Listen: Interface’s Reece Roberson explains why taking risks is part of professional growth

Author: Mike Prokopeak
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In the list of professions, corporate education isn’t a particularly risky endeavor. It’s not firefighting or high altitude mountain climbing. That’s why it’s particularly important to inject an element of risk into learning and talent development work. There is no growth without it.

“You’re either disrupting, being disrupted or dying,” says Reece Roberson, vice president of HR, global talent management and learning at Interface.

Reece Roberson, Vice President of HR, Global Talent Management and Learning, Interface

That means trying new things, failing and sometimes saying no to executives who have a pet program or initiative they’d like you to build. “If you say yes to everything, you’ll just turn up a bunch of crap,” Roberson says. That same willingness to challenge the status quo goes for personal development, too. He knows that firsthand.

In this episode of the Chief Learning Officer Podcast, Reece describes whey he left a comfortable job at Home Depot to start up a new talent and learning function at Interface, an Atlanta-based maker of commercial flooring.

The bottom line: sometimes you need to go from getting stuff done to doing big things. Plus, co-host Justin Lombardo shares why complacency is a dangerous thing in learning and development work and when it’s OK not to take a risk in your career.

Episode Sponsors:
This episode of the Chief Learning Officer Podcast is brought to you by DXC Technology. DXC’s human capital management solutions are powering the next-gen workplace. Learn more by visiting dxc.technology.

This episode is also brought to by Bridge, the makers of Practice. Practice can scale the competency and confidence of your teams to ensure your organization thrives in today’s fast changing, unpredictable world. Visit getbridge.com to learn more.

Podcast Producer: Jesse McQuarters.

Episode Transcript:

Note: This transcript has been edited for space and clarity.

Mike Prokopeak: Hello and welcome to the Chief Learning Officer Podcast. As always, I’m Mike Prokopeak, editor in chief of Chief Learning Officer magazine, your host of the podcast, and I am joined by my co-host, Justin Lombardo. Welcome, Justin.

Justin Lombardo: Hey Mike, how you doing?

Mike: So Justin we’re talking a little bit about the need to take a risk as a chief learning officer today. So I interviewed Reece Roberson who is the vice president of HR, global talent management and learning at Interface in Atlanta, at our breakfast club event a little bit earlier this year.

Interface is a big company but you probably don’t recognize that name. They’re actually the maker of the FLOR tiles, those sort of modular tiles that you can put down, the carpeting tiles that you can put down. So, a big company. But he took a jump to start up that talent function there.

He was the first person in that role, from a pretty nice gig at Home Depot. He was running a large region’s learning and development operation so he had a well-established Fortune 100 company, was really in a good position, had funding, had budget, had some real challenges that were keeping him on top of his game but yet he decided to take a jump and take a risk and start up this new function at Interface. So what I want to ask you about is how important is it for chief learning officers to take risks? And maybe we could start on the personal basis. So from a career point of view do we need to take more risks as chief learning officers?

Justin: That’s a good question and so think a little bit about what you just talked about when you talked about Reece. He had a very good job, position. Let’s not call it a job, a position, with Home Depot. But it was regional. And it sounds like the position in the new company is more globally focused.

Mike: Yes.

Justin: He’s the man. Right?

Mike: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Justin: OK. That’s the difference. That’s one thing. So there’s a risk to saying, “I am the first among equals, a part of five people in a really cool gig with a lot of stuff, and a jump to the first chair,” alright? So, personally, if you’re going to make that jump you better be a risk taker.

Mike: So it’s a good risk to take if you have a risk-taker mindset?

Justin: Right, and that’s the-

Mike: When you’re taking that lateral move, but you’re taking a move into a bigger position, perhaps at a smaller company.

Justin: Yeah, exactly. Especially one where you’re going to be the guy, or the gal. So, if you’re the gal, you don’t have anybody else to talk to. If you were the gal in a region, you’ve got three other regional people to talk to. I mean-

Mike: You got a squad that you can turn to.

Justin: You’ve got a squad, you know? In medieval France, if you were the duchess of Burgundy, you could go talk to the duchess of Normandy. But if you were the king of France or the queen of France, you’re done. There’s nobody else.

Mike: We can always rely on you for a medieval reference in these podcasts.

