A few days after Michael Glass joined insurance provider Liberty Mutual Group nearly two years ago, his boss told him he would attend a weeklong management training session in Boston, where the company is based.
As a corporate training veteran and longtime manager, he was skeptical. “I actually talked to [my boss] and said, ‘Do you really think that I need to do this? I mean, not only am I responsible for the management development in the business, but I’ve been doing this forever,” Glass said. He was hired to be assistant vice president, workforce management and learning services.
His boss’ response: Absolutely.
That scenario is common at Liberty Mutual, where employee development is at the forefront of the company’s culture, even for learning industry vets. The company believes management training is the secret ingredient that will pave the way for a competitive advantage in the highly aggressive insurance business. No employee or potential manager is given a free pass.
“From day one there is a discussion about this company, who we are and how we operate,” said Glass, who previously ran training programs at Fidelity Investments. “It’s ingrained not by a professional training program at the front of the room with a nice slide that says that, but in the behaviors of the executives in the classroom who talk about it.”
The first Liberty Mutual executive to greet Glass with this message was Larry Israelite, vice president and manager of human resources development. Israelite, a 59-year-old Pennsylvania native who’s been leading Liberty Mutual’s employee development organization for more than five years, traditionally kicks off the mandatory management training session, which is given to as many as 5,000 managers annually — all either new hires or internal promotions — and features a number of high-ranking executives, including an appearance from the CEO.
Liberty Mutual doesn’t necessarily do anything unheard of in its management training: traditional classroom, e-learning, case studies, on-the-job and stretch assignments all run their course. Technical training in the skill areas required for the company’s core business groups is also plentiful. In the end, Israelite said it’s the company’s belief in managers behaving according to a certain standard that sets it apart.
Instilling management behaviors that align with Liberty Mutual’s core business values is the most important lesson of the weeklong management session, Glass said. It is also considered the most vital metric to measure the business impact and financial alignment of learning — a measurement model that’s come under fire among some industry peers who prefer to stack the business case for learning against actual business outcomes or return-on-investment metrics.
Now a close colleague, Glass — who knew Israelite prior to joining the company — said he’d never experienced anything like he did during that week in Boston, where management training isn’t treated as taboo or an afterthought but as the key to greater business success. Every employee who attends the training is asked to buy into Liberty Mutual’s management standards. And, for the most part, they do.
“We’re a very value-driven organization,” Israelite said. “According to our belief system, being there is more than half the battle. We teach managers in our management programs about our culture, our values, our principles and about their responsibility of promoting them throughout the organization. If we think that managers are the keepers and promoters of our culture, and they don’t come to training, they will not be able to do that.”
Playing the Part
However, the true test of leading development for Liberty Mutual’s roughly 45,000 employees worldwide is being able to influence the organization, Israelite said. Getting any employee base to buy into the notion of management training and development — typically thought of as a rigid corporate function disliked by many outside of HR — is no small task.
“I’m trying to run a corporate function in a decentralized organization,” Israelite said. “A lot of what we have to do is influence. We don’t have direct control. In a training environment, when you’re talking about things like design standards and evaluation strategies and what authoring tools you use, everybody’s got options, everybody’s got favorites. So this notion of gaining consensus across the organization and ensuring compliance with the standards that we’ve established, but not being viewed as the training police, has been a real challenge.”
Thus far, Israelite has been able to meet that challenge. “He puts rigor and discipline around peer reviews, around the content that we deliver, around the mechanisms we put in place,” Glass said. “I’ve been at this for 24 years. Most of my career [has been] running a number of training organizations, and I’ve come across people who sit in Larry’s shoes and they’re kind of poseurs; they go an inch deep.”
Glass said this is not the case with Israelite, who — despite being adamant that all Liberty Mutual front-line managers and up attend the company’s management training — is respected as an academic in employment development. Glass likened his colleague to a learning design historian with the creative mind of a scientist, always dissecting the tiniest elements of learning design. His precision as a quick study is also considered one of Israelite’s greatest assets.
Israelite classifies himself as a “geek” studying learning tools and the field of instructional design. He holds two post-graduate degrees in related fields — a doctorate in educational technology and a master’s in instructional media — both from Arizona State University.
Yet Israelite said he never imagined his career turning out this way. Originally a theater major at Washington College, a small, liberal arts school on the eastern shore of Maryland, Israelite assumed his creativity would lead him to become a high school drama teacher.
But after teaching for a year, Israelite learned it wasn’t the profession for him. So he moved into a role at his alma mater doing audio-visual “stuff,” as he put it, before eventually taking courses in photography and multimedia production. It was at this time Israelite discovered master’s and doctoral programs in instructional media and educational technology, respectively. He pursued both degrees because, “I was always reasonably creative, but not an artistic person. Instructional design allowed me to be very creative without having to be artistic.”
Both experiences sparked an interest in learning design and education technology, which hadn’t fully emerged as an industry. When it did in the mid-1980s, Israelite had experience companies were seeking. He landed a few smaller gigs in the field before being hired as the first trained instructional designer for information technology firm Digital Equipment Corp. in 1987.
