Since well before our current crisis, smart companies have been asking tough questions about traditional approaches to training and developing their people. The early 21st Century fantasy of “all-online digital learning” has largely not played out, especially since some of the most important management competencies are best taught and learned in-person. “The soft stuff,” it turns out, is actually the hard stuff, and managers seeking to develop interpersonal skills, emotional intelligence, and the ability to engage and influence others aren’t going to improve much via an on-line module.
That said, 2020’s entirely unexpected change of course is forcing all of us to rethink how we can develop and train our people and create and strengthen organizational capabilities and culture when we simply cannot get together in person. Managers must coach more (as they should do anyway), and HR and training departments have to get more creative in their programming. Simply putting people-development on pause until we “get back to normal” is not an option, because we’re not going “back to normal” anytime soon, if ever.
While it’s still not clear what “the way we work” will look like in a post-Covid world—the answer to that question will likely take years, not months, to figure out—in talking with our colleagues and clients some good ideas for acting in the present are starting to emerge. The better organizations are actively wrestling with the questions of how to invest in their people to develop skills (including new skills to lead change and stay resilient through this pandemic), fortify their cultures, and help employees execute and create value for all their stakeholders.
The National Bank of Bahrain (NBB), a strategic client of EMIC and a company whose management team I’ve been working with for the last two years, offers an instructive case study. Many thanks to NBB’s leadership for being willing to share some of what they’ve been doing and learning.
In March, realizing the seriousness and likely long-term effects of the Covid crisis, NBB made it a priority to start looking for people development alternatives such as e-learning and virtual training. This effort was seen as mission-critical for the bank and thus was driven by the executive team working together, not just by the HR function. The business rationale was clear: maintain employee engagement; ensure that all workers could continue to build their skills, including new skills to deal with this crisis; and keep up the momentum of company-wide recruiting and succession planning efforts.
Here are some of the lessons NBB has learned about developing their people during this pandemic:
NBB didn’t re-invent the wheel—rather, they mustered the courage to commit to the path they had established and continue to fund it, even though slashing the training budget would have been an easy way to cut costs. What NBB did instead was conduct a thorough training needs analysis, framed by the realities of the crisis. The needs and wants of team members at every level in the organization led to the creation of a monthly virtual training calendar, with interactive (as much as possible over videoconferencing) programs led by NBB’s own staff as was well as renowned speakers and experts from around the globe. The subject matter for the sessions has ranged from technical finance and banking training to guidance on leading change and how managers can become better coaches—and much of this effort has been realized without significant added cost. Dana Buheji, Chief Human Resources Officer, notes: “Despite the current situation, our commitment to continue human capital development, mentor the best talent, and groom leaders from within remains a strategic priority. It’s critically important to us to continue to enable and empower our staff to carry on their professional development without disruption.”
Plan, Consult, and Make Decisions in an Inclusive Way
Accountability is one of NBB’s values, and one way that value is realized is in the expectation that each employee is accountable for his or her own development. Managers are taught and incentivized to involve their employees in the design and planning of all important business and change initiatives to foster innovation and commitment and highlight areas for improvement. If the company and unit’s vision and direction are clear to them, employees can add more value than external consultants, and they will be more likely to get behind even difficult change efforts: people best support change if they feel it’s being done with them and not to them. Consulting, collaborating with, and involving team members has been emphasized as especially important during this time when everyone is required to work from home.
Challenge with Support
In Bahrain, the holy month of Ramadan is typically a low season for training and development efforts, and Ramadan’s overlap this year with the Covid-19 pandemic created even more headwind than usual for most companies in the Region. Counter-intuitively, NBB saw Ramadan and working from home as an opportunity; senior management encouraged employees to make Ramadan a month of learning and growth. Every employee was expected to attend a minimum of five (5) training sessions, including online modules and sessions led by internal staff and managers who don’t normally lead classes. Running almost 800 employees through five programs each was an ambitious goal, but the company stepped up: in June 2020 the total training hours amounted to 18,028—or 163% higher than the same period last year. Employees played their part, including being willing to engage in valuable teaching and learning in off-hours and over weekends. The benefits have been immediately tangible in terms of morale and performance.
“We Are All in This Together”
NBB’s culture has always revolved around respect, recognition, and teamwork at all levels. Thus, the training programs were designed and re-designed to give all employees an equal opportunity for growth and learning—and in many cases including senior executives and front-line managers and employees in the same virtual classrooms. While the pandemic has created challenges for NBB’s “We are all in this together” mantra by forcing people to work apart, it has also highlighted the robustness and resiliency of the company’s values and commitments. The bank has doubled down on investing in its capabilities and culture, and the results are already showing in performance and customer satisfaction. NBB believes they will move forward and succeed by working together. As the old proverb goes, “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.”
The unimaginable challenges of 2020 have made business-as-usual difficult if not impossible in almost every sector. As is usually the case, the organizations that are creative and tenacious on focusing on what they can do, rather than what they can’t do, to maintain momentum, growth, and the engagement of their people and their customers will be the ones who survive and eventually thrive. Jean-Christophe Durand, CEO of NBB, makes the case clearly and passionately: “Investing in the personal growth and professional development of our people has always been a strategic priority at NBB. We know that empowering our people to unleash their full potential strengthens our base for internal excellence and external customer service, and our commitment has not flagged in spite of the pandemic.”
What are you and your organization doing to invest in your people right now? Is it a priority?
By: Mark Nevins
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