Too often, leadership training is reserved for those already in management, or for those on the cusp of landing their first management role. However, in today’s dynamic business environment, employees across levels benefit from quality leadership development — especially if there’s a chance they may move into a leadership role in the future.
When employees continuously hone and fine-tune their leadership skills, their eventual transition into management will be a natural one, reducing the time they need to become adjusted and effective in their new role.
At Sam’s Club, approximately 75% of salaried managers started with the company as hourly employees. In addition, every year, approximately 20,000 employees are promoted into jobs with more responsibility and higher pay.
So, from a business perspective, making leadership training widely available made sense. But it wouldn’t be easy: The warehouse club giant, which is owned and operated by Walmart Inc., has approximately 100,000 employees across 599 locations in the U.S. and Puerto Rico. It also has locations in Brazil, China and Mexico.
Let’s explore how Sam’s Club is training, and retaining, current and future leaders through its Manager Quality (“MQ”) program.
The idea for the MQ program came from a needs analysis, when a focus group of associates offered feedback on the type of development and support they were looking for, says Jennifer Buchanan, senior director II, field learning and development at Sam’s Club. “They wanted customized learning and development opportunities that could prepare them for future roles; they didn’t want to spend hours in a training room; they felt managers were putting varying levels of importance on talent development; and they wanted managers to be more invested in their career.”
It was clear that associates wanted learning and development (L&D) that would not only support them in their current role, but also prepare them for future ones. Buchanan and her team got to work.
Preparing for Takeoff
Based on the feedback they received from the needs analysis, the team designed a prototype solution for piloting. Prototyping allowed them to iterate early, which was key in preventing costly mistakes.
The result was the MQ program: a five-week learning program consisting of instructor-led training (ILT) for depth, in-the-flow-of-work training for practice, and video and audio learning for real-time reminders, Buchanan says, with the goal of bringing career development to associates across levels.
The program is based on a framework that trains associates across four pillars, including how to identify, develop, manage and reward talent. While each pillar teaches “foundational concepts” that are applicable to all Sam’s Club roles, learners can customize the content according to their desired career path, Buchanan says.
In July 2021, the team piloted the program in 91 Sam’s Club locations to over 1,200 associates ranging from hourly workers to managers. The pilot addressed topics such as effective communication, meaningful development plans, effective interview skills, managing conflict and time management. The team received feedback that training on these topics could “improve the experience for new associates and [increase] the longevity of their careers at Sam’s Club,” Buchanan says.
After a successful pilot, the team made a final iteration to the program before its launch. “We decided that every associate journey in MQ would begin with a week-long training on values-based decision-making, or ‘VBDM,’” Buchanan says. The newly added training was designed to help learners develop what Sam’s Club refers to as “leadership expectations,” which are attributes that the company wants every leader to possess.
Delivered in a microlearning format, learners can access the VBDM training on their phones, in their moment of need. The training covers what VBDM is, why it matters and how to model it. “Once associates complete the VBDM content, the values training doesn’t end there,” Buchanan says. The curriculum is embedded throughout the rest of the program.
After a successful pilot, and completing final iterations, the MQ program was ready for takeoff: It launched within Sam’s Field U, the company’s broader training portfolio, in October 2021, when approximately 95,000 front-line associates in both Sam’s Club and supply chain locations were on track to accessing the program.
Mongkol Ban-Wolter, a fresh manager at a Colorado-based Sam’s Club, was part of the first group of learners to go through the program in late October 2021. Ban-Wolter, who has worked at Sam’s Club for 19 years, has been in various roles at the company. However, she says that her current role, as a fresh manager, is her “most favorite.”
Ban-Wolter says that the MQ program helped her “grow as a manager and as a teacher” to help others achieve their career goals. “I love being a part of something that helps associates grow within the company,” she says.
Why It Works
A key reason for the program’s success is that learners have the flexibility to create a custom learning journey based on their individual job role and build a detailed learning map to future roles within the company.
Christopher Shryock, chief people officer at Sam’s Club, says that the program has “framed learning as a tool that associates can use to advance their careers.” Through targeted career pathways, learners can “see possibilities for their future within the company,” he says.
Lance de la Rosa, chief operating officer at Sam’s Club, says that these career pathways have been a “crucial factor” for retention — which is a common challenge in front-line industries. “We want to show our associates the limitless career opportunities at Sam’s Club,” and outline the learning opportunities that can help them “achieve their career dreams,” he says.
To recognize learners’ hard work, the program uses a digital badging system, where associates can display their certifications on internal social media platforms. This helps reinforce their accomplishments and validate their skills.
After an associate completes the full MQ program, they can attend a virtual ceremony and graduate to become an “MQ program ambassador.” Buchanan says that program ambassadors have been critical in extending the program’s reach long after its initial rollout.
Buchanan and her team track three types of metrics on a quarterly basis to gauge the program’s success, including:
- Execution metrics, including project rollouts, progress against strategic projects, how many associates are completing learning experiences and more.
- Feedback metrics, including those tracked in Kirkpatrick Level 1 and Level 2. “We run pre- and post-learning surveys and tests to get associate feedback on their training experience and to determine if our learning construct transferred the knowledge as planned,” Buchanan says.
- Behavioral metrics, including those tracked in Kirkpatrick Level 3. These metrics are tracked by monitoring unsolicited posts on internal social media platforms to see how associates discussed the program, what they learned and how it is changing their behavior. “This observational approach let us capture behavior change without our presence or a direct request for feedback influencing [learners’] responses,” Buchanan explains.
With over 2,500 digital badges issued as of early March 2022, it’s safe to say that the MQ program is in full swing. Shryock says that he’s excited to see the long-term impact of associates fully leveraging the MQ framework and, in the future, hopes to see the program’s impact on employee attraction, engagement and retention.
Whether your organization is looking to develop meaningful career pathways for employees or upskill leaders with the skills they need for the future, the MQ program is a testament to the fact that when all employees have access to leadership training, everyone wins.