Through its 90-year history, Irving Oil employees in Canada and the United States have taken advantage of a variety of internal and external training programs. These range from traditional job training and developmental opportunities to highly technical and mandatory annual training required by industry regulation. Many employees also have taken advantage of coaching and mentoring support, which is not required but offers support to ensure employee success. These programs enabled the energy company’s employees to expand their skills and equipped them to take on leadership positions as the company grows.
Some employees refer to their workplace as Irving University, and while the company does not have a corporate university, the term was coined due to the opportunities available to employees interested in taking on new roles and advancing their careers. The company’s long-standing commitment to developing its workforce is one reason it maintains high retention rates. More than 37 percent of its Canadian and U.S. employees have remained with the company for a decade or longer. Its overall attrition rate is less than 1 percent per year.
Industry Movement Shifts Education
In early 2010, Irving Oil saw the need for a more formal, academically focused leadership experience to build greater business and financial capabilities in its employees. This need was spurred by the fact that the oil industry is changing. More volatile markets are making it increasingly difficult for refiners to be successful. Irving Oil understood that to remain successful, it needed to place an emphasis on performance — not just ensuring the company’s physical assets were performing at their best, but also strengthening leadership, improving employees’ business acumen and developing stronger professional capabilities.
After identifying the need to cultivate existing employee talents and invest in the future, the human resources team took its commitment to leadership development a step further. With support from company executives, including newly installed President Mike Ashar, who joined Irving Oil in 2008, a formal partnership with the University of New Brunswick — Saint John Campus (UNBSJ) launched a joint executive MBA program (EMBA).
A major investment for Irving Oil, the EMBA program establishes an accredited learning degree program onsite. Students are selected based on academic guidelines established by the university and performance standards set by Irving Oil’s human resources team. The final group composition is formed via collaboration between the company and the UNBSJ to ensure a diverse group representative of various functional areas, business units, roles and responsibilities, and years of tenure.
Because each student cohort represents a diverse cross-section of the company, the EMBA program nurtures innovation, ideation and strategic thinking, while leveraging their cross-functional relationships. The program is designed to serve as a platform for employees to learn from one another while increasing their individual capabilities.
Working with the university has enabled Irving Oil to deliver a cost-effective program. It represents approximately 25 percent of the company’s training and professional development budget. The EMBA program is one of the largest learning investments Irving has ever made, yet the senior management team expects the program to pay off within five years. The return on investment is based on an expectation that students will generate ideas and bring work tools and business insights back to the company. Employees will use these skills to enhance their own work products as well as share this information with team members.
Survey data from 2009 and 2010 by the executive MBA council aligns with Irving Oil’s internal findings. The council’s 2009 survey of 3,348 students from 112 programs found 97 percent of students said their programs met or exceeded their expectations for organizational impact.
Flexibility for Part-Time Students
Irving Oil’s program officially kicked off in October 2010 when more than 50 employees attended their first class onsite. Students can take courses on a range of business-relevant topics, including business ethics, accounting, research and statistics for two years. The program was designed to fit the needs of part-time students who have full-time obligations at work, with families and in the community.
To ensure success, Irving Oil’s senior management team determined that part of the program would hold classes in the late afternoon, twice per week, instead of during the evenings or on weekends, with flexibility given for exam preparation and group work as required.
“The executive MBA classes have been incredibly valuable, and throughout this process, Irving Oil has been very supportive of our transition to student life,” said Lesley MacLeod Dickson, a public affairs specialist and member of the inaugural class. “I wanted the opportunity to obtain my EMBA because I believe that now more than ever a graduate degree in business gives me the skills I need to take on increased responsibilities, and having more responsibilities makes my work life more satisfying.”
Class lectures are delivered by the same UNBSJ professors who teach in the university’s full-time EMBA program, so Irving Oil students receive the same education as their full-time counterparts. The company has provided facilities onsite in renovated classrooms near the Irving Oil main offices. Because managing a new schedule and increased workload can be a challenge, the company also offers workshops to develop skills in time management, writing and effective studying.
Buy-in from managers also has contributed to the program’s success. It was imperative that Irving Oil integrate managers carefully into program logistics so they would feel like they were a part of the decision-making process. The company encouraged managers to be flexible and to accommodate students’ schedules, and managers continually receive messages about the program’s progress from the president and executive team and are urged to support students along their journey. Students are also held accountable to their managers and are expected to work hard in their studies and in their day-to-day responsibilities.
Measure Impact With Bottom-Line Results
The impact of the EMBA classes has been tangible and almost immediate. Student groups perform real work projects that provide solutions to challenging areas for the company. For example, student papers have been shared with the executive team as input for team meetings, rather than purchasing this work from a consulting firm. Other work, such as competitive analyses and analyses of barriers to the company’s vision, is also being evaluated and generated by internal talent.
Because they view their roles from a new and different perspective and have new tools under their belts, students report having renewed energy for their jobs. They’re excited to apply new concepts and test new skills in the workplace.
“All projects associated with our courses have been focused on topics relating to our company’s operating environment,” Dickson said. “By examining new management processes and financial data through this corporate lens, I have a better understanding of how my role connects to our company’s objectives. Irving Oil has also been tremendously supportive to the class by offering us an onsite learning facility, the latest technology, ongoing coaching and mentorship by our company’s leadership team.”
In turn, students readily see and appreciate the company’s central role in contributing to their professional growth and development, and, in time, to the growth of their careers. The executive MBA council reported similar findings in its 2010 survey, which showed 68 percent of graduates reported new responsibilities as a result of entering an EMBA program, and 37 percent received a promotion and job change during their program.
While the first student cohort still has a long way to go in the classroom — the group will graduate in October 2012 — the HR department already has observed students’ deepened knowledge and expertise in the workplace. The fact that students from one part of the company intermingle with students from other parts has turned out to be particularly beneficial. In an internal student survey, employees systematically reported that their opportunities to interact with employees from other areas of the company in the classroom — individuals with whom they would not ordinarily interact — has brought them a better understanding of the business as a whole.
“The executive MBA program allows us to build stronger relationships across the organization, which we can leverage to make a more effective company,” said Alex Coles, a senior manager in the execution and integration office at Irving Oil. “Through this program, Irving Oil is supporting business literacy by providing educational opportunities that allow us to build more capability within the organization, providing us with a competitive advantage in today’s economic climate.”
Paying tuition for the first student cohort of more than 50 employees, while continuing to pay their salaries and benefits, is a large, ongoing commitment. In October, Irving Oil will admit 60 students into its second class.
In 2010, a BenchmarkPro survey revealed how companies are dealing with economic troubles caused by the recession. Nearly half of the surveyed companies reduced or eliminated employee benefits. At a time when so many companies are cautious about increasing spending on benefits, Irving Oil sees investment in its human capital as the best path forward.
Tanya Chapman is the corporate human resources officer for Irving Oil. She can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.