In the Classroom 2
Putting Learning into Action

When Clorox developed a program as part of its Diamond Leadership Institute (DLI) for its high-potential executives, it wanted to stretch their thinking beyond the borders of the company. But it didn't want to leave them out there. To bring the learning directly back to current business challenges, teams of participants engaged in "action learning projects."

"We wanted to give participants some external business and leadership knowledge, which is why we worked with Wharton," said Juliandra Rittmann, Manager of Human Resource Development at the $4.1 billion global company that sells laundry additives, insecticides, and home cleaning products in more than 80 countries. "But we wanted to take the learning out of the classroom and apply it immediately with real impact for the company — in a safe environment where executives could try new approaches."

The Clorox DLI Masters Program had three components that were integrated throughout the program. It began with a 360-degree assessment and coaching. Then, there were a series of multiday program sessions on topics such as strategic thinking, creating shareholder value, and negotiations at the Wharton West campus in San Francisco, across the bay from the company's headquarters in Oakland, California. The third component was a set of action learning projects, launched at the start of the program and continuing for nearly 3 months.

Designed for Action

Teams of five executives wrestled with specific challenges developed by the company's executive committee. These topics included rethinking customer segmentation for more effective go-to-market strategies, redesigning company performance measures, and providing global customer support. The challenges were significant to the company and required multifunctional approaches. They were specific, but open-ended, without an easily identifiable solution. For example, the team considering performance measures was presented with the questions:

How do we ensure that we are focusing on the right set of measures to determine total company performance? What are the key metrics that should drive our activities? What do these metrics look like at different levels within the organization, from senior management to the execution level?

Each topic had a sponsor from the executive committee that the team could confer with along the way. At the end of the period, the teams presented their recommendations to the executive committee itself. The company's top leaders offered direct feedback and immediate next steps, from commissioning further study to beginning implementation.

While the goal of the projects was learning, the presentations in March have already led to the implementation of a new Balanced Scorecard for measuring performance and a new project for global customer support, among other initiatives.

Strategies for Action Learning

What has the company learned about designing and implementing successful action learning projects? Among the insights:

  • Pay attention to team design: The design of the teams was deliberate. Each five-member team was structured to be cross-functional to expose executives to the thinking of peers from different areas. Team members may have had some experience with the topic under consideration but were not experts. "One of the things participants really valued was the cross-functional exposure to people they hadn't worked with before," said Rittmann. "It forced them to think out of their areas of expertise. Many of the participants have largely grown up in one functional area and are near the top of that function. Of course, making a presentation to the executive committee in a new area was a little uncomfortable for some people."

  • Make the projects real: Working on real projects kept the high-level participants engaged in the process of learning. "We are a results-focused company," she said. "If these projects had been hypothetical, I don't think it would have been as meaningful." Participants immediately saw the relevance of these topics since they had experienced similar challenges and could personally benefit from their resolution.

  • But be realistic: There is a delicate balance to designing projects that are serious enough to warrant executive attention while being focused enough to be reasonable for a small team to complete in three months. "The projects had to be broad enough in scope but not too broad so that there was no clearly defined answer," Rittmann said. "These are all top achievers. They loved the work but were not prepared for how much time it took in addition to their regular jobs." For the 2005 program, the company is extending the period for the projects to 4 months.

  • Enlist top support: The active involvement of the company's top executives is vital to the success of the project. "We are very fortunate that we have had great support from the executive committee," Rittmann said. "If the HR team had come up with these topics, they would not have had the same credibility. Participants know the executive committee picked these topics." The presentations were also designed so the executive committee had an active role in immediately offering feedback and identifying next steps. This ensured that they were not passively observing the presentations. For the next program, alumni of the 2004 class will also serve as advisors to the teams.

Overall, the projects increased learning from the program. "Participants found it challenging and really liked getting to work with people they hadn't had an opportunity to work with," Rittmann said. "They liked the presentations to the executive committee because it gave some conclusion to the work and ensured the learning had relevance."


This month's articles:

  • In the Classroom
    Weaving together online and face-to-face sessions made Booz-Allen's distance learning program anything but virtual.

  • Thought Leaders
    Simulations offer learning about successful strategies and team dynamics, without the high costs.

  • In the Classroom II
    Clorox used a set of "action learning projects" to bring its lessons back to work.