When independent-minded directors put the auteur theory to work on a certain genre, the results can often be transcendent. A pulpy, dime-store gangster novel became “The Godfather” in hands of Francis Ford Coppola. Another perceived dime-store novel, this one about a killer shark, became “Jaws” in the hands of Steven Spielberg. Similarly, corporate learning has its own “genres” that are influenced by the content involved.
For Tim Conlon, corporate director of learning and talent acquisition at Xerox, flexibility and fluidness are priorities in employee development programs. When designing learning offerings, he considers their shelf life in relation to the investment involved.
“You end up wanting these programs to last forever when, in fact, they’re probably outdated in 18 to 24 months,” Conlon said. Because of these circumstances, Conlon and other learning leaders frequently have to make shrewd decisions to better serve the “big picture,” just as big-name directors do.
For example, when Spielberg was shooting “Jaws,” the plan was to show the shark early and often. However, technical trouble and malfunctions caused him to abandon this. Using point-of-view shots, Spielberg got away with not showing the shark until the last third of the movie, effectively throwing away the millions spent to create a working, omnipresent shark. He also knew the clunky-looking shark would look outdated very quickly, thus he quickly reorganized his efforts. The changes he made help to cement the timeless effectiveness of “Jaws.”
Conlon had a similar experience to Spielberg in a leadership development program he developed, complete with budgetary pressure and abandoned plans.
“I’ve actually been in programs before where, on Wednesday, we decided to change the rest of the class because it wasn’t working as effectively for a particular audience as it was the previous one,” Conlon said. “We modified the rest of the week and delivered something entirely different than what was intended, to make sure that it was just as successful but customized to that particular audience. If you’re fluid and flexible, you can do things like that. Also, we make sure it’s really tied to the most important elements of our strategy and, as the strategy gets modified and new things are worked on, to change what was needed from last year to this year and make sure that’s reflected in the content.”
One of the challenges Conlon faced in designing Xerox’s leadership development was designing content specific for a broad range of experience and needs. Mid-level management has the most extensive population of managers, and a host of different backgrounds and goals precedes each one. This presented a problem because much of leadership development is customizing needs and content for those going through the program. He said that while there was no way one program could meet all the needs of his audience, he had to act quickly to find a way to anchor it somehow.
“I just decided I would take three critical business issues,” he said. “One is strategic alignment, understanding the business strategy deeply, the second is business acumen and the third is the leadership attribute. We built a weeklong program that focuses just on those three things, and in doing so, I wrapped a significant number of senior managers into the program to help support it. Since I couldn’t meet every individual’s needs, I tailored it to the company’s.”