Like many bosses, Jon Kaplan thought he was a good leader.
The results seemed to prove it. He worked his way up from aspiring academic to public school teacher to corporate instructional designer and eventually into the top learning job at Discover Financial Services, a Chicago-area firm with 17,000 employees.
The only problem? His team didn’t agree with his assessment. “I was there for about three or four years and I had managed to take a team that should have been high performing and I just drove them into the ground,” Jon said. “It just was really unpleasant.”
What he did in response catapulted his career forward and led to some of the learning organization’s greatest successes.
In this episode of the Chief Learning Officer Podcast, Jon talks about that “crucible of leadership,” how he rebuilt himself and his team in the wake of his failure and how they came to establish the Discover College Commitment, an industry-leading tuition assistance program that all Discover employees are eligible for starting on their first day.
Plus, Jon and Justin Lombardo talk about why they left academia for the corporate sector and guest co-host Ashley St. John, managing editor for Chief Learning Officer, shares what she’s learned on the job and what she looks for when selecting a magazine profile candidate.
Note: This transcript has been edited for space and clarity.
Mike Prokopeak: Hello and welcome to the Chief Learning Officer podcast. I’m Mike Prokopeak, editor in chief of Chief Learning Officer magazine. As always, it’s a pleasure to have you join us for this.
One of the themes for today’s conversation is failure. It happens to everybody. It’s the source of some of our worst feelings that we’ve ever had in our life but it’s also the beginning of some of our greatest successes. The rise can’t happen without the fall.
Our guest today is pretty honest about some of his greatest failures and what he learned from what he called his crucible moments. Jon Kaplan was, until May of this year, vice president of training and development for Discover Financial Services. They’re a large financial services provider headquartered outside of Chicago. They’ve got almost 17,000 employees. Jon’s story – and his departure from his role which by the way our magazine played a part in and Jon will explain in his own words a little bit later – is the subject for our podcast today.
We also touch on his efforts at Discover to rethink and expand tuition assistance programs from a benefit to an asset. Traditionally, companies really think of these as just another benefit like healthcare or dental and medical benefits that they offer to employees and not necessarily as an asset that employees will use to improve their lives and their career prospects.
Jon really wanted to rethink that when he was at Discover and put in place a pretty impressive program to do that. So we’ll touch on that as well today. But first let me welcome in my co-host, Ashley St. John, who is the managing editor for Chief Learning Officer. Welcome Ashley.
Ashley St. John: Thank you. Hello.
Mike: It’s great to have you here. You’re filling in for my normal co-host, Justin Lombardo, who is on a cruise somewhere in the North Atlantic we think, somewhere between Greenland and Iceland right now. He’ll be back in a couple weeks but Ashley’s going to fill in for him as co-host today. Thank you for joining us.
You’re managing editor now almost two years on the job – two years in November. Like me, you came into this job not from a learning and development background but more from a media and journalism background. For people out there, what does a managing editor do? Can you explain that, for them?
Ashley: Sure. I’m basically responsible for the production of CLO’s content, so the magazine, all of our online content, coming up with that content, whether it’s contributed, or whether we come up with the ideas ourselves or if someone pitches an idea to us, picking what we will include in the magazine and what we’ll feature online and overseeing the production of all of that.
Mike: What’s your favorite part of the job?
Ashley: I really like working on the profiles that we do in each issue of the magazine just because it’s that human element, writing about a person rather than a concept or an initiative or something like that. I really enjoy selecting the profiles and getting to read about these CLOs that go on the cover of all of our issues.
Mike: We should also mention Liz Loutfi who also is one of our editorial team who works on CLO. Maybe you could explain a little bit about what Liz does.
Ashley: Liz is our associate editor. She just started recently. She’s been writing stories for us, both digital and print. We’ve been working on some video stories recently that we’re really excited about – about learning organizations’ human trafficking training efforts as well as mentoring in the wake of #MeToo. We have some interesting content coming up there. Liz has been a big help in that area. It’s been fun. We’re really happy to have her aboard.
Mike: Speaking of profiles you oversaw the assignment, editing and writing of the profile story on Jon that was the cover story in April of this year. You were there in May when we talked to him onstage at the Breakfast Club. That’s going to be the recording that we’ll hear today on the podcast. What stands out to you about Jon’s story? What was unique, in the almost two years that you’ve been doing this now? What stands out to you about Jon’s story in particular?
Ashley: The actual title of Jon’s profile is “Putting People First.” It talks a lot about how Jon infuses learning with humanity and humility and about how leading from a place of humility is important at Discover, and the importance of being humble as a leader bringing the human touch to things.
As Jon mentioned when we spoke to him during the Breakfast Club in Chicago, I believe he had to learn that humility when he first came into the role based on some humbling experiences he had with the people who worked for him. It was a learning curve for him, moving into that role. That’s a lot of what I took away from both hearing him speak in Chicago as well as working on his profile article.
Mike: What’s really impressive to me in talking to chief learning officers, especially ones that are … really seem to be on top of their game, is just how humble they are, how much they realize that they are continually learning. It’s not like they get to the top of the game, “OK, I’m a CLO at a Fortune 100 company, I’ve got a few hundred employees who are working for me, I’ve got a big budget, I’m done. I’ve hit the apex of what I need to do.” It’s like there’s always that need to continue doing something different and reinvent the role. I think that’s something that Justin brings up pretty often when we’re doing these together. He talks about the need for reinvention. So that’s the fun part of the job – is to hear that piece of it.
I think Jon is a good example of that, and I think he really takes that humility to heart. It’s obvious that that’s a sincere message. He’s not just saying it, as many leaders may, to say, “I’m a servant leader,” but in fact what I mean by that is that everybody is a servant of mine. Yeah and so he’s a little bit distinct in there.
Ashley: His profile was particularly interesting because he shared that when he was growing up he was a self-described terrible student. In the fourth grade he was still unable to read but he hid it from everyone, his friends and his teachers. The story of how he went from that unhappy place to attending Stanford and then Berkeley, to founding a charter school, to becoming the learning leader of Discover, it’s an interesting story. That’s what we look for in profiles – is people who have an interesting story to tell about how they got to where they are.
