It’s All in Your Head

Verizon Wireless’ Critical Thinking training program stimulates new thinking that can drive breakthrough innovation.

By Lorri Freifeld

Jeff Taylor, CEO of monster.com, was stunned when he ran a comparison of the kinds of qualifications being offered by online job-seekers against the kinds of skills businesses were asking for. The analysis flagged a large and growing gap between what businesses want and need, and what workers are equipped to do. According to Taylor, “We’re heading for a crisis in talent, a ‘smart people gap.’ Knowledge workers—people who can plan, organize, analyze, design, decide, lead, and manage—will be at the heart of company desperation for years to come.”

HR people now are struggling with this emerging truth, says Karl Albrecht, author and chairman of Karl Albrecht International. “We just don’t have enough smart people for the kinds of businesses we’re operating. And the public schools and colleges certainly aren’t providing us with the kind of skillful knowledge workers we need. HR’s primary strategy, however, is to just pay more and hope to attract talented people away from their competitors—while not losing their own. This, they refer to as ‘talent management.’ But it isn’t really a strategy—it’s a defensive measure.”

The real strategy, he emphasizes, is to “grow our own smart people.”

Verizon Wireless (VZW) is taking that strategy to heart. A 2010 leadership assessment identified Critical Thinking (CT) as a core leadership capability required for the company’s long-term success. “In our industry of rapid technological advancement and increasingly tech-savvy customers, it is vitally important that we think differently, to do differently,” explains Angela Blake, associate director, Workforce Development, Verizon Wireless. “Knowing that the business challenges of tomorrow are different than what we know today, our leaders need skills to help stimulate new thinking that can drive breakthrough innovation. Improved CT skills can improve the ability to make better business decisions, which can drive better associated results.”

To meet these challenges, Verizon Wireless is implementing a Critical Thinking training program designed to help leaders become more effective decision-makers, to use systematic methods for problem-solving, to understand others’ points of view, and to create a culture of critical and creative thinking. “The program is intended to grow these capabilities in a practical way, as well as develop critical thinking capabilities beyond the traditional focal area of operational task and execution as our leaders progress in tenure and experience.” Blake says CT helps VZW leaders have a mental awareness of a situation, analyze options for clarity and accuracy, and make decisions that translate into an improved customer experience and greater profitability.

Multi-Level Challenge

The biggest challenge was finding the right combination and proper amount of information for each level of leaders within Verizon Wireless. “Our target audience includes pre-supervisor emerging talent, newly hired/newly promoted front-line managers and supervisors, as well as more experienced managers,” Blake notes. “We equate these target audiences to three tracks in our VZLeadership University model: Pre-Supervisor, VZLeader 1, and VZLeader 2, respectively.”

Focus group research highlighted the need to provide learning and support opportunities tailored to the individual leader’s career stage and level of experience. “Therefore, some information that was considered common knowledge for a senior leader may not be necessarily known by our first-year managers,” Blake says. Methods and theories that support team growth and continuity may not be applicable to a first-year manager. “As a result, we created a multi-level series of workshops that complemented one another and supported consistent methods and techniques in a ‘build-on-each’ type of progression.”

To obtain buy-in from senior leadership, “we created a core team of key stakeholders, as well as senior leaders within the organization, who would be most affected by the results of the training,” Blake says. “Our focus groups also included a mixture of cross-area, cross-functional representation to ensure we were solving for the right level of leadership and role-specific business realities.”

Blake says Verizon’s primary investment was time, in particular time to complete the research to find the right learning solutions partner to help develop the content and materials. “We licensed content from the American Management Association (AMA), customized the content further to make it most relevant and valuable to the VZW audiences, and purchased some additional tools from other resources, including the Mindex Thinking Style Profile created by Karl Albrecht (see sidebar at the end of this article), so the courses include an effective balance of learning application and practice.”

In addition, she says, “we certified our internal training facilitators to deliver the programs, which helps us manage the cost, time, and locations required for delivering the workshops.”

The Critical Thinking Program

The Critical Thinking workshop series includes pre-work elements such as a pre-read assignment and pre-assessments. Post-assessments measure participants’ knowledge growth on the topic and identify any opportunities or gaps.

The learning experience also includes several tools that complement the training sessions and allow participants to apply specific CT techniques. An online Tune-Up module is available to continually reinforce and strengthen leaders’ critical thinking skills and competencies when back on the job.

