At appliance manufacturer Whirlpool Corp., Nancy Tennant created an environment for learning that unleashes employee innovation and helped transform the company.
Prioritizing learning was impressed upon Nancy Tennant from an early age. She said learning is a “family value,” and cited her grandmother as inspiration, who emphasized how important it was to keep learning throughout life.
“She was unusual in her era in the ’60s, going back to school as a 58-year-old woman when that wasn’t in vogue then,” Tennant said.
Tennant, now corporate vice president of leadership and strategic competencies for Whirlpool Corp., took from this a lesson on the indelible nature of an education. “I began to understand that degrees are one of the few things in life that people can’t take away from you,” she said. “They can take your house, they can take your car, but degrees are yours forever.”
Given this, it’s not surprising Tennant proceeded to earn multiple degrees, including an undergraduate degree in sociology and a master’s degree in industrial relations from West Virginia University, and her doctorate in organizational development from The George Washington University.
For the past seven years, Tennant also has been active in teaching at an academic level. “I’ve always been interested in education and teaching and helping other people get educated, and just to accept and understand change and use learning as a vehicle to do that,” she said.
She began at the University of Notre Dame, in the executive MBA program, where she taught strategy and innovation, and then moved to The University of Chicago Booth School of Business, where she currently teaches embedded innovation. Tennant is using her own book, Unleashing Innovation: How Whirlpool Transformed an Industry, as the basis for the class.
The book draws from her experience at Whirlpool, where she’s been for the past quarter-century. Tennant started at Whirlpool in human resources, after five years moved into organizational development and then moved into a strategic role 12 years ago.
What originally drew Tennant to Whirlpool was a simple appreciation of appliances. “I was and am in love with the product,” she said. “I love to cook, so I respected and fell in love with the products that we made.”
Of course, Tennant also had professional reasons for coming on-board. “Twenty-five years ago Whirlpool was, and still is, a really exciting company,” she said. “When I came here back then, and even today, they’re very advanced in a lot of areas, especially in my practice.”
This affords a great deal in the way of new opportunities and challenges, something Tennant requires to thrive. This has sustained her attraction and loyalty to the company.
“Whirlpool’s a company where, if there’s a space or a gap, even if you’re not in that area, if you show some interest and ability to learn and you’re willing to do what it takes to perform, Whirlpool gives you a chance,” she said, adding that this has defined her career at the company. “I’ve been in unlikely spaces because I’ve raised my hand and asked for it and Whirlpool has followed through and said, ‘You know what? We’ll take a chance on you.’ Even today it happens. I get really unusual assignments or I see something, and I go to someone and say, ‘Well I’d really like to do X, Y, Z.’ And they say, ‘Let’s try it.’”
Creating Space for Learning
When it comes to organizational development, Tennant believes learning experiences should be learner-directed, but tailored to ensure the best possible results for users and the business. This is a philosophy developed from Tennant’s own experiences in the learning and development space, and observing where others fail in designing learner-directed systems.
“A lot of work I’ve done in the last decade, especially around innovation, is to set up the best framework possible and to shift the locus of responsibility to the learner,” she said. “Some people shift the responsibility without the right framework, and some people overstructure the framework and learners never really get to create their own space.”
The right learning environment requires striking a balance between those extremes. The idea is that creating the right conditions can catalyze innovation.
“You create a sandbox — a little bit of structure and some enablers — and then unleash people,” she said. “Innovation is a calling. You can’t force people to do it. You can’t send a memo out on Monday saying, ‘Everybody must innovate.’ So you have to attract people to it through their emotions and the things they really are passionate about. It’s a very different way to learn and develop than most training.”
Tennant points out that this differs substantially from the approach she was trained to take as a learning and development professional, which was more strictly pedagogical. This is not to say that Whirlpool completely eschews instructor-led learning, but where it does engage in such learning, it is employed as a leadership development tool.
“We think it’s really good development for our leaders to teach,” she said.
Tackling a Daunting Task
Tennant is charged with educating Whirlpool’s 70,000 employees — a somewhat staggering number.
“Now I don’t personally do that; my real accountability is to put the right framework and processes in place so that we build the right capability around the world,” she said.
Within these 70,000 employees, Tennant’s primary focus is on building the operational competencies of Whirlpool’s salaried employees directed toward strategic needs identified by the company’s executive committee.
“I have accountability for all training, and then I have a special accountability in this capability building in operational competency,” she said.
Assuming responsibility for the learning and development needs of such a large workforce would be a daunting task for anyone. Tennant gave an example in which she was impressed by the enormity of the task.
“Ten years ago, our previous chairman called me in his office,” she said. He informed Tennant the company was moving to a customer-focused strategy, one of the pillars of which would be innovation, and he outlined two requirements for her.
“One was, ‘I want innovation from everyone, everywhere,’” meaning Whirlpool’s entire workforce, which at the time numbered 60,000. “And the second thing he said was, ‘If we’re successful, every job at Whirlpool will change.’ It was one of these things where OK, I understood what he was saying. I mean I speak English and he speaks English, but I remember walking down the hall from his office thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, I have no idea how to do this.’ I mean, I was just dumbfounded.”
But Tennant succeeded, and adapting to such large challenges have defined her tenure with the company, bringing her to innovative methodologies that have proven to be successful. For example, three years ago, Tennant went to Whirlpool’s executive committee and asked them to give her 12 to 20 pressing problems they’d been unable to address or solve (i.e., the biggest problems of the enterprise itself).
She then asked them to help her identify teams of people within Whirlpool drawn from around the world who could come together and learn to work with new tools such as Six Sigma, with the intention being that they’d address the company’s heretofore unsolvable problems. This had the unintended effect of providing Whirlpool with a complex, macro-level view of its workforce and its strengths.
“It became an interesting exercise in social networking,” Tennant said. “We did some sophisticated mapping of the social networks that were formed as a result of that and understood the hub and the key learners and teachers in this informal social network. It’s a process that we still do today and one of the more interesting ones.”
The current economic climate presents certain challenges, and training is quick to see budgets get cut or disappear altogether when corporations are looking to trim expenses. Tennant takes this as yet another welcome challenge.
“In our industry, and also in the education industry in general, the economic climate is a big challenge, but as it turns out it’s been a good challenge for us because Whirlpool, like a lot of companies today, is looking at cost savings and different things that we need to do to survive this economic downturn and come out winning,” Tennant said.
“A lot of people’s budgets have been cut, mine included. So it forced my group to use some of these innovation tools and rethink everything we do and try to figure out scalable mechanisms so we could invest a little and get a lot. And in that sense it’s become a good practice. Being in an education/training function, the idea is, how can you take that downturn and turn it into a big opportunity?”
This has allowed Tennant’s team to move forward with rolling out an e-learning platform, which she calls a “go-virtual” platform, in the coming months. The plan is to use this technology to build a Web 2.0 learning experience.
“Capturing some of the new learning and applying it around social networks and all asynchronous learning methodologies — blogs and wikis and all that stuff that we’re pulling in and using on a daily basis — that is in the works and a big deal,” she said.Filed under: Leadership Development, Technology