The Scoop on Leadership Development Programs

by Vault Careers | March 31, 2009

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If you're looking to get an early boost for your career after graduation, consider applying to a rotational training program.

These programs, which can be found in literally every industry and type of employer, are typically offered by large employers who aim to hire recent graduates and groom them as future company leaders.

Because the programs can be found at many different types of employers, they vary widely. For starters, they can go by any number of names and labels, though they usually have the words "management," "leadership," "training," or "development" in their titles. They also vary with respect to duration, number of rotations, number of employees hired into the program each year and other details.

There are common threads that tie these programs together, however. After joining them, trainees generally rotate through many different departments/areas in order to get an overview of the different parts of an organization. Employees are also offered formal training courses and mentorship relationships as part of the program. But most importantly, these programs are all designed to train the future leaders of an organization. Because of this, employees who go through these programs not only receive the best training their organizations have to offer, but are also "tagged" as potential leaders whose progress in the organization is followed even after they graduate from the training program.

Why rotate?

The central goal of a rotational training program is to provide trainees with an overview of an organization's operations.

"The more well-rounded employees are in understanding all of the operations in a hotel, the better they'll be as a general manager," explains Nancy Vu, Manager of Field Employment and Recruiting at Hilton Hotels Corporation. Hilton hires recent graduates into what it calls its Leader-in-Training (LIT) program. In Hilton's program, a trainee rotates through about a dozen different hotel departments in a six- to eight-month period.

"We want them to understand how each department links to one another," says Vu. "We want our trainees to get their feet wet in all these areas. Then they have a better understanding of what goes on in the rest of the hotel."

Michael Danubio, Manager of College Relations for Staples agrees that the breadth of experience is the key to the retailer's Merchandise Training Program, which rotates trainees through both store and headquarters rotations over an 18-month period.

"The most valuable thing they get out of this is seeing the full cycle of the business," says Danubio. "Once they're done, they've seen a big chunk of our merchandising operation."

Formal training and mentoring

Most rotational training programs incorporate formal training and mentorship that go above and beyond what most recent graduates encounter when they join their first employers. For example, for Staples' Merchandise Training Program, trainees take seminar-type courses on everything from "pricing to negotiation skills to supply chain logistics," says Erin Egnatchik, a recent graduate of the program. "That training has been opened up to other associates [in Staples' Framingham, Mass., headquarters], but it's required for Merchandise Training Associates," says Egnatchik.

Debbie Bertan, Director of College Relations for Citigroup says that the training and mentoring offered through the company's rotational programs (called the Management Associate Programs) is one of the program's main advantages. Citigroup hires recent graduates into a two-year rotation program in its Retail Distribution Group, and Citibanking Technology Solutions group (internal information technology positions) units.

"It's much more structured when you join a [Management Associate] program," says Bertan. "There's training at various intervals. Most of the associates start with some specific training that the whole group goes through, and then there's training specific to the Management Associate's specific needs. There's also softer skills training -- for example, training in leadership and communication skills."

But it's not just seminar-type training that new employees receive. In many cases, trainees are matched up with managers who serve as formal mentors during their time in the program. And because of an employee's status as a "future leader," he or she is also likely to pick up more informal mentors, too."When you enter through one of these training programs, there's more emphasis on mentorship," explains Citigroup's Bertan. "There's also greater exposure to senior leaders -- partially through events and/or through networking."

Starting on the ground floor

Just because rotational management training programs are intended to groom and train recent graduates as future leaders doesn't mean that new employees have it easy. In many programs, trainees are required to pay their dues as entry-level employees.

For example, in the retail industry, trainees often start with a store-level rotation. This is the case at both Staples and TJX. In Citigroup's Retail Distribution Group Management Associate Program, trainees may start behind the teller window.

"They probably think What am I doing here? I just paid 100 grand for my education and I'm wearing a red shirt in a store,'" says Staples' Michael Danubio. "But the reality is once they come into the home office, they realize how invaluable that experience is."

Danubio says that a recent hire into Staples' Merchandise Training Program made a point of telling him how valuable his in-store experience turned out to be. "[Once he got to Staples' headquarters office] he was working for a senior inventory analyst that handled the furniture," recounts Danubio. "He said that from Day 1, he knew what people were talking about. They were talking about specific SKUs that he learned about when he was in the store. It would have been a much longer ramp-up time if he hadn't had that experience."

At Hilton Hotels Corporation, trainees start with the unglamorous tasks related to normal hotel operations. "When they go through the housekeeping rotation," says Hilton's Vu, "They're required to make a certain number of beds, clean a certain number of rooms."

Because trainees in Hilton's program often go on to become managers at the hotel at which they train, the dues-paying is more than just a matter of learning the operations, says Vu.

Grooming leaders

From those humble entry-level rotations, however, future company leaders are created. Says Vu of Hilton's rotational program (which was established originally in 1988 as the Hilton Professional Development Program. "We have directors and VPs who came through that program and are still with us."

Because companies treat trainees as future leaders, a lot of attention is typically paid to their development. For this reason, some rotational training programs are small in size. Staples, for example, only currently hires two people a year into its Merchandise Training Program. "The organization internally can only sustain so many people at one time," says Danubio, "Because it takes a lot of internal coordination and training, and we want to make sure that we're giving them the resources they need here."

Once trainees "graduate" from rotational programs, companies usually track them through their career. Part of the reason for this is to make sure that the programs are working.

"We want to make sure that there's a reason to be supporting a program, so we track the career progression of the Management Associates we hire," says Citigroup's Bertan.

A consequence of tracking trainees this way, of course, is that graduates of training programs are always identified as such in the companies' human resource records, which is no small thing. "The real advantage is they are accelerated leadership programs," says Bertan. "This is our pipeline to train our future leaders."

Filed Under: Salary & Benefits

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