Think back to kindergarten when everything was all primary colors and ABCs. But what some people forget is how that grade offered the freedom to explore through unstructured time devoted to development — something hard drive manufacturer HGST Inc. put to use when making a cultural change.
In February 2014, the company’s senior leadership decided the current performance management process wasn’t working. Instead, they wanted to institute a different approach that eliminated the performance rating and supported ongoing conversations between employees and managers.
“Easy enough, right? Eliminate performance ratings,” said Annette Pellinat, HGST’s global senior director of talent management and acquisition. “But we quickly realized this was a culture change initiative and really about developing our leaders in a different way.”
HGST has about 41,000 employees globally, but the program needed to support 1,400 leaders. By benchmarking other companies that had done something similar, Pellinat and her team joined with vendor Oxygen Learning to help put together its experiential development programs.
Between August and November 2014, groups of 20 target employees were invited for a “day of discovery.” But the classroom wasn’t like the average training room. There were no PowerPoint presetnations or tables. Music played as the students walked into the room, and the Oxygen Learning facilitator was there to greet each one personally.
Juliana Stancampiano, CEO of Oxygen Learning, said the class’ loose structure is meant to encourage sharing between employees. “Not having tables gets rid of boundaries because people will be working and doing group work together,” she said. “We want them to feel open and welcome to discussing things.”
Participants found themselves seated in a U-shape with a workbook under their chairs and flipcharts and markers scattered around the room. Although some of the activities, such as role play conversations, required this physical layout, it didn’t stay that way for long.
In “the rope exercise,” which sounds more like something done in a gym class than a leadership development program, the group split up to represent an average workplace. Two small, equal groups were “change drivers” and “water cooler people,” or those who don’t want anything to change. Each unit took a side of the rope while the rest of the group stood in between, ready to be swayed by either party on which way to pull.
The tug of war helped the “change drivers” learn how to get neutral employees enthusiastic about their mission, Stancampiano said.
But the rope exercise is more than a lesson in persuasion — it’s also a meta look at the HGST program in general. Imagine employees being told to leave their laptops in the corner and grab a rope. Some of HGST’s managers weren’t immediately on board because of the nontraditional setup, Pellinat said. But the energy and engagement were too good to resist.
“About an hour into the training, the people who are really skeptical of it start to see the value and understand the concepts for themselves and how it works for the business,” Stancampiano said. By the time the training ended, most of the participants left saying they wished it had gone longer.
The training was not optional, Pellinat said, which meant it had to work across continents. The 1,400 employees were at the company’s headquarters in San Jose, California, as well as countries like Japan and in Singapore, as most of HGST's employees live and work in Asia. The interactive training was a way to cross cultural barriers.
But even though employees traded laptops in for rope, they got an experience to grow their leadership abilities. The experience had to convey one important lesson:
there are new expectations for managers following the culture change.
Pellinat said the biggest shift associated with HGST’s new conversation-based evaluation system is promoting and monitoring continuous performance conversations between managers and employees. Although employees were trained on the system and how to ask for the right feedback if they don’t feel they’re getting it, the HGST-Oxygen collaboration made sure to educate the managers responsible for initiating conversations in the beginning.
The program ended in November 2014, and Pellinat said she saw major improvements in management’s attitude toward the new system and the responsibilities it entailed.
“This is the start of the journey,” she said. “It’s not just about training, but also about talking about leading at HGST. It’s about continuing to reinforce all of those messages every chance that we get.”