January 1, 2005

Business Intelligence

Executive education provides an opportunity to learn from the hard-won experience of others, replacing proven best practices for trial-and-error.

It's easy to become so consumed with running a business that executives lose sight of their greatest potential advantage—superior market and business knowledge. Those who build education and training opportunities into the life of their business better their chances for success and long-term growth.

Every company is different, of course, and every senior executive reached the top by a route particular to them. But some of the greatest business executives have built substantial returns by investing heavily in their people and individual progress. The substantial General Electric investment in training and executive education comes immediately to mind as just one example.

Three companies approached by Forward say that it works the same way in metals.


Even during the darkest times of the last several years, it never occurred to leaders at Olympic Steel to cut back on executive education and training.

“There's no standing still in the world,” says Michael Siegal, chairman and chief executive officer of the company based in Bedford Heights, Ohio. “So whether it's your business or you as an individual, you either move forward or you move backward. Clearly, education creates all kinds of opportunities.”

Olympic employs a mixed program, infusing internal coursework with outside options. That mix is critical to an effective educational program.

“You need both,” says Maureen Mason, vice president of human resources. “From an economic perspective, you're absolutely crazy if you don't take advantage of your [internal] expertise because it helps you do more training than you might otherwise be able to if it was all delivered externally. Plus, it's good getting that external perspective because the steel service center industry, by virtue of the fact that it's a service center, is extremely fast-paced and extremely customer-focused. Customers are calling in quickly, and you need to respond quickly.”

On the other hand, external educational opportunities permit managers to “escape from the everyday environment and go off to think more strategically when their phones aren't ringing off their desks and they're not running around the building,” Mason says.

Mason says the company tries to be very strategic in who it sends to external courses. Each November, the human resources division outlines courses that will be available in the coming year, and general managers nominate staff based on skill requirements needed in each division. Once nominated and accepted, each “student” works with their division leaders to track their training goals and create tangible ways to apply lessons learned on the job.

“We're pretty rigorous about tracking [education],” Mason says. “It really ensures that the employees belong there and that we get a return on our investment—that the learning is brought back and is shared inside the company.”

Inside Olympic, Mason helps put together a year-long plan with educational presentations made every month. Topics range from product-related issues to regional programs. At the executive level, corporate leaders attend a biannual fall planning session. Expert speakers make specialized presentations, and executives work in breakout sessions that focus on teamwork, leadership and communication skills. “We do a lot of work,” Mason says.


Leaders at O'Neal Steel, Birmingham, Ala., see professional education as a two-way street.

“A lot of companies look at training and development strictly from the perspective of what benefits us and not from the perspective of what do the employees themselves need to gain from this process as well,” says Shawn Smith, vice president of human resources. “Employees who don't feel they're getting that sort of support and that the company is not creating opportunities for them to grow professionally tend to go elsewhere. They tend to find companies that will meet their needs.”

For the past two years, O'Neal's Corporate Training and Develop-ment manager, Kristy Nolen, has implemented and refined an enterprise-wide educational track. Formed as Kirkman College, named after O'Neal's founder, Kirkman O'Neal, executives can attend a variety of both onsite and online courses, ranging from communication to operations to sales and service courses. O'Neal leaders track course attendance, and annually they send out individualized training reports for each employee that highlights work completed and courses that remain for that particular career track.

Smith says the college has helped spot and guide future company leaders. “Before, we did not have any real structure to formalized training. A lot of it was ad hoc. Some people were being trained, but most were not,” he says. “We have a tendency to promote people to a supervisory position and then just sort of assume they already know how to do it. That's one of the reasons that we put in this sort of first-initiative training. We've got to do a much better job of bringing people into the organization, getting them the initial training that they need, finding the best possible way to coach employees to higher performance.”

Newly promoted company leaders take O'Neal's “Learning to Lead” course within six months of their promotion. The three-day session covers company policy and procedural elements, and managers work in breakout sessions that focus on team weaknesses and potential solutions. “This is a critical piece to maintaining a high-performance workplace,” Nolen says. “Before, we had pockets of training going on, and now we're bringing a new degree of efficiency to it.”

However, like any forward-thinking organization, O'Neal must keep growing its educational opportunities. Smith says leaders are working with Dale Carnegie to create a warehouse supervisory training team that will enhance the company's leadership training offerings. “We know there's a lot of room for improvement relative to our peers,” he says. “And we're going to have to depend on our supervisors and managers to make that happen.”


Sometimes the best way to move ahead is to take a step back. Leaders at Chicago Tube & Iron, Chicago, actively encourage employees to step away from their desks and look at the larger picture. Internal training sessions help employees forget about the piles of paper on their desks and remember the larger forces at work in the industry.

“Sometimes you can get so embroiled in the day to day that it's pretty difficult to see the forest for the trees,” says Susan Hamilton, vice president of administration. “You can keep people more aware of trends in the economy and the industry because you're always talking about it [in training]. You're not assuming that they're reading [industry news briefs] even though that's something you usually find on people's desks. It's a dangerous assumption to make.”

Hamilton says the company opted for internal programs for their flexibility and customized content. They teach the classes themselves, which also provides greater value. “Nothing helps you master a subject faster than having to train someone else,” she says. “By doing that, we give them an opportunity to think of things differently and also to master a subject more.”

Training hinges on management and sales development courses. The five-day management course includes a strategic economic overview and covers a range of topics, from financial statement management techniques to human resource policy to corporate quality management. The three-day sales course is geared toward inside and outside sales staff.

A new course also has been in the works to engage rising company stars. The “management summit” involves newly appointed company leaders. Class members write 90-day transition plans after they are promoted, and peers, direct reports and supervisors conduct a 360-degree performance appraisal. The online tool gauges leadership qualities—adaptability, mission fulfillment, involvement and consistency. “We use it solely as a development tool,” Hamilton says. “It's a way for them to make their promotion more effective through self-development.”

Hamilton says she's working to develop second-level management and sales courses that will drill down into some of the broader elements presented in the level-one courses.