Putting the Idea Into Practice

Developing Leadership Skills for a Competitive Edge

Express Employment Professionals, a leading staffing provider in the US, Canada, and South Africa, has an impressive and honorable goal. According to Cheryl Moreno, director of leadership development, “We’re on a mission to put a million people to work.” This powerful vision helps employees in local Express offices as well as the international headquarters realize how meaningful their work is—because helping people find jobs changes the lives of not only individuals, but also whole families. More than 200 Express employees in the Oklahoma City headquarters serve more than 750 franchise offices. The people at Express are passionate about their work, which is key when it comes to recruiting and retaining their employees.

Even with this winning formula, however, executive leadership at Express recently found its overall employee turnover rate at an unacceptable 52 percent. Leaders knew they needed to change that number and retain their top talent in order to maintain their level of expertise and competitive advantage in the marketplace. To help them not only determine the cause of the problem but also find a solution, leaders at Express launched an organization-wide survey—the Employee Work Passion Assessment from The Ken Blanchard Companies.

The goal of the survey was to uncover the correlation between workplace passion and employee turnover. Leaders at Express wanted to understand what caused office staff to stay and what caused them to leave. The survey measured 12 factors that influence employee work passion: Autonomy, Meaningful Work, Feedback, Workload Balance, Task Variety, Collaboration, Performance Expectations, Growth, Procedural Justice, Distributive Justice, Connectedness to Leader, and Connectedness to Colleagues. It also looked for the presence of five intentions: Discretionary Effort, Intent to Perform, Organizational Citizenship Behaviors, Intent to Endorse, and Intent to Remain. The results confirmed beliefs about what was going well and shed light on areas that needed improvement.

Express already offered excellent training on the technical side of the business, such as how to secure new clients, recruit associates, and run a successful business. However, the organization put little focus on leadership training—an oversight that became very clear when studying assessment results. Staff members indicated their leaders needed to be able to develop a vision and communicate it to the team, build trust, and create a culture that reflected franchise owners’ values. Additionally, employees wanted to work with leaders who would help them set goals, hold them accountable, and communicate more effectively. In short, leaders were very good at the operational side of the business but needed help with visionary and day-to-day leadership skills.

Moreno knew training would help—but she wanted to make sure the program would provide value to franchise owners as well as corporate leaders and managers. “We had been delivering Situational Leadership® II training with great success, but I wanted to create a program that would address specific leadership skills,” explains Moreno. Her department conducted an extensive study to determine what the most successful owners did on a day-to-day basis that made them exceptional. They interviewed leaders at headquarters as well as franchise offices and reviewed processes and systems. The resulting data revealed 13 competencies every successful leader should master.

The next step was to create a customized definition of each competency using language consistent with the vision, values, and goals of Express. “The language might make the competency sound very generic—such as coach, mentor, and develop staff,” explains Moreno. “But we made the definitions very specific and actionable, using detailed descriptions for each competency. Our competencies aren’t just a list of words—they are an action plan for becoming a successful leader.”

With the competencies defined, Express worked with The Ken Blanchard Companies to design an extensive two-year program for leadership development. The program is called Express Leadership Academy: Building Entrepreneurial Excellence.  Much like an MBA program, participants apply to attend and must meet certain criteria to be accepted. Once in the program, to gather information about their own as well as their staff’s perception of their skills, each person takes a series of assessments—including a 360° assessment—based on the 13 competencies. The results of these assessments provide valuable information at the beginning of the learning journey. Each participant comes to the introductory class with an individual development plan that has specific activities outlined to help them develop skills in the areas they need most.

The program kicks off with a two-and-a-half day, face-to-face class on core content at the company’s Oklahoma City headquarters. Within the next 11 months, leaders participate in three 90-minute interactive webinars that take a deeper dive into skill training. Participants share their pre-work in breakout rooms and hold each other accountable for doing the work and sharing during the webinar.  This program design allows participants to be introduced to basic content in the face-to-face sessions and then put the learning into practice on their jobs over the next year.  Moreno says, “Express Leadership Academy is designed to help franchisees develop skills over time and concentrate on putting learning into practice. Sustainability is built in to the program design.”

Part of the core curriculum includes Situational Leadership® II (SLII®) training from The Ken Blanchard Companies. “Ken Blanchard says ‘Leadership is not something you do to people. It’s something you do with people.’ We wanted to share that philosophy with our franchisees,” says Moreno. To that end, Express selected SLII® as the foundational leadership model to teach managers how to work with their staff to set clear and attainable goals, provide the right leadership style, and give appropriate feedback.

A large part of the initial face-to-face training is dedicated to Situational Leadership® II. The three webinars that follow go deeper into content.

The first webinar focuses on helping franchisees teach SLII® concepts to their staff so that they can all be familiar with the leadership language. Express leaders realized if the franchisees went back to their offices with this new approach to leadership and didn’t explain it to their staff, those relationships could be damaged. It is critical for franchisees to share what they learn and to teach their staff to ask for the kind of support and direction they need to perform at a higher level. They all need to be able to speak the same leadership language.

The second webinar is dedicated to one on one meetings—the importance of scheduling them, conducting them, and using them to determine the development level and leadership style needed for each goal.

The third webinar focuses on goal alignment, which is necessary to ensure people are working on the most important tasks and are comfortable asking their leader for the appropriate leadership style.

“One of the best things about SLII® is that it helps leaders increase the frequency and quality of conversations about performance and development,” says Moreno. “It gives leaders and direct reports a common language to use so that people know how to ask for the direction and support they need to complete a task.” After the training, leaders are better equipped at several skills including goal setting, coaching, listening, giving feedback, problem solving, and performance evaluation.

At the end of the first year, participants and staff members take the 360-degree assessment again to monitor progress. Then they begin the next level of leadership skills training with a new two-and-a-half-day, face-to-face class.

Coaching is another key element of Express Leadership Academy. Express is broken into regions, each with 12 to 15 offices and each with a developer who is responsible for helping the franchisee run a successful business. Prior to the launch of Express Leadership Academy, developers focused on sales coaching and other operational issues. Now they have been trained in Blanchard’s Coaching Essentials for Leaders program and they serve as leadership coaches for the franchisees in their regions. The program teaches leaders how to use executive coaching skills to have productive conversations with direct reports. This is a valuable way for franchisees to build trust, draw out ideas and solutions, collaborate, partner, and focus on the development of their staff.  The coaching skills also help leaders manage the delicate balance between caring for their people and being tough when necessary. “The developers were already trusted partners in their regions and it made perfect sense to give them the additional skills they needed to become leadership coaches, too. We’ve already seen a stronger bond between developers and their franchisees as they work together to achieve personal as well as organizational goals. In fact, the developer helps the franchisee create their individual development plan at the beginning of the Express Leadership Academy. Then they work as a team to build new leadership skills,” explains Moreno.

Currently, four cohort groups have completed the core curriculum and two cohorts have completed the intermediate course. Express leadership is pleased with the results. Participants have described this as the best training experience they ever had. They are happy not only with the content but also with the fact that they can put their learning into practice immediately—and having the coaching available offers a new level of support from Express headquarters. The staff at headquarters is happy because the focus on leadership skill development allows them to improve employee engagement scores and reduce turnover.

Once Express executive leadership realized that lack of leadership skills—not the technical aspects of the business—was the cause of the biggest problems, they knew they had to act fast. Helping franchise owners and corporate leaders improve their leadership skills allows the company to leverage the very thing that makes it so special—the fact that Express Employment Professionals is a company full of people who know they are doing meaningful work.