The three workshops are part of the nationally recommended core curriculum in VZLeadership University. The VZLeader 2 program launched in late 2010, and the VZLeader 1 and Pre-Supervisor workshops began delivery in January 2011.

Measurement and evaluation of the CT training includes:

  • Pre- and post-test results showing positive learning.
  • Self-evaluation of better job performance and business results.
  • Manager evaluation of better participant job performance and input on the job.
  • Key Performance Indicator data showing positive business impact over time.

According to Blake, from the VZLeader 2 course inaugural session through February 28, 2011, 100 percent of CT participants improved their on-the-job application of their new CT knowledge and skills. “Feedback from both participants and trainers has been positive,” Blake says. “Some learners have found that using their new skills back on the job has resulted in better coaching engagements with employees, while others have found break-through solutions for previously outstanding business problems and clarity in their customer interactions.”

Quick Tips

From Angela Blake, associate director, Workforce Development, Verizon Wireless:

  • Be open-minded to opportunities that may not be part of your normal approach to curriculum design and development.
  • Run pilots with a diverse group of people from cross-functional teams to create a great learning environment for those who attend.
  • Provide your development with a broad variety of feedback to produce the most valuable, relevant learning solution possible.

From Karl Albrecht, chairman, Karl Albrecht International, and creator of the Mindex Thinking Style Profile:

  • Create a Critical Thinking program as part of a strategic initiative that’s aimed at making the organization more successful in its environment. Don’t isolate it or treat it as a one-off, nice-to-have “training” experience.
  • Decide what outcomes you expect from the initiative, and plan to evaluate the results against expectations. What do you want to see happening in the organization? Be willing to revise or reorient the program if needed. You’re looking for results, not training programs.
  • Build a follow-through mechanism and make sure you keep it working. You can use short-session refresher sessions. Encourage managers to review and reinforce the key ideas.
  • Allow it to soak into the culture; executives and managers should use the new vocabulary, model the key skills and behaviors, and encourage everyone else to do so. Put up visual reminders in the environment, such as posters on the walls and in the conference room.
  • Use the latest ideas, concepts, models, and learning methods. The design of the training program should exemplify the principles it teaches.
  • Use trainers who love the subject, who can demonstrate they’ve learned it, and who love teaching it.

Mind Over Matter

The Mindex Thinking Style Profile is a core strategy for Verizon Wireless’ initiative to raise the skill levels of its key employees. The company has licensed more than 20 trainers for this initiative, according to Mindex creator Karl Albrecht, who explains that “Mindex provides a foundation for understanding the principles of critical and creative thinking, and a jumping-off place for skill-building.”

Albrecht created the model in 1983 after studying the Myers-Brigg Type Indicator (MBTI) and other instruments, and concluding that they tried to cram too much into one instrument: personality, social orientation, and cognitive preference. He decided to focus on cognitive preference.

Mindex has four primary dimensions, which originated in a model that appeared in the psychological literature in the wake of the “split brain” experiments at CalTech. Albrecht gave them metaphorical nicknames such as Red Earth, Blue Earth, Red Sky, and Blue Sky, corresponding to the four combinations of left- and right-brain preference and concrete vs. abstract ideation. In his system:

Red Earth=right brain and concrete

Blue Earth=left brain and concrete

Red Sky=right brain and abstract

Blue Sky=left brain and abstract

In addition, there are 16 other scales that explore preferences for structure, order, time, etc.; and competencies such as mental flexibility, tolerance for ambiguity, logical fluency, idea fluency, and sense of humor.

“People who have learned to use the Mindex model become more acutely aware of the differences in the way they and others process information,” Albrecht says, “and they begin to capitalize on this knowledge in the way they listen, perceive, learn, interpret information, analyze problems and situations, make decisions, express their ideas, and influence and lead others.”

Learners are introduced to the Mindex Profile instrument by trained experts who are certified by Karl Albrecht International. Mindex can be administered in the form of a printed profile booklet or as an online questionnaire. In all cases, the Certified Mindex User provides the trainees with access to the profiles. “Once the trainees have their scores in hand, they learn to understand the model and interpret their scores through classroom sessions, Webinars, or one-to-one coaching,” Albrecht says.

A typical Mindex workshop lasts three to three-and-a-half hours. In a more extensive workshop, trainees augment their understanding of thinking styles with a variety of other topics, such as creativity, brainstorming, and problem-solving.

Each Certified Mindex User receives a set of materials on CD. For more information, visit http://karlalbrecht.com.

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