Leading by Values
Medifast California’s powerful corporate culture has served them well during a period of rapid growth. In the past eight years, they have expanded from four to fourteen locations in the San Diego and Sacramento areas, and have increased employees from twelve to more than one hundred. During this time, many high performing individual achievers were promoted into management roles. With a very deliberate plan to protect the culture, Amy Pittman, People Operations and Training Manager, was tasked with finding a leadership training program that would help these new managers be successful in their roles.
“Because Relationships is one of our six core values, we hire from within as much as possible. But that also means it is our responsibility to give people the skills they need to be effective managers,” Pittman explains. When researching leadership training programs, Pittman found Situational Leadership® II (SLII®) to be consistent with some of the counseling skills they were already using with clients. SLII also offers training in specific skills that allow managers to have more effective conversations with their team members. “Situational Leadership® II resonated with me and spoke to the transition our people were making—moving from counseling clients to coaching and managing a staff,” she says.
Up until this point, training had been handed down by a distant corporate franchisor. Trainers were sometimes brought in to address certain issues, but sustainability tools weren’t being used. “Training was an occasional event instead of an initiative that supported corporate success,” Pittman says. “In fact, some managers looked at training as a sort of punishment instead of a growth experience. So we wanted to approach this very thoughtfully and make sure we learned new skills. We wanted to deliver learning events, not training events.”
Pittman and two Regional Managers attended an SLII training for trainers, then started delivering sessions for Managers and Assistant Managers in each of the fourteen locations. Once managers were introduced to SLII concepts, they were expected to use their new skills immediately. “We created an accountability system to ensure that managers were having one on one meetings and alignment conversations every month,” says Pittman.
Managers have access to several online support tools for SLII through a platform called Blanchard Exchange. They use worksheets to help with goal setting, conversation starters for planning one-on-one meetings with staff members, and checklists for assessing the effectiveness of their communications. Managers will also find articles and videos they can share with their teams to further their understanding of SLII, as well as an app that allows them to diagnose direct reports’ development levels on specific tasks or goals. The comprehensive materials on Blanchard Exchange make it easy to sustain the learning and embed the SLII language into the company culture.
Pittman established a comprehensive monthly workshop plan to bring managers back together for training on additional content and to share success stories and challenges about using their new skills. Pittman explains, “Between workshops, the managers had homework. They had to practice the skills and be prepared to talk about their experiences in the next workshop.” The conversations were so rich during these workshops that Pittman was able to identify additional training needs for the managers.
For example, after the initial workshop, managers focused on the three skills of a situational leader: goal setting, diagnosing the development level of each employee on a task, and matching the appropriate leadership style to the employee’s need. The following month, because she had noticed some people struggling with goal setting, Pittman dedicated the workshop to teaching managers how to work with their staff members to set goals in a collaborative process. “The Goal Setting program from Blanchard helped people understand how to write goal statements that are more meaningful and personally relevant. The activities in the program gave them the chance to do actual work in the session,” Pittman says.
Pittman worked with managers to identify other skills that would help extend their use of SLII. As a result, she recently added Listening, Giving Feedback and Challenging Conversations as topics to be added to the curriculum. She also took advantage of the three hours of coaching that is available to training for trainer participants. “While delivering the training, I wanted to try some specific activities that I thought would be helpful to our group but I needed help with the design. It was great to be able to spend time on the phone with a coach from Blanchard to develop a plan that would work for us. It was like having my own personal hot line to expert facilitator advice.”
Continual Change to Improve the Experience
Medifast California is serious about giving managers the skills they need to be successful while protecting and enhancing their corporate culture. Seeing their managers use SLII inspired them to completely change their evaluation system. “We changed our performance appraisal system from one with a number scale that had been tied to a pay increase, to one that was more development oriented and less directly connected to pay,” says Pittman. “Twice a year, managers hold performance review conversations with their staff members and the rating is based on letters. The performance level options are: Exceeds expectations, Meets expectations, Developing, New (to goal/task), and Improvement needed. This approach has allowed leaders to have more constructive conversations that give each person a better understanding of how to improve performance. This has enhanced the quality of conversations people are having. Now managers and employees are true partners in managing performance.”
Another change involves the structure of the sessions. Originally, regional managers were in the same training classes as their direct reports, which helped build community for the groups. But this year, Pittman is offering additional training for the regional managers. “I want them to be able to take their leader hat off and put their learning hat on,” she explains.
Pittman is also utilizing other subject matter experts from Blanchard to deliver some of the training. “Up until now I was delivering the training, but I think it’s important for our people to learn from others,” says Pittman. “It’s advantageous for our people to have an outside person leading them through the process—especially with topics that may require more introspection and vulnerability, like challenging conversations. Sometimes a trainer from outside can hold more credibility. I want our people to have the absolute best experience they can.”
Surprises Along the Way
Although Pittman had done her research to find the best training solution for her company, she was a little surprised that it took a full year for managers to get comfortable with using SLII skills effectively. She understood that part of the challenge was convincing managers they needed to take the time to learn and practice the skills to be a better manager. “It took patience and commitment to see this through. Our business is so customer service focused that it is easy to get trapped into taking care of the urgent. But, now that people are sharing stories about how well this is working, it is really helping our business. People contribute more and perform at higher levels.”
Tips from a Pro
Pittman learned much throughout this journey and offers a few tips for people starting the process.
- Don’t just make the training an event. Tie the initiative to something important to the organization. Pittman tied the training to Medifast California’s vision, mission, and core values to make it clear that using SLII leadership skills was part of the corporate culture.
- Have a plan and be committed to seeing it through. Sometimes you won’t see results immediately. Give it time to work so you can make the most of your investment.
- Don’t try to do it by yourself. Create a team including high-level leaders to implement the learning experience.
- Use the tools that are part of the SLII program. The SLII Playbook is filled with best practices, tips, and suggestions that help maximize the effectiveness of the training before, during, and after the learning experience.
Pittman is happy to report great improvement in communication between managers and direct reports, higher employee engagement, and a more productive work environment. There has also been a very exciting improvement in turnover rates that she believes is direct result of the training. Medifast California is a relationship business. Clients invest in a program that can last one to two years, so it is important for them to be able to have a trusting relationship with their counselor. At one point, the company was experiencing an increase in turnover—which could be catastrophic for clients. “I can say with 100 percent confidence that the SLII training has helped our managers be more effective. In return, our employees are feeling much more supported. Our turnover rate has been greatly reduced,” Pittman says. “At Medifast California, we get to help people lose weight and change their lives. I believe implementing SLII into our business has helped us also improve our own lives, which in turn improves our business and maintains our culture. It is a great balance of people and results.”