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CTDO Magazine

An Agile State of Mind

Ann Schulte is encouraging mindset and learning agility at Procter & Gamble to tackle challenges and disruption.

Businesses across all industries and regions of the world are accustomed to dealing with disruption brought on by advances in technology and industry-specific developments. The COVID-19 pandemic, erratic financial markets, and social unrest raised that disruption to a new level in 2020.

While some organizations staggered their way to economic survival, others took an agile approach, proactively anticipating external and internal changes so that they could strategize and adapt their structures, processes, talent, and tech accordingly.

Agility is not what you typically expect from a 184-year-old company, but that’s exactly how consumer goods manufacturer Procter & Gamble responded to the challenges that unfolded in recent years. While some of its agility efforts meant making changes to the business, Ann Schulte, global leader of learning and leadership development, led the company in adopting a mindset of agility and growth.

Constructive disruption

Headquartered in Cincinnati, Ohio, P&G has operations in some 70 countries across five continents. Its workforce is 99,000 people strong, with 60 percent working in manufacturing plants and 40 percent in professional and managerial roles.

“We’re a big boat. Sometimes being agile doesn’t come easily,” says Schulte. However, she explains that despite the company’s size and dispersed workforce, it has a strategy of “constructively disrupting” itself. That is the key to reacting effectively to rapidly evolving business needs.

“The DNA of the company is to focus on continuous improvement,” Schulte states. “If we just sit around and wait for someone else in the market to disrupt us, that feels too reactive. We think that we are better served, as well as our customers and our consumers, when we look around corners.”

She points out that while the company’s markets and brands may evolve, its purpose of providing quality products that improve lives daily has not changed. To meet that purpose head-on, P&G explores opportunities to intentionally disrupt its business in a constructive manner, and it sees opportunity in doing work differently.

While known for its popular brands like Tide and Pampers, P&G transformed its structure in July 2019 to operate through six industry-based sectors: beauty, grooming, healthcare, baby and feminine care, fabric and home care, and family care. The change was a strategic move to respond to market changes and was more than a year in the making. An important element of the corporate strategy was to become a more empowered, agile, and accountable organization as P&G set upon the transformation path.

Mindset that embraces change and learning

Schulte was charged with helping embed the idea of empowerment, agility, and accountability into the organization’s culture. She’s quick to note that this is hard work and an ongoing journey but one that leaders are committed to across the board and around the world. 

She says the company didn’t look at those attributes individually. “The question wasn’t: What does it look like to be empowered or accountable or agile? It was: What does it look like when you’re doing all three at the same time?” she states.

It became clear that an ability to learn quickly and adapt was central to success, and research led Schulte to the growth mindset concept. People sometimes misunderstand the theory, thinking it simply translates to embracing development of any kind.

Instead, Schulte asserts that a growth mindset is a person’s orientation to change and challenge. That means figuring out how to “get people to proactively lean in to change and look for opportunities, as opposed to being threatened by the possibility of making a mistake or pulling away from risk-taking,” she says.  

“Just the simple concept of shifting the way you think about something can change the outcome,” she contends. “We get better when we believe we can.” 

To get started, Schulte introduced senior leaders to a short program that explained the growth mindset concept. Once she had buy-in, she set out to impart to leaders and teams the three habits people need to build to strengthen a growth mindset: being willing to experiment, focusing on progress over time, and having the desire to learn from others.   

She explains how growth mindset habits play out in daily performance: “Do employees have freedom to try new things? Do managers pay attention to progress? Are individuals and teams encouraged to seek feedback?” She adds, “We still reward for outcomes, but we want people to try new approaches and be encouraged by the learning that’s happening during the journey. We want our people to feel safe to test and learn. This enables us to pivot quickly.”

Ready to go remote

P&G’s mindset for disrupting itself before outside factors force it to change isn’t limited to manufacturing and operations; it is embedded in the talent development function. For instance, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Schulte says that while many companies were scrambling to move their learning online, P&G already had virtual, instructor-led versions of all its core learning programs and an online platform for organizational knowledge and moment-of-need performance support.

Schulte’s team consults with business units about current and emerging learning needs and then sets the strategy for programs and resources for growing employees’ skills and careers. Based on what they uncover, team members are tasked with developing and delivering learning experiences that P&G calls company-wide skills.

“These are universal skills that anyone in the company, regardless of their business unit or function, like finance or sales, needs to perform,” she explains, noting that these include a portfolio of about 50 skills related to leadership development (such as strategic thinking and digital fluency) and professional skills (such as project management and business writing).

“We made the decision several years ago that if P&G was going to assign people to take programs on these skills, we needed to make them available in a way that anybody, regardless of their location, could access them when ready,” she adds. “If you’ve been a manager of others for two years and you haven’t had the chance to train on the skill set, then what good does that do?”

The innovation doesn’t stop there, though. On the most basic level, Schulte’s team is continually experimenting with platforms and technologies to discover what features it can use and for which purposes. On the high end, her team is exploring virtual reality, thanks to some successes shared by other experts in the organization.

During the pandemic, the company had a plant scheduled to go live in Eastern Europe, and workers needed to be trained on new equipment. But when trainers couldn’t fly there, training had to proceed virtually.

