When the CEO of measurement company Agilent Technologies embarked on a dramatic business transformation, he partnered with Chief Learning Officer Teresa Roche to deliver the leadership skills and competencies needed to establish the company as a market leader.
There’s no shortage of people passionate about learning in the development industry. But it’s in the combination of passion with precision that effective learning leaders are forged. And in a business as precise as measurement, that focus is paramount.
At Agilent Technologies Inc., Chief Learning Officer Teresa Roche has found a job that brings together her love for lifelong learning with the challenges inherent in a rapidly changing business environment.
“What I have come to realize [is that] the deepest passion I have is how individuals and organizations develop the capability to interpret an evolving and complex environment and take effective action,” she said. “I love doing that in my work at Agilent, I love doing that with my 13-year-old daughter, and with the school where she goes.”
California-based Agilent, a manufacturer of industrial and scientific test and measurement tools, employs 19,000 workers in a $5.8 billion business that focuses on two segments: electronic and bioanalytic measurement, both supported by Agilent Laboratories, the company’s central research group. Agilent products are used for a variety of purposes, from testing cell phones and other electronic equipment to medical testing and measuring air, water and soil quality.
Working for a high-tech measurement company like Agilent wasn’t always in the plan, said Roche, who graduated from Purdue University with a double major in education and communications. She grew up thinking she wanted to be a high school teacher. After taking an internship with Hewlett-Packard, she realized her interests lay in the corporate world.
Roche joined HP full time in 1981 and held a number of human resources positions before leaving in 1989 to join a small start-up technology firm and eventually went back to school for her doctorate in educational technology. She rejoined HP in 2001 and, in 2002, moved to Agilent, which spun off from HP in 1999.
“I need to know that I’m working for an organization that what they’re doing for the world matters greatly,” Roche said. “I like that what we’re doing makes the world a safer, better place. But it is closely coupled by who I work for and with. I need to know that who I’m working with and for have some principles about how they operate in relationship to their customers, shareholders and, very importantly, to their employees.”
Her move to Agilent was a reunion of sorts, bringing her back together with William P. Sullivan, at the time the company’s chief operating officer. Roche first worked with Sullivan when she started her career at HP. At that time, Roche said she was scared of his demanding style, but grew to hold him in the highest regard and established a productive partnership that endured even after they split up in 1984.
“I had said to him, ‘Someday I’m going to work for you again,’” Roche recalled.
Sullivan took the reins at Agilent as CEO in 2005 and immediately embarked on a dramatic business transformation to address the company’s shrinking bottom line. Until that point, the company had suffered nine consecutive quarters of losses.
“When Bill became Agilent Technologies’ second CEO, he made a huge shift in changing us from being a diversified technology portfolio company to a pure-play measurement company,” Roche said. “He stated that our strategic intent was to be the world’s premier measurement company.”
The company spun off or sold segments of its portfolio to focus exclusively on measurement technology, the core of the company’s business, and Sullivan outlined a plan for the first nine months of the transformation.
“He immediately began to demonstrate the importance of leadership by declaring that a best-in-class general management bench was one of his top three priorities,” Roche said. “There’s not one strategic plank that doesn’t have a leadership element to it. Leadership is at all levels, and it begins at point of hire.”
Transformation Through Leadership
In partnership with Sullivan and company executives, Roche and her team created a leadership framework with a cascading development program, starting with the company’s top 100 leaders.
“What Bill did by declaring a new strategic intent is he gave an opportunity for us to recast what we said Agilent was,” Roche said.
In partnership with Roche, Sullivan led the framework development; explored enterprise-wide standards for business practices, staffing, rewards and development; and incorporated functional leaders across the company.
“If you step way back at what Bill had us do, at first he had us ask as a company, ‘Are we doing the right things?’ and then, ‘Are we going to do them the right way?’” Roche said.
After developing the aligned framework, Roche and her team created an intensive development experience for the company’s general managers based on Sullivan’s belief that general managers (GM) are the heart of a company’s ability to execute business strategy.
“In the first nine months, we got all 100 GMs through a customized, business-focused, integrated applied learning experience,” Roche said. After that group understood the core components of the company’s leadership framework and how executives expected them to do business, Roche and her team rolled it out to 350 senior managers and then to middle managers and first-level managers.
“If you were to see the objectives for each one of these, the impact maps we’ve done, there is a beautiful cascade of thematic messages and capabilities,” Roche said. “It’s like a puzzle. The GMs got what they needed to do, and then we took the senior managers through so when they came out they could be in conversation with the GMs, and the same with the middle managers.”
