Putting the Idea Into Practice

Building Leaders of the Future at The Andersons

What began as a single grain elevator and one man’s dream has grown into a publicly traded company with diverse interests. Founded in Maumee, Ohio in 1947, The Andersons, Inc. is a diversified company rooted in agriculture that conducts business across North America in the grain, ethanol, plant nutrient, rail, and retail sectors. The company has more than 3,400 employees in 100 locations across the US with $4.2 billion in revenue. For nearly 70 years, its success has been sustained by extraordinary customer service, a deep knowledge of the market, and a knack for finding new ways to add value to the customer experience.

A while back, with many executives approaching retirement, The Andersons knew it needed a succession plan and education solution to build and sustain leadership strength for the future. Enter Eric Levos, corporate learning partner. “I was hired at The Andersons to lead corporate learning and development as well as eLearning implementation. My primary focus was to create a leadership development program that would build a sustainable leadership pipeline.”

Levos needed a program that would support an enterprise-wide audience representing five very different business groups. Workshop participants would include managers of grain elevators, managers who work with formulating, storing, and distributing fertilizers and nutrients, managers of ethanol production plants, managers who lease and repair rail cars and locomotives, and managers who run retail stores that carry everything from home goods to specialty foods. Even though these business units are very different, they needed a consistent leadership style that would serve all divisions.

The first task was to conduct an organizational assessment to determine exactly which leadership competencies needed focused training. More than 40 topics were identified. Levos was able to cull that down to 11 core topics ranging from primary leadership skills to business and financial acumen. The next step was to look for the best source of material to support the desired results. Levos was already familiar with Situational Leadership® II (SLII®) and knew it would provide the foundational skills for the program, so he contacted The Ken Blanchard Companies. While discussing the scope of the project with the Blanchard team, he realized that three additional programs would help deepen and sustain the SLII learning. He decided to include a session on creating a Leadership Point of View to help participants understand their own personal perspective on leadership, a course on Coaching Essentials so that they could use coaching skills to help employees perform at a higher level, and six executive coaching sessions so that each participant would receive specific individual support and workshop reinforcement.

“I wanted this to be more than just another training course. We needed our leaders to learn new skills, then go back to work and put them into practice—and have coaching along the way,” Levos says. The result is a ten-month curriculum called The Leadership Institute, designed to bring high potential leaders together as a cohort in a learning environment that includes classroom training, virtual support, and real-work projects that must be completed upon graduation.

The Selection Process and Beyond

Levos understood that being selected for this program would be seen by people as an honor but would also require their complete dedication. Managers who already have plenty of work are asked to attend classes, participate in virtual meetings, and complete projects outside of their normal workload. The robust selection process includes one-on-one interviews to explain exactly what is expected of each candidate along with the time constraints they can expect to experience over the next ten months. Candidates may opt out of the program at the beginning—but once in, they are considered all in. The letter of acceptance to the program comes from the CEO, so there is no doubt about senior leadership support or the importance of the program. In fact, the new CEO of The Andersons, Pat Bowe, is the executive sponsor for the current cohort along with Rash Shah, president of The Andersons Rail Group. Senior level support for the program is critical, so Levos worked with the Blanchard team to develop a half-day customized program to introduce all senior leaders to the concepts of SLII and to offer a refresher on coaching skills. The course was a hit and participants felt better equipped to support their staff members while they were going through the training. “Designing a course to bring senior executives up to speed turned out to be an incredibly valuable method for getting high level organizational support for the entire program,” said Levos.

The Leadership Institute launches with a teambuilding experience and dinner for the new cohort as well as the organization’s executive leaders. Members of the cohort prepare, cook and serve the food and the CEO presents his Leadership Point of View—a powerful tool that participants utilize during their training. Note: All senior executives at The Andersons—including retired CEOs—have completed the process of developing their Leadership Pont of View.

The opening three-day session kicks off with SLII to teach participants the skills they need to understand how to provide the right amount of direction and support to their staff. They learn that each person needs a different level of direction and support depending upon their development level on each task or goal. SLII provides a common language for employees to use to ask for what they need from their manager, and for the manager to use to help each employee achieve their goals. Also during this first session in the curriculum, other senior leaders share their Leadership Point of View—usually at breakfast or lunch. With SLII training complete, the cohort spends a half day learning how to develop their individual Leadership Point of View. Each leader is also paired with an executive coach from The Ken Blanchard Companies who offers six coaching sessions throughout the remainder of the program. Near the end of the curriculum, participants are trained in Coaching Essentials for Leaders so that they will be able to use coaching skills with their own staff.

