I had the fortunate opportunity to work on a leadership training program with Jeff Bushardt, Senior Vice President of Human Resources for Comporium Communications, Inc.

Our objective at the leadership training program was to move the workforce up the “Transactional-to-Engagement” scale through better trained leadership, i.e., by improving management’s effectiveness in establishing trust, communicating a compelling vision of the future, giving useful and timely feedback on employees’ performance, and increasing individual and organizational accountability. The program’s methods included surveys, workshops, focus groups, external and internal trainers, and facilitators.

JATHAN JANOVE: What prompted your company to embark on leadership training?

JEFF BUSHARDT: As we were slow coming out of the recession, we decided to conduct an employee opinion survey in 2011. The survey revealed several organizational challenges, including a lack of confidence in our leadership and in management’s ability to effectively communicate a sense of direction and accountability to employees. We conducted a similar survey a year later and although we had more favorable feedback from employees, we also knew we still had work to do in the same weak spots revealed in the first survey.

JJ: What did you do next?

JB: We analyzed the data and considered possible causes. One thing became apparent: some of the individuals employed in leadership positions had never received formal training or been part of a leadership development program.

JJ: Before getting into the steps you took to train your employees on leadership skills, can you say whether you have experienced a positive return on investment?

JB: Yes, we saw a number of positive results. First, we’d been having problems retaining talent; that problem seems to have diminished. Second, my human resources (HR) team has observed significant improvement in how managers handle employee issues—and cooperation between HR and operations has increased substantially. Third, I have received a lot of feedback from employees that things seem to have improved and that they feel better about our leadership. From virtually all accounts, we have moved up the “Transactional-to-Engagement scale, from an “I-centered” orientation toward work and our mission to an “Us-centered” one.

JJ: What strategies have been particularly effective in achieving these results?

JB: First, we resisted the tendency to push ahead with what HR thought best. Instead, we focused on getting buy-in from senior executives. This included extensive discussions about needs, objectives, and what approaches to leadership training would work best. We sought to be inclusive and to promote collaboration so that our executives would develop a sense of ownership in the program.

Second, we considered the level of leadership training needed. We felt it should be foundational and reflect a “down-in-the-trenches” focus on tools and practices that could be implemented regularly.

Third, in considering outside consultants, we placed heavy emphasis on their willingness and ability to customize the program to fit our specific needs and circumstances. We did not want a “one-size-fits-all” type of program.

JJ: What has been particularly helpful in implementing the program?

JB: First, I’ll start with our CEO. He not only gave his full support to the program, he actively participated in it and applied the training content to his own practices. This has been incredibly helpful.

Second, to combat the “drinking out of the fire hose” effect that could result during information-intensive training sessions, we focused on specific tools and skills we felt could be immediately implemented and spread our training sessions and content out over time.

Third, before the program even began, we started building momentum by communicating information about what was coming and asking questions designed to get people thinking before the first session.

Fourth, we included a “train-the-trainer” component that has turned students into teachers. When our executives and managers share what they’ve actually done with training concepts or techniques, the buy-in from other managers is enormous.

Fifth, we turned the breakout groups from our leadership training sessions into post-session work groups to facilitate a company-wide application of program content. For example, two of the many tools on which we focused during the training and that our managers now regularly use are the “Same Day Summary” and “DIS-positives.” The “Same Day Summary” is now part of our meeting template and managers now regularly report on DIS-positives, which stands for direct, immediate, and specific positive feedback. Some managers have even taken the time to report on the value and effectiveness of these and the other tools used in dealing with their team members.

These groups have also addressed issues such as the need to overhaul our performance review system to effectively communicate expectations, responsibility, and accountability or “ERA”—thereby transforming the annual performance reviews into a year-round performance management process.

JJ: How has this program impacted HR?

JB: On the one hand, the training and follow-up created a lot of work for my HR team—not just planning and implementing sessions, but effecting ongoing teaching and coaching. On the other hand, my team now spends much less time putting out fires and debating issues with operations management. Instead, we focus on people development, retention, and constructive problem-solving.

JJ: Is that an acceptable tradeoff?

JB: Absolutely!