Mike: Let’s talk a little bit more about that. As you’re looking ahead to future issues of the magazine, we always put somebody on the cover – profile one particular CLO or learning leader on that particular issue – what are some of the other things that you look for in a profile candidate? Obviously they’ve got to have a good personal story that fits and that people want to hear about. But what else are you looking for?
Ashley: Generally we’re looking for maybe someone who’s had great success in their role or who maybe has achieved success but had to overcome some big challenges to get there, or perhaps they’ve overcome some unusual challenges in L&D. It’s always great to profile someone who has an interesting or an unusual career path, which I’ve learned a lot of CLOs do.
Mike: Just about all of them, yeah.
Ashley: They don’t all start in learning and development. We profiled someone recently that actually started their career as a jazz musician. Our profile in our upcoming September issue, she has a background in comedy and in standup and she had trained at Second City in Chicago. And they have other projects going on in their life. So basically, someone that is excelling in their career but also has a cool background that we can talk with them about.
Mike: I think it’s also a good point to make too that the nuts and bolts of doing the job – sometimes doing compliance training or doing basic skills training – one of the things that stands out to me when I look at the profiles is just how people tackle those in creative ways too. It may be that you’re not working for a large technology company that’s really growing and is doing incredible things – that you’re in the forefront. You can be at a company that is perhaps, a little bit more conservative or traditional and do really interesting things in learning and development. Because I think that’s one of the freedoms of the role is the ability to do that.
One last thing before we turn to Jon’s conversation, coming back to that set of fresh eyes that you had when you came aboard and started working on Chief Learning Officer, what has surprised you about the community and the role of chief learning officer? What’s something that you’ve learned that you maybe didn’t know before?
Ashley: I mean, before I came to CLO I pretty much didn’t know anything about CLOs. The title and the role were very, very new to me when I began here. I mostly worked for associations in my career up until now. Obviously, they had an educational aspect to them. There would be an education team and a learning leader. But the people who worked in those roles were primarily developing educational products and offerings for the association membership rather than internal development for employees, for staff, at least from what I saw. So I was a little more familiar with that side of things. So it was a steep learning curve at first. I’d never heard of a corporate university. I didn’t know what upskilling was. I’m definitely still learning.
Mike: Learned all the jargon.
Ashley: Yep. And I still am. I mean I had to Google ERG the other day to figure out that it means employee resource group. Then I had to Google, “What is an employee resource group?” It’s ongoing every day, learning more and more about the role.
Mike: They invent new jargon terms. So learning experience platform, that’s a new … it’s not new but it’s a newish one.
Ashley: I’ve definitely learned that CLOs are a very educated group of people which shouldn’t be surprising since they’re in the business of learning and development. It makes sense that they, themselves, would be lifelong learners. That’s been a challenge for me is striving to provide content in the magazine and to this group of people that they will actually find useful and engaging, nothing that’s fluff.
I would say I was surprised by how many things in an organization are touched by the L&D function, that it’s so much more than providing just an instructor-led training once a month, that it’s tied to HR, to strategic planning, to information management, monitoring performance, capturing and assessing metrics, everything. It amazed me how tied it was to everything within a business.
But I guess the thing that was most surprising that I hadn’t really thought that much about before starting here was that it’s not just these one-off trainings. It’s ultimately about career pathing for those in your organizations. And I guess how much a CLO is tied in with company culture. So creating a culture that focuses on its people, that strives for diversity and inclusion, and so on.
It’s been an exciting two years. I’ve really enjoyed learning about all the ways that CLOs are using technology these days. When I attended the ATD conference earlier this year in Washington, D.C., there was a ton of focus on AI and virtual reality training and augmented reality. That’s been exciting to see what people are doing with that these days.
Mike: It’s kind of a stealth function in a way. It’s like it affects a lot of things but it’s not necessarily at the forefront of those things. It’s support in a way but also strategy in a way. It’s an interesting dance between being behind the scenes, but also being at the forefront and pushing organizations in their thinking. That’s what, I think, what’s really cool about the job but also difficult about it. That’s where I, when some of those profile stories that we have, where these people are just sort of able to go back and forth between getting stuff done and then big picture thinking which is … That’s an impressive ability that a lot of them have. I think it’s fun to write about.
Ashley: It definitely is. I’ve had a blast.
Mike: Well I just want to say thanks to you for what you do. I think compliments to you, because I think you talked about the learning journey that you’re on just in just under two years in this role and how you’re constantly learning. But I think the stories that you’re starting to uncover and tell are incredible. I think the two video stories that you talked about, how companies and CLOs are being engaged in these bigger issues around human trafficking and how do you, particularly if you’re in a hotel industry, how are you training your employees to identify when human trafficking is happening? This is really important stuff that CLOs are doing, and the issue of mentoring in the #MeToo era. I think there’s just really important stuff that you guys are doing to tell those stories.
Ashley: Those stories are important. They’re big issues and I think that they emphasize the importance of a learning leader’s role and the difference that they can make in people’s lives. I’m really excited for those stories to come out and to keep working on them, wrap them up soon.
Mike: With that let’s turn to this conversation with Jon Kaplan. Because I think he is, again, a person who is having a big impact on people’s lives. We talked about the tuition assistance program. We caught up with Jon at the Chicago Breakfast Club in May. And, quick promo, we’ve got Breakfast Clubs happening in Boston, D.C., and San Francisco this fall. Go to chieflearningofficer.com if you’re in any of those cities and want to check out what we do when we bring the event to town. I encourage you to do that.
As always, if you like what you hear please consider giving us a rating on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. Consider sharing it with your network. If you have an idea for a future episode or just want to let us know what you think, drop us a line at email@example.com. Ashley, are you ready?
Mike: Let’s get learning.
Mike: Jon Kaplan. That’s you [pointing to magazine cover].