Justin: They’re my people. The medieval people are my people. But it’s a good … there’s other references we could use but we won’t go there. A large part of that also is your personal threshold for risk. If you’re not a risk taker, that’s OK. Don’t be forced into it personally, on a personal level. OK? If you don’t want to take the risk, that’s not your way of doing things and it’s going to create unnecessary stress, then don’t do it.

Do incremental ones and when you reach that threshold where you say, “This is as far as I’m willing to go, I’m not going to do it,” I think that’s fine. I mean, I know I had people that, a couple times in my career, where I said, “Do you want a rotation overseas? Because it will help your career, it’ll advance it.” And I remember one case where the individual came back and said, “No. It’s going to be too disruptive. I don’t think I’ll like it. I think it’ll make me nervous.”

And I said, “Well, maybe you should try it”, and it became very clear that was not within this person’s wheelhouse and I’m perfectly cool with that. He knew his own limits. So that’s one on the personal level.

Mike: So let me ask you, as an industry are CLOs too risk averse? Will they benefit from taking more risks, not just personally but professionally, being less conservative with how we do learning and development work for example?

Justin: You know, that’s again a very good question. And I don’t know that I can generalize completely to everybody, but I would say this-

Mike: But I would like you too.

Justin: All right, well OK, well then I’m going to and then you handle the email that comes in. So, here’s the thing. We for years and years and years as CLOs kept talking about the transition to online learning, for example. Oh, everything’s going to go to online learning and we all have to become experts at it, we now talk about about individualized learning and things like that. But you don’t see a whole lot of people moving that forward. And that to me says somebody’s not taking the risks we need to do.

We talk about it and for years it used to be hysterical to watch. We would talk about we’re going to do this, we’re going to have more online learning, more individual learning and then you would see the annual reports put out by ATD and others, that said, “The bar has only moved 1%.” So when you look at that and we used to see it in the CLO sample.

Mike: We used to ask CLOs year over year what are you investing in? And there is a 1% to 2% drop in classroom learning investment per year but by and large the largest, the biggest expenditure for many.

Justin: And so that tells me, you know what? Somebody’s not pushing the envelope, somebody’s not taking risks. And I would say we do that as a group. We can talk that good game but we need to take that and other things and push it forward. We tend to not be as inventive on a practical level that we should be and I think a lot of that has to do with being risk averse. Because then I tie it to something else we’re always talking about as CLOs, and this is going to make me very unpopular, but it’s back to the thing-

Mike: You’re assuming you were popular to begin with.

Justin: I was assuming that. I would say, OK, so let me frame that more articulately. So, this is going to make me less popular with the five people with whom I was popular. We’re always worried about do we have a seat at the table? Do we have a seat at the table?

Mike: Our reputation-

Justin: Our corporate reputation, do I have a seat at the table? You know what? Take a risk and don’t worry about that. Take the jump. And I would say if we don’t start doing that more and more, we’re going to get further and further behind the 8-ball, in terms of serving the new generations of employees that are coming in and the new way business approaches things. So, I think to really answer your question, I think as a function now after 20 some years of being a function, we’re becoming less risk averse and more compliant and complacent, and I think that’s a bad trait for us.

Mike: Yeah. Well, I talked quite a bit with Reece about the risks he’s taken both personally and professionally. We get into that in this conversation as well as a lot more. I know you’re going to enjoy this conversation so let’s get learning.

Audience Applause

Mike: So, we made it actually fairly convenient for you here. You said you live about a mile away from here.

Reece Roberson: Yeah, mile and a half. I was able to bike over. It’s great to live in the city of Atlanta and not have a 45-minute commute somewhere like I’m sure a lot of you had to do this morning. So, I’m very fortunate.

Mike: So, let’s talk a little bit about your career path. So like a lot of CLOs or a lot of people who are in corporate learning, you kind of envisioned yourself doing public education or higher education. In your case, it was higher education. That’s where you thought you would be. You were an undergrad at Arkansas Tech, went to do graduate work Ohio University, Nova, Southeastern Eckerd College. And actually spent six years in higher education? Before you went and into business.

