We had an opportunity to talk recently with Sundar Nagarathnam, VP of Education Services at NetApp
, which was recently named number 1 in Fortune magazine’s list of “100 Best Companies to Work for.” Our focus was not ‘what’ his team has accomplished. This has been fairly well chronicled in CLO Magazine’s October feature
. Instead, we wanted to probe for insights into ‘how’ he achieved these accomplishments.
Razor: You have had success leading learning organizations a couple of different times, first at Hyperion, then Cognos, and more recently, NetApp. What are some of the similarities and differences in the approach you have taken with the different companies you have worked for?
Well first of all, leading a learning organization is a lot like building a business. You come in with a value proposition and listen and work with your customers
, in this case your core stakeholders across the company as well as those beyond it—the extended enterprise, if you will, of customers, partners and suppliers.
We boil it down to two key audiences. One is the stakeholders. Who are we trying to work with and what is their agenda? The second is the Learning team and what their experience is, or should be. From the standpoint of stakeholders, we try to position what we can do with learning that helps support their agenda, but only after we hear what they are trying to accomplish so that we can address their specific business issues.
There are other similarities as well – focus on the end user, the learner. One common goal is to make sure there is a well organized catalog of offerings. The role of a learning organization is to make sure the right people can find the right content, quickly and easily. For example, at NetApp, there was a highly decentralized approach that had worked okay. It was referred to as a coalition model, where different groups might build different learning modules and the learning organization would provide a mechanism to pull it together into a common catalog for people to register. But, if you have several courses that say something about the same product, how is one to tell if it’s the right course for them? I believe it’s the job of the learning organization to manage this portfolio, define the categories and make sure people can find the right content for them. So, in each instance we sought ways to integrate the planning process, establish more clear roles and responsibilities and organize catalog structures and naming conventions to make it easier for learners to find the right content.
The differences between companies come with regard to what the organization is trying to accomplish or wants to emphasize. At Hyperion, P&L was the major business driver and customer education was the major focus. So we had to establish a different set of expectations–reporting dashboards and rethinking how learning was packaged and sold to support the efficiency, effectiveness and profitability metrics the company sought. This was a more important priority than the employee soft skills development, as an example.
We built an integrated financial model for reviewing the complete operations of the learning organization as a single entity even though we served two conceptually different business structures, a revenue line of business (Customer Education) and a cost center (Employee Education and on-boarding of employees acquired in the merger).
At NetApp, we do a lot of customer training through partners, so we have more focus on selecting the right partners to manage that aspect of the business vs. the actual P&L metrics (which is still a factor but not the main focus). As a company that values our employees, we invest heavily in their training from business skills to product & technical training. Also, our business expected that with major market shifts, customer buying patterns would change with more sales going through our partners. Therefore we really needed to focus on enabling our partners to be successful. As the company matured there was also a bit more focus on compliance.
Razor: Can you share more about your thinking process and the initial sequence of events you try to establish when you first enter an organization?
I had the experience of seven plus years in Education at Oracle – going through the explosive growth of that business, playing different roles from program management to curriculum management to certification to operations to product management. I had also played the role of a learning vendor during a brief stint at Medsn, a startup. At Hyperion I went through more of a learning experience. The company was very customer education focused. So, I figured that if I drove the top line, the organization would look at me differently and help support the team with greater investment, particularly with how I made the case later for employee education. And, they would support an agenda that meant realigning fragmented training groups into a shared services model where we could lower operating costs and improve profitability overall.
When I came into NetApp, within the first few weeks I realized that there was little accountability among learning teams for what the stakeholder needs were. Everyone was very driven and very good at what they did, but also working within their own silos with less cohesive impact on the rest of the organization. So, we started by identifying the key stakeholders we needed to serve, identifying what their needs were, establishing priorities among those needs and then aligning the learning organization to better work with those stakeholders. But let’s not forget the learner as well. We still need to make it easy for learners to find the right content. So the theme became how we can be a critical partner to our stakeholders and make it easy to do business with us.
Razor: How do you start to engage the team members, particularly your direct reports, in the process of reconsidering, even realigning the group’s role?
