Some people might see Kuntal McElroy’s story as being an immigrant coming to the United States with only a few dollars in her pocket, working her way through school to an executive-level position at a leading multinational networking and telecom company. And to a degree it is.
But it is her business savvy, how she’s used her background in mathematics and her experiences in business and academia to strategically align learning with the business that makes her so instrumental in the story of learning at Ericsson.
In 2014, for instance, the company saw a glaring business challenge within its North America market. With the rollout of its LTE 4G wireless broadband technology complete, sales were leveling off. There was an add-on sales incentive program in place meant to drive revenue, but it wasn’t gaining any traction.
McElroy, the head of learning and development for Ericsson North America, met with a senior business leader who proposed an ambitious goal: Let’s double the unit’s revenue in a six-month period through value-based selling. This would require training 10,000 employees. It was an aggressive task as well as among the first big requests for McElroy as learning leader after taking on the role in 2013.
“In those discussions we were able to talk about how learning could be a critical part of it because in order to drive the type of difference he wanted, it really required learning to be at the table,” McElroy said.
The solution would need to be web-based and accessible to both internal employees and contractors —engineers who had a highly technical background. While at client sites, the solution architects needed to be able to — after digging deep within the customers’ networks — offer opportunities to bring them additional value by being consultative. McElroy pointed out that these employees were not trained to be sales people.
Add-on selling can be seen as a pushy sales approach, said Corin Birchall, founder of retail and marketing consultancy Kerching! Making Your Till Ring. As a result, staff often shy away from introducing it into their customer interactions in retail. This resistance to upselling is partly due to people’s own experiences as customers who are inundated with add-on sales attempts from retailers, airline cabin crews, fast food restaurants and post office counters. In telecom services, McElroy said, this translates to missed upselling opportunities that add value for customers when employees who are highly technical have weaker skills in selling and being consultative.
McElroy said whatever program was created would need to address the soft skills related to being consultative and having value discussions. Among other things the training program also would need to be practice-based. Because of how Ericsson’s size — it employs roughly 116,000 people worldwide — it’s easy for the engineers to become siloed. For example, if some are doing consulting systems integration work, they might not know much about radio access network (RAN) engineering or network rollout. With the primary opportunities to provide these value consultations lying within one of those three areas, it was critical that engineers extend their technical knowledge to successfully navigate conversations across those spaces.
These were just some of the important business insights William Huggins, Ericsson’s vice president of business development, would bring to the table that would aid the learning team in designing a program that was effective and would subsequently increase add-on sales performance. The business unit’s deep understanding of the target audience’s work would bring a much needed authenticity to the educational content. With a respect for that knowledge, as well as an understanding of Huggins’ business goals, McElroy’s team would use its expertise to properly package and deliver the training.
“It was really strategy execution for (Huggins), but learning was an integral part of it,” McElroy said.
The training had to be dynamic, something close to the engineers’ real-life experiences, easily consumable in the field, and something that, in spite of being mandatory, was exciting. Above all, the training couldn’t have the engineers come off like they were on the clock at a used-car lot.
It was February with rollout set for June. The clock ticked on.
Huggins said part of his and McElroy’s plan was to use the training to shift the company’s culture to a place where add-on sales was pre-programmed rather than an afterthought. By year’s end, several thousand people had completed the program. The add-on sales program increased revenue for the business unit, which saw a 1,453 percent return on investment. Prior to the training, add-on sales performance skewed toward one account; now the results are more evenly distributed.
“If we had gone ahead as a learning organization of the old days and just heard, ‘Oh, they need soft skills for 10,000 employees’ and we had built the training, we would not have produced the same training,” McElroy said.
Shaped by Strategy
McElroy said a learning leader needs to have business acumen to have conversations with other leaders to use learning and development strategically. She translated the business request into black-and-white, objective mathematical variables. “From a business acumen perspective, you know that you need ‘y’ percent of those employees to change their behaviors. You’re not going to change all 10,000, but you know you’re going to be able to change at least a few,” said McElroy, processing the business opportunity in a way that comes natural to her.