Reece: I wanted to be a teacher. I had a teacher – a biology teacher – that had a huge impact on me and actually was the first person that got me excited about studying. And I was like, “Maybe I could have an impact here.” And I felt kind of drawn to that. And then when I spent some time in front of a room full of tenth graders, I was like, “Hell no.” And found out that was not the place for me. And so I started looking at higher education, really working in student affairs. So campus activities, student leadership development, and was really excited about the impact that had on me as a student, and the impact that could have on others as we try to help create productive citizens in the world. And I looked really good in tweed jackets, so I thought higher education was-

Mike: Elbow patches-

Reece: Elbow patches was the place for me. And that’s what I set out to do for the first kind of six years of my career.

Mike: So why the shift then? So what happened after about six years that you said, “This didn’t quite work out the way I thought?”

Reece: Life happens, right? It kind of sneaks up on you when you’re not paying attention, and my wife at the time had a great opportunity that was going to move us to a new location. And I was exploring doctoral programs and I was like, “Great, I’ll take a year off. We’ll move, and then I’ll just get a job and have some fun as I look for a graduate school.” And when I did that, I ended up joined a leadership program with the Home Depot. And thought I would be there about six months – stayed about 14 years. And so it was a pivotal moment for me. One, because I didn’t know how much I was going to like the pace of business. And the speed of retail especially.

Being on the floor, the engagement, and then for someone that was kind of interested in developing people, a company that had 300,000 was a pretty good place to be. So, it was exciting to get in there. And then I also discovered that I kind of liked it, I was pretty good at it. Or at least I thought I was OK at it. So I just hung in there and then kind of just kept getting new opportunities to learn and grow and explore with the organization.

It kind of … at that point I was like, “I don’t think I can go back, in the short term, to higher ed.”

Mike: So actually you went in to be a store manager basically. It was a store leadership program. So how long did you work in store?

Reece: I worked in a store for about 14 months in a rotational based program. So, started doing the work of an hourly employee and so spent most of my time … In retail, anybody work retail in here? So you know it, the heart and soul of the business is when feet are on concrete. So if you’re not walking in circles then you don’t know what’s happening on the business. So that got me started and really probably led to my long-term success there because I developed a passion for the frontline employee, a passion for helping customers and so was able to carry that through the business.

And then I had an opportunity because of my background, I was the first wave – the first folks hired in this leadership program. And so they needed someone that could kind of talk about the experiences in a way that instructional designers and the learning people could understand. And so I became the translator and because of that they asked me to help move into a new position to help manage the program at a regional level and then as we worked to modify the way we were delivering content and then took over a divisional manager role. So a division at the Home Depot at the time is about 100,000 people, $30 billion, just to give you an idea of what a division looks like.

Mike: Let’s talk about that transition. So you’re working in stores then suddenly you find yourself in a learning role almost by happenstance because you were going through this program, you had that experience and that interest already, so they kind of got married. And then you get promoted to this point where you’ve got a division, 100,000 people as you said. That required a little bit of a shift in your approach as a leader. I mean, you’re going from that first jump from manager or executive, or leader-

Reece: Yeah so just with my career trajectory there was managing the program and then had an opportunity, and I think this is important in our career development, is sometimes follow your sponsorship. And there was an opportunity to do a job that wouldn’t last maybe about 12 months or 14 months in the organization. And that was to help take all the lessons learned through supporting natural disasters. And so if you know about the Home … anybody with the Home Depot in here? I don’t see any former colleagues.

Mike: There’s one back there.

Reece: Oh, yeah, good. Hey, how are you? So somebody that can keep me honest. Home Depot is one of the world’s best at responding to natural disasters in the community. And this is post-Katrina and we had all these lessons learned about how we take care of employees during those times. And so my job was to take all that information, consolidate it and then build a learning plan for the HR organization to make sure that they were ready to best support their people. Took that assignment and then at the end of that assignment, I got offered a director job.

And so a director job at the Home Depot is a big deal. And that was my first step into, I think, grown up kind of leadership with a big team, a large budget, large level of responsibility and this notion that you’re accountable for delivering value to the business at a very high level, a visible level. So that was moving into the director of learning for southern division.