The first thing we work together on is around defining what a high performance team is, or could be. I believe it’s all about trust and execution. And, from the stakeholder’s perspective, this is the collective effort of the team, more than any individual. Related to this, I believe that if someone has a job to do, let them do it. Don’t try to do it for them or try to go around them just because it might not be the way you would do it.
The next part is communication. As the leader, I have to communicate what the strategy is; how we will make progress; find ways to motivate and reward as we make progress. I have an ‘all hands’ meeting every 5-6 weeks so we recognize key accomplishments and share in the rewards and success. It’s important to make this a regular occurrence. I also make sure I get the next level managers engaged with improving the operations, identifying gaps and determining what’s needed to improve the overall process to plan, develop and deliver learning.
Razor: From a management perspective, what decisions or determinations do you like to try and make in the first 3 months? And, then over the next 6 months or year?
It depends on what situation you’re walking into. In one situation for example, there was executive buy-in on some key basic learning premises – that it’s good for people. But, when we realized that there was no executive partnership or accountability across the company, we had to focus on how to improve this. Our team developed and published 18 goals in those first months, including translating these goals to meet executive interests. We then focused on what processes were needed to support those goals. We completed 14 in the first year, made good progress on 3 more and 1 goal was abandoned. The other important element early on is that communication is key. It can really build momentum and keep executives aware and active. Regular communication of status updates and using consistent formats is key as it keeps us proactive instead of being positioned as reactive.
There are really three phases to getting executive buy-in over time. Phase one is being invited to the table for consideration—given the chance to discuss priorities and direction you want to take and getting them to say, “Okay, do that.” Phase two is the ‘reflex option.’ You don’t want training to be a dumping ground for anything and everything, which isn’t hard to occur. So we make sure they see a process to consult with us in determining appropriate solutions. Phase three is a further validation stage. We drive the learning agenda for the company and people buy into the direction training is taking and support next level efforts.
Razor: Once started, how do you get momentum established and build up the change?
The first step might be a little bit ‘top-down’ in establishing the goals and strategy. I had the opportunity to get some initial inputs from organizational leaders and assess the general operations of the company. But another part is to share this with the team and get feedback and inputs from the team. And, I try to do this early on as well. The next level of activity is to include the team in an assessment of where we are making progress, where we have gaps, and use this to help build out and refine goals. And this feeds into our daily activities as well as regular progress reports we share with other stakeholders.
In a global organization, there is also the need to work with other regions. I don’t want to hand them something saying “here are my 14 or 18 challenges, help me.” Rather, we work with them as stakeholders too, asking what their goals and needs are and working on how we can help address them. So, yes, it gets complex. The challenge with international operations is always their feeling that they are a few steps further removed from corporate. So, we need to reach out and establish bridges there as well. It’s a similar approach and format. Just longer distances and later, or earlier, hours.
Razor: How do work with other executives? What do you try to show or share with them?
I try to focus on what they are doing and hear what they are saying and use language they use in describing what you hear and how you can help. A temptation is to tell them all the things we do. But then it’s too easy to slip into the language of learning and details of the operation that they don’t really have time for. A lot of times it’s important to ask questions and challenge them as well—not about learning operations, but about business goals, objectives and agreeing on outcomes and results. As a learning leader, you have to be comfortable with this. Know your field but also listen to what they are trying to do so you can suggest different ways of accomplishing their goals. It’s rarely about money. Or at least it shouldn’t be about money. It should be about results. Money will follow.
At Cognos, I decided to do a SWOT [Strengths/Weaknesses/Opportunities/Threats] analysis to find a couple of quick ‘wins’ and then communicate this to the executive team. It was pretty easy to accomplish this in a very short time. Going for the quick wins is a very critical component for how you gain visibility and support in any organization.
Razor: In your different experiences, what have you learned that you didn’t expect or anticipate? What mistakes have you made, and what did you learn from them?
What I have learned is to focus on the core business model of the company and how it may affect different aspects of the operation and then work back from there. Managers are always trying to figure out what the company should try to accomplish with customers, partners, and employees. With this as the guidepost, we try to align our learning operations accordingly, whether it’s a direct or indirect education model. Also, make processes clear, open and simple. The more complex something is, the more likely it is to break. So, from an operational standpoint, I look at ways we can do things with a high degree of repeatability and scale, to have higher level of success and avoid one-off processes that could really hinder our success over time.