Whirlpool Corporation, a global appliance manufacturer, has had a consistent record of developing employees with strategically relevant knowledge and skills, which has helped the company to excel in markets around the globe and develop future leaders. But Whirlpool University, the learning and development arm of the company, was challenged during the start of the 2008 recession to continue this tradition with an intense focus on knowledge and skills required to strategically succeed in the face of a volatile economy.

The university challenged its own team to re-invent the learning space to drive scale, sustainability, and efficiencies with an intense focus on employee impact and business results. The two challenges led to a new methodology called the Closed Loop Learning methodology, which leverages the virtual learning space and the face-to-face classroom experience with intense skill application support, while systematically incorporating manager accountability into the learning process. The methodology has reduced the deployment cycle time of learning products , advanced development in face-to-face learning sessions, and placed managers in key coaching roles to optimize the skills their employees are learning.  

In the design of the methodology, the Whirlpool University team was determined to unleash the power of the manager in the learning process. Managers are central to the development experience of their employees. They are in the best position to observe the application of skills and coach the employees to achieve their learning goals. Additionally, the manager is accountable for optimizing the learning investment to yield differentiated results for the employee’s career and deliver impact to business results. 

We believe that our managers want to play a role in their employees’ learning experience.  Managers that build and sustain high performance teams understand that learning provides a win for the individual, their team, and the company. The university created the following set of beliefs of the manager’s role in learning:
1. Managers can connect the learning to the employee’s job role and the work of the team.
2. Managers can hold direct reports accountable to apply the skills they learn by resetting job performance expectations and standards.
3. Managers are in the best position to observe the application of skills and provide honest, open, and timely feedback.
4. The learning process opens an opportunity for the manager to encourage the employee to stretch and grow.
5. Managers provide critical feedback to the university on the effectiveness and impact of learning.
6. Managers partner with their employees in the development planning process and desire to be partners with the university in the learning process.
7. Managers are held accountable by the organization for their decisions in learning investments.

As we assessed these beliefs, we also critically evaluated the university’s performance in equipping our managers to be partners with us in the learning process. We found that we had much to improve. We had, at most, three interactions with the manager during the learning process. The first interaction was during the design of the program. We design learning objectives in partnership with the manager and calibrate content to ensure the learning is targeted at the performance required to achieve organizational objectives. In the deployment stage of learning, the manager will receive a notice from the university to approve training, or a heads up that their direct report was nominated for a program. As part of program evaluation, the manager will provide feedback on the impact of the program. We recognized that these interactions were primarily transactional and were not leading to building a partnership with the manager.

To develop a partnership with the manager, Whirlpool University developed a set of criteria in the D3 (design, development, and delivery) learning process to position the manager as a learning partner. The criteria assist in identifying:

a. the role the manager will play in the learning process
b. learning objectives that can benefit from a partnership with the manager
c. coaching  tips and guidelines  the manager needs to encourage skill application
d. when to leverage the newly acquired skills of their employee
e. how the manager will assess the impact of the learning on their employees, the team, and the organization
f. feedback from the manager to the university
g. tools the manager needs to be an effective coach of the learned skills
h. how the learner should leverage the manager in the learning process
i. how will the manager assess the effectiveness of the employee’s performance of the new skill(s).

In addition to the criteria, we added a required program to our leadership curriculum called “Coaching to Win.” This hands-on program teaches managers how to develop a coaching plan that lifts good performance to great. Built on sound coaching principles, the course helps managers harvest the opportunities where coaching can be most effective?one of those being the learning process. 

These questions help the instructional designer develop a set of learning products for the manager. These products can be an orientation session, short learning vignettes, guidebooks, tools, or access to program faculty. Combined with the Coaching to Win program, these products make managers a partner in the learning process.

While these are sound principles, there is one more step in our process that makes the role of the manager in the learning process crucial. In programs where investment of time or funding is high, we require the manager attend the final report-out session with their direct report. Program capstones include senior leader’s sponsors, the faculty, the learner, and the learner’s manager. In these capstone events, the learner will present the impact the learning has had on her job and how it prepared her for her future organizational role. The manager is asked to report out how he will support his employee in the application of these new skills.

This has made a significant impact on the level of partnership and engagement of everyone in the learning process. The university has a full feedback loop and is held to higher standards of learning impact. The learner has the support of the manager, and the manager is positioned to be a talent developer rather than a bystander in the process. 

The impact of the manager partnership has been evidenced in many programs. In strategy courses, employees are able to realign their job roles to make a greater impact in strategy execution and have their manager’s support in doing so. In the teaching of new people leaders, the Closed Loop methodology has resulted in a significant impact on managerial effectiveness assessment results.
Managers enter the program with a baseline assessment from their direct reports on how they perform as people leaders. The average lift in the five-point assessment scale of graduation participants is a 1.5 point improvement, which boosts them into a highly effective leader category. Whirlpool University will continue on its path to find new learning methods to cultivate the learning partnership with its managers.