Mike: What were some of the things that you wish you had known at that point, when you were making that jump? Or some of the things that perhaps you could’ve developed yourself a little bit more before you took that jump. You’re never always ready. You’re never going to be ready entirely but …

Reece: Yeah it’s like you can’t learn how to swim by reading it in a book. Sometimes you just got to jump in and start splashing around. But the good thing, I’d been studying leadership so I felt I had the mechanics when I really didn’t have the practice of working with a dysfunctional team. And so I inherited a team from a leader that I actually admired but they were completely dysfunctional and broken. And what I was ill prepared for is how to go in and work with a team that wasn’t a team. And so that was kind of this big stretch and lesson was trying to go in and then rebuild, reconnect. Because I started with here’s our strategy, here’s our plan, let’s go execute. Break. We’re ready. You know?

Mike: Let’s go.

Reece: It’s kind of like watching little kids play soccer, you know? Just everybody’s running, chasing the ball, that’s kind of how I started in that role. And then, with a notion to take a step back and say, “OK, this isn’t working.”

And that kind of lesson is you got to meet the team where they are, as individuals, then collectively as a group. And then slowly start [to] find those connections and paths forward.

Mike: Can we go back to that sponsorship question? Because I think you made a really important point there when you said follow your sponsorship. Can you unpack that a little bit for us? What do you mean by that and how do you identify those opportunities?

Reece: So there’s a good chance that I’ll contradict myself several times and if I do, just make a note and if you get five, yell “Bingo.” We all hear this silly greeting card phrase, like follow your passion. Which is great if you’re good at your passion and it will pay you. But I think another important thing is where is there work that you can do and you can do well, and where do you have a champion or a sponsor in your organization that is going to help you? So this is different than a mentor. And so, if you find someone that is taking a shine to you and likes your skill set and wants to help you grow, get you into those positions, sometimes at some point in your career, that’s a good place to go.

You know we always talk about two roads diverged in a wood, I took the one less traveled. Well there’s a crap load of people that don’t come out the other side of the road less traveled. Sometimes the path of least resistance may be the best move in your career because you need to demonstrate your skills. If you can get into those jobs where you’ve got the sponsor then you can demonstrate what you can do, if you want to grow in the business. So that may not be a popular belief but it’s one that served me well.

Mike: Well who was your sponsor? I mean, if you could share a name or sort of the role that that person was in.

Reece: Her name was Melanie Graham. She was a director of talent management and before that she was a director of talent acquisition. And I was working closely with her, and then also had an HR vice president that I worked really closely with, Theresa Duran. Probably one of the hardest bosses I’ve ever worked for but one of the big growth stretch opportunities for me. Forced me to be a better leader and a better follower. A better direct report, too.

Mike: Well, let’s shift gears and talk about Interface because that’s where you are now for about the last four years now? Is that about right?

Reece: Yep, just almost four years.

Mike: OK. For those folks who don’t know – what is Interface? What does the company do?

Reece: Interface despite the name is not a tech company. We make commercial flooring. If you’re in a commercial office space you’re going to see carpet tiles. That’s what we manufacture. We do it globally – LaGrange, Georgia is our largest manufacturing plant. And then we’re manufacturing in China, Thailand, Australia, Northern Ireland, Holland and Germany. And so in those places we also manufacture rubber flooring that’s used in education and hospitals and luxury vinyl tile, so all really for the commercial build space. And a small retail space called FLOR.

Mike: So you’re 14 years at Home Depot, $80 billion company and then this opportunity comes up with a company that is a $1 billion company. In many ways, to some folks that might seem a step back.

Reece: It seems backwards, doesn’t it? Yeah.

Mike: So what was the attraction there when you said, “Yeah, I’m going to join?”

Reece: I think I do kind of believe you’re either disrupting, being disrupted or dying. And so in my career I’ve had opportunities to disrupt myself, move to get new challenges and I was feeling that need to test myself. One of the things I wanted to do was prove that what I believe I was good at, I could replicate it and do it outside of the Home Depot. Because I was starting … like am I good because I’m here and people are used to me but can I be good somewhere else? Can I take what I’ve learned and apply it and continue to learn and grow? And so that’s one of those things. The other thing that pulled me to Interface is its mission and purpose.

And so you think – not a lot of things that are sexy about a carpet company but the mission of Interface – the purpose – is to lead industry to love the world. This is 1994, the organization has been on a path to do no harm by the year 2020. So if you name a company that you think is a sustainability leader, like shout one out, anybody. Who’s a great company in sustainability?

Audience: Novelis.