Jon Kaplan: Yeah, that’s awesome.
Mike: You’ll be signing copies of Chief Learning Officer magazine later on today.
Jon: Currently the only ones with signed copies are my mother and my two sisters. They’re collector’s items.
Mike: They are collector’s items in the Kaplan household.
Jon: Yeah, exactly. Yeah.
Mike: Thank you for joining us here, today.
Jon: Thank you.
Mike: We’ll get into a little bit about what’s next for you. We’ve alluded to that a couple of times. But I want to actually start where you began in your career as a learning and development professional. Which I think like a lot of folks who have been in learning and development have come from the world of education, whether that’s higher education or public education. A lot of folks move into corporate education which is the case for you. You started off working in public education – teaching high school for a number of years – and then decided to make the jump from corporate ed. Walk us through that moment where you started to move from what you thought you were going to be doing and then this whole world of corporate education came about.
Jon: I have a long history of trying things out that I don’t like. I started out, actually I thought I was going to be an academic. I actually moved to West Africa for a year during my college career to do econometrics on the Economic Community of West African States. It was a 14-month assignment. I found out on day two I really didn’t like econometrics.
Mike: Always good to find out.
Jon: Yeah, so I learned that. But I really did like tutoring. So I got a chance to tutor some students at the university. And in a lot of Africa, especially West Africa, it’s a pretty hard existence if you don’t graduate from the university and go get a job as perhaps a teacher. There were a lot of students that came to the university from up country where they lived in villages and it was subsistence farming. I had an opportunity to tutor these people. If they didn’t graduate, they would go back to their village and it would be a pretty hardscrabble existence. That was the first time I saw just this enormous power of education to transform lives.
I came back to the United States and I decided I was going to be an academic. I started down the Ph.D. path. Once again, I found out I didn’t like academics. So when it became possible, I left my program. I got a master’s degree in international policy and I went to teach in inner city Oakland. I taught economics and government. That was another just wonderful experience to see the power of education.
At some point my superintendent of my district came in and said, “Hey, I’m starting this really interesting thing. It’s a public-private partnership with Arthur Andersen. I’d love you to run it.” So, I went and ran it. It was a one-room school house in Alameda, California, 150 seven through twelfth grade learners, no classrooms. It was entirely project-based, self-directed learning. I did that for a few years until I realized that Arthur Andersen wasn’t going to be around for very much longer. I thought you know, they’re not really studying this thing the way I think it should be studied.
I wanted to stamp out charter schools one after another. I had broad ambitions for changing the education industry. When it became clear that wasn’t going to happen, I decided that the most interesting things were going on in the corporate learning sector. So I left for the software industry.
Mike: I want to come back to that higher education thing. Because, Justin, you’ve got a similar background in that you were working in higher ed, too. What is it about higher ed that is not attractive, that people start to look at corporate? I mean what drove you Jon and maybe a little bit you, Justin.
Jon: I can remember that I had this epiphany. Matt Groening, who’s the author of “The Simpsons,” when he was just starting out he had this little comic strip called “Life is Hell.” It was these a bunny with an ear cut off talking about various things. It actually had the early Simpsons characters. He had one panel that said, “Why I love being a graduate student.” It had 10 reasons. The first one was, “I love my imagination being ground into dust.” The second one was, “Using jargon and citing authorities is my idea of fun.” It just went on. I read that, I was like, “Oh, Matt Groening changed my life.” That’s exactly what I don’t like about higher ed.
Justin Lombardo: I think there’s something to that. I mean, what I found, because I started my career … I didn’t hate the field I was in because my doctorate’s in the fine arts but I got moved into university administration very fast and became associate dean in charge of curriculum. What I found was, and it’s a joke and you would understand this, that academe moves at a beyond glacial pace. By the way, I love academe. I have great respect for academics. I really do, people that are dedicated to it. But it moves incredibly slowly, very often backwards.
The second thing that made me insane as an administrator was that the smaller the stakes, the harder the faculty will fight. If you ever want to get trained to how to build support in a hostile corporate environment, go teach in a university and say, “I’d like to suggest adding a new course to our curriculum.” See how that works out. If you can get that done, you can do anything.
But I think also and I think you hit on it, it’s the imagination. I think it’s part of the nature of the mission. Academic institutions are not there to make us job ready. They are not there to be measured on employability. Quite frankly, I think that’s a false metric for academe. Academe is there to transmit the ability to think critically and for people to understand the nature of the canons of their disciplines to use that in a fuller life. That’s very different from somebody who wants to say, “I want to see outcomes. I want to see movement.” For me that was problematic. Did you agree with that or –
Jon: Yeah, I think compounding that is if you want to make a career in academe you have to do something so specialized that no one else has done it or is doing it. So you end up just specializing and specializing and specializing and you end up just in these really micro-portions of academe that really have very little relevance to –
Jon: Reality, the broad race of humans. For me, I wanted to do something that was going to change lives and I just didn’t think I could do it in academe.
Mike: Can you talk a little bit about that transition from academia, public education, into corporate education? Because you both mentioned imagination as something that gets ground out of you in education circles.
Jon: In academe, yeah.
Mike: I don’t think of corporate institutions as particularly imaginative either. So I wouldn’t necessarily see that as the place to gravitate to. Why, Jon, in your case did you say, “You know what? I’m going to go work at PeopleSoft” in your case, and eventually Visa? Why was that the jump you made at that point?
Jon: First of all, the jump was incredibly difficult. I mean, I remember I just for the first year I had trouble sleeping. I didn’t know whether I was fitting in. The entire time, I’d wonder, “Maybe I’m doing something grossly inappropriate and no one’s told me.”
Justin: But since then, they have.
Jon: Since then, yeah, yeah, they’ve gotten much more comfortable saying, “Really? People don’t do that sort of stuff.”
What I found really refreshing is that it was about results. It was about accomplishing things. I think in academe in a way my experience was is that actually in the discipline that I was in, political science, there’s this stark divide between practitioners and theoreticians. Practitioners are looked down on a little bit. So, I really enjoyed being in a place where you were actually assessed by how you drove results.
