Don't tell anyone, but the secret is to have fun," says Mike Carter. You imagine him leaning across the desk with a conspiratorial wink. He has just spent the better part of an hour on the telephone answering questions about enterprisewide training at Best Buy Co., the Minnesota-based retail chain with $15.3 billion in annual sales.
"Fun" might at first seem a scarce commodity in the fast-paced world of selling consumer electronics and home appliances. When technology stocks are tanking, you probably don't want to be in charge of more than 400 stores throughout the United States, each with 45,000 square feet covered with technology in various forms, from software to televisions and dvds. You also may not want to oversee a Web site (launched just over a year ago) that sells everything your stores do. And you'd be forgiven for gnashing your teeth over an aggressive growth policy that has you committed to opening 60 stores every year, each requiring about 100 employees to quickly bring up to speed.
But for Carter, who is Best Buy's director of enterprise training (reporting to the wonderfully named Organizational Effectiveness Department), having fun is clearly key. After all, it's part of what drew him to the company 12 years ago, when he became a part-time sales associate at a Roseville, Minn., store near what he then considered his "real" job of teaching high school science.
"I was on temporary assignment [at St. Paul's Harding High School] and figured I'd better back myself up," he says of his moonlighting—a job that quickly overtook his other career. Why Best Buy? "I was young and enthusiastic about the stuff—the things that were sold in the store," he says candidly. He also liked the aggressive leadership he found himself working under, and they liked him. Soon he was a sales manager, supervising the training of other employees.
It was the late 1980s, and Best Buy was in a period of intense expansion—one that continues today. "Extraordinary growth" is second in the company's list of official values, right between "unwavering ethics" and "being the best." Like most companies today, its growth is largely driven by acquisition. In the past eight months, Best Buy has bought Magnolia Hi-Fi and the MusicLand stores, and is currently planning a Canadian expansion, also via acquisition.
Such an atmosphere of continuous change creates a "challenging environment" to train in, Carter says. "People can't practice what they've learned for very long, because the jobs change so fast," he says. "They have to quickly develop their replacements and adapt to new tasks."
Carter grew up in Shoreview, Minn., at the opposite end of the Twin Cities from Best Buy's headquarters in Eden Prairie. (The company plans a move to another suburb of Minneapolis in 2002.) His initial impetus to teaching has served him well at Best Buy. "Being a secondary-school teacher piqued my interest in learning and education," he says.
There's some overlap, but Best Buy draws a line between retail training and the enterprise-wide learning Carter oversees—a line Carter crossed when he moved from Roseville to the central office seven years ago. Overall, Carter now concerns himself with the broader scope of training, as defined by the company's mission and values, rather than specific initiatives in the stores. His area is "topics that span the globe, like diversity," he says. "The business units [stores and the Web site] certainly have the ability to tweak these topics, but the core message can't be lost."
He still keeps an interest in the retail sales with which he began his Best Buy career: "chunking the training down, making it as effective as possible," he says, as well as considering delivery methods that might bring on-location training more directly to employees. But most of his training programs focus on aligning the company's overall business strategies with what happens on a day-to-day basis on the sales floor.
One current initiative is aimed at integrating performance management and training, "allowing us to track and more purposefully connect ... learning solutions, coaching, mentoring and ... certifications to the individual's most recent performance review," he writes in a follow-up e-mail. Another focuses on management training—finding the best mix of instructor-led, which is still the core of Best Buy's training programs, with streaming video and other e-learning techniques.
With about 75,000 employees at any given time (employment is somewhat seasonal, swelling to larger numbers during the holiday season), Best Buy's trainers have a lot on their plate. The sheer size of the stores means that up to 120 employees need to be briefed at each site every time a product line is introduced or a new sales technique is implemented. The company copes by maintaining a tight, team-based approach and emphasizing promotion from within, thus cutting down on attrition by giving employees a career instead of a job.
"At Best Buy Co., we regard training as career direction," wrote Richard Schulze, the company's founder and ceo, in an October 1987 issue of Chain Store Age: General Merchandising Trends. "To do otherwise is to ... devote a lot of time, energy and money in training people to go elsewhere. There are retailers who provide nothing more than a haven for a passing parade of sales consultants." That's not the Best Buy way. Instead, Schulze and others try to create an atmosphere where employees "own" all of the jobs involved in running a store, from stocking the shelves to ordering products and designing signs. "Our sales personnel are not trained to sell, but to assist the customer in buying," Schulze wrote.
The philosophy holds true today. Best Buy employees are expected to think of their jobs in the larger context of what it takes to please the customer, and to develop whatever skills they need to do so.
"Everything we do, from my world anyway, is really a competency-based approach," Carter says. "Whenever we develop training, we're thinking about competency level—a consciously integrated plan throughout an employee's life cycle, from recruiting through retirement."
Employees also are encouraged to rely on others for support, rather than compete against them for commissions. Teamwork played a big role in Carter's own transition from part-time sales clerk to company executive. True to his alignment strategy, he deftly ties his training approach to what he believes has kept the 35-year-old company strong in an ever-changing world: a workforce of "persistent, dedicated, talented people."
"The success we've had is based entirely on our people," he says. "I tend to take training back to the basics. My job is to help people at all levels reduce the time it takes to execute our strategies. My philosophies are simple: Keep it aligned; make sure our efforts extend across the enterprise; measure what matters; and keep it fun."
That "fun" thing again. Does Carter really mean for us to keep this a secret? "Oh, all right," he concedes. "You can tell them. For me, it's all about making it fun."