Her doctorate is in theoretical probability, and having spent 15 years in financial services, she said the industry doesn’t matter; business acumen matters.
Before being recruited to lead Ericsson’s learning function, McElroy spent four years directing strategy execution for the company. She helped build the company’s long-term plan, and from a strategic perspective got a look at the regional market challenges the company faced and what parts of its portfolio needed to grow. By the time she met with Huggins around the business request, she had a thorough understanding of what he needed and what he meant by doubling his business’s revenue.
Add-on sales in retail can generate tremendous additional revenue since there is no customer recruitment costs involved, Birchall said. In addition to revenue generation, add-on selling also can reduce return rates and enhance product enjoyment. McElroy said the same is true of add-on sales in telecom services where they play a key role in delivering customer value, building customer relationships, solving complex problems and ultimately, delivering higher revenues and a better bottom line.
A Big Picture Strategy
As head of learning for the company’s North America market, McElroy leads a team of learning consultants nationally and in Canada. They are a mix of people with business expertise and technical and nontechnical strengths with a majority of the team in Ericsson North America’s regional office in Plano, Texas. McElroy said she considers herself fortunate to have hired extremely talented people who continuously work together to develop and run the business-focused learning programs.
“It’s one thing to put a strategy together, and it’s another to get it executed; my learning consultants play a key role in getting some of these visions executed,” she said.
McElroy’s team is part of a larger global learning team that consists of other learning subject matter experts. This broader learning organization works with the belief that there are elements of learning that need to develop within the business, but there has to be a strategy on how to use learning at the right time to address multiple areas. Three key areas include employee engagement, career development and business results.
The general rule of thumb is when the learning organization identifies a learning need, it first checks to see if a solution is available. Or, whether multiple solutions may be combined to create a new product. This way, the function isn’t building something from scratch every time a fresh need arises.
In the case of the upselling training product, Ericsson already had many soft skills training offerings; it was important for learning to — with the help of the business unit — see if any of those products were appropriate for Huggins’ need, as well as his budget. The process saved the business tens of thousands of dollars in cost avoidance, which added to the training’s ROI, McElroy said.
In taking this “first look in-house” approach, the learning organizations across the network learn from one another. After McElroy’s team concluded it didn’t have an exact solution for Huggins’ request, it validated the need for this training in other regions of the world, as well. So, when developing the program, designers worked with global scaling in mind. They combed content for regional bias and made sure whatever was described, especially the key fundamentals the engineers had to get — “we made sure it could be described exactly the same way across the board.”
McElroy said she knows this exhaustive approach might be frustrating for some of her learning consultants, but she uses these experiences as opportunities to further develop them. With all the elements analyzed through a strategic lens, the team can make stronger, more effective business decisions.
In today’s fast-paced world, McElroy said learning is “moving into an environment where you need to create best in class learning that is good enough. It doesn’t have to be a Rolls Royce. It can be a Fiat, and we can still deliver incredible business results.”
The Professorial Change Agent
She credits her work in Ericsson’s learning function with not just her financial services and strategy background but also her work in academia. She taught mathematics at the high school and university levels. Teaching was how she paid for college at Lehigh University, once she moved to the United States from India after finishing high school.
A scholarship wasn’t enough. “I came to the U.S. with 20 bucks in my pocket, so I had to find a way to go to school and live and be able to provide for myself.”
Having been born and raised in India where, McElroy said, education can be the differentiator in living a meaningful life, education is central to her thinking. She took on learning at Ericsson as a growth opportunity, and she said she loves everything about it. When learning is running the way she leads Ericsson’s North America learning organization — in a manner where business and functional area expertise complement and advance one another forward — learning can really touch every part of the business, she said.
“That’s what learning and development does, it makes a difference in your achievement.”
Bravetta Hassell is a Chief Learning Officer associate editor. Comment below, or email email@example.com.