When it comes to the size and scope of its workforce, The Home Depot is in a class by itself. The company has about 380,000 associates at any given time, all of whom have to be conversant with the array of tools, appliances, building materials and other products in their department. For a business that opens a new location about every 72 hours and hires more than 100,000 employees each year, this obviously presents a unique challenge.
“There’s only one (retailer) in the nation and two worldwide that are bigger than we are, so there are very few companies operating at this scale that we can benchmark against,” said Leslie Joyce, Ph.D., vice president and chief learning officer. “What makes us different from those other big retailers is the scope of learning our associates are required to have by our customer value proposition. You don’t go into Wal-Mart and ask, ‘Can you tell me the pros and cons of this set of Tupperware versus that set?’ But you do go into Home Depot and ask, ‘Can you tell me about this chainsaw versus that one?'”
For Joyce, who heads up employee education efforts across the vast Home Depot enterprise, learning and development wasn’t always an obvious career path. Although she earned a master’s degree and doctorate in industrial psychology from North Carolina State University, and her initial profession involved building the first Christmas-season cashier training for a large department store, Joyce eventually went into HR operations as a generalist. She stayed there for about a decade, but she crept back into training when she accepted a position as director of organizational effectiveness at The Home Depot.
“That was just too tempting to turn down,” she said. “The organization was facing a major transformation – from a founder-led organization to a CEO-led organization. It was the result of organizational maturity. We had gone as far as the founders could possibly take us. The organization started to stall a little bit.”
When the first CEO took over, he made college education for employees a high priority in the overall strategy of improving the business, Joyce said.
“A new emphasis was put on the importance of a college degree for the success of an individual who was moving into or maintaining a management position,” she said. “Previously, we’d very much been a hire-from-within, grow-from-within kind of organization, but we began bringing people in who were more highly educated. The new executive leadership valued that much more than did the old leadership.
“In order for this to become a learning organization and to support that strategic vision of the CEO and his team, we began working on ensuring that the learning we build here is eligible for ACE (American Council of Education) credit recommendations. To date, we’ve secured 41 credit recommendations from ACE, which puts a nice dent in an undergraduate degree for an individual who previously didn’t have one. That moves them along that path much more quickly. We hold our internally developed learning to very high standards in the hopes of continuing to get credit recommendations from ACE.”
The other part of this plan involved forming strategic alliances with online universities, which provided favorable prices and, more importantly, flexible access to Home Depot employees.
“The reason for that is that people in retail work very odd, unpredictable schedules,” Joyce said. “The ability to have on-demand learning whenever their lifestyles demand is important, especially for mid- to upper-level managers. They have access to those, so uptake is very high.”
More recently, the focus of Joyce and her team has turned to the company’s leaders. Last year, The Home Depot launched a comprehensive and prescriptive leadership curriculum designed to match up with specific positions.
“If you’re a department supervisor, you have X hours of learning that have to be completed in X amount of time,” she said. “Same thing for store managers, assistant managers and so forth. Unlike other organizations that have a more voluntary approach to things, our approach is that if it’s worth the time, then it’s worth requiring it.”
Additionally, Joyce has been at the forefront of the design and launch of The Home Depot’s Learning Forums, large-scale events aimed at company managers.
“Those are focused on three things,” she said. “One is inspiration, which is sort of the re-recruitment of our existing leaders to the brand, the mission and the responsibilities that they hold. The second is alignment, which is to make sure all of our leaders are on the same page with what their strategic and tactical initiatives are for the coming year. Then the third part is technical and leadership knowledge, which is the strong learning component to these events.”
Mike Buskey, senior vice president of HR in The Home Depot’s retail arm, said the forums enhanced the proficiency of company management.
“The learning environment they create at these events has improved our managers’ abilities to handle tactical issues more effectively while developing their strategic thinking and global perspective,” he said. “We would not be where we are today without the support of our learning team.”
Dennis M. Donovan, executive vice president of HR, said Joyce has helped foster an atmosphere of learning at The Home Depot.
