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Waters Rising

Waters positively impacts its business by developing its HR professionals and its leaders.
Waters Rising

How does an organization of highly skilled scientists and engineers, with a long history of technological innovation, transform itself to meet changing market and customer needs? With a scientific approach to people development that utilizes technology in innovative ways.

Meet Waters. Since its incorporation in 1958, the company has produced high-performance analytical technologies predominantly for the pharmaceutical industry. And, until the 2008 recession, senior management saw no real need to tinker with a “good thing.” But as customer expectations changed, and competition intensified, Waters recognized both a need and an opportunity to change how it conducted business—both inside and outside the doors of its Milford, Mass., headquarters.

To grow and diversify its global customer base, Waters expanded its focus into its smaller markets—industrial, environmental/food safety, and clinical—demanding different value propositions and a different approach to selling. It also had to address changing customer needs, such as start-to-finish solutions.

Jody Vezina
Jody Vezina

“As our markets shifted and customer demands changed, it prompted us to do things differently,” says Jody Vezina, Director, Global Learning & Development. “That included basic things like how we work and collaborate with one another. In addition, we needed our long-tenured, brilliant technologists to think and act more strategically, but we also needed to give our HR organization the skills it needed to support our science leaders.”

The solution for Waters’ learning & development organization was two-fold: a program to upskill its HR business partners and a leadership development initiative to develop the company’s operational leaders for the new reality of Waters’ increasingly complex business.

Adapting While Preserving the Culture

Prior to 2007, Waters’ training function primarily supported its sales and service organizations. As such, its focus was on products, not people.

“On the L&D side, we were focused on technical expertise and we didn’t have an organization focused on developing business skills in our leaders,” says Vezina. “Then 10 years ago, I was asked to start an organization to tackle that. And I had some concerns because, with all the scientific and technical brilliance here and all that individuals are capable of, I wasn’t sure how motivated leaders would be to acquire soft skills.” Her concerns were quickly allayed, as she was pleasantly surprised by the enthusiastic response to training. By 2010, her development “team” of one grew to add two more people, one located in France to manage all of Europe, and one located in Hong Kong to manage training in Asia.

An important change in Waters’ business has been a shift from a predominantly U.S. employee base to one that is now nearly evenly split across three regions: the Americas, Asia Pacific, and EMEAI (Europe, Middle East, Asia, and India). This shift added a new dynamic and posed new challenges to address.

While Vezina and her team wanted to make fundamental changes—transforming HR to drive strategy and transforming the company’s leaders into developers of people—they didn’t want to disturb the existing culture.

“All along, we never defined our culture in words, but we always knew that no matter if you were sitting in China, the U.K., or Brazil, we had a discernible Waters culture,” she says. “We’ve come to realize that our culture was initially shaped by Jim Waters, our founder. He just had a very caring and passionate nature. And he hired people like him, and I think we’ve done a great job hiring people who fit with our culture.”

The Challenge for HR

Waters entered a new era of development by looking at its HR business partners—those who work with the top management in each of its organizations.

Sandra Kassing
Sandra Kassing

“It has always been the expectation of our VP of HR that HR takes a leadership role within the company and helps and supports the leaders within the organization to stay on track and be successful,” says Sandra Kassing, Senior Manager, Talent Development for Waters’ HR Pacific region.

To that end, Vezina and a cross-functional team designed an HR business partner development initiative, which was rolled out in 2011. The first six sessions were conducted virtually, and focused on iterating Waters’ strategy and sharing the latest market and customer intelligence.

“With all the changes that were occurring, we wanted to enable our HR business partners to go back to the business units they support with a real understanding of our initiatives and strategies, so they could recognize when something wasn’t aligned with where the business was moving, and initiate discussions around it,” says Vezina. “We wanted to help them become change agents with the power to execute, while also helping our leaders become change agents.”

Vezina says the goal for the HR business partners was that they would have the skills and expertise about the business to be able to have conversations with their VPs and GMs about where the organization is going, the needed structure, and whether the right people are in the right jobs.

What eventually emerged was The Challenge, an aptly named, nine-month learning journey in which participants are challenged to apply newly learned skills in areas such as executing strategy, driving change, and influencing, while working on current HR initiatives. Its express purpose is to “elevate the role of HR business partners,” moving them from “reactors,” who ensure compliance and respond to the needs of the business, to “anticipators,” who predict future talent gaps and can provide insights about how quality relates to business goals.

