Torstar is comprised of four distinct parts. The first part contains daily newspapers such as the Toronto Star, the largest newspaper in Canada. Second is the Community Newspaper Group, with more than 70 newspapers and magazines. Next is the City Media Group, a regional mix of community newspapers and dailies. Finally, there is Harlequin, which makes up Torstar’s global interest in more than 60 countries. “We have other investments,” Hanna said. “We have lots of Internet stuff, and we have a really interesting business in Orlando that puts computer terminals on buses that help companies in the U.S. meet the requirements to provide information at stops in several ways, but also allows entertainment and advertising. We’re in several major U.S. cities with that.”
Hanna works closely with the HR leaders for each of the four branches of the business to create strategy and encourage bottom-line business results. She joined the company four years ago, just as Torstar’s CEO made a significant financial investment toward the implementation of a strategy to strengthen the company’s development portfolio. The Human Resource Strategy Group was created and, despite a change in leadership soon after, Hanna said that the new CEO, Rob Pritchard, fully endorsed deployment of simulation training as a major part of enterprise-wide development activity.
Torstar’s development program started small, placing the top 100 senior people in a strategic leader program from the Center for Creative Leadership, a U.S.-based leadership training center. ‘That’s a public program that we brought in house for the first time and mixed our different cultures, which was quite unusual,” said Hanna. “And then we went from there to individual development planning, talent reviews and all the other pieces. We’re moving more and more away from formal training to on-the-job development, which most studies show has the highest impact, and that’s done more on an individual basis.”
Torstar’s yearly talent review and analysis answers questions such as: What did we do last year, and did it work? Was it the right kind of development? Did it suit the person? Has there been a lasting change in behavior? “I think you always have to be looking back at that,” said Hanna. “Once the baseline is in place on leadership, it’s all about customizing it to the individual. What is the way this person learns, and what is it they want to move forward on?”
Torstar’s leadership program has expanded to include the top 500 employees, and Hanna said there are plans to roll out even further in the future. “Every year (employees) sit down and they have in-depth discussions with their line leader and their HR leader about their own development,” Hanna said. “And this is totally unrelated to planning any performance discussion. This is strictly a talent discussion about the person, their individual gifts. The emphasis in these meetings is not on fixing things; the emphasis is always two-to-one: on two real gifts or talents they have that we want to invest in further and one area where we want to do some development or correction.”
Additional development offerings include coaches, internal and external mentoring, on-the-job stretch assignments and “secondments,” where employees who are unable to move to a permanent location can experience a different area of the business on a project basis with a short-term exposure. For those who find additional opportunities outside of Torstar’s varied curriculum, Torstar will match 50 percent of any training cost each year to demonstrate the corporation’s ongoing commitment to key personnel growth and development.
Strong relationships with vendors like the Center for Creative Leadership and Discovery Learning have also aided development efforts, Hanna said. “They go beyond being vendors to being partners because they see more of the talent up close for a week than I would, and they’re very helpful in terms of understanding where we’re at as an organization and what we can do to leverage the talent that we have.”
Discovery Learning, which provides Torstar with leadership simulations at least once a quarter, launches on-site at many of Torstar’s North American and European locations to create a high level of interactivity for high-potential leaders, said Hanna. With an average success rating for a 12-session program at 6.8 out of 7, ratings measure impact, quality and value. Hanna attributes much of the learners’ success to simulation development programs. “This program has had incredibly high ratings and success level, and I think the simulations are the reasons. There are a number of simulations in this program. The one that really stands out is something called Press Time, and it works because people are engaged, they’re occupied, they’re thinking hard about the situation they’re in. It also gives them an opportunity to demonstrate behavior in a natural way so it can be observed by colleagues and by their leaders.”
Creating a learning situation where users experience virtually what happens back at work has prompted a much higher level of energy, said Hanna. “I really think that the high ratings that we’ve had with Discovery are in good part because of the quality of the simulations. People really learn how they behave under pressure and what happens when organizations internally are too competitive. Instead of taking the competitive energy, working together internally to compete externally, it prevents good outcomes,” said Hanna. “The neat thing about these simulations is there are financial measures that are supported by computer so you get the opportunity to make financial choices and get a balance sheet to see how you did.”
Along with Press Time, a multi-day simulation where users divide into teams and compete to roll out new products for a global business, Torstar has used simulations, such as Paper Planes, a shorter simulation where users learn about teamwork, process and decision-making by making paper planes in an efficient way. “This is not just some little thing that you dance around with,” Hanna said. “You get a half day to get ready, you do it for a day, there’s a half-day in-depth debrief, so they really work it. It’s so strong it can actually stand alone outside of the development program. You could do it for a group of people where you were trying to get them to have some deep understanding of how they operate and how things really happen in business.”
Feedback from the learners as well as the top-level executives has been positive, Hanna said. “One of our business leaders said, “I always know when there’s a Discovery program going on because it stirs up energy in our business.” The people who go on it are doing the assessment tools, they’re meeting with their boss and they come back all charged, ready to perform at a new level of productivity. To me that means a lot,” Hanna said. “Managers are willing to let people go for a week because they know that person coming back is going to give the whole department a bit of a lift.”
Hanna said that more people want to participate in the simulation development programs than Torstar can currently accommodate, so plans are in development to expand simulation training for non-management employees. “The closer you get to entry-level work, the more active it is,” Hanna said. “So simulations are a more natural way for people to learn. It’s more like real life.”
In real life, organizations have to show results. Torstar has metrics in place to ensure that employee development can be directly tied to enterprise strategic and bottom-line business impact. “Assessment instruments go really well with simulations,” Hanna said. “If people have already done a number of assessment instruments that have helped them understand how they react to change, how they lead, how their personality comes into play, and then they do a simulation, the debriefs are much deeper because you’ve got some framework to talk about: Here’s what showed up in this session, etc. Here are some of the drivers which lead to not only business learning, but an understanding of how you come across in the workplace.”
However, Hanna said the best measure of success is not necessarily the evaluations that take place after simulation training. Readying employees to confront new tasks and enabling them to take advantage of new opportunities is also important. “What’s really special about the Discovery program is that people have a 360; they get feedback from above, beside and below,” she said. “When they’re on the training program, they actually pick maybe three out of 50 areas that they want to focus on for the next six months. Six months later, they get on the Internet and automatically find a new survey. Not the encompassing one that was done initially, but one that has the questions about those three areas of behavior, and they have the opportunity to go and survey the same people again to see what’s happened: Have they had the change that they were hoping for? Are they strengthening or improving an area of concern? If, on those measures, they were three out of five, you go back six months later, and they’re four out of five.”
The future at Torstar will include more simulation training, succession planning and action learning projects where high-potentials learn new skills, are engaged on-the-job and make a difference to the business immediately, Hanna said. “We’re finding that by the time you get to middle management, you’re less likely to make a move to a different location or a different function. We’re really looking at our early-career high-potentials because there’s more fluidity. They’re more interested in trying something completely different, so we’re reaching much deeper into the organization to plan for the future.”
“It’s a balance,” Hanna said. “holding a positive tension between something fabulous that has application for a number of people, and allowing each of the businesses to approach things in their own way as long as the principles are the same and they’re getting results.”
Kellye Whitney is associate editor for Chief Learning Officer magazine. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.