Reaching for the stars

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Written by Seun Robert-Edomi on 1 March 2013 in Interviews
Interviews

In the first of a series on the L&D professionals who scooped the prizes at TJ’s 2012 Awards, Seun Robert-Edomi talks to L&D professional of the year Karl White

An individual who helped to transform the L&D and OD offering within his organisation was recognised at last year's TJ Awards.

Karl White, organisational development manager at Mercedes-Benz UK, was named as L&D professional of the year, topping a shortlist of six.

He was hailed for overhauling the way training was delivered, with a particular focus on the organisation's retail division. His approach also saw him earn praise from category judges David McIntosh and Karen Velasco.

McIntosh said: "He has achieved major changes in restructuring the way that he and his team have an impact upon the organisation."

Before White joined Mercedes-Benz UK in 2009, there was no L&D or OD policy in place. The function was primarily training administration and little more. The training department was not partnering with the rest of the business so did not truly understand, or align to, the business needs. In addition, there was an over-reliance on external consultants, while there was no accountability in terms of whether schemes delivered a good return on investment.

White started his work at the company by consulting extensively within the business to find out what people at all levels wanted from L&D, and looked at the overall business strategy to ensure that his new strategy was aligned with this every step of the way. It soon became clear that a priority for the business was the management population. Managers were used to telling people what to do instead of coaching them through tasks, while people often floundered in new managerial roles due to the fact that they were either not ready or ill-equipped to do the job.

He began by focusing on transforming management and introduced five programmes to help the change: 

  • retail management development programme a front-line sales and service initiative focusing on manager development
  • first line managers programme an initiative that deeply embedded role-model skills and behaviours
  • supervisory development programme a scheme that would see future line managers being given the skills, behaviours and confidence needed to become effective managers
  • those with high potential to become senior leaders were given the chance to work with Henley Business School and receive some benchmarked external training
  • coaching executives and senior managers using accredited executive coaching to develop a top-down coaching culture.

White sought to focus on maximising employee engagement and to measure business performance impact for each initiative. He also stressed the development of best practice within the L&D function, running regular feedback sessions with members of his team.

As a result of the programmes, the perception of management and leadership across Mercedes-Benz UK has dramatically improved; engagement with senior executives has also seen a great increase. Eight members of staff were promoted after the supervisory development programme. A further three managers were promoted after the first line management programme.

The performance improvements were all achieved using in-house resources as opposed to the previous reliance on external training.

White's work has also been recognised further afield, with Daimler AG (Mercedes-Benz UK's holding company) asking him and his team to be the hub for training and development in Europe for the Daimler group.

Velasco heaped praise on his work: "We were impressed that Karl had delivered more, at lower cost and with greater organisational benefit.

"The judges also felt that his way of forging relationships at every level within his organisation, as well as with consultants, delivery partners and awarding bodies, was highly commendable."

White said that having the external recognition was really important to him: "Winning the award was the highlight of my career - I can say that, hand on heart, without a doubt. I felt proud and honoured.

"For a number of years I've been going into organisations to try to help them establish and have the best L&D function they could possibly have. The award was basically a reflection of my whole career. And that was the moment that topped it off. To have that external recognition is really important for an individual. That, for me, was just not a victory for myself, but also my team because I am not successful without them."

A big factor in helping him emerge victorious was that the business saw the L&D function as an enabler of improved performance. Gaining "executive sponsorship" for L&D's activities also played a key role.

"You fundamentally need to understand the business that you're part of. You need to understand its vision, its strategic aims and goals. It's then about aligning everything that you do around that. You then need to gain executive sponsorship and make sure that you have the necessary resources and support in place to execute anything you're doing - that's when you'll be successful," said White.

"The business sees the L&D function as the enabler and that's what contributed to the success."

For someone looking to have a similar impact on their organisation, White stressed the importance of asking where L&D sits within the organisation. This is something he considers before joining any business.

"We are so embedded with HR that it's seamless. We're seen as true experts. The close-working relationship with HR is critical for any function. If you're seen as the department where HR recruit people and then throw them across to the L&D people to train them, that's fundamentally flawed from the start.

"I've always chosen my businesses to work in and the first question I ask is where L&D sits in the business. I always interrogate the business before I join them and ask them how serious they are about L&D.

"You've got to look at where the commitment is. Ask them what their motivation is for making the appointment. It' s imperative to enquire about why they're appointing you," he concluded.

For more on this year's awards, visit www.trainingjournal.com/awards/

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