The Challenge begins with a workshop that includes courses from DDI’s Business Impact Leadership® system. At the conclusion of this classroom component, participants leave with a self-created action plan to follow for the remainder of the program.

To help ensure the lessons from the workshop aren’t lost along the way and behavior changes are sustainable, Vezina worked with Mindmarker and DDI to create customized learning refreshers and mini skill-building activities to keep the classroom learning top of mind. 

Mindmarker’s app-based, automated communications include quizzes, course-specific job aids, and surveys, which promote on-the-job application of new skills. For months after the training workshop, participants receive weekly (sometimes daily) reinforcements on any or all of their devices.

A few months after the classroom courses, the HR business partners are brought back together for a session where they work together to tackle hypothetical challenges that provide additional opportunities to gain skill proficiency and gain confidence in their new role as an anticipator.

At the end of the learning journey, participants and their managers were surveyed to measure the changes in behavior after completing the program. Results from the first participants in The Challenge showed that the percentage of HR business partners who were either “partners” or “anticipators” grew from 66 percent to 90 percent after the training.

“I think there’s now a sense of HR truly helping the business owners to drive their business,” says Robin Wager, Senior Human Resources Manager. “And not just by becoming functional experts, but by really understanding the business we’re supporting and to really help identify and understand what those strategic priorities are, and to help drive them, from the human resources perspective.”

Developing Talent

For Waters to move forward with its transformation, in addition to HR evolving its role, the organization’s operational leaders had to recalibrate their roles, as well.

“We wanted to upskill our operational leaders so they could take ownership of developing their employees,” says Vezina of the program Waters put in place for its managers, called Developing Organizational Talent. Like The Challenge initiative to build the organization’s HR capability, Developing Organizational Talent was aligned with changes within the business.

“Every manager has a mandate to develop, to put together individual development plans for key employees,” says André Ayache, Vice President, European Operations. “It’s something that we have to reinforce, and we have to become better and more skilled at identifying projects, opportunities, jobs, exchanges—different ways to allow our people to grow and develop through experience.”

To give operational leaders like Ayache, and his colleagues and direct reports, the knowledge and skills needed to become effective at driving development, Waters worked with DDI to create a nine-month learning journey, delivered at locations around the world, that shared many of the same elements as The Challenge, including classroom content from DDI’s Business Impact Leadership® and the use of Mindmarker to reinforce on-the-job application. In addition, the learning journey imparted concepts and a process for creating and managing individual development plans.

Specific objectives for participants included increasing participants’ ability to assess team member skills against current and future business needs, determine the development needs of each team member, create development assignments, monitor progress of development efforts, and measure outcomes. To date, more than 350 managers around the world have completed the Developing Organizational Talent learning journey.

James Hallam
James Hallam

“I felt that it certainly gave me a different perspective on how to implement development plans,” says James Hallam, General Manager, Northern Europe. “It was probably one of, if not the first time, that I’ve been exposed to the concept of 70/20/10, the guidelines, the development plans. And I guess that it was quite an interesting realization because, in the past, when we put together a development plan, it was very much focused on the training and what sort of classes we can use.”

As with The Challenge, a survey of participants and observers—the direct reports, peers, and managers of participants—upon completion of the Developing Organizational Talent learning journey confirmed the initiative’s impact. The survey revealed that 51 percent of observers rated the participants as effective leaders after they had completed the learning journey. That represented a huge improvement, as just 19 percent of observers rated participants as effective leaders prior to their completion of the journey. Additionally, the survey showed the learning journey had a positive impact on leaders feeling valued by the organization and increased the leaders’ level of engagement in their roles.

“We had a very high participation rate in the survey,” says Valerie Marquet-Wessler, Learning & Development Manager, EMEAI, and the HR business partner for Waters’ chemistry group and marketing. “There were lots of takeaways where people put what they learned to use and we saw that in the open-ended comments they provided on the survey.”

Vezina also sees—and hears about—the impact the two initiatives are having across the organization. She’s heartened by the feedback.

“There are a number of senior managers around the globe who have said to me, ‘When is my division or location going to get the development?’ That tells me that when senior managers are getting together they’re talking about it. And they’re talking about it in a very positive way, and they’re seeing impact.”

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