The Best of Both Worlds: Learning Through a Marketer’s Lens

When 3M’s SVP of HR asked Janette Shimanski to join the organization as CLO, she asked for one thing: Do for learning what you did in marketing.


When a leader with deep marketing expertise is asked to take over a learning role, learning — specifically leadership development — becomes exciting. It becomes engaging, and most important for participants, it becomes interesting. At least that’s what happened when 3M Chief Learning Officer Janette Shimanski took over the company learning function in 2015.

Marketing and learning share many similarities. Substitute the word employee for customer and at their heart both are about understanding consumers and then translating those insights into products and solutions they want and need. Benchmarking, understanding the landscape, putting together a strategic plan, these things are as crucial for marketing as they are for learning and development, but not all learning leaders place the same value on marketing.

That can be a mistake; marketing can have a powerful influence on whether a learning leaders’ efforts succeed or fail. Shimanski handles this power conscientiously. She uses marketing both to raise the learning organization’s profile, and as a tool to engage learners with the same high spirit retailers use to create the bells and whistles they sound to attract prospective customers.

“When I was in the marketing role, we looked at creating a company brand,” she said. “In this role, it’s all about our brand as an employer, how we attract people to the company, and then retain them through our development program.”

When considering a company’s employment brand, it’s critical that learning organizations are aware of their own brand if they want to make a significant impact on the business, said J. Hruby, vice president of sales and marketing for Fredrickson Learning, a company that develops custom learning strategies and products as well as provides interim staffing for learning and development roles.

“Every learning organization already has a brand, just like every business has a brand,” he said. “The question is, is it the brand you want?”

Hruby said learning leaders like Shimanski, who are thoughtful about their department’s brand, care about employee experiences with the learning department, and take a continuous pulse check to determine customer behaviors and needs.

Serendipitous Connections

A National Society of High School Scholars survey released in June named 3M a dream company for millennials, and since many in this particular demographic value things like development over pay increases, Shimanski said that amplifying 3M’s brand as a people developer is paramount.

Shimanski likely wasn’t considering the serendipitous connections between marketing and learning when she pursued her master’s in business administration from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a doctorate degree from the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management; all degrees earned were in combinations of business and marketing. But that background and expertise has made her a uniquely valuable asset at 3M, a science-based company that’s been around for more than a century and is well known for products like transparent tape and scouring pads. Today, at least a third of the company’s sales success comes from innovations created in the past five years — and clever marketing has helped to ensure the public knows how relevant the company still is.

Shimanski said she took an unconventional path to her current role. She initially came to 3M in 1988 to work in strategic business development, with internal consultants across divisions on a variety of projects including market research and building business plans. Torn between staying in the business field and pursuing a career in academia, she left 3M in 1996 to work on her doctorate, and to work for another company, returning to 3M in 2008.

Shimanski came back to lead international marketing for the organization and she worked closely with head of international HR Marlene McGrath. When McGrath became senior vice president of HR, she asked Shimanski to take on a new role. “ ‘I want you to come into the learning function, and help us transform leadership development and do exactly what you did in marketing in HR,’ ” Shimanski recalled McGrath saying.

A Learning Spark

Shimanski took that directive to heart. She brought a marketer’s lens to branding efforts for one of her points of pride: 3M Leadership Way. The leadership development series launched in 2015 and focuses not just on developing stronger leaders, but on developing more influential ones. “The program is also focused on creating better leaders who can help grow our customers and help impact the world in which we live,” she said.

The program has four levels: Spark, Ignite, Amplify and Catalyst. She said she was strategic with those names. Top leaders vetted them, and Shimanski tested them with a variety of external and internal stakeholders to see whether the ideas resonated because she said branding creates excitement. “We’re illuminating our leaders — painting an image. A brand is who you really are,” she said. “People could attend ‘Leadership Number 1142’ or they can attend Spark where they could be ignited, they could be amplified, they could be catalyzed.”

