And the award goes to...

Written by Daniel Wain on 1 May 2013 in Interviews
Interviews

Daniel Wain learns the secret of Norbert Dentressangle’s success from Mark Simmons

Norbert Dentressangle. An anagrammatic cryptic crossword clue? The guy who scored nil points in the Eurovision Song Contest? Though it's hardly a household name, Norbert Dentressangle is actually one of the top three providers of logistics and transport services in the UK, with 13,000 employees achieving revenues over £1.1bn, and growing. Chances are that the company will become an increasingly prominent presence in this country and not just because of the growing number of its ubiquitous red trucks.

Norbert Dentressangle Logistics UK Ltd is already pulling away from the competition on the learning and development front, having won two HR accolades in the past 12 months. First, the company scooped the training category at the 2012 Motor Transport Awards and then, in January, came the 2013 HR Award for Distinction in Learning & Development. Judged by a panel of HR experts, the latter award recognises "the company whose learning and development programme caters for and maximises potential at all levels in the business and fundamentally supports the company's organisational goals".

For Mark Simmons, HR director of Norbert Dentressangle's UK business, the awards are very welcome public validation of the company's L&D strategy: "We have very ambitious growth targets, despite the difficult economic climate, and we believe that investing in learning and development is critical to achieving those."

Founded in France in 1979 by the eponymous Norbert Dentressangle, the company has grown considerably over the past decade, due to both organic sales increases and acquisitions, including Christian Salvesen in 2007 and TDG in 2011. Today's £1.1bn revenue compares to only £50m in 2007. Globally, the business, whose services include warehousing, transport, freight forwarding and operations management, now employs 33,000 people across 26 countries, generating a turnover of €3.9bn. The UK has now overtaken France as its largest logistics market, with customers including Argos, Danone Waters, Ford, General Motors, Kimberley-Clark and LG Electronics.

"We believe," says Simmons, "that shared success is inseparable from individual success. Shared growth therefore means enabling each of our employees to contribute to our growth, progress and commitment." Hence the company's philosophy of "you grow, we grow" and its L&D strategy "to develop a culture of high performance, capable of adapting swiftly to new opportunities and challenges in order to deliver profitable growth".

Simmons and his team have created a suite of development initiatives to cover employees at all levels, from drivers to the most senior leaders of the business, in order to "motivate employees, increase individual capabilities and promote best practice" . The approach has been carefully considered and systematically structured to fit with, and help deliver, the company's overarching commercial strategy.

"Five years ago," explains Simmons, "before the acquisition of Christian Salvesen, where I was HR director for the food and consumer business, L&D at Norbert Dentressangle was relatively ad hoc and fairly random in nature. After the acquisition, we started a very deliberate journey towards a more joined-up, proactive and strategic approach to L&D."

First, Simmons and his L&D team, led by Chris Dolby, conducted a review of their business, both in terms of the status quo and where it was aiming to get to. "We got feedback from within the business and outside from our customers. What would 'good' look like, in terms of service and performance? What knowledge and skills did we need to drive the business? How could L&D help to achieve our business strategy and deliver increased profitability?"

The next step was to review the various job levels and 'families' in the light of this review, to create a framework of desired skills, knowledge and behaviours. Simmons and his team reviewed what L&D was already in place to deliver these and where there were gaps that needed to be filled. This, in turn, led to the creation of a pathway of core L&D programmes to cover every job level.

So, for example, there is an introductory management skills course (First Steps in Management), followed by the more advanced Management Development Programme and then a full foundation degree in leadership and management. For non-managers, the company invests in NVQs at all levels, as well as in driver-specific programmes such as the Safe Driving Plan.

The 2013 HR Award was in specific recognition of the MDP and the Safe Driving Plan. The former is aimed at first-line managers or supervisors "with the potential to develop into exceptional managers". It was co-designed with an external training supplier and South Staffordshire College, and is accredited with the Institute of Leadership and Management, so that learners receive a nationally-recognised management qualification upon completion.

