and his team have brought vision—and action—to remaking the global apparel giant’s talent management function.
When Ron Lawrence joined VF Corporation in 2006 as vice president, organization development and HR corporate services, he didn’t see it as a career move. Arriving from a major financial services company, he saw it as the beginning of a journey.
Although VF was already a global apparel and footwear powerhouse with a portfolio of more than 30 popular brands, including The North Face®, Vans®, Timberland®, Wrangler®, Lee®, Nautica®, and JanSport®, Lawrence quickly spotted areas in the talent management space where the company could improve.
“One of the first things I noticed when I arrived was that there was no consistency across the brands, no common language. Each brand pretty much functioned on its own,” he recalls, speaking by phone from his office at VF’s worldwide headquarters in Greensboro, North Carolina. “Everything was being done in pockets, not looking across the entire enterprise, and many of the brands and business units thought of themselves as their own mid-sized company rather than as part of a global corporation.”
Even with the disconnects and silos, Lawrence saw VF, with its 59,000 employees around the world, as a talent-driven organization with the potential to become even stronger.
“Even though VF was doing some great things, the full potential was not being realized,” he says.
For the past eight years, through a deliberate combination of vision, strategic thinking, strong HR partnering, and, most of all, action, Lawrence and his team have been working to help VF realize that full potential.
“Talent is fuel”
To get a big-picture view of what was going on throughout VF, one of the first things Lawrence did was conduct a thorough needs assessment. He talked to people to find out what was working and where there were improvement opportunities, and looked at the talent capability to determine what types of skills and competencies VF needed to develop. He also took a hard look at the talent management processes and practices in place.
Based on his findings, he set as a top priority the integration of a consistent performance management process and a leadership development initiative across the global enterprise. To kick-start the initiative, he created a 12-quarter “plan on a page” not only to bring consistency to training and assessment, but also to pursue an enterprise talent agenda. The comprehensive yet succinct plan outlined an HR mission, an organizational development vision and mission, and strategic goals.
“If we were going to drive our talent the same way we drive our business, we needed to devote the same level of attention to planning and review,” says Lawrence. “Our C-suite accepted this as a matter of course, recognizing that ‘talent is fuel’ and that mentoring and coaching are critical.”
While he had the full support of VF’s senior leadership, Lawrence admits that addressing the needs of a global workforce and developing a common culture wasn’t easy.
“The biggest challenge was, and is, involving all constituencies in the process in a way that they feel they’ve been able to contribute and that they’ve been heard,” says Lawrence. “We had to consider what was happening in many different geographies and talk through things before setting an enterprise process. We learned that rushing or being too directive actually slows things.
“Our strategy had to be accessible and clear so everyone could understand where they were going and that they needed to drive real results—and all of our initiatives had to keep bringing them back to it,” he says. “We enlisted good partners like DDI to leverage the synergies out of everything that we all knew.”
Lawrence emphasizes that developing and leveraging a common culture across the organization was needed to “maximize impact, deliver excellent solutions, and have a best-in-class performance culture,” and also to empower VF to execute across its global business strategy.
Multiple steps forward
One of the first steps in establishing a common culture was achieving a common performance management process, which included a shared competency model that would allow everyone to use the same behavioral descriptions in assessing talent and contribution.
“DDI helped us with this, and its unique ability to teach us how to communicate our changes and educate our people across cultures was essential to the process,” recalls Lawrence.
VF also implemented bi-annual talent reviews at multiple levels to help reinforce the importance of talent to the organization. In addition to VF’s senior executives, participants in VF’s Senior Talent Assessment Review (STAR) meetings include business unit presidents, an OD director, and VPs of HR.
“We’ve held these meetings to the point of being obsessive— they’ve never been canceled,” says Lawrence, with pride. “This drives commitment and keeps the conversation alive and breathing.” Meeting agendas include assessment, succession planning, a state-of-the-talent update, and review and monitoring of tracking methods.
