Goldman Sachs employees work hard — they are part of a leading global investment banking, securities and investment management firm that provides myriad services worldwide — and they expect their learning experiences to measure up to the high standards to which they are accustomed.
“Goldman hires very powerful people from the best schools, often graduate-level,” said Steve Kerr, chief learning officer and managing director. “You really have to be impactful, interesting, do it quick, keep it short. They’re demanding. They know they could be somewhere else, earning money for the firm, and they don’t want to be in your class unless it’s really going to pay off.”
Kerr tackles this and other challenges in leading Goldman Sachs’ leadership-development training program, in which about 1,000 to 1,200 of the company’s top vice presidents and managing directors participate in a given year.
“The philosophy on the leader-development side has to do with the notion that most professional development does not occur sitting in a classroom, being formally lectured to,” Kerr said. “With respect to leadership development, the philosophy is to make use of all three ways of learning: learning from formal classes; second, learning from other people; and third, learning on the job, experiential learning. And a lot of what we do is aimed at trying to find a balance among the three types of learning and development.”
Striving for this balance has manifested itself in many ways, including vignettes that involve role-playing by Goldman Sachs employees and others that involve a touring group of actors who actually perform certain cases or create scenarios for issues such as diversity training.
Kerr said another tenet of Goldman Sachs’ philosophy in regard to the leadership-development training is that the course learning is based on transitions, not intervals.
“If you want to have people value their learning and development, you have to meet a need,” he said. “For example, the first time someone works with a co-head, they will come and take some development from us. The first time they have a global responsibility, the first time they have a multiple-level, they’re working with managers who have managers, etc.”
Learning at Goldman Sachs does not necessarily occur at the actual company, Kerr said. Rather, employees often take field trips to historically significant places that have been backdrops to great leadership.
“We try to give them experiences outside their normal one. The Americans have been to Gettysburg to walk the battlefields,” Kerr said. “To the retired generals who know this stuff well and the historians, we say, ‘Please emphasize leadership or communication, planning or teamwork,’ and they tailor the talk. We’ve had Europeans go to Waterloo; we’ve had other Europeans go to Normandy.”
Additionally, Goldman Sachs has taken people from out behind their desks and plopped them into an orchestra pit in order to emphasize the importance of teamwork.
“We had people sit in on a symphony orchestra, where they have kind of a live example of what it’s like if you don’t play for the team,” Kerr said. “In one example, the conductor tells the strings to lower their instruments by one-half note, and then they do Tchaikovsky’s ‘Serenade for Strings,’ and it’s beautiful. Then you do something with the brass by Wagner, and it’s beautiful, and then you have something with the harp to play at the end. Of course, it’s terrible because the strings are half a note too low. And your big theme is what happens if you stop optimizing and can’t play as a whole organization.
“It’s fabulous because they have the orchestra right there (we used the Washington National Symphony Orchestra when we did it in Washington at the Kennedy Center, for example), and the orchestra was seated exactly as they normally do, but there was an empty chair next to each musician, and we put one of our students in each chair. And the conductor — who knows something about leadership — you hire him, and he works with the local orchestra. One time he told them, ‘Each of you, play your best. Make yourself sound as great as you can.’ And so they’re all hamming it up, and each one is great, but the whole thing sounds just terrible. And he says, ‘This is what happens when everyone’s saying “Look at me!” and you’re not playing as a team.’”
Kerr said Goldman Sachs also uses executive coaches, which is not unique, but the attitude toward coaching does make the company stand out.
“They’re almost full time with us. We give them enough work so they learn our culture a lot, and they know our practices,” he said. “In many places, coaches feel remedial, but at Goldman Sachs, you’re proud to have one. It’s labor-intensive, it’s the most costly, so you can’t afford to do it a lot, but we’ll have 50 to 60 people in an extensive, nine- to 10-month-long coaching assignment, and then we’ll have many more who will get ‘coaching lite,’ that is, they won’t get that kind of depth, but they’ll have access to the coaches, the coaches get feedback about them, and we help them improve and so on.”
– Lisa Rummler, firstname.lastname@example.org