The Power of Storytelling at Vi

Vi learning and HR leader Judy Whitcomb loves a good story, and those connections — those potential lessons — reveal, shape and enhance learning’s impact in the organization.

CO_1016_Profile_JudyWhitcomb6_302x202It says something when a company brings its people together to share in departmental wins. At Vi, a Chicago-based senior living facilities company, Judy Whitcomb, the organization’s senior vice president of HR, learning and organizational development, can be credited with sharing important feats of learning.

At Vi, which employs roughly 2,900 people, learning isn’t seen as an autonomous function, tapped into only when a need arises. Instead, Whitcomb said everyone sees learning as their responsibility, and everyone treats it and celebrates it as such. “We’re not a large company, but there’s a lot of pride.”

As much as Whitcomb said learning’s success at Vi has only come as the result of a group effort, her role has been central to the function’s evolution. Ask, involve, share and celebrate, that’s her approach. It can be a game changer, and a key reason why some companies contract out for their learning needs rather than looking internally first. Not so at Vi. Whitcomb said learning celebrations, the culmination of another job well done, are symbolic, communicating: “This is something that we all share, that we all work toward because it improves our business results, it improves what we do, it improves the lives of the residents we serve.”

It also reinforces the organization’s learning brand. It becomes a point of conversation among employees and senior staff as well as an item in the company newsletter and yet another success story Whitcomb can share. And for her, stories are important.

Whitcomb’s personal and professional story features a love of travel, a nearly 20-year career in the airline industry, her family, a penchant for learning about and using people’s passions to understand any number of issues, and to deliver the greatest possible impact at Vi.

She began college as a journalism major because she loves to write. But once she got into human resources — she studied human resources and learning and development at DePaul University in Chicago and earned her MBA with a focus on management from the city’s Roosevelt University — she said she knew it was there she could make a difference. Her 19 years at United Airlines affirmed this; her father made a long career in the airline business as well; it was part of what attracted her to it.

At United she worked in a variety of roles across human resources including employer relationships and compensation and benefits, and she spent a great deal of time working on learning and development programs. While there Whitcomb also took a mentor’s advice to spend some time working on the company’s business side. She said the experiences that time offered continue to provide value for her.

After she left United, Whitcomb spent nearly four years in financial services, then led the accounts management function at an employee benefits company. At all of these junctures, she said she never lost her fascination with the learning and development part of the picture. “Even when you’re in business, I feel like as a leader, I’m constantly teaching, I’m constantly learning.”

At Vi, Learning Has a Narrative

Vi, which serves about 4,500 residents, is driven by a mission to provide quality environments, services and programs to enrich older adults’ lives. Whitcomb said the company’s staff is central to bringing that mission to life. It is the cornerstone of her work, as well.

When she came to Vi in 2007, changes in the economy forced leadership to examine how well the company was focusing resources on areas like learning and development. The company wanted to ensure these investments made a difference to the broader organization. At the time, learning was decentralized. It belonged to and was managed by Vi’s individual functions. There was no strategy, no infrastructure, no institutional learning: “It was like a start-up department,” Whitcomb said.

Despite her substantial background in learning and development, Whitcomb stepped into her new role with a measure of reserve. She wasn’t just new to Vi, she was also new to the health care hospitality industry. But she recognized early that there was a high level of passion and interest around learning across the organization. “Rather than take control and say ‘This is what we’re going to do,’ I focused on inclusion and looking for the business partners to be part of the solution,” she said.

Because she saw a lot of energy and commitment for learning, Whitcomb said it was just a matter of getting that passion around a common table. First, she established a learning council to begin involving her business partners in the new, centralized learning function. But uniting all the excitement around learning didn’t happen overnight. Whitcomb said it took time before she felt any traction, and winning buy-in initially required very deliberate steps. Now, that investment in learning’s work at Vi, its vision and scope, is nearly a given.

Vi’s employment tagline, “Bring Life to Your Career,” reflects the company’s active commitment to employee development and the career advancement that frequently accompanies it.

