Learning to Drive

By: Agatha Gilmore, a senior editor for Chief Learning Officer magazine

With her broad experience and global focus, Wendy Dendel shifts learning into high gear at Ford Motor Co.

Wendy Dendel didn’t always want to be a CLO. In fact, her initial career goals were geared toward labor relations stemming from her college interest and degrees in psychology and industrial relations. And though she engaged in a rotational program that immersed her in the L&D world for a couple of years early on in her now 34-year career at Ford Motor Co., she thought of that experience simply as a step along the path to a different role.

That all changed after Dendel embarked in the early 2000s on her second tour through Asia. During those seven years abroad, from which she recently returned, she oversaw and supported all of Ford’s Asia and Africa operations – and in the process witnessed the lack of and desperate need for formal, centralized training.

“For the first time, I really took this view of, ‘I have to run all the people processes.’ I start [ed] to see all the gaps,” said Dendel, who now serves as director of human resources strategy and learning and development and is responsible for educating the company’s 176,000 employees in 80 plants across six continents. “I thought, ‘There’s something missing here.’ We just didn’t have it organized, and each company was working on their own little bit of training in the only way they knew how. I started to pay attention to it. [And] my passion grew.”

Steering the Learning Agenda

Given the multinational scope of the company, Dendel is just the woman for the job. Though now based in Ford’s headquarters in Dearborn, Mich. – her hometown – Dendel has an acute global mindset thanks to her overseas experiences, which include her recent seven-year tour as well as a stretch in Thailand in the 1990s, where she helped the automaker set up plants, implement treasury and sales offices, and establish credit.

“I’m filled with a vision of where I think we ought to go, and I’ve got a lot of energy around this. In short terms: globally designed, logically delivered, top-quality, relevant, consistent learning,” said Dendel, who now has about five months on the job. “Ford is going through – and has been for a couple or three years with [CEO] Alan Mulally – a fairly substantial organizational alignment, we call it One Ford. We’re going to develop and design vehicles in one place, one time with the highest quality, and we’re going to sell them globally. It’s just a way better business model. Training needs to move to that same space, and it hasn’t yet.”

In addition to her efforts to globalize and standardize training across the organization, Dendel is also focused on ensuring learning solutions meet specific business needs.

“She has a really strong philosophy around the alignment with the business,” said Rita LaFaive, dean of the college of product development and quality at Ford. “The global alignment and execution of the vision is something that she’s hit the ground running with. She just has really great organizational insight.”

For example, LaFaive said Dendel is “absolutely crystal clear” on staffing models and the impact of ensuring the right people are in the right positions.

“She’s very particular. You don’t put someone in a position that will be leading the engineering curriculum that doesn’t have the capability of knowing the day in the life of the engineer, because then your learning solutions may not hit home. You don’t really understand the context,” LaFaive said. “She sees the value in how those skills can enhance the result.”

Dendel also has a knack for streamlining issues and acting quickly yet efficiently, LaFaive said.

“Immediately when she came on board, there’s this instant freshness that’s simple and on target,” she said. “Wendy is a simple executor. She doesn’t overcomplicate things. She looks for the quick wins and the advantages of taking steps.”

Hitting the Throttle on Leadership Development

Dendel cites Ford’s leadership development as one of its most innovative learning initiatives to date. The company has put a lot of effort into both encouraging the idea of leaders teaching leaders as well as fostering a learning culture throughout the organization. This has resulted in a robust, dynamic and highly blended program.

“There’s e-learning to start out; there’s a lot of self-assessment,” Dendel said. “They come in and they have instructor-led [courses], but leaders are training during the weeklong programs. They come together twice during the year, and one of our programs comes together three times. So they’re meeting people from all functions. They have coaches. And their bosses are involved in [the] learning before the participants even go away to training, so it’s a totally integrated [program]. It’s excellent; I put it second to none as far as the quality.”

Some of the benefits of the leadership development program have included better cross-functional relationships and communication, increased efficiency and improved engagement and retention.