Justin: Yeah, I think that’s a large part of it. I think also the specialization is there. How many of you have done Ph.D. work? Anybody out there done Ph.D. work? OK, so you know in this day and age to find a topic you’re so narrow banded in what it’s going to be. The last committee I sat on the individual that was doing his doctorate had to find a topic that hadn’t been explored before. I’m not kidding, the topic was on, the use of trumpets in military battle scenes in Shakespeare’s history plays. OK, now this is going to take two years of his life. I would jump out a window.
Mike: To the blare of a trumpet.
Justin: Michael should have been on the panel. At that point, I mean you kind of feel like that nothing is happening there. But it goes back to the results. It goes back to change. Now, a lot of corporate organizations are not known for their ability to change. We see that. It’s in the news all along. But back in the day when I was there was when they started to do research in universities about gender disparity in STEM – what we now call the STEM areas, science and mathematics. The first study came out in the late ’80s. The study talked about and it was tracked it was an academic study. But it blew things away because it came out through the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education which by the way is the precursor for everything we do around competency-based education. How many of you use some sort of competency-based models?
The trend for that, and this is where the universities do have a value, the trend for that came out of studies that were done to change the nature of curriculum because curriculum was gender and racially and ethnically biased and how do you get around that. One of the first studies that was out there … I think it’s important, especially with what we’re seeing today in today’s world as well again was that in a science or mathematics class, if a professor asked a question and people raised their hands and 85% of the time – anybody want to guess who got called on by the professor? Men. They didn’t look at it from a racial perspective but they looked at it specifically from gender. Eighty-five percent of the time, it was men.
The profs didn’t even realize they were doing it when they were interviewed. So there you have it. You’ve got a seminal study on that. Do you know it took some universities 10 years to retrain faculty on what that meant where a corporation doesn’t have the time to do that. So it is to the results issue if that makes any sense.
Jon: One thing I would say is I think universities are getting better about this especially business schools. The business schools are increasingly going to practitioners to teach classes. I think that’s happening across all of academe. I think there’s a very small percentage of tier one research universities that still remain very impractically academically focused. But I think universities in the United States by and large are getting much better.
Mike: We’re going to come back around to that a little bit later on when we talk specifically about your work at Discover. Because I think it brings a lot of that full circle. But before we do that I want to talk about your first learning executive job – when you took on that first executive job. Because I think when you started at PeopleSoft you were doing a lot of writing of curriculum and a lot of writing of content, that first leadership role you had in learning and development, what was it and what was that experience like for you?
Jon: Yeah so I started writing technical manuals for software developers at PeopleSoft. I gradually worked my way up the management chain. Then PeopleSoft actually bought a software company in Denver called JD Edwards. JD Edwards was focused on manufacturing software. My boss came to me at one point and said, “Hey, you wouldn’t want to move to Denver, would you?” He really was all about the sell.
Mike: Yeah, that’s a pretty effective sell, “You wouldn’t want to.”
Justin: You wouldn’t want to do that.
Jon: I said, “No, I just redid my bathroom.” Probably three months later, I mentioned it to my wife. I said, “Oh, yeah, my boss offered to move us to Denver.” She said, “What are you doing? Go talk to him.” We were living in San Francisco at the time and we were outsourcing our childcare and both working two jobs.
So, we moved to Denver and I remember I was the first person to move to this company that we had just bought. No one really knew exactly who I was so they gave me the corner office overlooking downtown Denver and … I mean, really, it was a top floor, corner office, overlooking downtown Denver and the mountains.
Mike: Somebody from corporate’s here. Let’s make him happy.
Jon: Yeah, exactly. So, my boss came into town a couple weeks later and he walked into my office and he looked around and he said, “You’ve got to get rid of this office. This is not going to go well for you. This is better than our CEO’s office.” I said, “All right.” So, I gave away the office.
It was interesting. It was a really good lesson about contextual authority and about how I was perceived as having enormous authority just by the fact that I was coming from a company that through a variety of flukes had purchased this other company. It actually was a good lesson for me about how to actually escape that context and try to lead from a very individual, non-hierarchical basis.
One of my heroes was Andy Grove. He was the CEO and founder of Intel. He ran the company for 30 years from a cube. I mean, this was before open offices or anything.
Justin: And he did it brilliantly.
Jon: Yeah, brilliantly. Yeah and I always thought to myself, “That’s the sort of leader I want to be, someone who just doesn’t rely on the trappings of authority but is high on influence and establishes a meritocracy where best ideas rule, whoever has them.”
Mike: We were, a couple of weeks ago, talking about when you first started leading a team and how you basically failed, as you described it, when you led a team. Explain a little bit about that situation and what you learned as a leader coming out of it.
Jon: Yeah, sure. I think throughout your career there are these crucibles of leadership. For me, one happened after I had moved to Discover. I thought I was a really good manager. There are some things that I did really, really well and there are some things that I just didn’t do very well. I think I was there for about three or four years and I had managed to take a team that should have been high performing and I just drove them into the ground. It just was really unpleasant.
I mean, everyone was unpleasant. I didn’t like it. They didn’t like it. I didn’t fully see what was going on. I think that’s one of the challenges of leadership is that oftentimes you don’t. People aren’t honest and aren’t direct with you and the lack of candor makes it really hard to understand what’s really happening.
Then the candor comes out in these spasms of honesty that surprise you in a way. I remember, I was talking to one of my direct reports. I was in Phoenix at the time. She just came in, she sat down, she said, “I want to work for anyone else in this company other than you.” I was like, “Oh.”
Mike: That hurt a little bit.
Jon: I thought I was a good manager. She said, “Really, I don’t care who I work for just not for you.” I was like, “Really?”
We talked about it for a while. I said, “Look, I think if you can bring this level of candor to me, first of all, I’m not sure how things got here but I recognize there is something that is terribly wrong. I recognize that I’m a big part of that if not the sole part of that. I want to actually be better. If you can bring this level of candor, I think there’s a way we can work together. But what I’d like to just ask is that you give me a few months to figure this out.”
