AT&T Talks: The Next Wave of Executive Development

What does it take to engage, grow and delight top leaders? Dr. Jason Jones of AT&T University, CLO Magazine’s 2011 #1 LearningElite shares how AT&T has achieved success in developing executive leaders.

What is your biggest challenge when successfully engaging top corporate leaders?

In any business there are many competing priorities. We all know serving our customer is job one and keeps the doors open.

Over the past 15 years I’ve seen the difficulty of getting leaders to slow down and invest in themselves. The demands of the business are at a level that most leaders, even those who are able to get away to a training class, have a hard time focusing on the learning opportunity and getting their mind off daily business tasks.

Furthermore, the leaders are expecting to get rich content and resources within a short period of time. This places pressure on corporate universities to balance providing an effective learning experience with time constraints and the impatience of many leaders.

What did the old corporate learning model look like at AT&T?

The older model was based on a class-room environment very much like school. The focus is typically on a lecture from an expert and the audience listens and learns. There are established times for discussion, case study, and questions for the expert.

Although there are many good qualities of this model, it is the most unlike everyday business and life. It is a model based more on academia that focus on gaining declarative knowledge. It is not a model that supports procedural knowledge and transfer to everyday business

How did you transition to an "experience & collaboration model" and what does that look like?

We are still in this process. When we talk to our leaders they tell us they get the most out of development opportunities with a high level of collaboration with other peers and when they are involved in more experiential types of learning opportunities.

We have made it a priority to use our executive development programs to get people into simulations, innovation break-outs, strategy planning sessions, offering opportunities to participate in off-site programs, and virtual classes that bring together people from multiple countries for discussion and collaboration. We haven’t thrown the baby out with the bath water.

We still use live class-room environments, but we also integrate multiple learning platforms to engage leaders who learn in different ways. It is very important to us to carefully balance theory and application.

How has AT&T aligned, designed, developed and implemented executive development experiences to engage your top leaders?

We start with the business priorities first. Although this sounds clichê and many people say this, I think few actually execute this process well. It starts with corporate university leaders having access to current and future strategy conversation at the highest level in the organization.

This is an ongoing partnership between C-level leadership and Corporate University leadership to insure the university is supporting the direction of the company. A part of this is having an AT&T University Advisory Board composed of 14 senior leaders from all parts of our company.

We've built a process to maintain a close relationship and ensure we know where the business is going, the key challenges and priorities, and direct input from the highest level leaders in the company first. We don’t create things and sell it, we are much more consultative. We work as a partner and get their input and feedback along the way as we create the strategy and execute it.

You somehow were able to increase your Executive Development budget amidst of the economic downturn, while most companies cut learning budgets. How did you manage to achieve senior leadership buy-in to increase your budget?

This is a great example of how ensuring that your leadership development strategy is closely aligned with the company’s top priorities will affect the budget dollars allocated. How you do this is not about what you present at a meeting.

It's about an ongoing partnership and communication with key senior leaders. It’s about developing a high level of credibility. In our case, I believe it's also a testimony to the commitment of our Chairman and CEO, Randall Stephenson, to our people and his vision to build a long-term high performing organization.

He understands the importance of talent optimization and people development and the role it plays in driving a business forward. When leadership development is seen as a business priority it will get funding. Funding is the acid test for whether or not leadership development is considered a business priority.