In business, growth is good. It’s a problem almost any organization would love to have, despite the associated challenges. Challenges, as it turns out, are quite stimulating for Albert Siu. The vice president of learning and development for Parexel International, a clinical research and regulatory consulting company, said he thrives on challenges, actively seeking them out and probing into areas he doesn’t understand as part of his own development process.
Careerwise, Siu has seldom walked the road well traveled. Instead of using his doctorate in counseling and psychology to help people who have suffered psychological trauma become more functional, he chose to explore the connections between head and heart in the workplace. When information technology company Hewlett-Packard (HP) offered him a job launching its employee assistance program, he asked to learn more about the business functions and how his skill set could enable things to work better. Organizational change and interpersonal dynamics — including how people work together at the enterprise level, how one can leverage values and culture to sustain a business through challenges — is what fascinates him.
He never took on the job HP initially offered. Instead Siu managed the training and development function at a major HP manufacturing site, which opened the door to corporate-level HR responsibilities and a chance to head up HR in China. His next challenge was building the HR infrastructure in Asia Pacific countries for communications company AT&T, where he eventually led the learning function. An interest in the life science industry led to his current position at Parexel, which he joined in September 2010. Siu is responsible for learning and development for the company’s nearly 11,000 employees in 50-plus countries.
Parexel’s rapid growth is offering Siu his biggest challenge to date. Increasing life expectancy and standards of living have led to a demand for new treatment options. Growth is particularly rapid in the Asia Pacific arena, including India, and in some Latin American counties. That need for stretch is where the challenges — taxed bench strength, the need for professional capabilities, managerial and leadership skills as well as processes to inculcate an influx of new talent to the company’s values and practices — come in.
“At the end of the day, we are about capability building,” Siu said. “We build professional, leadership and organizational capability because we expect that by investing in people development, we will see a substantial improvement in our ability to deliver quality services to our clients. We are accountable to realize treatment options that are put out into the market. The sooner we can do that, there is someone out there looking for it. And if you have cancer and are looking for treatment, time is not on your side.”
Those outcomes must be achieved in a systematic and expedient way, which means learning has to be embedded in the organization to create the necessary speed and capability without a lot of waste. To do that, Siu said the company lines up its vision to get the right content to the right people at just the right time so they can apply it in the right way and retain the information.
He said learning delivery structure is necessary because new business is forcing Parexel to scale in greater scope and depth. To add to the challenge, biopharmaceutical companies are also changing, with a pronounced need for speed to execution to realize treatment options and cost concerns. Companies need to avoid clinical research stage failures, maximize support and heighten their ability to make better and faster decisions earlier.
To ensure Parexel can meet those demands, Siu created a strategic partnering model, which companies such as Eli Lilly, Merck and Bristol-Myers Squibb have taken advantage of.
“Bringing those skill sets in terms of depth and therapeutic expertise or deep medical knowledge as well as the development or clinical trial process all require a deeper depth of knowledge,” he said. “We have some of those, but they’re spread out in the company and we need to bring them together. Also, relationship management becomes very important; in a strategic alignment partnership there are constant conversations going on … constant check points. How we manage client relationships becomes a major level of skill sets, and we have to continue [to increase] our level of sophistication.”
Parexel has announced five strategic partnerships in the last year, and it’s not uncommon for potential clients to inquire about the company’s learning capabilities or to engage the company for training opportunities once on board.
“Albert has a very strategic approach in that he always starts with the business need and then builds the learning and development opportunities around that,” said Michael Brandt, corporate vice president, human resources for Parexel. “That becomes a very compelling story. He’s been able to position learning and development as something that will make the business successful. It is something that can differentiate us, and it’s not just completing training activities. It’s about measuring success and contribution.”
Siu said he’s not a big fan of the Kirkpatrick measurement model, but he does favor assessments and has a formula or model established for most of the key facets of learning strategy.
For instance, he uses a four-quadrant box to gauge learning investment. In the top left are functional skills and knowledge investment, which typically gather between 50 to 75 percent of resources. On the bottom left, technical or professional skills and services, such as tuition assistance, use 5 to 20 percent. On the top right is business strategic investment — a company’s vision, mission and core values — which gather roughly 2 to 5 percent; and on the bottom right core execution capabilities, leadership effectiveness, management processes, quality and culture use 10 to 20 percent of total spend.
Siu called on a decade of benchmarking data to get those ranges, and he said he brought the measurement system into Parexel because no company has a bottomless pit of dollars for development. That’s why delivering the right content to the right people at the right time in the right way is so critical. “Investment is a finite game,” he said. “At some point you cannot invest any more, but you have to invest.”
His mission is to develop the professional and organizational capabilities that will protect that investment by sustaining or promoting knowledge retention in the organization. “That is the kind of thing I’m trying to drive to get us as leaders in learning, and my senior leaders to believe in because at some point in time they’ll say, ‘Albert, you’re going to have to redirect your investment.’ But I have a model; I know how to do that.”
A desire to ensure that alignment between learning investment and organizational strategy prompted Siu to create a governance model to facilitate accountability and visibility between leaders and business priorities. The model contains a leadership council composed of all leaders who provide training — this body focuses on common processes, standards, tool and metrics — and a second body composed of Parexel’s most senior leaders who examine priorities, resource allocation, investment and any cross-functional issues that can’t be resolved at the leadership council level.
Governance structure gives Parexel a more holistic approach to learning that enables the company to better meet challenges related to global growth, Brandt said. “We have to have a lot of capacity to be able to recruit people and train them and get them prepared for their new roles,” he said. “So while he’s created this vision, he’s also been building capacity through a combination of internal staff, third party vendors [and] academic institutions so that we can ensure a steady flow of qualified candidates into the organization.
“Albert has been so critical to us [because he] brings a very global view. He understands on the global stage in which we operate how the same type of approach has to be modified based on geography, how emerging markets are different than more mature markets. That was something we did not have to the extent we have it today, that ability to develop an approach so that we can be successful in all the countries in which we do business.”
Siu said creating learning to help leaders and managers successfully meet complex global business objectives requires a thorough examination of a few questions: Can they lead people? Can they manage people? And, can they embody the values Parexel expects of a leader? Executing based on these answers not only increases engagement, it also promotes collaborative solution building, and solutions are critical for successful strategic partnerships. For instance, Siu said if a manager can only manage but not lead — meaning that individual cannot inspire others to go beyond what they see is possible, create a vision and make an emotional connection — a partnership may suffer.
Siu and his team work leaders through this development process, offering a lot of feedback and support, including coaching. “We are very cognizant of developing a cadre of leaders and project managers that really can function as general managers now,” he said. “Then we have those leadership capabilities to distribute to manage our very diverse portfolio of businesses across all cultures. Because we do operate in 50-some countries, cultural intelligence is also a big part of manager development and leadership development grooming because if someone doesn’t know how to manage cross culturally, we’ve got a problem.”
Parexel also provides development for its employees who often work across cultures because how well they perform impacts effectiveness and efficiency.
At the end of the day, Siu said learning strategy is about continuous improvement. “Our business is in a great spot,” he said. “We are growing — that creates major challenges, and that is where you find opportunities for me and the whole learning team to create value for the organization.”
Kellye Whitney is managing editor of Chief Learning Officer magazine. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.