So I went home. I didn’t sleep for two days. There were things I was doing. I was an OK manager of individuals. I was a horrible manager of teams. I didn’t get it. I always thought that the way you become a good manager is by – they talk about building trust is the first job of a manager. I thought that was that with each individual, I could build a trusting relationship with each of them. What I didn’t understand is that much more important is to build trust among them, that they had to trust each other. There were little things I was doing that were undermining their trust amongst themselves.
I’m not a screamer. I don’t yell at people. I don’t berate people. But, if you create environments in which they don’t trust each other it can get very nasty very quickly.
So I went in front of my leadership team after I got back in the office on Monday and I said, “Look is anyone having fun here? Because I’m not having fun. Are you guys having fun?” Everyone was like, “Nope. No one’s having fun.” I said, “All right. I think I’m doing a bunch of things wrong. I don’t know exactly what they are yet. What I’d ask you is give me a little time to figure this out and I think we can remake this team.”
I spent a lot of time, I spent probably three months just learning and studying and trying to figure out what was wrong. I had to move a few people off the team, I mean, no fault of their own. After a relationship sours, it sours. I went in front of all my managers, 30 people, and said, “Hey look, you’ve noticed some dysfunction on my direct reports team. That’s largely my responsibility and I’ve been the cause of that. I’m working on a few things. I hope you give me some time to figure them out.”
Interestingly enough when I rebuilt that team and there were a bunch of things that we did to create a stronger team, the trust, the engagement, spread like wildfire throughout the organization. From that point on, we had the highest engagement scores, in HR definitely and among the highest engagement scores in the entire company. It was actually because I took the time to really think about what I was doing and be much more intentional about how I led teams.
Mike: Is leading a learning and development team different from leading other teams? I guess the question I’m driving at is, we spend a lot of our time in this room and particularly those who work in leadership development developing leaders. But are we developing the leaders within our own team? Are we developing ourselves in the learning and development industry? Is it unique or different from being a leader in other types of roles and if so, how?
Jon: My assumption is no. I can’t say that I have an enormous expertise in building teams outside of L&D. I’ve focused my entire career on learning and education and training. I think the rules are very transferrable and I think there are a set of them about how you treat people, how you listen to people, about how you engage people in a trusting relationship, how you set vision and strategy, how you make work achievable and inspiring. I mean, I think those things are probably very transferrable.
Justin: I think you’re right. By the way, your journey and it’s wonderful for you to be that transparent about it is not that different than probably a lot of us have gone through. You think you’re doing well and then you find out, “Oh, that was a train wreck I just caused,” and you have to retool it.
I think the general leadership things are transferrable about it because the leader is … I fundamentally believe leadership is leadership is leadership. The context may shift and it may require you to tack a little bit one way as opposed to the other but the kind of things you talked about, and the trust and all that.
I mean, my first shot was not good. But my mistake was, I thought I was helping by going and digging deep into my organization. So, instead of going to my direct report, if I wanted something from somebody else, I thought, “Whoa, I will build this and I will get the relationship with the person.” So I will pass over my direct report and go to not only their direct report but their direct … two levels down, and say, “Hey, can you help me work on this project?” Totally disempowering, right? But you think you’re being wonderful because you’re engaging with everybody on the team. You’re creating chaos and disempowering your people.
The other mistake I made that was horrific and I see this in operational leaders, and you usually have to pull them back on their first one, was I’d play with details that no longer were at my pay grade. So it’s the vice president of learning and development that sits there and is going to go through every training module that comes out, digging into the details of what exercise is on page 3B and you think you’re being so helpful about that. It’s like, “Get the hell out of the way.”
By the way, any of you see that with operational leaders? They go digging around in stuff or they leap over their direct reports and go to their other people and you go, “Yeah, that really isn’t helpful as a leader.”
Jon: Absolutely. That was Exhibit 1A in the things that I was doing that was bugging everyone.
Justin: Yeah, I hear you, my brother.
Jon: One thing I realized was that at that point, I thought to myself, “Hey, there are no solutions that are either 100% right or 100% wrong. But I think I can probably come up with something that’s 95% right and maybe my direct reports could come up with something that’s 85% or 70% right.”
But then I realized, “Wait a minute. My 95% right solution implemented at 40% engagement isn’t nearly as good as a solution that’s 75 or 80% right delivered at 100% engagement.” So I backed off a whole bunch. I started leading from a position of developing my staff.
The interesting thing that I figured out after a while is that when I thought I was 95% right, I was actually more the 70 or 75%.
Justin: Seventy percent right.
Jon: Because the people who were actually putting together the solution were much closer to 95% right than I was. So I was getting a worse solution implemented at a worse level of engagement. It was bad trade-off overall.
Justin: The one thing, where it’s different, Mike, is if your development function whether it’s called talent management or learning and development and part of your portfolio is leadership development in your organization, almost from the day you become that senior leader and especially if you’re interacting at the level with the senior leadership of the company, you have to model exactly what you’re teaching.
Because nothing destroys the credibility of your own organization in terms of how it develops leaders if you are crappy at it yourself. If they know that you’re littering the joint with dead bodies and you’re going around your people and they’re not engaged, you have no credibility to offer any solution to anybody else in the company. I think that’s a pressure, at least I felt from day one moving into that senior role. Does that make sense to you?
Jon: Yep. Absolutely.
Mike: So let’s dig in a little bit to how learning is structured at Discover. About 17,000 employees which it’s a good size company. In financial services, it’s not really actually. There’s a lot larger companies you’re competing with. How many folks are in your team from a learning point of view, and how are you structured?
Jon: It’s about 170 people who worked for me. There were probably about 20 to 30 people who were in the learning strategy organization. We had about 40 people in curriculum design. We had, oh gosh, it was sort of 70-ish instructors in the training delivery organization and then we had an infrastructure and technology group that was the remaining employees.