Reece: Novelis. I love the self promotion. That’s great.

Audience: Patagonia.

Reece: Patagonia. Right? So, it’s the no. 1 company that comes to mind. And then you’re probably going to say Coca Cola, you may say Tesla, you might say Ikea, you might say Unilever all have great programs and plans. Interface’s results are better than all of them. But they never told anybody. But it’s amazing almost at a point where we will declare this year that we’re at what has been mission zero, zero impact on the environment. All of our product right now is carbon neutral. We will be carbon negative as we move into our next big audacious goal, this climate take-back. And how do we manufacture product that sequesters carbon and helps create a climate fit for life.

And so I wanted to prove I could do something different and I also wanted to try to make the world better, which sometimes happens when you become a father. And so at the time I had a newborn and I started thinking about everything that was going crazy in the world and what could I do to make a difference.

Mike: When we were talking a little bit, you talked about you had a manifesto at this point.

Reece: Yeah. A boss said, “Reece, what do you wanna do next?” And I was like, “I don’t know. I really don’t know. I’ve had lots of opportunities.” I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to be the VP of learning and development, I wasn’t going to be the executive vice president of HR. I wasn’t on the path for that at the Home Depot. And so, I said, “Let me come back.” And so I did what most people do, you know, you go reflect, you have a glass of wine, climb a tree, read a book, listen to the sound of one hand clapping. All those things to get into your space. And I wrote my 10-point manifesto of what I wanted in my next job.

And the very first line is, “I wanted to do epic shit.” I was tired of just getting shit done. And the second one is I wanted to matter and do work that matters. And the third one was about working for an organization built on collaboration and real trust. And so I set out on my adventure to kind of find that. And it was I think not an aggressive search but just keeping open to ideas and possibilities. And so that was about three years until I found that place.

Mike: Your role is talent and learning at Interface. Can you give us a sense of what that encompasses because those are two words that can be construed in many ways.

Reece: So Interface, and if anybody knows this story, it was founded by a bigger than life founder, took the company public, grew it and then had passed away. And so the company was in mourning for a few years. They had gone out, found a new CEO and the CEO was like, “Our business strategy is good, our environmental strategy is fantastic, our people strategy is not where it needs to be.” The company hired a chief human resource officer. Four months after that I came on board and it was really about this chance to build HR and learning development and talent. And so I came in wearing multiple hats as an HR vice president supporting the Americas. I was the first person to kind of ever do that job. But then the other hat was talent management and learning and development.

It was like, first we have to demonstrate that we can add value in the people space – differential value than what the company has been receiving – and then let’s figure out how we start building the capabilities needed to take the company forward. And so the job turned into global learning and development and talent management. So we just call it “Learning and Talent” because we think those two things are inseparable. So, for us, your talent has an impact on your strategy. If you’re going to have a business strategy, you have to think, “Do we have the talent to deliver on that?” And the strategy you want, the strategy you select, has implications on how you engage your talent.

And so with those things being so closely connected to how you grow the business, it was an interesting way to kind of position learning as a strategic tool, about growing our capabilities necessary to deliver on the strategy. And so, it’s really a bit spiky where we don’t have a plan to say we’re trying to bring learning to everyone. We’re really focused on those roles – those critical roles and positions that are necessary to either upscale or hire for or build that will allow the organization to deliver on its three-year strategy.

Mike: When you first started at Interface it wasn’t this role. It kind of evolved into this role. Was that by your direction? Or was it sort of organically kind of coming … where did that come from?

Reece: Well, first of all I was a proof of concept. When I joined the organization, it was … I started attending the executive business meetings for the Americas and there was a question like, “Is it weird for you to be in these business meetings?” And I was like, “No, it’s weird you never had someone here before helping you.” And so the first few months were why the hell are you here, and then it was “Oh, we had a meeting. You should’ve been there. And then by year two it was like we can’t have this meeting unless HR is in the room. Reece needs to be there.

Mike: You have a lot of patience. Two years?

Reece: Well, it was a long journey. We had to turn over some people but sometimes you have to just stick with it. Wear them down. And so at that point the organization was like, “We really think this kind of new HR model, this business partner model works.” And so we expanded it into EMEA and APAC with two more HR vice presidents. And then that’s when we had the opportunity to say, “What we really need …” Because the business leaders were like, “We like what you’re doing in both spaces, we like what you’re doing in the learning space, we like what you’re doing in the HR space” and so I had the opportunity to kind of make a choice which way do I want to go?