Business partners are visibly engaged in learning. So is the C-suite. Vi’s chief financial officer, Gary Smith, leads business orientation webinars and helps new leaders understand the company’s economic engine. The head of operations, sales and marketing, Bill Sciortino, leads Vi’s Breakthrough Leadership program sessions, and the vice president of operations, Cary Maslow, meets with Management Development program participants when he visits Vi’s various locations. “Learning is a partnership with our business partners,” Whitcomb explained. “It’s part of the fabric of our organization, and our learning has become an employment differentiator.”

Turning the Page on Retention

Whitcomb said learning has done much to improve employee retention. Vi belongs to an industry where turnover among staff can range from 43 to 75 percent. In 2011, its organizationwide attrition was 27 percent, but at that time, 75 percent was among the company’s nurse leaders. “A lot of nurses went into that role and never had experience in a leadership role. We felt like we were failing them and that was one of the reasons why we were losing nurse leaders.”

A few years ago, the company developed a nurse leadership program in response to the problem. Based on focus groups and exit interviews, the one-year program included assessments, coaching, classroom learning and virtual learning. Within a year and a half, attrition was down to 10 percent.

With such tremendous gains in this area, Whitcomb and her team put together a program called Breakthrough Leadership. “Judy’s really good at looking at something and doing the deep dive on it,” said Sciortino, who’s worked with Whitcomb since her start at the company and partnered with her to raise nurse leader retention.

The new program iteration explored what made its predecessor a success — more than just how many leaders were promoted, or how many of them enjoyed the class or completed it. Leaders are nominated for Breakthrough Leadership by the executive director at their respective location and participate in a cohort of about 25 leaders. A third cohort is planned for 2017.

The program begins with a series of assessments and pre-work. Then there’s a weeklong class taught by company executives as well as DePaul University staff and Vi’s learning department. Following that is a six-month virtual program also hosted by company executives, which Vi delivers in partnership with Harvard Business Publishing. This leadership program also includes assessments, study groups, virtual learning sessions and reading assignments — “It’s a significant investment of learner time but company time as well,” Whitcomb said.

Program participants and their leaders receive assessments, including one that measures emotional intelligence, to gauge their progress from program start to graduation. Whitcomb said her team is working to improve this and other programs using metrics that a DePaul University faculty member helped identify, including: supervisor support, learner readiness, changes in learners and ROI.

The Context of the Work

Whitcomb doesn’t just lead learning at Vi. She also runs its human resources department, which might be a boon to some learning leaders but a headache for others.

It’s the former for Whitcomb, and even with her role above human resources, she said she’s always thinking about the education component, about what the learning department can do to shift behaviors, communicate, educate and manage change. It’s how she’s wired, she said, and it’s through the partnerships with leaders on her team that all the work gets done.

She called herself a working manager. “My job is to enable, it’s to cultivate my team. It’s to serve them. It’s those things.”

And she said she believes in her own continuous development as a leader, as well. She balances a focus on learning and development with ongoing development in business, by taking accounting, marketing and finance classes. “It makes you more credible with your business partners,” she explained. “It helps you make better decisions.”

These experiences also broaden her perspective and give her different vantage points from which to view things. The different perspectives and the various stories therein are important to her.

Each year, Whitcomb and her family travel to a city or country they haven’t been to before. She said she thinks this all goes back to her desire to learn. She enjoys stories. So much so that when she worked at United, she took a screenwriting class, flying out to California once a month for creative writing.

Whitcomb said she’d like to get back to that. “People have stories and perspectives, and that helps give you a better perspective of what people are going through, the challenges, what motivates them,” she explained.

Her genuine interest in her employees, business partners and colleagues’ experiences helps to make the learning function so influential at Vi. Sciortino said that Whitcomb, who spends a lot of time visiting the company’s various communities, often finds out things from employees they might never tell him. Maybe his title is intimidating, he said, but Whitcomb’s has a different tenor. She has a way of disarming people.

“Stories are very powerful in the workplace, and there’s a lot of learning that comes from them,” Whitcomb said. “You can go to a class, you can participate in a webinar, you can read a book. But what you can learn from listening to a person’s story, that connection that you make and what you learn from people — a lot of times you get more learning from that.”

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

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