The MDP comprises six modules delivered over a 12-month period. These include:

  • Managing Yourself (which covers subjects such as delegation, dealing with pressure, assertiveness and effective communication skills)
  • Managing Individuals (including performance management, setting objectives, providing feedback, identifying poor performance and coaching skills)
  • Managing Teams (with topics such as the key characteristics of good teams, Belbin team roles, the Tuckman team model and translating business goals into team objectives)
  • Commercial Acumen (tackling issues such as the wider business context, cost control, engendering an entrepreneurial approach, achieving efficiencies and customer growth)
  • Providing Legendary Customer Service (looking at subjects such as understanding customers' needs and identifying opportunities to excel)
  • Achieving Peak Performance (which focuses largely upon individual presentation skills).

All of the above provides undoubtedly useful skills and knowledge for Norbert Dentressangle's UK managers. However, what really sets this programme apart is that each participant is tasked with making a minimum cost saving of £4,000 as a result of attending. It is thus entirely 'self-funding'.

"Each manager has to present a personal case study," says Simmons, "showing how they have made the cost saving and the benefit of doing so, either to our customers or to the business. We are not asking them for bright ideas, but for tangible, concrete evidence of what they have achieved."

The company's award-winning submission cites a very measurable return on the L&D investment: in 2011, this was more than ten times the cost of the programme, representing a 73 per cent increase on the ROI achieved in 2010. Moreover, two of the last cohort of delegates generated more than £1m in savings.

And the MDP doesn't just appear to deliver that L&D Holy Grail of proven ROI. For Simmons, the investment also leads to increased employee engagement as it "promotes a spirit of enterprise and gives managers the opportunity to share ideas", as well as to increased fulfilment of potential: 49 per cent of all those who have completed the MDP have subsequently been promoted.

All of this certainly impressed the HR Award judges, who commended "a really compelling submission from an organisation that has produced a wide-ranging L&D initiative. Employees are enthused at all levels, which delivered a quantifiable, tenfold return on their training investment". Such proven ROI is certainly distinctive, and, for Simmons, L&D is an invaluable way to ensure the organisation stands out from the competition.

"It's a cliché to state people are our greatest asset," he asserts, "but, within this organisation, it's the only way in which we can truly differentiate ourselves in such a competitive marketplace. That's why, while many companies have cut back on training during the recession, we've continued to invest."

Simmons started his HR career in the FMCG world, with Proctor & Gamble as a graduate, and moving on to Revlon International, before deliberately changing sector by joining Cosi Manufacturing prior to his move to Christian Salvesen. "In FMCG," he explains, "you're selling a product. Norbert Dentressangle and our competitors are selling a service, which essentially means our people are our only genuine differentiator."

This view explains the company's target of filling 60 per cent of all vacancies from within the business. This is one of a set of key ROI measures in place across the various L&D programmes. Others include employee retention and feedback from both delegates and line managers. "Sixty per cent was a deliberate stretch target," says Simmons, "based upon the current reality of around 50 per cent of vacancies filled from within. We believe that this inherent approach to the identification and development of internal talent is a key factor that has contributed to our commercial success." As well as helping to strengthen the talent pool, there are also no doubt savings on recruitment costs.

Simmons has himself benefited from the opportunities of a growing organisation. Starting as an HR generalist, he has found himself increasingly involved in L&D, supporting Dolby and his team. Also, as the business has developed, he has started to get involved in L&D outside his home market.

"Most of our L&D is decentralised," he explains, "to meet specific local needs and also because our company organisational structure is deliberately flat. That means that 90 per cent of our L&D programmes are market-specific, although we do try to share the really good ideas."

One such L&D initiative that the UK has imported from France is the new Red Management programme. This was, again, developed after extensive internal and client research designed "to get to the core of what it meant to be a Norbert Dentressangle manager and what success looks like within the business". Says Simmons: "We deliberately avoided the textbook approach to management competencies and focused on our own 'DNA' and how our values of entrepreneurial spirit, unity, excellence and commitment are lived on a day-to-day basis."

Essentially, Simmons' team looked to identify the core skills and behaviours inherent in the very best operators within their business and to then make these the foundation for a consistent way of working that can produce what he calls the "ND difference", setting the company apart from the competition.

"The aim of Red Management," he says, "is to master those skills and behaviours and to set the 'ND difference' as the standard across the delegate group". In 2011, its first year, the Red Management programme included 400 managers experiencing four modules (What is a ND Manager?, Constructing and Developing my Team, Organising and Structuring Communication, and Understanding and Adapting Management Style) over seven days.

