Like most Fortune 500 companies, Tyson Foods, one of the world's largest protein providers, is not immune to global economic challenges. However, Tyson is outperforming many of its peers, and has put together back-to-back record quarterly profits. As other companies are struggling to survive, Tyson is achieving new levels of success. And indications are that this success is sustainable
Part of Tyson's continued success stems from the development of its leadership personnel. Because market and economic conditions in the food production industry change at a rapid pace, the company recognized the need for an accelerated leadership development program.
Karen Armstrong, Tyson's vice president of leadership and organizational development explained, "Specifically, we needed a way to identify employees with high leadership potential and quickly cultivate them into agile leaders, capable of championing process improvements and cost efficiencies to drive and sustain the profitability of the business." In 2007, Tyson and SVI partnered to create Tyson's high-potential leadership development program, called LINC (Leaders into Champions). The design of the new program needed to
- create a strong internal executive pipeline that taps into leadership potential from all corners of the enterprise
- ensure that participants develop the right skill set and the right mindset to drive innovation in a dynamic and fast-paced industry
- empower participants to create competitive advantages in the business and marketplace
- expand the breadth and depth of the participant's influence within the industry and the organization
- provide upward-mobility opportunities for participants, becoming officers within three to five years.
To handle these objectives and help sustain its success, Tyson needed to go beyond standard leadership development programs. It needed to develop organizational and industry champions. To do this, the LINC program engaged a two-step process. First, high-potential leaders were encouraged to discover who they are, independent of Tyson. Second, they gained new understanding of how to maximize their unique abilities and styles throughout the organization.
Brand your high-potential leader program
It was important to ensure that the LINC program differentiated itself from the company's previous talent development efforts and that it stood out as a program that uniquely fit Tyson's culture. To accomplish this and to generate enthusiasm and excitement among employees, a strong brand was required. Hence, Tyson's Emerging Leaders Program became Leaders into Champions and rebranded as LINC.
The new brand and its supporting materials communicated two messages: First, this was not a typical leadership program, but rather a program that would help high-potential leaders grow beyond pure management capabilities and become champions for the company and the industry. Second, the program provided a means for up-and-coming leaders to network and enhance their communication lines across the functional silos of Tyson (and become "better linked" to each other).
Identify the broadest and most representative pool for nominees
Often, high-potential leader candidates in organizations are nominated from a limited pool of people who come from corporate headquarters and are already highly visible or well connected. At Tyson, however, nominations come from every part of the company and around the globe. By allowing leaders from every business unit to identify and nominate high-potential leaders from their top 5 percent performers, LINC seeks to find individuals who might otherwise be outside the usual pool of nominees.
Select based on performance, influence, and inspiration
While a team member is nominated based on performance, acceptance into the program is based on the individual's influence and inspiration across the company. A comprehensive selection process takes place that includes a review of operational results, peer and manager recommendations, and an evaluation of potential for future growth. Beyond these measures, nominees present their personal "crucible experience" to a panel of top-line executives. A crucible experience is an account of how each individual managed to overcome periods of intense heat - those situations that shaped who they are at the core.
Sharing crucible experiences sets the tone for the LINC program. It reinforces that the program will demand courage and transparency. After three afternoons of listening to these presentations, one Tyson leader remarked, "I've learned more about leadership in the last three days than I have in the last 10 years of leadership classes."
Once executive team members review the operational metrics and hear the crucible presentations, they make their final selection, whittling the number from 50 viable candidates to the final 20 LINC participants.
Develop the mindset over the skill set
A leader has the right skills, but for a champion at Tyson, mindset is the key. In fact, in today's constantly changing business environment, the right skills will only last as long as the environment stays the same. Mindset, however, helps champions adjust to changing needs easily by having the right attitude. Therefore, LINC participants begin their development journey by reading the book The Organizational Champion and taking an assessment from the book, called ECChO. This assessment measures each member in four categories that collectively define what it means to be an organizational champion. The assessment allows individuals to focus on their personal strengths and opportunities and forms the basis for individual development plans that follow participants throughout the process.
After reading the book and taking the assessment, participants go through a two-day development event called the ADVANCE, an interactive program delivered by SVI that helps participants contemplate life perspectives. The ADVANCE helps participants discover more about who they are as individuals and how this aligns with what they do each day. Through the ADVANCE, participants are able to answer three important questions:
- What are you good at doing?
- What makes you come alive?
- How do you uniquely contribute to the company?
Involve your executives
One of the most rewarding parts of the Tyson LINC program is the direct interaction participants have to Tyson executives. Participants engage in monthly development meetings at the company headquarters in Springdale, Arkansas, either in person or by video conference.
A business unit executive hosts each meeting, sharing information on their business as well as their own crucible leadership experience. These meetings are invaluable for all parties because high-potential leaders gain exposure and networking opportunities to key organizational decision makers, while high-level executives have the opportunity to familiarize themselves with valuable talent (that may eventually end up in their business unit).
Beyond the crucible experience, executives usually present a topic of relevance (usually a leadership competency-based topic) for 20 to 30 minutes and leave the remaining time open for valuable Q&A and skill-set development. Participants are encouraged to be transparent and ask tough questions about the business. The executives are warned that they likely won't see any "softball" questions thrown their way.
Another component of the monthly development meetings is the peer coaching that takes place among the participants. These participants share their progress on their individual development plans and have a trusted group of peers they can turn to for feedback and ideas.
Measure progress through experiential learning and application
The Tyson LINC program is a two-year program. The second year starts with an intense experiential event designed to measure the development progress of the participants' mindsets and skill sets. It also tests participants' abilities to be resilient in the face of overwhelming odds: a concept that might be very unfamiliar to them.
The experiential component presents real challenges and real consequences. To turn failure into success, participants must rely on what they have learned. The timing of the experiential event is important because new "stretch" assignments within the business await participants following the event.
Connect high-potential leaders to real business challenges
Stretch assignments force new challenges and business exposure upon participants and connect them to vital parts of the business. These stretch assignments can include participation in an action learning team, research project, or executive internship. Assignments are made based on participants' interests and abilities; however, most of the time, they must develop entirely new skill sets and become exposed to completely different aspects of the business.
These stretch assignments are critical roles that have been set aside for only the most capable leaders. These critical roles help to leverage the best talent and put them close to actual business challenges and opportunities. It is here where the LINC program often provides the most valuable results for Tyson. New products and long-term competitive advantages have been born out of these assignments.
Four years after its launch, LINC is considered to be the premier talent development program within Tyson Foods. Today, the majority of LINC participants are promoted into the executive ranks prior to graduating from the program - a strong endorsement of its effectiveness.
LINC has accomplished its goal of building a strong internal executive pipeline. It has bred innovation and efficiency and empowered a new group of leaders with the courage to create competitive advantages. All of this has helped position Tyson for success well into the future.