Mike: That’s a big learning team.
Jon: Very big, yeah.
Mike: Especially for an organization that size. Why so big? What was unique about Discover that you needed that size of team?
Jon: A couple of things. One is at Discover we made the decision to centralize everything. We had functional job role training that was done out of my department, professional leadership, executive development, compliance training, industry learning, education assistance, university partnerships, culture of learning, everything came out of my department. There are things that can scale and things that you need more headcount to do. Onboarding employees in big call centers you actually need employees there to run your onboarding programs. We did 1.2 million hours of training per year.
The vast majority of it was we run a call center of 7,000 agents, with turnover that’s what you would expect in a call center in the United States. There are a lot of bodies coming in and bodies moving around between job roles. You just need a lot of headcount to support that.
One thing that I was really proud of is that there were really nice career paths through learning. People would become call center agents and then they’d become coaches and they’d come to the training organization and they’d train people. And then, they would either decide whether or not they wanted to go into management and they’d go out and become a supervisor, or they’d stay in the learning function, and go into curriculum design and go into learning strategy. There were lots of nice career paths through learning.
I left about a week-and-a-half ago with my final day. I had a call to say goodbye to everyone, and to thank them for everything. I think at the time we had about 450 people who had come through the learning organization. I mean so we have my department of 170 people plus alumni. So it was 450, 500 people. You train a lot of people but you actually give people an experience of what it means to be a learning professional for a period of their career. They actually take those lessons and they use them as core pillars of their management strategies because a lot of learning is about clear communication.
One of the things I was most proud of at Discover is that over the 10 years that I was there, there were eight people that were eventually promoted to director. Six of them are women. I think that is just a wonderful thing to leave behind, that you have a management chain that came through your organization and they’re going to be the leaders of the future, at Discover.
Mike: It’s that experiential piece that you were just talking about in your own career path. You learned what you don’t like and that is the process of figuring out what it is that you do and living that experience through the learning organization, and giving people exposure and bringing them through and understanding that, “Yeah, maybe this is where I want to be, but maybe it’s a different path.” That’s the only really effective way to do it.
So big team. Budget could always be bigger, I’m sure, whenever you’re doing learning and development. But, how did you make sure that what you’re were doing with that was aligned with what you’re trying to do as a business. Not just aligned at a top level, beginning of the function, like make sure that what we’re doing is driving business. But maintain the alignment, more importantly so that over time that you’re continuing to stay connected to what Discover is trying to do and that learning and development is responding to that. How did you manage that particular challenge?
Jon: So there are both formal ways and informal ways. The formal ways is we had a big learning strategy group. The learning strategy group, their job was to ensure that the solutions we rolled out were driven by strategic growth drivers for the business. That’s their entire job is to work with business leaders to make sure that what we were training people on were things that were actually going to make a difference for the company. So those were sort of the formal methods.
The informal methods, actually, I forget where I read this, but someone said, actually, it was probably Netflix, said something along the lines of, “When you have problems in an organization, you will always have two choices. You can either create more rules or you can create more context.” Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, creating more context is a way better approach. So, I spent a lot of time trying to make sure that all of our employees had broader contexts about what the business was facing and what the business was trying to accomplish.
Every quarter, we would have an officers meeting where the CEO and the C-suite would come and they’d present their results and they’d talk about forecasts and challenges. I would always get a copy of the deck. I would remove all the non-public information. And I would schedule an hour-and-a-half with my entire staff. It was voluntary, “If you want to come, I will tell you what’s going on in the company.” I would go through the content and I would explain the financials and the P&L. I would answer questions. There’s some things that I could add more on because I spent a lot of time interfacing with business leaders and I had a lot of context of what was behind some of the information.
But it was interesting that, I started by sending it out to my managers and saying, “This is voluntary. Invite anyone you want.” Then it just grew and grew and grew and we had just hundreds of people on the phone. I’d do this quarterly. Eventually I figured out that this had gone far beyond the learning function, that just people were dialing in because I was the only one who was taking the time to do that. Maybe I was the only one who managed to steal a copy of the deck.
Mike: Or actually take the time to understand what was in the deck, right.
Jon: Yeah. So I mean what I would do actually, I’d get the deck and then I’d scramble for a week. I’d set up the meeting. I’d get the deck, set up the meeting. I’d scramble and I’d call business leaders and said, “Hey look, can you help me understand something? There was a bullet point on this slide I didn’t get. What does this mean?” Then I would have that additional information.
Justin: The value of that, and I think that’s good, I tried to do that in healthcare because healthcare people are so far away from what it is, I used to pull them in and say, “OK. We just had our quarterly review of the outcomes for the system.” I would try and draw it between them and the poor unit-based nurse trainer who had no idea what this was about. That tended to energize them a little bit, too. Because if you can say to them, “OK, this is what the system is working on and by the way, I can point to these three things that you did that contributed to that, well done you,” it energizes them at a way different level.
At the same time you’re surreptitiously getting them to learn about the business in a business way, which at least in healthcare, nurses and doctors don’t want to hear about those nasty business things. But you slowly get them there. That’s I think a good visionary kind of leadership thing to say, “How do I draw them in and share the information with them?” It’s a critical kind of thing.
Mike: And there’s a whole lot underlying what you both have just said as far the long term relationships you have built as an executive with other executives who will honestly and candidly share with you all of that information, so that you can tell that story. How do you build those relationships?
Jon: Yeah, that’s one of the awesome things about working in the learning function is that everyone wants something from you and you build relationships very quickly. People call you up and say, “Hey, can you help me? I have some learning needs that I have.” So, build relationships with people. Have lunch with people. I had a packed lunch calendar. I’d have lunch with people from different lines of business and I’d use the opportunity to learn as much as I could.
