In recent years Vistaprint, an online supplier of customized print products and marketing tools for microbusinesses and consumers, has experienced rapid growth and a major increase in business volume. Since its inception in 2000, the company has grown from a handful of employees to more than 2,700 globally and has experienced 30 percent year-over-year growth to the tune of $670 million in revenue.
Due to this growth, the company began promoting strong individual contributors to managerial positions to keep up with the constant need for more employees. The initial thought was that individuals who were high achievers in their current roles would be equipped with the right skill sets to handle management responsibility. This idea had merit; promotions yielded strong results in some cases, but not all.
We Need Managers
Vistaprint employee engagement surveys, from fiscal years 2006–2008, revealed a lack of confidence in immediate managers. Growth and profits are two significant accomplishments, but the company also wanted to offer employees rewarding careers. This required a shift in focus onto its managers, the key to coping with the rapid level of growth it was experiencing.
The global executive team discussed different routes Vistaprint could take in order to address the management issues at hand. The team determined that if the company made an investment in time and resources to educate employees and create development opportunities for managers, successful business results would follow.
In fall 2008 the company hired Kristina Brunelle as director of learning and development in North America to lead its manager development program (MDP). Brunelle implemented the program and created an L&D team to help support the business.
Creating the MDP began by identifying goals. The L&D team spent six months researching and designing a targeted program for all employees at the managerial level. The team partnered with key internal stakeholders from finance, marketing, software engineering and HR to gather requirements through a detailed needs assessment, and then spent weeks collecting data from business leader interviews, focus groups and employee surveys, involving executives, senior leaders, mid-level managers and their direct reports.
The analysis showed that managers had weaknesses in several categories; however, the major pain points for the organization centered on the following skill sets: developing others, establishing the right focus, delegating to build talent, planning and prioritizing, communication skills, providing direct and actionable feedback, motivating others, and coaching and mentoring. These eight categories became the main learning objectives and the basis for content used to develop a manager curriculum that would address business needs and build ongoing support for learning.
The Heart of the Matter
Vistaprint’s MDP was designed to shape mid-level managers into successful leaders who could keep pace with the company’s rapid growth. The program’s main initiative was to build foundational management competencies to strengthen the relationship between managers and their teams. Other competencies included aligning employee tasks with overall business goals, maintaining productive management practices, acting as a role model and making decisions based on the company’s core guiding principles. The program was designed to be a blend of instructor-led training and e-learning to provide a comprehensive experience for the learner.
In April 2009 Vistaprint launched a pilot class of 24 mid-level managers from each area of the business. To enhance process effectiveness the company engaged the support of participants and their managers as well as the L&D department over a period of time that extended beyond the traditional classroom event. The MDP curriculum included approximately 20 days of effort — spread over the course of a year — involving group and individual learning experiences through full-day classes, discussion groups, action learning, peer networking opportunities and Web-based resources.
Program participants choose a classmate to be a thinking partner, to help them talk through real company issues and learn specific skills and behaviors that can be used in their day-to-day work. This level of real-world application and engagement helps take the program beyond just lectures or other learning elements to ensure participants stay connected to the material and its organizational value.
MDP content is broken down into two six-month-long phases, and before each phase participants receive prework assignments and readings to prepare them for the discussion. Phase one begins with a two-day classroom session to ensure participants understand what being a manager involves: how to plan and prioritize projects, have productive conversations, set goals, delegate tasks to encourage growth and talent, and provide direct and actionable feedback.
Phase two also begins with a two-day session that dives deeper into management best practices, including how to establish the right focus, understanding the role of a coach versus a mentor, managing the challenges of change, and utilizing communication process skills. These phases can be altered based on company needs and desired outcomes.
Included as part of each six-month period are 12 learning discussion groups or impact sessions. These 90-minute sessions are conducted at least twice a month to ensure participants maintain a deliberate, consistent focus on the act of managing. Each portion of the 24 different discussions addresses current business issues, with at least 45 percent of the time devoted to real-time company situations.
Each session is unique and provides managers with a safe environment to interact and discuss challenges associated with the role. Topics include how to have a difficult conversation with an employee, how to motivate people differently based on their diverse learning styles, even how to manage other more senior managers and how to gain buy-in and commitment from others. Each impact session has homework, offering a platform for involved interactions with both the participant’s own manager and direct reports that foster open communication around standard managerial practices.
“Impact sessions are one of the most valuable portions of the program,” Brunelle said. “They keep participants accountable for the act of managing while also providing them with a network of other managers at Vistaprint who are going through similar experiences.”
To gauge effectiveness and identify any areas where adjustments may need to be made, leaders track the MDP’s progress while it’s occurring. Three times throughout the MDP curriculum year, participants, their managers, peers and direct reports receive confidential 360-degree benchmark surveys. Participants are evaluated on their performance in a number of different categories, including motivation skills, goal setting, delegation, communicating strategy as well as coaching and mentoring skills. Frameworks and models such as SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely) goals, the Ladder of Inference, Covey’s Time Management Model, and Advocacy and Inquiry are some of the teaching methods used throughout the participants’ learning process.
The results of the assessments are shared with the participants so they too can monitor progress, be recognized for their efforts, and identify where individual development plans may assist them in taking any corrective actions needed. Finally, the MDP culminates with a graduation ceremony to acknowledge participants’ hard work and dedication.
The initial MDP investment of roughly $100,000, not including salaries, has made a larger impact on the company than initially expected. In addition to internal benefits, the program has helped promote career development to prospective employees, and new hire numbers have increased dramatically since its implementation. In 2008 the company hired 81 new employees, and in 2010 it hired 149.
Further, participant scores on 360-degree feedback surveys continue to rise with each new MDP class. Recent managers’ scores on coaching and mentoring increased by 8.6 percent, and scores on managers’ ability to motivate others increased by 6.3 percent after the fourth class completed the MDP curriculum in March 2011. Anecdotal participant survey feedback indicates that managers enrolled in the program feel galvanized by the opportunity to embrace the challenge of becoming a stronger boss.
Truly improving performance requires a sustained effort over time. The more managers are given the opportunity to partake in developmental coursework, the more leverage a company has to create a lasting and effective managerial culture. After a year of implementation, a change already has been seen in the number of Vistaprint employees who are creating SMART goals, providing both the manager and the employee with the criteria needed to discuss, monitor and evaluate performance. This activity resulted in 132 promotions in 2010 alone.
Since most employee goals tie in with organizational goals, leaders acknowledge it is a significant success that employees are taking the time to create these targets, which are one of the cornerstones of effective performance management.
As the MDP program continues to evolve and embed itself into the company’s culture, stakeholders continually will be asked to provide business reviews, feedback, endorsement and input on content delivery.
Once established, the expectation for the program is to continue to act as an ongoing interactive process so the learning-focused culture it creates can be sustained for managers and employees. Graduates from different MDP classes already have banded together to re-create the MDP experience on a smaller scale for their direct reports. Employees feel it is important to teach what they have learned to their individual teams, further embedding the tools and techniques taught in MDP into the company’s culture. For instance, some program graduates have put together a group called Continuing MDP, which allows them to maintain their impact sessions informally while getting together once a month to openly discuss the issues they encounter at work.
Vistaprint’s MDP program has laid a foundation to help the company reach its goal to increase its talent managers’ capability to drive employee performance and engagement. As the company continues to grow, focus will remain on supporting managers and employees through quality systems, programs and resources such as MDP as the company prepares for the future.
Jennifer Remis is a senior learning associate at Vistaprint. She can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.