“Our engineering teams were experimenting with VR and augmented reality tools. Necessity is still sometimes the mother of invention—or in this case, adoption,” Schulte explains. “These tools were used to accomplish the training objectives in the new plant, without travel, and our learning networks are all now sharing what we know about virtual capabilities that exist in the company on a more regular basis, so we can learn from others (a growth mindset habit).”

Unwavering support during hard times

At the pandemic’s onset, P&G leadership quickly identified three priorities: employee safety, the need to get crucial cleaning and hygiene products to consumers, and support for the communities where employees work and live. Those priorities meant high-capacity scaling of production and distribution of products such as toilet paper and hand sanitizer while simultaneously ensuring workers’ well-being.

The demand the manufacturing teams experienced to keep producing products for consumers was immense. “It was stressful for these workers,” Schulte notes. “They were proud to be providing such critically needed products, but they also had family concerns, and they were worried about the virus themselves. It was an intense and emotional situation.”

Fortunately, Schulte says her team was able to quickly offer teams some information and support. “There were things that we did globally to support the plants and employees who were deemed essential, but also the people who were having to move to working from home,” she says.

For example, to support morale at some plants, Schulte conducted high-level team consulting with plant leaders to “help them understand, from a neuroscience point of view, what people were feeling.”

She discussed with them the basics of the SCARF (status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness) model that the NeuroLeadership Institute’s David Rock developed. For plant workers, three elements in the model—certainty, autonomy, and relatedness—seemed most affected by events related to the pandemic. 

“We talked about how if people couldn’t get certainty on their own, what managers and leaders could do to provide some level of certainty,” she states. “Could they have a 9 a.m. meeting unfailingly? That doesn’t sound like much, but it can help because it provides the brain sureness that something is going to happen and can be counted on.”

Meanwhile, within a week, Schulte’s relatively small global team developed specific online content for the organizational knowledge site to provide learning and performance resources for effective remote management and working from home. Curated assets offered guidance on practical topics such as how and when to use Microsoft Teams, when to use other virtual tools, as well as broader advice around productivity issues like time management and suggestions for how to deal with competing priorities. 

Skills sensing for the future

P&G’s switch to a new cloud-based HR platform is providing an opportunity for constructive disruption again, reinforcing the empowered, accountable, and agile culture by moving to be more transparent and focused on skills and growth-based development.

“If I look around corners, I see other companies thinking about skills in terms of smaller building blocks rather than the heavy-duty competency models that we created a decade ago,” she says. “If we get more discreet with the skills that we are building, we can combine them in different ways to create new types of jobs to address changing business needs.”

Schulte is leading a skills taxonomy team with a cross-functional group that is creating a corporate-wide taxonomy to identify critical skills and job outcomes from each function. The result of the team’s efforts will be an online skills library that employees can investigate and explore. It will give a quick definition of each skill as well as programs, experiences, or learning assets that employees can use to develop new skills.

Success for the taxonomy work, says Schulte, hinges on getting people to agree on terms and definitions. “If we have someone in marketing and someone in sales and they both have a skill called commercial leadership but they define it differently, we’d like to influence them to agree on what the definition is for P&G. This notion puts the learner at the center and creates a common language for skills-based development,” she explains.

The skills taxonomy team plans to examine skills quarterly to uncover any that are emerging or may be expiring. Schulte calls this skills sensing, a term she borrowed from Gartner. As the new HR platform launches, talent leaders will be able to run reports and see what employees are putting on their profiles. That will help managers, HR, and those working in L&D discern how jobs and skills are changing and how the business and learning will need to adapt to meet staffing needs.

“The days of saying ‘We’re going to create this model, we’re going to define every competency and every level of proficiency, then we’re going to have a manager evaluate you for each’ is in the past. That’s too heavy for an agile company,” she notes.

But that doesn’t mean P&G won’t have proof of proficiency for skills and roles that need it, such as compliance, quality, safety, and stewardship. Schulte believes talent management can become more agile by offering digital badges or simply empowering employees to input skills on their profiles.

She also believes in enabling artificial intelligence and machine learning to prepare strength estimations, without having subject matter experts and managers review all skills for proficiency. “It’s a continuum,” she says. “The question is how do we get people to move from the more compliance side to the more agile side in ways that makes sense?”

She points out that “The sweet spot for talent development is finding the balance between what propels the organization forward and what provides rewarding careers for employees.” That, Schulte says, is a key objective, because “one of P&G’s long-standing principles is that the individual and the organization are inseparable.”

Read more from CTDO magazine: Essential talent development content for C-suite leaders.

About the Author

Ryann K. Ellis is an editor for the Association of Talent Development (ATD). She has been covering workplace learning and performance for ATD (formerly the American Society for Training & Development) since 1995. She currently sources and authors content for TD Magazine and CTDO, as well as manages ATD's Community of Practice blogs. Contact her at rellis@td.org. 

5 Comments
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Great Read..an agile mindset is an adaptive one..
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Great article and aligns with ATD's Change Management model in relation to moving from resistance to a more agile state of mind.
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Excellent. Thanks for the insights.
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