Detroit was one of the hardest hit American cities during the financial crisis of 2007-2008. The automotive industry collapsed, the state lost more than 800,000 jobs between 2000 and 2009, and median household incomes are still down more than 15 percent from before the recession.
But the city is recovering — and Iris Ware is helping to make it happen.
Ware was hired as chief learning officer for the City of Detroit in 2014. She was the first learning leader in more than eight years, taking over a department that had been essentially eliminated during the downturn. “There was no formalized training and development, and no performance management,” she said. “It was just me.” But she was up for the task.
Ware is a native Detroiter. She is a first-generation college graduate who went on to receive a master’s degree and Ph.D. from Michigan Universities. However, she admits that early on she had no idea what she wanted to do with her life. “Everyone in my family and neighborhood was in manufacturing,” she said. “It’s a great life, but I didn’t want that for myself.”
Uncertain about her future after completing an associate degree, she spent the summer with friends in East Lansing, where she decided to take a class at Michigan State University. She met a counselor who suggested she pursue a career in HR. “I never looked back,” Ware said.
She completed her bachelor’s degree at MSU and then got her master’s in labor and industrial relations at Wayne State in Detroit. She later completed her Ph.D. in learning and design technology, when she saw where the industry was going. “I fell in love with HR,” she said.
Close to Home
Ware never lost her connection to Detroit. After completing her masters, she landed a job with DaimlerChysler, where she was quickly selected for a fast-track leadership development program. Then in 2008, she launched her own learning consulting agency, where she worked with several Michigan organizations before being recruited as CLO by Detroit’s mayor, Mike Duggan.
Ware spent the first six months as Detroit’s new CLO building her team and outlining a scalable learning strategy to help city employees develop new skills as the city emerged from bankruptcy. Ware quickly realized that while the mayor’s ambitions for providing training to the city’s 9,000-plus employees were big, her budget was not.
“It was a very different experience from the way you provide learning at a for-profit company,” she said. As a city leader, she has minimal budget, old computers, and whatever additional content and equipment she and her team can cobble together.
“We don’t have fancy software, but that is OK,” said Daryl Conrad, chief recruitment officer for the City of Detroit. He noted that Ware has a knack for turning even the most limited resources into powerful training solutions. “She builds things using free software online, and she develops partnerships with other organizations and local colleges,” he said. “She gets things done.”
When Ware was hired, many of the city’s employees were going through redeployment, which meant they had to move into new roles and departments as the city rebuilt. After all the changes, about 80 employees were left without a position. That’s where Ware began.
She and her team rapidly created a program to help these employees find new jobs in the city. They taught interview skills and résumé building, offered basic computer skills training and helped them apply for appropriate openings in the city infrastructure. Within three weeks, 90 percent of them found new full-time positions. “It’s one of the things I’m most proud of,” Ware said.
With employees placed, Ware set out to determine what city departments needed from her.
She spent weeks interviewing leaders, supervisors and employees across city departments about what they did and what they needed. Her audience was vast and varied, ranging from police and firemen to parking meter attendants, health department personnel and tax collectors. “There are 36 departments and agencies and they all have learning needs,” she said.
The research took a lot of time and effort, but it helped her team determine what role they would play in helping employees achieve their goals. “We don’t want to build something unless we are sure people will come,” Ware said. “So we align everything we do to the city’s mission and the department’s desired results.”
To get to the core of those needs, she asked everyone three questions: What do you like about working here? What would you change? Why hasn’t it happened?
Their responses guided her toward the right solutions. For example, she found that leaders felt their supervisors weren’t as effective as they should be, while supervisors were unhappy with the lack of opportunity to build the skills they needed to be effective. That spurred Ware’s team to create a 10-module competency-based supervisor training program focusing on the city’s core values, and the skills they needed to be successful.
“The supervisor training was our foundational program,” said Maria Graves, the branding, communications and logistics specialist on Ware’s team. Each course is four hours, and trainees receive certification when they complete them all.
It became so popular they had to clarify that anyone could participate — not just supervisors, Graves said. They also created a spin-off 10-module follow-up training program called Learn Engage Apply Perform, or LEAP, that any employee can take to further enhance their supervisory skills.
The supervisory training programs sent the message that Ware’s team was committed to solving the departments’ learning needs. It started a flood of requests and communications with department leaders, including Conrad, who said everyone on his team has taken part in one or more of the supervisory courses.
His team has also benefited from partnerships that Ware has launched with local colleges to offer courses on project management, time management, leadership development and other core skills. Having access to such formal training for the first time in years has had a profound impact on Detroit’s employees, Conrad said. “They aren’t just building new skills. It is changing the way they see themselves and where they can go in their careers.”
Everyone’s an Expert
This focus on personal development doesn’t just extend to the training Ware’s department offers. Ware prides herself on helping everyone on her team find and hone a specific area of expertise. “She doesn’t create traditional roles,” Conrad said. “She tries to find a specialty for each person to augment the team.”
For example, Graves originally met Ware when they worked together on the launch of Detroit Manufacturing Systems, a small Tier One automotive supplier. It was a bare bones start-up and Graves recognized that the company had no communication and branding strategy. So she took some classes and slowly developed a unique brand image and communication strategy for the company.
“She saw what I did, and when she was recruited to the city she thought I’d be perfect for her new division,” Graves said of Ware. It took Graves a year of going through formal city hiring channels, but once she joined the team in 2015, Ware put her in charge of creating all the communication for the division. Graves has since taken over the department’s social media and internal communication channels, designed the department’s brand and messaging, created an HR newsletter and started facilitating course design. “I’ve had a lot of opportunities to grow under her direction,” she said.
She particularly appreciates how Ware has empowered her to take charge from the beginning. “When I come to her with an issue, she helps me think it through, but then she defers to me to make the final decision,” Graves said. Ware takes a similar approach with all of her team, allowing them to take charge of one aspect of the department’s operations.
“She is the type of leader who pushes everyone else up,” said Coy Mosley, HR director for the nonprofit Empowerment Plan, which makes coats that convert to sleeping bags for homeless people. Mosley worked with Ware on a Head Start program in Detroit several years ago, and Ware has continued to mentor her throughout her career. Recently, Ware co-hosted a vision board session with Mosley’s team to help them come up with low-cost solutions to support homeless women. “She’s really good at finding ways to help people on a budget,” Mosley said.
Mosley also appreciates how respectful Ware is when working with the women her organization serves. “They have a lot of trust issues, but they love Iris because she talks to them, not at them,” she said. “It is a special kind of person who can relate just as easily to DaimlerChrysler executives as women in a homeless shelter.”
E-Learning on a Budget
Ware attributes her success to her passion for learning and her participatory/benevolent leadership style. “I’m always concerned about the well-being of my team and my organization,” she said. That informs her approach to identifying training needs and creating solutions with limited resources that help people reach their potential.
These days, Ware is focused on offering more online learning content for city employees, which she believes will be critical for their ongoing training needs. “Things are changing so quickly that we need to provide learning opportunities that employees can use without interrupting their work,” she said. “They need personalized, scalable learning that they can access quickly on their time.”
To maximize her budget, she is taking advantage of every free and low-cost software she can find and leveraging the talent on her team to find and create content that employees need. “We can do amazing things with committed people and few gadgets,” she said. “It’s never about the technology. It’s always about the process and the people.”
Ware’s advice to other leaders? Focus on what matters most to the business, rather than what the learning function wants to do. “Learning and development exists to serve the employees by addressing their pain points with real solutions. It is not about just providing feel-good training,” she said. When learning teams focus on real business goals, she added, everything they deliver will add value.