Justin: When I started in healthcare because it was so foreign to me – I mean, the doctorate’s in fine arts, right, what do I know about healthcare – I actually took a long period of time to really learn the details, to the point that I took my first six weeks, I shadowed. I did nothing but shadow physicians and nurses and ER techs and in ORs. I had several Ph.D.’s in nursing and clinical fields on my direct report staff. They were directors or senior directors. I grabbed one and I said, “Your job now is to send me articles on a weekly basis that were based on the clinical data around care and tutor me on them.” I would read the articles and we’d come in and have a discussion and she’d say, “You didn’t get this.”
Consequently what that allowed me to do was I could go in and talk to physicians and nurses and clinical leaders in clinical terms over time. It really helped, developing it. The way I went about it, I didn’t do lunch as much as you did, I got myself appointed to several key system wide committees with other senior leaders. So the committee to oversee clinical incident quality. Typically it was physicians and nurses and hospital presidents. I was the only support function, senior VP ever to be on one. So, they saw me as literally, it’s like, “Well, he’s part of the group. He’s part of the business.” For me that made a difference.
That, I think, toggles a little bit to the business metrics with it. To toss something out to you, your metrics are always going to be different but they can relate, too. I think that’s the critical thing. We sometimes make a mistake of saying, “I have to do the exact same metrics the business does.” No. You have to draw a connectivity from your metric to theirs. But don’t emulate theirs. Because they’re not the same. It’s you learning from them but they also have to … you got to help them move to understand yours. Does that make sense? I mean, I think that’s a critical piece.
Jon: Yes. I’ve seen it done both ways. In some areas, leadership development is really hard to have business specific metrics. There’s a long tail and figuring out what the business outcomes of a leader who went through a leadership development class, I mean, that’s really difficult.
In the call center world, they measure everything. The way we assessed our performance is that, people who graduated from our new hire programs, they were performing anywhere between 93 and 104% of the tenured peer performance, one month after graduating from new hire. That’s the thing. You put that data in front of any business leader, and they say-
Justin: And they see it.
Jon: “Yeah, you’re right, you’re doing a good job.”
Justin: What was your turnover? About 30?
Jon: It went up and down but right now Discover is experiencing record low turnover. I think we’re all scratching our heads about that because it shouldn’t be that way. But the turnover is really low at Discover now.
Mike: Especially with employability rates right now.
Jon: Employability rates are high but I like to think some of it is with our education assistance programs that we rolled out because those can be game-changers.
Mike: That’s exactly what I wanted to talk to you about next.
Mike: We want to talk a little bit about tuition reimbursement which in learning and development circles tuition reimbursement has typically been outside of what we do. It’s a benefit that we offer. But you have actually taken the initiative to actually take it within learning and development and not just take it at face value of the $5,250 that we are allowed by tax rules to pay for an employee’s tuition for school, you’ve actually taken it and built it into a much more robust program, starting June of last year. Talk us through that.
Jon: Actually, it starts earlier. It was probably three years ago. I was sitting in my office and someone came by my office and said, “Hey, do you want to own tuition reimbursements? The person who owns it just left.” I said, “Yes.” Because I knew we had a lot of trainers in my organization who were doing tuition reimbursement. It just so happened at the same time I was on the phone with Elliott Masie. I think most of you guys know who Elliott Masie is. He’s a luminary in the learning world. He just said, “Hey, tell me a little bit about yourself.” I just said, “Well my mission is to expand opportunity through inspired learning.” He said, “Oh, my goodness, you would be so great. There’s this UpSkill America initiative being run out of the Obama White House. I’m going to get you invited to the White House.”
I put down the phone and thought to myself, “Really now?” Two weeks later, the White House called and I ended up at the White House. So, lesson in having a personal mission statement ready at your fingertips. Really important.
In any event, I went to the White House and I was working with other business leaders. The UpSkill America initiative was about trying to figure out how the departments of Labor, Commerce and Education could incentivize companies to invest in their frontline workforce. I met great people and I created some friends at the Aspen Institute, the Lumina Foundation and other companies and I started some time researching what were really good tuition reimbursement programs.
I was on the phone with the head of learning for Daimler Chrysler and Cigna and JetBlue. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what was going to make a game-changing tuition reimbursement program. It just so happens that I got the Lumina Foundation to come in and do a deep-dive data analysis on our tuition reimbursement program. It took us a year to negotiate the contracts because it confused our legal department that someone was doing pro-bono work for Discover. Never have we had people do pro bono work for a Fortune 500 financial services firm, right?
They came in. We went through all the data security. We anonymized all our data. We gave them millions of rows of HR data, just every bit of HR data that we had. They ran the analysis and looked at the impact of tuition reimbursement on things like turnover and absenteeism and promotion rates, et cetera. The way they calculated it our tuition reimbursement program with all its problems, and there were many, had a 144% ROI. Every dollar we invested in tuition reimbursement got that dollar back to the company and an additional $1.44 in lower talent management costs.
I took that to our C-suite and sat down with our executive committee and said, “Hey, this shows that we really could stand to invest in this program. I’m going to ask you for two things. Today, I’d like to eliminate the one-year tenure requirement on our tuition reimbursement program.” It used to be that people had to be in the company for a year before they could participate. I said, “Hey, the biggest benefit is lowering attrition. That’s where that attrition is highest. Let’s make it available on day one. The second thing I want is I’m going to come back in another six months with a proposal to really radically redefine tuition reimbursement at Discover.”
We built the Discover College Commitment that we rolled out a little bit less than a year ago. We provide 100% of cost, all tuition, required fees, books, supplies. We pay the universities directly. Everyone is eligible on day one of employment. We have three university partners and we have seven degrees. In a year we have 500 people in class, taking classes and getting their degrees. I mean, it’s been really amazing at Discover.
In any event, that’s something small with the right expertise and talking to your colleagues and learning to try and understand what really is going to make a difference and partnering with people at all different types of organizations that’s how you can transform a program like that.
Mike: What would you say are the hallmarks of why you’ve been particularly successful with it? You mentioned that you did the ROI, so obviously that will help make the case for it. But what are the other things that you did, as part of the tuition reimbursement program, the Discover College Commitment program, that you think have made it successful in this last year?
