Founded in 1958 by Dr. Ethel Percy Andrus, a retired high school principal, AARP long has championed the rights of the 50-plus population. The social changes AARP leads also benefit Americans in general — according to its Web site, the organization’s vision is “A society in which everyone ages with dignity and purpose and in which AARP helps people fulfill their goals and dreams.”
To make this vision a reality, the organization relies on a workforce of about 2,300 — about 60 percent of which is at its national office in Washington, D.C. — as well as thousands of volunteers across the country.
And building on a decidedly pro-education foundation (AARP evolved from the National Retired Teachers Association, which Andrus founded in 1947), the organization seeks to maximize the effectiveness of its large and dispersed workforce through myriad learning and development opportunities.
AARP’s people strategy reflects the importance of enterprise education, Chief People Officer Ellie Hollander said. Developed based on the results of employee-opinion surveys, this strategy has helped AARP take a more strategic and holistic approach to its employees. One of the organization’s tenets is that a highly engaged workforce drives organizational performance. Hollander likened the phenomenon to a journey, one that began in 2002.
“We created this model that helped us determine, at any given point, where we were, in terms of levels of engagement. We then defined where we wanted to be as an organization,” she said. The definition stands for all the cultural attributes and behaviors that AARP feels are critical to its success. Learning is a large part of that definition, Hollander said.
“We continually learn and apply new knowledge and skills to all that we do,” she said. “It’s also building an environment in which learning is respected, encouraged and applied. It’s pursuing learning in self-development, exhibiting a commitment to continuous growth and improvement, assisting others to learn by offering coaching and feedback and so on.”
To combat the difficulties that arise as a result of its dispersed workforce, AARP uses e-learning and many derivations thereof, including e-briefings, Web conferences and a learning portal. Beyond computers, Hollander said AARP conducts learning and development through “exchanges.”
“We want our staff to have the opportunity to really delve in deeper on a particular subject matter, which is a learning opportunity for them. So, we’ll have something called an ‘exchange,’ where we’ll pick a topic for an hour, and we’ll have our executive team sponsor or talk about an exchange. Then folks who are not in the Washington office can call in through audio, through videotape — it’s like a town hall,” Hollander said. “We do all of those things on a regular basis because there are so many different avenues for learning, and there are any number of topics we’re trying to keep our staff apprised of.”
AARP also offers classroom-based learning, but Wade H. William, director of talent and leadership development, said the offerings are getting away from an open-enrollment, or “birdfeeder,” approach. Rather, AARP focuses on intact teams and helping employees decide what they need to learn. He said this action can be attributed to frenetic nature of everyday work, which is not unique to AARP.
“One of our challenges is getting folks together for a day or two days to learn something,” Williams said. “So, what we’ve been doing is working with managers do to a thing called ‘talent review,’ where all talent within an organization is assessed. And from the output of that talent review, we can identify common needs or areas where we can then provide group development to an intact team. So, a manager meets with one of us, and we do this facilitative review. From that, we have individual development plans emerge and then a group-development picture. And then, they’re committed to having an intact session to develop this one particular skill set identified in the talent review.”
To ensure all employees are trained to AARP’s standards, organizational leaders assume the role of guinea pigs — members of the executive team (including Hollander) act as a pilot group for learning and development programs, and if they do not think the offering met the standards, it is sent back to the drawing board. Williams said this role-model behavior is a testament to the commitment to excellence that pervades AARP.
“In every major initiative of this type, the executive team does that work first and leads the way,” he said. “One of the reasons that training and development is successful here is because the chief people officer, a member of the executive team, sits in on all these dry runs. Without that kind of executive commitment and feedback to help shape the delivery and content, we wouldn’t be where we are.”
But it’s the employees who are the ultimate litmus test for AARP’s enterprise education initiatives, Hollander said.
“The true testament to us of the ultimate effectiveness of our training is how it shows up in performance — individual performance and organizational performance,” she said. “We believe learning is a critical component of engagement, thus, a critical component of performance. If every individual is performing to their peak, then the organization is going to have successful year after successful year. And I have to say, since we’ve had our people strategy in place, and I’d say it’s pretty mature at this point, we have had three stellar years of great organizational performance.”
AARP aims to continue the success it’s enjoyed, as well as build on it, through several initiatives. One is the Talent Development Integration project, which is an online program that puts into all employees’ hands the wherewithal to plan their careers at AARP, develop and promote themselves and become mentors.
“If I’m a midlevel employee, and I want to be the chief people officer ‘when I grow up,’ I can identify ‘chief people officer,’ and it can give me a job description,” Hollander said. “It will identify for me the competencies that are required of a chief people officer. So, I can find out one of the critical competencies is strong interpersonal relationships and relationship building or leading change or strategic visioning or whatever. I can click on a competency, understand what that competency is all about, click again to find out training and development opportunities or courses that we offer at AARP (or ones that we may support outside of AARP), as well as articles or books and so forth, and I can actually do a self-assessment.”
Another component of the Talent Development Integration project is Renewal, which is an opportunity for long-term staff members who meet certain criteria to take off an extended period of work to refresh and rejuvenate themselves. Hollander said employees who are invited to take part in Renewal must attend a workshop to help them plan how to use their time — it’s not a vacation.
“We really want them to think about how they can maximize this time for themselves to do something they’ve never done that they’ve always wanted to do, to learn something new,” she said. “We also have a re-entry, post-renewal workshop, and our learning and development team has worked on the curriculum for all of that. Besides the fact that it’s a neat program, what we’ve encouraged people to do is to look for opportunities, to back-fill or cross-train other employees in the organization to fill in for their colleagues while they’re gone.”
Another program AARP has started is the Whole Person Initiative, which addresses work-life balance and related issues.
“It is an acknowledgement by the organization that the people who work here have a work life, a home life, a business life, a physical life, an emotional life, and if we are not helping them pay attention to all of that, then we’re doing ourselves and our employees a disservice,” Williams said. “Roughly 100 of our top executives have had the opportunity to go to Orlando, Fla., and participate in a 2.5-day program that focuses on what’s important to them, how they work, the way in which they keep their bodies energized through nutrition and exercise and how they balance their life so that they’re effective in all spheres. They will lead the organization in adopting this approach to work.”
Hollander said the impetus for the Whole Person Initiative arose from employee-opinion surveys, emphasizing the importance of keeping a finger on the pulse of the workforce.
“In terms of engagement and performance, we use our employee-opinion polls/surveys as a ‘temperature check,’” Hollander said. “We watch those results very, very carefully, and we had noticed an increase in levels of stress in the sense that the blend of home and work is becoming such that it is a blend — it’s no longer separated — and folks were feeling like they were on a treadmill. We wanted to get ahead of that, so the executive team got together, and we talked about, ‘What can we start to do now?’
“In a sense, it’s also learning because in most organizations, the compact between the employee and the employer has really changed over the years. People who come to work sometimes feel that the only thing their employer cares about is what they’re doing, the face time and whether they’re getting results. We care about that, but we know the best way to get there is to care about the person, as well. It’s genuine because we’re putting our money where our mouth is.”
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