"We started with site managers, and have now started rolling the programme out to our support functions," says Simmons. "As it's very much about self-awareness and personal impact, we make use of tools such as Myers Briggs and 360° feedback. In fact, only 10 per cent of the content is theory. The rest is practical application of the learning."

So how does Simmons manage to argue the case for such heavy investment in L&D? "Well, first, there's the obvious return on investment generated by programmes such as the MDP," he explains. "Second, we measure success not just in terms of financial gain. For example, our driver training has shown significant reductions in the number of road accidents as well as improved fuel economy. It remains very difficult to prove a causal link between L&D and financial performance, but, in a customer-centric, people-dependent sector like ours, the benefits of investing in L&D are obvious: to our employees, our clients and thus our business."

For Simmons, it is essential to show a genuine link between L&D initiatives and company strategy: "There has to be a business reason, rather than just conducting training for training's sake." Although he has had occasionally to defend his L&D budget, for example when the global economy fell over in 2008, Simmons points out that Norbert Dentressangle UK invests more on its central L&D programmes now than in pre-crash 2007.

Perhaps another factor behind Simmons' success is that he and his team quite clearly focus their efforts and investment. Although employing 13,000 people, only around 500 attend either the MDP or the Red Management programme each year. There's very little evidence of 'sheep-dipping'.

"We deliberately target the right people with the right skills and behaviours," agrees Simmons. "In a flat, decentralised structure like ours, it's crucial to have good managers who can ensure that they are getting the best out of all our employees. That's why we work really hard at helping our managers to make sense of our company values and behaviours. They have to bring them alive personally in order to make them a reality for their people."

This lean management structure is reflected in the L&D team itself. With only Chris Dolby and three others, they make considerable use of external delivery partners, including academic institutions. For example, the company's leadership and management foundation degree is designed and delivered by Northampton Business School, and integrated with awards from the Institute of Leadership and Management.

As part of the core programme, approximately 64 delegates per year learn about such subjects as the management role, team leadership, business operations, the recruitment and development of staff, budgets and financial control, and sales and customer service. Upon completing the full two-year programme, learners receive an ILM level 5 extended diploma in leadership and management as well as a foundation degree in leadership and management.

Norbert Dentressangle's programme is the first in the UK to offer the former qualification as part of a foundation degree. Indeed, delegates can opt to continue for a third year in order to gain a master's degree, although this requires them to fund the learning themselves.

So why does the company link with such academic partners? "Partly," says Simmons, "it's to give our managers confidence at operating at a senior level. Not all will be graduates, so working with the likes of Northampton enables them to broaden their theoretical knowledge before identifying how to apply that back in the workplace."

As mentioned, the company's L&D programmes are not solely focused upon management development. For a transport and logistics firm, road safety is obviously a constant priority, hence the heavy investment in driver training. The Safe Driving Plan was launched way back in 1991 and aims to prevent accidents through 'defensive' driving techniques such as vigilance and anticipation. It takes the form of a five-day induction programme, with a minimum of three days of in-vehicle training, during the employee's first two years, supported by a driving review every 18 months after that.

Just like the management development programmes, the Safe Driving Plan demonstrates a belief in blended learning. "It's horses for courses," explains Simmons. "The method adopted depends upon the skills and knowledge that we want to develop. So, for example, we include an element of one-to-one coaching in our more senior management programmes and are also beginning to offer an element of self-learning, especially for knowledge transfer initiatives for the new generation."

While blended learning is on the increase within L&D generally, Norbert Dentressangle seems to be running counter to another rising trend:

'bite-size' learning. As shown, many of its L&D programmes are considerable beasts. "We do run some short and sharp sessions, where relevant," says Simmons, "but certainly for management development, we feel we need to give our people serious thinking, learning and reflecting time away from the desk. It might sound counter-intuitive but, with a lean structure with no 'spare' managers, we don't want to constantly distract them from their busy working lives. It's better to structure the L&D in."

So what can the broader L&D profession learn from Norbert Dentressangle's financial success, not to mention its recent brace of awards? "First, ensure that all you do links quite blatantly to the business and what it's trying to achieve," says Simmons. "Second, don't leave measurement until the end of the programme. Think about your hard and soft metrics up front. Then, use those who've experienced the learning as catalysts for change back in the workplace. Finally, ensure you' ve a committed, passionate L&D team who really care about what they're doing and why they're doing it."

Follow those simple steps and you also might find yourself rising to the words 'and the award goes to...'

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