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Embed Brand Into Leadership Development

From its peak in 2006 until 2009, Harley-Davidson retail motorcycle sales volume dropped almost 40 percent. In May 2009 new CEO Keith Wandell developed a plan focused on leadership development, growth, continuous improvement and sustainability.

October 26, 2012
Related Topics: Leadership Development, Leadership Development
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When Keith Wandell was appointed CEO of Harley-Davidson in May 2009, the organization’s learning and development arm, Harley-Davidson University (HDU), was not being fully utilized. That changed immediately because Wandell views leadership development as the foundation for the company’s ability to compete and win in the marketplace. “To fulfill our brand and business potential, we must prepare strong, committed leaders who live our values and deliver every day,” he said.

With that in mind, Tonit Calaway, vice president of human resources for Harley-Davidson, who also oversees HDU, and Julie Anding, senior director of employee learning, worked with Duke Corporate Education on a learning intervention for the company’s top 75 leaders called the Executive Leadership Program (ELP). A pilot program was delivered in June 2010. Calaway and Anding said they knew for the pilot to succeed they had to deliver compelling content and make sure it fit with Harley’s culture.

Part of the Bricks
“Getting it in the bricks” is a phrase often heard at the company’s Milwaukee headquarters. When something is in the bricks it means it’s a part of Harley-Davidson’s culture. The values the brand represents are captured in its vision statement:

“We fulfill dreams inspired by the many roads of the world by providing remarkable motorcycles and extraordinary customer experiences. We fuel the passion for freedom in our customers to express their own individuality.”

The goal was to integrate those values into the ELP experience.

“Obviously anytime you deliver a learning and development program you want it to be meaningful, memorable and impactful,” Calaway said. “That was even more imperative considering the state of the economy in 2010. We wanted our leaders to experience in the program the same boldness, freedom and inspiration that our brand stands for — that our customers experience.”

The primary purpose of the ELP was to help drive Harley-Davidson’s strategic priorities: growth, continuous improvement, sustainability and leadership. The 75 pilot executives were split into two cohorts, each group going through the same program separately. The format was three face-to-face sessions with each session consisting of two days. The result was a total of six learning days delivered across four months. Content areas included global strategy, executive decision making, emerging markets, consumer insight and personal leadership.

To ensure learning stuck, participants were required to keep journals throughout the program. They also were asked to highlight key insights and concepts they learned and how they were applying this new knowledge in the business. This information was compiled for a yearbook that was presented to the executive leadership team and Harley-Davidson’s board of directors.

In designing the program, Calaway and Anding said they wanted to take a bold, creative approach with participants. “Just as we have to think differently about how we do business, we had to think differently about how we delivered the content in this program,” Calaway said. “The old, traditional way doesn’t always work anymore. We wanted to engage our leaders differently in topics of critical importance to our business. We wanted everyone to really think about what is required to be a successful leader at Harley-Davidson.”

Meet the Press
HDU used active learning experiences designed to engage participants, emphasizing attributes of the Harley brand: being inspiring, remarkable, passionate and extraordinary.

For example, since one of the ELP learning objectives was to acquire a global mindset and a better understanding of emerging markets and customers, the participants were introduced to the global journalism experience. In this activity they were transformed from Harley-Davidson leaders into magazine journalists. Their assignment was to write a story from a reporter’s point of view about a business entering an emerging global market whose population was majority Muslim.

To get the real story, they researched the cultural, societal and business norms that influence doing business in this new market. They also were given a tutorial by a former member of the media on interviewing techniques. They then conducted a series of in-person interviews with Muslims and natives of the country. Afterward they worked in groups to plan how they would write an article about this business entering the emerging market. They were tasked with creating a magazine cover that creatively captured the spirit of the article, then presenting their approach, observations and takeaways.

The leaders learned to ask questions and listen like journalists to understand a new perspective. The lessons learned in this experience helped them be more effective as Harley-Davidson continues to enter emerging global markets.

The knowledge they gained of the influences that affect different cultures equipped the leaders with a better sense of how to conduct business in these markets, and how to foster stakeholder relationships. This activity reinforced the Harley brand’s promise to provide inspirational, remarkable and extraordinary experiences.

“The global mindset session was outstanding,” said Rod Copes, senior vice president of sales and channel performance for Harley-Davidson. “We are in the process of entering new markets and expanding globally and we cannot accomplish this successfully without our leaders adjusting their mindsets and behaviors. Now, with greater cultural awareness, we are in a position to better serve our customers in markets such as Brazil, India and China.”

Anding helped shape the ELP content. “The session on consumer insights was also one of the most powerful,” she said. “We actually brought in potential customers from different demographic groups in our target global markets. Each of the participants spent time asking males and females from China, and other markets that are key for us, how much they knew about the company and our products and what it represents to them. This was a perfect example of integrating the Harley-Davidson brand into the design of the program.”

Wandell said he realized that for the company to maintain its growth, the focus must not be entirely on its products, but on its people too. “Our leaders learned a great deal in this program,” he said. “They had the opportunity to discuss with their peers not only what they have learned, but how they have applied these new concepts, and the impact it has had on their everyday work.”

When a business has a dramatic performance improvement, it is rarely due to a single factor. That is the case with Harley-Davidson, which reported a 44 percent earnings increase in the first quarter of 2012 and a 20.3 percent increase in motorcycle sales, compared to first quarter 2011. While that is aided by the improvement in the U.S. economy, the company is not discounting the effect of Wandell’s strategic priorities, including his emphasis on leadership development. Anecdotal evidence suggests ELP and other HDU efforts are making a positive difference.

Riding the momentum of the first wave of ELP, HDU collaborated with Duke again on the programs for directors and managers. By the end of 2012 HDU will have helped more than 600 Harley-Davidson executives become better leaders. Calaway said she intends to build on that success.

“We will continue to invest in leadership development programs that are impactful and unique to the capabilities we’re building to support the business,” she said. “The business drives our focus and the learning is targeted to enable growth and development. Ultimately it’s our leaders who must deliver every day, for our employees, customers and stakeholders.”

John Sullivan is a managing director at Duke Corporate Education. He can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.

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