Shimanski said all of the programs are extremely experiential, and range from three to 12 months in length. Spark, based on the idea that an idea starts with a spark — “a glimmer of what can be” — is targeted to junior leaders in the organization who have been identified as high potential and who are doing a lot of self-discovery work. Ignite participants are typically new supervisors who are learning their management role and what it means to be a good coach. In Amplify, leaders of multiple teams work to create a voice for the organization over a nine-month period where they are exposed to a variety of external perspectives. They also engage in projects, go on customer visits and work on their holistic selves.

Catalyst, 3M Leadership Way’s pinnacle program, is a yearlong, externally focused development journey with a great deal of commitment from top leadership. Participants attend leadership summits, gain exposure to perspectives outside of 3M, and participate in one of three projects: a challenge issued by top management on a 3M issue or opportunity; a customer engagement project in which leaders work with customers to help solve some of their needs; or a community-based project.

Each level of the program has similar elements as participants move from Spark to Catalyst. In the Ignite program, for example, Shimanski said participants are first assessed on their current abilities to supervise. The program also includes a discovery process for the leaders, spot coaching, and some targeted attention to building and developing teams using gamification, virtual technology and cohorts with peers as learning delivery vehicles. The projects relate to a participant’s particular business and are based on something the manager and leadership team agree on. “[It’s] something that has a beginning and end, and something they can accomplish and apply their learning,” Shimanski said.

Ignite culminates with a capstone project leaders have to complete in order to show learning impact and application in their day-to-day jobs. Along with the discovery process, the 360-degree feedback and coaching, all of the programs have a university component in addition to a real-time projects element.

The first wave of 3M Leadership Way — 180 high-potential leaders — was completed in May. Shimanski said the next wave will have about 1,000 people. In the future, the learning department will use the program to reach about 2,000 people each year.

To develop the series, Shimanski said she did a lot of benchmarking at companies different from 3M as well as similar to it. She spent about a month traveling to gather a variety of diverse perspectives, looking at companies in the United States and around the world. She also did a lot of stakeholder interviews to understand what future leaders would need, and she reached out to some of the company’s key account contacts for insight.

“People weren’t used to HR calling on some of our key accounts,” she said. “It was fabulous because they were giving me so much great input into how they develop their people, and what they appreciate about our people.”

Catalyzing Sustainability at 3M

Shimanski’s learning team takes a similar approach in order to maintain awareness of business learning needs as well as keep a sharp eye on learning innovations that could be used to help meet those needs. She said her team of about 90 people around the world is active in conferences and benchmarking and attends many external speaking engagements to learn from others in the field.

Internally, the global learning team established a common needs assessment, though Shimanski said members were careful not to neglect efforts to meet local needs as they arise — “but the assessment process is very consistent.” It includes getting feedback from various levels in the organization and looks both externally and internally to ascertain the voice of the learning department’s customers — 3M leaders and employees.

McGrath said the rapid pace of change in the world has created an urgent need to make continuous investments in learning and development opportunities for 3M’s people across all levels of leadership. 3M Leadership Way falls under a broader umbrella around one of the company’s sustainability objectives — that 100 percent of 3M’s workforce, some 90,000 employees across 70 countries — will be actively involved in development opportunities by 2025.

“We are a tremendous company for leaders — we just want to really invest in them and take them to that next level,” Shimanski said.

In addition to the leadership development work, Shimanski is also investing in technology to aid virtual facilitations and reach more people around the globe. 3M certifies people to become experts in virtual technology, and puts employees through certified coaching programs so they can reach as many people as possible and develop them in deeper ways. The learning function employs numerous online platforms as well, and Shimanski said she is working to make sure that employees around the world have access to mobile learning in numerous languages.

“We believe that everyone has the right to be developed at 3M,” she said.

With Shimanski at the helm of the company’s learning activities — using marketing as a strategic lever to augment and shine a light on her work — 3M is well on its way to meeting its goals.

Bravetta Hassell is a Chief Learning Officer associate editor. Comment below or email editor@clomedia.com. 

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