“Under Leslie’s leadership, the learning organization has achieved an impressive level of support and alignment with the business,” Donovan said. “She and her team are committed to ensuring that business needs drive the learning agenda, and they come to the table as full partners in strategic solutions. In fact, because of her team’s commitment and influence, our field execs look at a gathering of leaders as a learning opportunity and focus their efforts on leadership development, as well as execution.”
In educational programs such as the Learning Forums, Joyce strives to select the right modalities for specific kinds of experiences. At the core of her views on learning is this point: The medium serves the message, not the other way around. Joyce said learning professionals often get caught up in a particular platform because it’s novel or ostentatious, without really considering whether it suits the content or the learner who’s consuming it.
“I think learning has done itself a disservice by creating an enormous amount of hype around methodologies that, while cool, interesting and flashy, really do not enhance the learning experience or the conveyance of information,” she said. “That’s why e-learning is floundering pretty significantly as a methodology.”
That’s not to say that she’s unwilling to try innovative approaches to learning delivery, though.
“We try to maximize all the learning styles we can in any one of our learning solutions,” Joyce said. “We have two things we’re moving toward. One of those is satellite distance learning. We have a satellite network that we’ve been using for communication and information purposes but not for learning. They’ll actually be taped and then provided through our e-learning library, which we launch through our own internal portal. We’re also going into high-fidelity simulations. Some of these will be able to be repurposed for consumer education.
“It’s safe to say that we’re using a little bit of everything with the exception of far-out things like wikis and podcasts. About 30 percent of our curriculum learning is e-learning, and that’s highly engaging, animation-based and interactive – it’s not your ‘read the screen, click the button and move on’ e-learning. That’s how we’ve gotten around some of the disappointing aspects of e-learning. About 50 percent of the curriculum is instructor-led. That makes perfect sense because it’s very hard to learn how to lay tile, install a toilet or fix a water heater via e-learning. Running customer service, managing conflict, resolving vendor issues – a lot of that stuff has to be done through instructor-led training.”
To figure out whether a modality is an effective means of conveying information, Joyce tracks many of the learning programs from simple measurements such as head count to more sophisticated analyses of sales trends.
“In some places – matching methodology to metric – we actually gather a fair amount of business impact data,” she said. “Say we have some snowblower training. We’ll watch snowblower sales progress at a certain rate, and then we’ll introduce a piece of accelerated learning around snowblowers. We’ll then watch what happens to snowblower sales.
“One of the nice things about this business is that we’re very metrics-driven. With nearly everything we do, especially on the learning side, we say, “If we’re going to do this, what impact do we expect?” If we get that impact, that’s great. If we don’t, then maybe we revisit the solution because maybe it’s not the right one, or it needs to be augmented by something else.”
Many of these statistics are compiled in an annual presentation for The Home Depot’s executive committee, Joyce said.
“We don’t necessarily claim responsibility because it’s correlational, not causational,” she said. “We could argue with the other 40 people who had something to do with it too. But most of our numbers go in the right direction.”
Evidently, though, The Home Depot’s senior leaders understand Joyce has contributed significantly to business success.
“Next to hiring great people, teaching and developing our associates is the most important responsibility we have as an HR function,” Buskey said. “Our customers expect a high level of knowledge and expertise from our associates. It is what separates us from the competition. Leslie and her team have done a tremendous job of building great curriculum content and creating new and innovative ways to deliver it.”
Brian Summerfield, firstname.lastname@example.org
NAME: Leslie Joyce, Ph.D.
TITLE: Vice President and Chief Learning Officer
COMPANY: The Home Depot
Learning Philosophy: “I think that the chosen learning methodology should complement the learning content and be tailored to the intended audience. While that is not often the easiest or most efficient choice to make, I think that is the best choice to make. That doesn’t necessarily lead us to blended learning solutions always being the best ones. I think it’s more a matter of an appropriate audience analysis, a thorough understanding of the content and the learning methodology that’s most facilitative of the transfer of that knowledge from one place to the other.”