Participants also have access to several support tools for SLII available online through a platform called Blanchard Exchange. They will find worksheets to help with goal setting; conversation starters for planning one-on-one meetings with staff members; and checklists for assessing the effectiveness of their communications. Also available are articles and videos leaders may share with their teams to further their understanding of SLII, as well as an app that allows leaders to diagnose direct reports’ development levels on specific tasks or goals. The comprehensive materials on Blanchard Exchange make it easy to sustain the learning and embed the SLII language into the company culture.

A critical element of The Leadership Institute is the work on strategic corporate projects that coincides with the training. In addition to the training workshops, each leader is assigned to one of three corporate projects that impact the company. For example, one project focused on building synergies between two different business units while strengthening the business relationship with customers. Senior leaders analyzed maximizing gross profit by cross-selling several proprietary fertilizer products and offering grain services. The outcome was increased revenues for farmers through improved crop yields and mitigated risk though crop insurance and risk management services. Doing real work as part of a learning program elevates the entire experience not only for the learners, but also for the organization. People who might not otherwise even know each other come together as part of a cohort to solve an issue or make new business recommendations for the organization. Levos says, “The partnerships built during this process are invaluable to the organization. People work together with a new sense of respect and trust for one another.”

Results

A program this comprehensive affords many opportunities for measurement. Formal metrics are tracked on project completion, career progress, retention, and development plans—and results have been positive. Perhaps even more exciting is the informal measurement that happens organically as leaders form deep, cross-functional, and trusting business relationships.

When the first cohort completed the program, they realized that in order to embed SLII language and behaviors into the culture of the company, leaders at all levels needed to attend the workshop. As Levos describes it, “SLII isn’t an HR program, it is a business program—and that is a critical distinction.” Rick Hathaway, a member of the first cohort, believed in the training so much that he participated in a Training for Trainers class for SLII and now co-facilitates. Rick is a grain trading manager by trade and a senior leader facilitating SLII. “When I realized the power of using SLII to improve communications with employees and colleagues, I knew we needed to have others go through the program,” says Hathaway. “It was transformational for me and I wanted others to have that same experience. So I approached Eric with the idea of getting certified to be a trainer.” So far, Levos and Hathaway have led four courses—and the internal buzz about the program is so positive, classes are filled for the rest of the year.

According to Levos, “The first cohort was led by outside trainers, but now our leaders are getting certified in the courses and training them. It is a powerful way that demonstrates how our leaders are embedding the behaviors, walking our talk, and building the language of SLII into the fabric of our culture.”

A Few Tips

Developing and launching this program provided a learning journey for Levos. He describes six important tips for anyone thinking about this process.

  1. Involve sponsorship. Get C-level and senior executives involved throughout the program. They need to do more than just approve the curriculum. Ask them to participate in the sessions so that they are invested in the success of people, not just corporate business projects.
  1. Fill the need. Do an organizational assessment to select topics that fill the company’s skill gaps. Don’t work with a curriculum from another company—create your own to fit your organization’s specific needs.
  2. Invest in teambuilding. Make the first session for your cohort an offsite, overnight event. It might be more expensive—but it’s worth the investment because it allows team members to form relationships sooner. Also, the downtime provides a chance for people to connect informally to build trust and a real community.
  3. Respect participants’ time. Spread workshops out over time to allow participants to learn new skills and then go back to work and apply them. As the cohort works together over time, individuals will learn, practice, and get together again to learn from each other. That is the key to sustaining the learning and changing behaviors with peers they trust.
  4. Build your own. Invest in creating your own high potential program. While business schools provide an amazing learning experience for individual leaders, this approach is not scalable for many companies. And without teams experiencing a consistent curriculum, embedding the learning is challenging.
  5. CELEBRATE! When high potential employees complete a rigorous program with specific deliverables that impact your company, make sure you honor their commitment and hard work.

As of this writing, the first cohort has completed the entire program and the second cohort is about halfway through. Levos is gathering even more support for the learning experience. As more leaders throughout The Andersons are being trained in SLII, the company can share a common leadership language. “It’s amazing to overhear a conversation where someone is asking for help because they are at Development Level 2, or sharing excitement about being at Development Level 1 on a new task,” Levos explains. He is proud that this comprehensive program is being embedded into the culture of The Andersons and that the future promises a strong, supportive, and powerful community of dedicated leaders.