Quest Diagnostics Taps the Power of Experiential Learning to Transform Its Leadership

Quest Diagnostics’ 18-month leadership development program, LeadingQuest Academy, launched in late 2014 with a five-day residential program at its core, bookended by pre- and post-assessments and senior executive-sponsored action learning projects.

When Steve Rusckowski joined Quest Diagnostics as CEO in 2012, the organization’s senior leadership was rich in functional experts—including medical doctors and other professionals—who brought to the table deep proficiency in their respective subject areas. It was clear to Rusckowski, however, that for Quest to continue to flourish, its leaders would need to grow beyond those functional roles and gain a broader understanding of the enterprise and its value chain.

Fast forward five years to 2018 and Quest leadership is now fully aligned around a shared vision and finely honed strategy, thanks in part to an ongoing, ambitious leadership development program called LeadingQuest Academy. Since LQA’s launch at the end of 2014, it has graduated more than 350 of Quest’s 400-plus senior leaders and counting.

Here’s the story.

The Challenge

As Rusckowski set out to break down the silos that separated the organization’s business and functional leaders, he also unveiled a new vision for Quest, along with a five-point strategy:

  1. Restore growth
  2. Drive operational excellence
  3. Simplify the organization
  4. Refocus on diagnostic information services
  5. Deliver disciplined capital deployment

The new CEO sought to align his top leaders around that strategy and broaden relationships between them, creating a boundary-less organization to carry its vision forward.

The Solution

Working with the experiential learning experts of TRI Corporation in partnership with Cuozzo Enterprises, Quest created a groundbreaking, 18-month leadership development program, LeadingQuest Academy, that has become a key element of a comprehensive organizational effectiveness strategy. LQA launched in late 2014 with a five-day residential program at its core, bookended by pre- and post-assessments and senior executive-sponsored action-learning projects.

Between 42 and 48 Quest executives participate in each LQA, representing a cross-section of regional businesses and functions within the organization. One month before the residential component, participants complete the TRI-Leskin 360 Assessment. Developed by TRI Corporation and Barry Leskin of Talent Management Consulting, this instrument pinpoints an individual’s strengths and development needs relating to a set of core competencies that reflect business acumen and leadership/people skills. Participants assess themselves and also are rated by a wide range of stakeholders, including their managers, direct reports, peers, and customers. Other LQA pre-work includes a Quest Management System proficiency quiz, extensive readings, and financial analyses.

Every LQA cohort is sponsored by a Quest Senior Management Team (SMT) member, who offers individual support to participants during the in-residence program and continuing through the action learning projects.

Participants arrive for the residential program and, after a day of preparatory sessions, embark on a four-day, competitive business simulation developed by TRI Corporation and facilitated by TRI faculty and members of Quest’s senior management team. Players are grouped into cross-functional teams of six or seven, and each team is presented the same scenario: A new management team has been brought into a failing health-care company midyear and tasked with turning the business around in six quarters.

TRI tailors the simulation’s role-play and vignettes to health-care industry issues and to Quest’s own challenges. As they would in the real world, teams face time restrictions, scarce resources, limited information, and conflicting opinions as they make their decisions. There are two operations reviews—one after two rounds of play and another at the end of the simulation exercise. The second is conducted by Quest senior management or LQA alumni.

Interspersed with the simulation play are interactive sessions led by Quest’s senior executives covering vital skills from operational finance acumen to what it means to be a Quest leader. Teams also field live “customer” visits with Q&A throughout the simulation. Cuozzo Enterprises’ Pete Cuozzo leads one-on-one coaching sessions with all participants, using the results of their 360 assessments to craft individualized 12-month development plans.

Participants return to their real-life roles at the end of five days in residence and share lessons learned and action plans with their managers. They also glean insights from their direct reports as they fine-tune their individual and career development plans. And for six months after their return, they continue the action learning projects they began in residency, testing their new skills in a real-world challenge. Among the topics these projects have addressed: everything from introductions of new products and services to process improvement.

A full 15 to 18 months after the start of their LQA cycle, participants undergo a second TRI-Leskin 360 assignment and a follow-up coaching session to determine their professional growth and progress on their development plan.

The extent of the LQA leadership network is on full display at Quest’s annual senior leadership conference, which is now largely an opportunity for LQA alumni to gather and share their post-program experiences. What was once a cohort-level network has expanded to encompass all regions, departments, and functions.

The Results

LQA was the start of transforming Quest’s leadership culture, which is now consistent, robust, and aligned around a shared vision. Among the measurable impacts:

  • In their day-to-day roles, Quest’s functional leaders exhibit stronger financial acumen, more rigor in decision-making, and greater understanding of all aspects of the enterprise.
  • Tens of millions of dollars of incremental benefit for Quest have been produced by the action learning projects completed to date—and more are in the pipeline. The projects also serve as best practices throughout the organization.
  • Quest has honed its original five-point strategy down to two as others have been integrated into daily operations. “We’ve built capabilities in the organization and created the Quest Management System to provide a common set of business tools to run our business,” notes Rusckowski. “Now we are driving leader development deeper in the organization so we can build a high-performance culture based on values and behaviors.”

Dr. Tovah L. Stroud, Psy.D, is executive director, Organizational Effectiveness & Talent Acquisition, at Quest Diagnostics, a Fortune 500 company that provides clinical laboratory services, with approximately 44,000 employees dispersed across operations in the U.S., UK, Mexico, Brazil, India, and Puerto Rico. Dr. Thomas E. Conine, Jr., is president of TRI Corporation and professor at Fairfield University. Dr. Pete Cuozzo is managing partner of Cuozzo Enterprises LLC.


Lorri Freifeld
Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training APEX Awards and Emerging Training Leaders. A writer/editor for the last 30 years, she has held editing positions at a variety of publications and holds a Master’s degree in journalism from New York University.