The editors of Chief Learning Officer magazine created the Learning In Practice Awards six years ago to recognize learning leaders who have made a tangible impact on their enterprises through a combination of outstanding leadership, vision, business acumen and strategic alignment.
CLO of the Year
Cedric Coco, Vice President, Learning and Organizational Effectiveness, Lowe’s Companies Inc.
There were no small plans for Cedric Coco when he joined Lowe’s Companies in January 2008.
With nearly 1,700 stores in North America, the North Carolina-based home improvement retailer had grown aggressively during the past decade. As Lowe’s began to eye international markets, executives aimed to tighten operational efficiency and increase effectiveness among the company’s 228,000 employees.
The executive team determined leadership and managerial capability were the keys, and Coco’s charge was to rebuild the learning function and develop a human capital strategy to prepare Lowe’s for the next decade. With team members serving 14 million customers per week, the job would require a keen focus on the customer experience.
“I was extremely excited about the opportunity to take a very loved and admired retailer to the next iteration in its growth cycle,” Coco said. “The big focal point has been on people. How do we enable our associates and our employees to build and win trust with our customers?”
In his role, Coco oversees organizational effectiveness, talent development and the learning strategies required for future growth. This involved some new challenges for Coco, whose prior positions at GE, KLA-Tencor and Microsoft primarily included leadership roles in high-tech, high-growth industries.
“Retail was a new industry for me, so first I started by spending time to understand the business,” Coco said. “I had to immerse myself in the culture, understand our business model and our challenges. Secondly, I needed to develop and obtain buy-in on a business model/value proposition for human capital within our organization.”
Economic conditions added additional complexity to the challenge. Faced with shrinking wallets, consumers cut back on their home improvement spending in 2009. According to company figures reported in August, sales declined from 2008 levels by 3.2 percent for the six-month period ending in July. This turbulent retail economy left smaller margin for error and required a highly precise approach — which happened to be a passion of Coco’s from his engineering days.
“It just blended completely with the state of where Lowe’s is, which is how do we ensure that we are developing and growing our human capital in a way that enables us to be competitive and win trust with our customers?” Coco said.
Working with his peers in human resources, Coco rewrote the company’s human capital strategy to define the value proposition, communicated it to the business units and obtained executive buy-in. He then established a change management model that aligned human resources strategies in support of the business plan to bring the vision to fruition.
In part due to Coco’s influence, the executive team made human capital asset management one of Lowe’s key multiyear business strategies and boosted fiscal year 2009 spending on learning and leadership development — a significant move during a time when most retail organizations cut their development budgets.
“He brought a fresh approach to Lowe’s human capital strategy,” said Maureen Ausura, Lowe’s senior vice president of human resources. “At every stage of the employee life cycle — from assessment and selection to on-boarding, performance management, talent planning and career development — Cedric’s innovative ideas have created and delivered premier solutions that have allowed Lowe’s to build a robust talent pool that drives results.”
Those ideas included the creation of the Lowe’s Leadership Institute, chartered to identify and grow managerial and leadership talent across the enterprise. In its first six months of operation, the institute trained more than 20,000 leaders. The company is now developing a full leadership curriculum to address the needs of leaders across the enterprise. Coco also led the creation of a professional development team to design career models and curriculum especially for the salaried workforce.
Additionally, Coco spearheaded the creation of the workforce readiness team, focused on developing the company’s hourly workforce. This effort was able to reduce unnecessary training hours from the cashier workforce, leading to a savings of $2 million in salary expense. Capitalizing on efficiencies, appliance service specialists were able to return 20,000 hours to the sales floor.
Coco also led the redesign of succession management to incorporate development and talent planning, starting with vice president level and above, and soon expanded to the director level. Chairman and CEO Robert Niblock personally led a session for his own team.
“Cedric’s passion for his profession, his drive to help people achieve their full potential and his resolve and tenacity to realize Lowe’s vision have earned him the respect of his team members, peers and the corporation’s leadership,” said Niblock, who added that Coco’s work to develop the company’s workforce is helping fuel its future growth.
Beyond building managerial capability and strengthening leadership competence, Coco said the most gratifying accomplishment was the creation of Lowe’s human capital analytics group. This group provides the company’s executive leadership with dashboards and scorecards on the effectiveness of the company’s people strategies. Developing analytics is critical to the continued transition of learning and development from request-taker to true strategic partner, Coco said.
“HR has always talked about having a seat at the table,” he said. “The nature of having a seat at the table [means] coming to the table with a business model similar to the supply chain groups, similar to your finance teams, similar to your marketing teams who manage media impressions. Every function within the corporation with the exception of HR has a model that is both retroactive and predictive on analytics around their function.”
Coco was selected as 2009 Chief Learning Officer of the Year by a panel of former winners of the award, including past and present learning executives from Caterpillar, Defense Acquisition University, General Mills, IBM and MasterCard. While the award was meaningful, he said, more important was the recognition it represented.
“That was a very heartfelt, very touching moment for me, just knowing the people that had the final say-so,” he said.
Asked what others can learn from his award-winning work at Lowe’s, Coco said it begins with clarity of vision, followed by precision of execution and attention to measurement.
“You have to understand what it is you’re trying to affect,” he said. “What is the value proposition of your team and your function? Once you figure that out, you have to build a strategy along with a business plan to support what you’re trying to attain and achieve, how you are going to go about doing it over a period of time and how you are going to measure whether or not you’ve achieved it.
“Those basics are critical to being able to have the growth and the experience and the success that we’ve had at Lowe’s.”