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Michelle Thompson--Instructional Learning Technology


Time for leadership

In these uncertain times, what advice does a leadership trainer have for leaders? "Relationships are the key," says Michelle Thompson, director of leadership and professional development for Janus Capital Group.

"Managers dedicate time to what's on their to-do list, but they don't spend enough time building relationships within their team and across team boundaries. Especially in times like these, team members are looking to their leader for cues. Don't run around with your hair on fire. Spend some time just talking."

Thompson earned her master's degree in information learning technology in the School of Education and Human Development in 2000. She built a learning and development department at Janus, and it now is ranked No. 1 in the country by the American Society of Training and Development (see Thompson's career path).

Denver-based Janus, hit hard by the tech bubble, decided in 2005 that a sustainable business model requires not just a focus on what results are achieved, but how they are achieved. Thompson was brought on board to create leadership development programs as part of this culture shift.

The programs built by Thompson and her team are intense and optional for Janus employees. Even so, in 2007, 95 percent of employees took part in a training opportunity. The programs are successful because she and her team built them to meet top leadership's strategic goals and to meet the expressed needs and desires of the trainees themselves (see elements of a successful organizational development program).

The Janus leadership and professional development group continues to branch out, creating programs tailored to employees in different stages of their career path and working in different parts of the world. Thompson believes professional training opportunities are becoming more important as Generation Y and Millennials take their place in the workforce. They typically are not content to bide their time while climbing the ladder. Giving them opportunities to learn, grow, and make valuable contributions keeps them engaged and reduces turnover, she said.

Thompson's career path

Michelle Thompson went from mental health worker to CEO adviser.

Thompson earned her bachelor's degree in psychology and started her career at a psychiatric facility for children. "It was exhausting," she said. She filled in for new employee orientation and found a new calling. "I eventually became a one-person training department and decided to get my master's degree."

With the master's in information learning technology from the School of Education & Human Development in 2000, Thompson was well-positioned for a career in organizational development. She went to Echostar to do training of call center employees. Every two weeks, she stood before a new batch of trainees. "It gave me a chance to hone my skills and see quickly what techniques work and which ones don't."

She went on to design training programs for a dot-com company that faltered in the tech bubble and continued on with Nextel. Then, with lots of experience in the classroom and in course design, she was ready to build the professional development department for Janus.

Thompson and a group of organizational development leaders in the Denver area meet regularly. Ideas and strategies are swapped, helping her stay on top of her game. She also is a student of Janus' strategic plan so that she speaks the same language as the executive team.

Thompson, who looks younger than her years, says she is fortunate the Janus leadership team also is youthful. But even when an executive gets that puzzled "who are you to be telling me" look, her broad background gives her the war stories she needs to cement her credibility.

Elements of a successful professional development program

Janus Capital Group's professional development team members hone their skills in "the Thunderdome."

That is what they call the sessions at which their colleagues critique each other's course designs. Team leader Michelle Thompson, who periodically endures a turn in the hot seat, said the team respectfully but honestly questions the strategies and tactics of each new program. The exercise not only ensures better training programs, it builds team cohesion.

The Janus leadership and professional development team was rebuilt in 2005. A new performance management program was implemented at Janus, so supervisors and managers were asking for training. The resulting five-month "Essential Leader" program was so on target that word of its success floated up to the top executives at Janus. One was so impressed that he suggested expanding leadership training to people being groomed for leadership. The result was "Emerging Leader" and "Executive Leader" programs. The team also developed "Evolving Leaders" for graduates of the earlier program who want to keep improving their leadership skills.

The programs use case studies, in-class activities, and between-class practice - all evidence-based strategies in adult learning. Top Janus executives come in to make presentations, which keeps them engaged in the leadership learning culture. Thompson and her team also are plugged into Janus' succession planning, which informs their leadership programs. All programs are designed in-house, eliminating vendor contracts and ensuring programs steeped in Janus' business.

Formal training is only the tip of the professional development iceberg at Janus. Thompson says their philosophy is that 70 percent of development occurs on the job, 20 percent in networking and feedback, and 10 percent in formal training. Employees are told they are responsible for their own development, and they are given a road map. An excerpt:

  • On-the-job development opportunities include leading meetings, helping train a new employee, and take on a project.
  • Networking and feedback opportunities include joining professional groups, developing a mentor relationship, and asking for feedback from peers.
  • Formal training opportunities include in-person and online classes, and outside seminars.

Thompson said Janus has become a "learning organization," one in which the development of its members and the sharing of knowledge is part of the culture. Such a culture needs continuous nurturing, however. "You have to keep the idea in everyone's consciousness, including top leadership," she said.

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