It takes many hands to build a house, and the same could be said for developing employees. How, then, could a six-member training department at John Wieland Homes & Neighborhoods (jwhn) deliver some 19,000 hours of workforce development programs to nearly 1,000 employees in fiscal 2001 alone? No, outsourcing isn't the answer, as jwhn's $540,000 training budget couldn't buy that many hours. Rather, it was a winning combination of pooling internal resources and highly inventive uses of those dollars that enabled the Atlanta-based custom home builder (ranked 41) to attack critical workforce issues such as turnover, leadership development and a company-wide culture shift.
This, and the Retraining Tax Credit (which jwhn has taken advantage of since 1998) that allows Laura McMurrain, vice president of organizational development, to deduct 50 percent of the wages of every company member who attends qualifying programs as well as 50 percent of the cost of materials and time spent for the development of that training. Last year alone, this resulted in savings of nearly $122,000, allowing McMurrain's team to offer more programs than her budget would have allowed.
Helping to stretch those training dollars even further, nearly 10 percent of jwhn's company members serve as part-time instructors, pitching in countless hours as subject-matter-experts-turned trainers, McMurrain says. "Without them, we simply couldn't deliver all that our members need," she says, adding that this genuine spirit of cooperation and support for training is felt throughout every faction of the company.
But that hasn't always necessarily been the case. In the housing heyday of the late '90s, jwhn, like countless others, was quickly losing organizational competency because of high turnover as employees found a fertile ground of opportunities outside the corporate walls. In fact, by the end of 1998 turnover had reached 35 percent—a figure that was on par within construction industry circles—but one that ceo John Wieland was unwilling to accept, despite the fact that one-third of the company's employees work in jwhn's four vertically integrated manufacturing divisions, which historically have the highest turnover occupations.
Wieland turned to the company's Leadership Council, a group of 26 vice president-level and above individuals, and pushed for the implementation of a program specifically aimed at new hires. Wieland's vision resulted in the Accelerated Corporate Training program. More than a cookie-cutter orientation, act is an intensive two-day cultural assimilation program that was spearheaded by McMurrain and marked the beginning of a formal training department.
Since the program's inception, Wieland has continued to play a key role by serving as a presenter in two of the sessions—the culture and history of the company and a candid Q&A session in which he addresses each question submitted by company members, including the more "pointed or controversial ones," explains McMurrain. "What's exciting," she says, "is that he is always rated the highest on the session evaluations. It's clear that people respect him for giving his time to the group and for his openness and candor in fielding any question, issue or concern our company members have."
Aside from the training evaluations, there's tangible proof that the emphasis on developing people is working. By the end of last year, turnover had dropped to 18 percent, and the company recorded two milestones as well—breaking the $500 million mark in revenue and achieving the highest level of profitability in the company's 30-plus year history.
To ensure that the stellar performance continues, jwhn also has placed a renewed emphasis on leadership development. "For years, we've delivered outstanding technical skills and certification programs for our company members," says McMurrain, "but the bulk of our training focus was on what we build, not on who is building it."
Consequently, McMurrain and her group formed Wieland University last January with the ultimate goal of using it as an internal branding vehicle for the various programs available to all jwhn employees. The university consists of six schools—leadership, sales, technology, homebuilding, professional development and continuing education—and offers 27 development programs.
But the biggest push lately has been on the leadership development front. For the past two years, each existing and new manager has returned to school in the form of a Core Management Certification program, comprised of 12 classes that focus on teaching not only better management techniques, but also jwhn's corporate strategy, which reads: "To create, construct and deliver compelling homes in compelling neighborhoods through a customer-centered process."
That "customer-centered" philosophy is key, says McMurrain. "We really believe that the customer-centered process, whether those customers are external or internal, is a great competitive advantage for us, and one that we are definitely trying to embed into our culture."
Enter Think Twice, a company-wide training program launched last October and aimed at having all company members adopt the customer-centered attitude. For jwhn that means adhering to core standards: Listen carefully and respond promptly, do what you say, own every problem, be flexible enough to do what's right for your customer, use your level of empowerment when resolving customer issues, never disparage a customer, design customer-centered processes and protect the assets and reputation of jwhn. By the end of last year, 90 percent of the company had received the training, and evaluation results were an overwhelmingly positive 4.63 out of 5.
Having met with such resounding success, the customer-centered philosophy has been added to the annual performance appraisal process in which "every jwhn company member is rated on customer-focus with the core standards serving as the criteria," McMurrain says. "And what's incredible is that we're already seeing our culture beginning to shift—the interaction that our members are having with each other as well as our customers is exactly what we hoped to see."