In 2007, Lawrence says, VF implemented a global associate survey to get a meaningful view of associates’ perceptions of the organization and assess engagement levels. “We consistently use the surveys, offered in 22 languages, to keep cadence and allow for meaningful, timely measures that feed into action plans. We benchmark the results with other leading companies, and rigorously pursue improvement. Things break down when you don’t tie the action plan to business—when you don’t hold people accountable.”
In the same year VF introduced more organizational development tools and practices, including a curriculum for middle managers, an executive coaching program, and a diversity initiative. To help advance the implementation of the performance management process, also in 2007, Lawrence brought Ruth Kennedy aboard at VF as senior director of organization development. He emphasizes that Kennedy was instrumental in making the process a success.
“We met some resistance at first, so communication was essential, as we had to make associates understand why having a common language was necessary and beneficial,” says Kennedy, of one of the major hurdles she helped tackle at VF. “This took some perseverance and patience and really did not materialize until everyone lived through the first year. Every member of the HR leadership team read the DDI book, Realizing the Promise of Performance Management, which, through its numerous case studies, offered a common understanding of performance management through which VF could work to drive full implementation of its process.
Destination: Maximizing performance
Throughout 2009, VF continued to build on what was in place and added an executive seminar targeting subjects like innovation, brand management, and leading in a global organization. VF programs are routinely constructed around the common competency model created with DDI. Key domains are leadership, business management, interpersonal skills, and personal attributes. Competencies also are separated by roles across the organization, allowing people to see the company’s goals and how they cascade down to them personally and to their business unit.
“It became habit and discipline in our system,” says Kennedy. “We’re moving processes out toward the businesses so they can leverage them.”
Leaders as teachers—and learners
Two of VF’s anchoring beliefs are Leaders Teach Leadership and Leaders Learn Best by Doing. “If you’re going to be a Major League Baseball player, you’re first going to play in a lot of minor league games,” Lawrence says. “There’s a lot we can do to accelerate you, but it’s up to you to take the field every day and play the game.”
To provide leaders with this kind of development opportunity, Lawrence and his team drastically modified the VF Leadership Institute (VFLI), an offsite program now in its 11th year, in which senior executives are tasked with solving a business case problem.
“VFLI helps our leaders learn to lead from within a group of other smart, driven individuals. The differentiators we want in our leaders are humility, a sense of being a team player, and a really strong drive for results,” says Lawrence.
VF also runs a global assessment program, Leadership Essentials Acceleration Process (LEAP), the VF-customization of DDI’s acceleration centers. These centers gauge leader readiness for senior leadership roles and identify development needs for individuals who aspire to move into senior-level positions. VF also launched a leadership development initiative for entry-level associates and above called Leadership Excellence and Development (LEAD). “The programs help them determine what type of mentoring or coaching they need at various turns and what they see for their own career and development,” says Kennedy. “They return to the competency model to determine where to leverage what’s already there rather than create something totally new.”
Since 2008, the company has achieved tremendous success and amassed numerous accolades. With annual revenues that now exceed $11 billion, VF has solidified its standing as a Fortune 250 company. In 2013, VF rolled out its “17x17” strategy through which the company aspires to reach the $17 billion annual revenue mark by 2017.
VF was ranked 17th in Human Resource Executive’s most recent list of “Most Admired for HR” and has been repeatedly listed as one of Fortune’s “Top Companies for Leaders” and Chief Executive’s “Best Companies for Leaders,” with VF advancing its ranking and standing with each appearance on this latter list.
“What we’ve done here at VF has been a journey. We’ve just deliberately, thoughtfully, and steadily implemented good practices across the talent spectrum, doing the right things with the right people at the right time.
“So much of success in business is just being disciplined about what you do. Be methodical, but there’s so much good work that academics, consultancies, and other great companies have done that points the way. There’s still room to be creative and have fun, of course, but a few good ideas, discipline, and talented people can take you a long way.”