“People get the bigger picture. [They have] a better, fuller understanding of the organization and the processes,” Dendel said. “When people don’t understand, they just kind of take shots at leadership for not making the most robust decisions. [But] they come out of these [learning events] just as high as ever because now they understand so much more. The supervisor connection point is the No. 1 most important retention tool in the company. You get these people who are now feeling better about their role. You’re gaining a more engaged workforce.”

LaFaive added that the organization also digitally captures learning sessions with experts on important, broadly applicable topics and then uses them for future teaching or mentoring purposes.

Potential Detours

Though the company has seen progress and improvement in many areas of L&D, Dendel identified several key challenges she and her team will need to address.

“Nothing new here: Cost probably is No. 1,” she said. “We’re still absolutely under every kind of cost pressure you can imagine. You’ve got to fight for every dollar. You’ve got find innovative ways to teach more inexpensively.”

Another less tangible issue is the lightning-fast pace of knowledge creation and distribution in today’s marketplace.

“How do you keep up with that? How do we manage the knowledge?” she asked.”How do we know where it is? How do we keep it updated and fresh? How do we help people find it? That’s not Ford only – that is [something] the world has to figure out.”

A big piece of the challenge involves providing access to and context for the information that’s available.

“The Gen Ys now entering the workforce in bigger numbers are saying, ‘The knowledge is already out there, it’s everywhere, but I don’t know where to find it and how that relates to what I do.’ So it’s this huge amount of management around keeping the data somewhere and being able to access it easily when you need it, and then getting our management to understand that they’ve got to be the ones applying the context for the employees,” Dendel said.

However, probably the biggest challenge – and area for growth – within Ford’s learning function revolves around measurement. According to Dendel, the company assesses only traditional learning metrics such as evaluations and participation.

“That doesn’t tell you much. I don’t know how you turn that into business results,” she said. “I want to understand how we can find some metrics which show the business what the value is, which might help me get more resources to further this.”

A Solid Undercarriage

Thanks to her long career at the company and her exposure to a variety of units, Dendel has built robust, fruitful relationships with other top executives.

“Wendy is very well-established. She’s going to be extremely successful and very influential in the right places,” LaFaive said.

Indeed, Dendel and her work already have strong senior-level support in the form of the executive personnel committee, which comprises Ford’s top leaders.

“They are deep into reviewing, approving and supporting the employee value proposition,” Dendel said. “A lot of what’s coming out of that will be learning and development related. It’s more concentration than I’ve ever seen before on upskilling our people, giving them better tools [and] developing them. It’s the best time in the world for me to be in this job.”

In June, Ford won the 2010 American Business Awards’ “Business Turnaround of the Year” title for companies with more than 2,500 employees. The award recognizes Ford’s efforts “to turn the corner in 2009 in the face of a global economic and financial crisis, as well as unprecedented events in the U.S. automotive industry” and its impressive $17.5 billion improvement over 2008 – gaining in market share in the U.S. in 2009 for the first time in 14 years “despite increasing competition for buyers.”

The Road Ahead

Despite these early successes, Dendel isn’t one to rest on her laurels. She has many plans in the works for learning at Ford. In addition to bringing all engineers up to the same level and providing context for informal and social learning, she wants to ensure all formal in-person and e-learning initiatives are developed centrally but “top-hatted” locally – meaning the information is standard and uniform, but rolled out in the most appropriate format for the nation and culture in which it is being delivered.

“We call it ‘top-hatting’ because we do that with vehicles. [For example, in] Thailand, they don’t learn by e-learning at all,” she said. “The Chinese, I think, are more open to reading, but then they expect that there’s going to be a teacher who will answer questions and help them understand how to apply [the learning]. So we are talking about doing more of a worldwide needs analysis of how people learn. And it’s not about Gen X, Gen Y, baby boomers; it’s not even by language. It’s by culture and how the education system has been designed.”

About the Author:

Agatha Gilmore is a senior editor for Chief Learning Officer magazine.

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