Jon: Probably the biggest thing is just building this broad coalition of people who are really committed to this. There are enough people at Discover who get that the company has a need to drive increase in earnings per share. I mean, that’s what the company is there for. But there are a lot of leaders there who feel that they have a mission beyond that and it’s about growing and developing people and increasing opportunity. Experience in our call centers, I mean, our call centers … I came to Discover, I reported to someone who was a vice president who started as a customer service representative at 19 right out of high school. Didn’t go to college, had very few job prospects and got his degree through Discover, got an MBA through Discover, worked his way up the chain and now is an incredibly successful vice president. There are so many people in a company who see that potential in all people.
Creating a coalition of leaders who could help support this was vital. That meant that we could actually change minds and influence people. Once you win people’s hearts and minds, then actually, the mechanics of putting together the right program actually end up being relatively easy.
Justin: I think one of the questions, Mike, when we started this session today and we talked about having learning become organic. I think tuition reimbursement can play a big role in that. The thing that I’ve seen over the years is that many senior learning leaders whether they’re called a CLO or … but the most senior person, they let tuition reimbursement, conference attendance, travel, T&L related to that sit squarely in HR.
If you look in your own organizations, if you went there and did a survey you’d find that when people talk about tuition reimbursement it’s a defined benefit. It’s a benefit that we get and it does this. Rather than incorporating it like you’re doing, it’s both a benefit that helps retention, which we know is good but it can also become … It’s part of the strategic investment in learning in the organization. If it is that then it rightly belongs to the CLO. You shouldn’t let it sit unattended in HR.
You do the undergraduate thing. In healthcare, we’ve done that. We’ve been on that track for quite awhile because we didn’t have a choice because of nursing shortages. So if you’re going for an undergraduate degree, and particularly it was in the clinical area, this is pretty general across any large scale system, we’ll pay for it, not only to the level of what’s allowed by IRS but you work relationships with nursing schools and you do it.
However, when you start getting to the graduate level, you got to look at it differently. Because, you just can’t let people go off and get it. What we began to do when we took it over in a couple of systems is say, “OK, let’s tie that to the talent management needs and succession planning that we know.” So if I’ve got 40 nurse managers all getting an MBA, wow, that’s great. We’re going to have 40 nursing managers that get MBAs. Guess what? Our projection for five years is we only need 20 of them. But we need 35 to have advanced clinical degrees. So how do you begin to square that? If you’re the learning leader, and you’re also engaged in talent management, I think you got to go after that stuff and say, “How are we going to square that?”
Do we begin to say, “OK, here are the fields we’ll pay” and you stratify it. “This is what we’ll pay 100% for, or this is what we’ll pay 70% for,” depending on what it is. But however you do it, it needs to be looked at I think as you’ve done as a strategic part of learning and not just lay fallow as a cost, a benefit cost in HR.
Jon: Yeah, it’s interesting, because at Discover, we were able to roll out … The Discover College Commitment is the 10-year talent play. It’s investing in people right at the beginning of their careers.
Jon: But there’s actually what’s the five year, what’s the three year talent play? Those are about very specifically defined graduate degree programs and certificates and credentials –
Justin: And how many you want, yeah. That’s perfect.
Jon: And they’re aligned specifically to needs that you have. So we’re building some of those. We have some of those in place. But it was interesting that at Discover it was easier to sell the broad appeal programs that are going to work at the bottom of the house before you sold it at the top of the house.
Interestingly enough, I mean, one of the things that was I think so telling was when we rolled it out one of the things that I told everyone who would listen is, “This is not a program that is going to benefit the majority of our employees, but it is a program that 100% of our employees are going to feel proud of.”
There was an executive we were trying to land in analytics who’s a senior vice president, who was interviewing at three different companies including Discover. We rolled out that program. He called the other companies and took his name out of the running and said, “I want to go to Discover because if that’s the way you treat the employee at the bottom of the hierarchy, I can only imagine what you do for everyone else and that’s the kind of company I want to work at.”
Justin: It’s very interesting. I don’t know how many of you’ve seen because it’s being used now, interestingly enough to also gain loyalty from your customers. Have any of you seen the Walmart commercials that are out there where it shows, and I think it started, right now, it’s five women who started as either greeters or in stockrooms? And it shows their first job and then it flips to executive vice president of HR, or retail clerk, stock attendant to regional store managers. Implicit in that is that very sense of developing and going through. You watch those kind of things and you go, “Hey, that’s pretty cool that this goes on there.” I mean, I think it’s got a lot of those benefits.
That again is back to your point about metrics. You sold it on a whole different kind of metric. You didn’t go back and say, “It’s just the ROI.” You did say that but you talked about the loyalty and how it affected affectively the domain. I think that’s a critical thing.
Mike: To bring us to a close as we started off talking about your career path and what that means for other people who are in CLO roles aspiring to be in CLO roles, as you look ahead to the future what’s the best advice you can offer to people who are in learning executive roles? I think, as you just said, that’s incredible challenge, incredible opportunity, but how make the most of that opportunity? What advice do you have?
Jon: First of all, second to a full-time player on the golf pro circuit, a CLO job is about the best job you can get. I think it’s a really wonderful job. You get to learn the business. You get to interface with all different people. You’ve got fundamentally two different responsibilities and you have to make sure that you’re taking care of both of them. Number one, you got to drive the business. And number two, you got to take care of people.
The way you talk about L&D depends on the audience. I would always talk about driving the business with our executives and leaders of the business. I would always talk about taking care of people with my staff and people who actually had large groups of people working for them, that saw the impact of learning programs on them. I would say that keep those two things front of mind and that is the way to be successful in this business.
Mike: With that, please join me in thanking Jon Kaplan for joining us on stage today.
Thank you again for joining us for the Chief Learning Officer Podcast. If you like what you heard, please consider giving us a rating on iTunes. If you have a comment, a topic, or something that you’d like to see us tackle in an upcoming episode, be sure to drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. We look forward to having you back again soon and keep on learning.
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