As of April, Roche said about 55 percent of first-level managers had been through the program. Also that month, the learning organization piloted the program for individual contributors at headquarters and around the world, and it plans to have an official launch of that program to the company’s 16,000 individual contributors in late June.
“Bill had this belief, which I didn’t quite see,” Roche said of the cascading model. “He said, ‘I know everybody needs everything right away, Teresa, but we have to focus and prioritize. Let’s make sure the soil is fertile so that when people come out of their experience they have a manager and a set of colleagues who are getting what they are talking about and we can have better transfer and application.’”
In addition to being involved in the framework development, Sullivan and the executive team were involved in the design of the development program, and they sat in on some post-program reviews. That level of involvement helped the design team align learning to the work being carried out.
“Development needs to be a part of work, not apart from,” Roche said.
Content was integrated with Agilent’s business challenges and modalities, and post-performance support involved accountability to actual business results. The cascading implementation also allowed Roche and her team to create a recursive feedback loop that improved delivery and execution of the leadership program as they moved from one level to the next.
It also helped drive business goals. For example, in implementation, the company learned that many people didn’t understand the new operating model clearly and weren’t effectively focused on customers. As a result, Roche and her team made adjustments to the leadership program.
“You might know what your whole portfolio is [and] what you’re going to do, like your whole blueprint, but put the first intervention in the environment, and then it will reveal what really is the next step,” Roche said.
This year, during the program for middle managers, Roche and her team received many questions from participants about decision making in the changing economic environment, and they have scheduled time to talk with Sullivan to tackle these thorny business issues.
“Sometimes our questions reveal other work that needs to be done,” Roche said. “It’s not just us making sure that we’re messaging it correctly and we’re developing people correctly. It may show where we have a gap that we need to close.”
The leadership framework also has allowed the company to align with broader talent management processes, including competency mapping, compensation and staffing. Roche said the resulting competency maps are used by the staffing organization as a skills analyzer to identify and evaluate new hire candidates.
Aligned to Results
One of the effects of working on such a high-profile program tied to core strategic objectives is the increased pressure and accountability that comes from being onstage. Roche said she welcomes the scrutiny.
“If I’m going to be given something to work on and somebody is investing dollars and I’m being held to account to that, I wouldn’t want it any other way,” she said.
When Sullivan set out to reorient Agilent in 2005, company leaders identified four core planks that would serve as the foundation of their strategy: customers; financials; markets; and employees, leaders and culture.
In addition to providing a guide for company operations, those four quadrants also form the basis for the company’s enterprise-wide dashboard to measure results — leadership development included.
“Right there, we make it abundantly clear that those four areas are important in how they interrelate with one another, and every year we have very specific measures,” Roche said. “The quality of leaders is absolutely imperative to accomplish becoming the world’s premier measurement company.”
The company conducts a quarterly audit in each of the four areas, but it also fields a broader employee survey to fill in additional context and capture data more holistically. Roche said her team also gathers data on internal learning initiatives, but all learning initiatives are oriented to drive movement on the benchmarks identified on the corporate dashboard.
“A fundamental principle about how we measure all of these metrics is an inside-out, outside-in perspective,” she said. The company collects internal data using the dashboard framework, but also compares performance to external normative data with the goal of achieving world-class status in its core competency areas. This data-centered approach to human capital is just smart business, Roche said.
“One of the capabilities that all of us need to have is to understand human capital analytics such that we can provide validated evidence for any recommendation that we’re making and to be able to talk from that space,” she said. “So we’re able to choose the practices that we know are going to be able to drive the business and then be able to talk about whether those practices are being demonstrated through the eyes of our employees as compared to external normative data.”
That focus on data and alignment to business is important for all learning practitioners, Roche said, and has allowed her organization to hone in on Agilent’s strategy and needs.
“One of the things that is paramount in our field is that we constantly have to have that capability of knowing where the puck is going and be able to adapt quickly to the changes on the playing field,” she said.
Last fall, as Roche and her team watched the economy begin its downward tilt, they quickly revamped an already planned next-generation leadership program, shifting it from a high-cost face-to-face event that would bring in people from around the world to a regional event that used webcams and low-cost collaboration tools such as Skype to bring teams together virtually.
That focus and flexibility has allowed her learning organization to weather the economic downturn and maintain its role as a core contributor to business success.
“We constantly prioritize,” she said. “We may reduce the number of sessions that we are doing, but Bill has been steadfast in his absolute commitment to development.”
Roche points to the impending rollout of the leadership framework to Agilent’s 16,000 individual contributors as a sign of the continued value that learning brings to the company, even though times are tight.
“When people make it an either-or, like you either invest in development or you don’t, that’s the wrong way to approach it,” she said. “The challenge is, how do you keep doing it but find ways to have that impact differently.”