From there, Israelite bounced around — John Hancock Financial Services, Oxford Health Plans — working in training and instructional design. In 2006, he came across a listing for the job at Liberty Mutual.
“It was fate,” he said. “I went to a headhunter’s website, and there was a description for a job that suited me perfectly.”
Fending Off Critics
Israelite’s role as the steward for Liberty Mutual’s belief-centric learning measurement model hasn’t always been easy. He said development training is not rocket science, and Liberty Mutual is rooted in a simple belief that if it hires the smartest people and develops them, it will gain a competitive advantage in the marketplace.
Getting every Liberty Mutual manager to attend its management training is the key to doing that, and so far, Israelite said 90 to 92 percent of the company’s managers attend the training in the time frame they’re supposed to — roughly within the first 120 days for front-line managers — although that is still short of the company’s goal. Further, roughly 80 percent of Liberty Mutual’s managers are internal promotions, which puts an even greater emphasis on development. “We are not satisfied — because what that means is 8 to 10 percent of our managers are [still] not learning what it means to be a manager here,” he said. “That’s just wrong.”
Among Liberty Mutual’s core beliefs — many of which were around before Israelite joined — is how it measures the success of its corporate learning and development. When the recession hit in 2008 on the heels of the financial crisis, organizations cut learning budgets and scaled down programs. This put many veteran learning and development executives on the offensive, searching for methods to show company leaders the dollar value of their contributions and the business case to keep learning at the table.
Israelite said Liberty Mutual was and still is less concerned with ROI-centric measurement, opting to rely on a belief-centric model that says focusing on controlling and monitoring managers’ behavior is the true measuring stick for learning, not business outcomes or trying to link return on investment to complex learning programs.
“For as long as I’ve been in the training business, the struggle that training professionals have had is to make themselves relevant to the organization by trying to find some percentage of the business success you can attribute to the fact that they had training,” Israelite said. “But what we did [starting in the late 1990s], which was a little different, is we said … that takes too long and there’s too many intervening variables to be able to attribute things to specific pieces of an initiative.”
Israelite said this belief was adopted in large part so the company’s business strategy could change and the learning organization wouldn’t have to adjust its method of measurement. Instead, the business outcomes are used more as a long-term validation of this method, not a direct metric for training success.
But the system has its critics. Liberty’s belief-centric measurement model for learning is “short of where it really needs to be these days,” said Jack Phillips, chairman of the ROI Institute, a corporate learning evaluation consultancy. “It’s like investing in faith; it becomes a faith-based initiative, and in today’s environment that’s risky.”
Phillips’ position resonates with many learning practitioners in the post-recession economy. After giving a keynote speech on Liberty Mutual’s measurement model at an October conference hosted by Chief Learning Officer magazine, Israelite said some audience members grilled him on the validity of the company’s approach.
“It’s not that we ignore the outcomes,” he said. “It’s that we want to be able to influence things before the outcome occurs. Because, in the end, if you don’t get the outcome you want, it may be because you believe the wrong things or it may be because you asked your managers or employees to do the wrong things, and we want to be able to figure that out.”
Phillips, who did not attend the conference, said prevailing measurement models based strictly around learning ROI have grown around previously conceived barriers such as time. “You can predict or even forecast the value, and you get outcomes quickly,” he said. “You don’t wait years to see the outcomes of a learning program. If you don’t see the business impact in a matter of months, it will have no business impact for the most part.” Yet he said many organizations have yet to adopt this measurement approach.
Liberty Mutual hasn’t had much reason to re-think its learning measurement philosophy. Its annual revenue was in the neighborhood of $11 billion in 1998, according to the presentation Israelite gave at the conference, with an operating income of $374 million. In 2010, revenue was $33.2 billion, with an operating income of $1.9 billion.
“We don’t feel the need to say the management training program contributed .0234 percent of [a] particular business outcome,” Israelite said.
Between focus on designing learning models and developing people, Israelite said he still finds time to move his own professional development along. “I talk to people a lot who are a lot smarter than me and who know more than I do. I look at journals. I read. I go to conferences. I teach,” he said.
Moving forward, Israelite said his focus will continue to be on studying and teaching emerging learning trends and the disruptive technologies that might lessen training’s value to organizations. “What we’re really trying to do is to become much smarter about knowing the difference of what knowledge and skills our employees need to do their jobs well … and what information they will be able to access quickly and efficiently, such as fingertip knowledge or performance support,” he said.
Israelite said Liberty Mutual’s learning function is also preparing to broaden its scope so its management training will reach all employees in more than 900 offices in 27 countries across the globe without requiring everyone to make an annual pilgrimage to Boston.
“Over 2012 and 2013 we really want to understand the difference between content that can be delivered via performance support or the Web or databases or social collaboration tools vs. things and skills that require high degrees of judgment. We have a huge amount at stake if we don’t do this right. I can talk about that for three days. Don’t get me started on that one.”
Frank Kalman is associate editor at Chief Learning Officer magazine. He can be reached at fkalman@CLOmedia.com.