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Home  > Article

Training Maneuvers

By Martin Lieberman

Are training programs corporate boot camp? Will you make it through alive? Survivors from the best programs share their experiences from behind the lines.

 
Should training programs be corporate boot camp?
 

It's 6 a.m. on the first day of basic training, and you've barely had a wink of sleep. Reveille blew 15 minutes ago, and in that time you've jumped out of bed, washed up, dressed, rubbed your newly shorn head, made your bed (hospital corners and all), and assembled with your fellow recruits in straight-line formation outside. Your drill instructor has put new cadets through this regimen countless times before, and there's no chance he'll let you off easy. Now get down and give him 50!

Often hailed as the most rigorous training program in the country, Marine Corps basic training is an intense experience. Day after day, new recruits are pushed to their limits, working harder than they ever have to keep up with the pace. It can be intimidating, but the people who finish the program come out feeling confident and prepared. And that, in a nutshell, is what makes boot camp so successful.

Few corporate training programs are as hardcore as the Marines' basic training, but all of them have the same ultimate goal: preparing new employees to do their jobs well. Companies such as Apple, Hewlett-Packard, and Motorola promote their training programs as an important part of their benefits packages, something more valuable than a 401(k) or a fitness program. They know that a strong, sophisticated training program can make the difference between a competent employee and an exemplary one.

"When you're hired, as part of the selling process they definitely mention the training and how it works," says Cytheria Jernigan, 23, an employee of Bain & Co., a management consulting firm based in Boston. "It's one of the things they're proudest of, relative to their competitors." Bain's Associate Consultant Training (ACT) is one of the most respected training programs in the country. When new college graduates join the company, they often have the same concern: "How am I supposed to advise Fortune 500 companies on how to run their businesses?" To prepare for this daunting task, each new hire goes through a six-week crash course called pre-ACT. As a lead-up to the main training retreat, known simply as ACT, pre-ACT ensures that "everyone starts from the same baseline," Jernigan says.

New associate consultants (ACs) arrive at the office to find four-inch-thick binders waiting for them. "When we first walked in and saw those binders, we were like, 'You've got to be kidding me,'" Jernigan recalls. The book serves as a guide for the upcoming weeks and includes a schedule of classes and nightly homework assignments, as well as everything employees need to know to do their jobs.

The new associates endure a fast-paced program of classes and simulated cases that involve solving the problems of fictional clients. For the first two to three weeks, from nine to five every day (not including the two and a half hours of homework each night), ACs attend classes on everything from cash flow analysis to the "Bain Toolkit" and learn how to use all the corresponding software. Then, as the employees slowly make the transition into real, client-based work, the intensity of the training increases.

A Marine adage says, "The more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war," and Bain's philosophy is similar. With a senior co-worker serving as coach, each group of five ACs works together on an assigned case simulation, and at the end of the six weeks, the ACs present their results to a Bain partner. Although the case is fictitious, the partner treats it as a real one, and the ACs sweat the details. Not every aspect of the pre-ACT program is as serious, though. For their simulation, Jernigan says her team was assigned a fictional German beer company, and in keeping with the requirements of the case, they conducted first-hand market research. "You can't very well try to segment the market when you don't know the market," she laughs. "That was a nice excuse to go sample beer."

After pre-ACT, Bain is confident that its recruits are able to assist in serving clients. But the training isn't finished. For two weeks in the fall, Bain takes all new ACs to Cape Cod, Mass., for ACT. Forget any notion of a vacation; this is a real tour of duty. Each day, employees attend classes, or "training modules," which are more in-depth and case-oriented than the pre-ACT curriculum. Each night they must complete an assignment that they will present first thing in the morning. And because ACs come from around the world for this program, some have to contend with the added challenge of language barriers and other cultural differences. Despite the exhausting agenda, the two programs together yield impressive results. By the end, Jernigan says, "You're ready to flex your muscles."

Not every training program is so demanding. While many companies require a period of concentrated training, others feel that the best educated employee is one who learns on the job over time. At Burson-Marsteller, a public relations and "perception management" firm based in New York, training takes place between the employee's 6th and 24th month at the company. This way, new hires, called associates, can digest all the information properly without becoming overwhelmed, says Liliana Esposito, 23, an associate at Burson-Marsteller. From the first interview to the performance review, Burson-Marsteller puts a lot of time and effort into making sure its employees are well prepared.

Training sessions on topics such as financial fundamentals and media relations are offered at regular intervals, and everything is client-specific. For example, at the writing workshop, each participant brings a press release that he has written for the group to critique. In other sessions, staff members discuss ways to introduce clients to the media and learn how to use the company's internal computer system, InfoDesk. While not all sessions are mandatory, attendance is always highly encouraged.

During performance reviews, associates review a checklist with their supervisors to make sure the associates have been attending training sessions as part of their professional development effort. The goal is for each associate to be eligible for Burson-Marsteller University (BMU), a retreat-style training program that takes place each quarter. To qualify for BMU, an employee needs to have been with the company for at least six months. "I think that's really good because it's not like you're getting completely inundated with information and you don't know where to put it," Esposito says. "You already have a context for it."

Supervisors nominate candidates for the BMU program, and every class is composed of employees from all reaches of the company. "Each [session] is a global event," says Carrie Rowland, Burson-Marsteller's Director of Worldwide Education and Internal Communication. "We roll out the red carpet and bring everyone together." For three days, people of different ages and nationalities, from diverse areas of the company, convene in Norwalk, Conn., to enrich their company knowledge and refine their abilities.

The program includes practice exercises that are similar to sections of the Bain curriculum. Teams of six people, supervised by senior staff members, work together to solve the problems of actual Burson-Marsteller clients-problems the firm has not been specifically hired to solve. The work is presented to senior management and client team members. "You really have to be on your toes," says Esposito. "You're talking to people you respect, their opinions matter to you, and people take it seriously." Rowland calls this part of the weekend "a global, interactive brainstorm for free" because clients later receive the work for their own use.

The purpose of the BMU program is not just to teach employees how to do their jobs, it's also to introduce them to the bigger picture of life at Burson-Marsteller. Each BMU participant receives a list of the attendees so that he can look them up on the InfoDesk system (employee bios contain potentially helpful information such as hobbies and previous employment history). In addition, employees sit with different people at every meal to meet as many of their classmates as possible. "If you've met the people at BMU, you're much more willing to pick up the phone and pick their brain," says Esposito. "When I came back, I went through the list, and out of the 75 people there, there were only three or four [for whom] I couldn't put a name with a face."

As an increasing number of recent graduates join the fierce job market and employers recruit more aggressively, look for more companies to recognize the need for innovative training programs. University-style training programs in particular are catching on. "As companies grow to have offices around the world, getting their employees together and having them learn from each other is the most important part of training," says Rita Masini, Director of the Ketchum College program at Ketchum Public Relations in New York. "When you hear something academic, it automatically says you're there to learn, it conveys that you're making an investment to bring someone to another level."

"If employers aren't spending 2 percent of payroll on training, they're falling behind their competition," says William Truesdell, a professor of human resources at the University of California at Berkeley. The Marines market their basic training with the line, "The change is forever," and employees who've gone through corporate training agree: a good training program is something that has a long-lasting effect. "It is so intense and so in-depth that I can't imagine it not being useful," Jernigan says. "It helped a lot in assuring me that I had made the right decision."







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