And that’s where I said, “If we can combine talent, and learning together, then that’s what I want to do because that’s where I think we can add the most value in the organization.”

Mike: Where did you have to stretch yourself in this, when you kind of took that move? What were some of the big stretches you had to make that others can sort of look at and say, “All right, I need to think about that too” or “I need to maybe work a little bit on this piece?”

Reece: I think the stretch is the same battle we’ve all been fighting – is trying to move at the speed of business. And I think part of the stretch in this role is to be able to say no to a lot of good ideas. And I think most of us suffer the tyranny of good ideas in our organization and I think in this role it was to be really clear and tight about, “This is what we can actually deliver.” We can’t do any more. And if you ask me to do more then let’s talk about what we’re not going to do. Having those conversations with senior leaders, saying no to people’s pet projects, pulling funding away from things that people really loved like that was tough. And that was a big stretch.

Turning off programs that people were in love with but they added no value to the business, because they weren’t connected with those strategic initiatives. That was hard. So, it doesn’t make us popular in some circles but hopefully people understand that we’re committed to delivering the performance and if we don’t deliver the performance then we can’t fulfill our purpose.

Mike: So it’s a ruthlessness in a way. As a learning and talent executive, if you want to be effective there’s got to be that sort of ruthlessness to it.

Reece: If you say yes to everything you’ll just turn up a bunch of crap. Most of us are in here because we want to help, we care about people and we see a need and we try to do it, which means your 55 hour week goes to 65 hours. So then your life suffers at home. And then because your life suffers at home, your work suffers. And then you get miserable and you get burned out and you get cranky and then you have to take a retreat. Hopefully, by choice.

Mike: Yeah. How do you approach those decisions then? I mean, if you were saying, “Here’s a program that I know has been very successful, everybody loves it, but we’re actually axing it.” What’s your framework for looking at those things?

Reece: One of the things that I put in place was trying to take this model that I’ve used is: Is it good for the company? Is it good for the employee? Is it good for the customer? Is it consistent with our values? And take that and build out some design tenets that we use to make decisions about what are we going to work on. The first one is be purposeful, and that is that we should not work on or be putting resources to something that’s not connected to the strategy and helps us fulfill our purpose. And so with that one, sitting down with the leaders and having that conversation and working through the realities and constraints of our business. We have a dollar. Where are we going to put it? We want to put it towards this and trying to lay that out there really clean and simple and starting with that.

If you say yes to all of those factors then you’re usually working on the right stuff that the business needs you to do.

Mike: I’d like to zoom in a little bit on things you think are working and then we’ll flip it a little bit and talk about things that maybe haven’t worked out that you thought would. Can you point to a program or initiative that you think has been particularly successful over the last four years that you’ve been there? One that you would say is a bit of a beacon of how the learning and talent can work together at Interface?

Reece: There’s a couple. One is around our obsession with culture. One of the things that I get to do is I lead our cultural assessment and then working with the teams to build action plans against those results. Where we have put energy and effort towards those opportunities we had in our culture we move the needle through the measurement. Specifically one of those was around the first time we measured our culture. We got a false positive around strategy and mission. Because most folks were … at Interface, when you say mission, they think of mission zero and they think of sustainability. That’s what employees think about. When we’re talking about strategy and goals, it was kind of all confused.

And so we actually developed some digital learning modules that started with the strategy and this idea of what is the three-year strategy, understanding how we have to deliver on that, and then we back that up with our sustainability purpose, history, kind of where we’re going, marry those two things together and then deploy that in nine languages, which we have, that’s our minimum is nine. We have a lot more. And then the folks that have moved through that, we saw a double digit increase in the scores around strategic alignment, mission, purpose, goals and values. So that’s been huge for us and so very successful. We’re proud of the work we’ve done there and the team’s done. But it was not just an L&D exercise. It was working with the HR team, working with the senior leaders and then a lot of that effort crossed over into people leadership as well.

Mike: Can we flip that question around? So that’s something that you feel like worked. What hasn’t worked? What is something that you felt like this is really going to be effective but it’s sort of blown up in your face?

Reece: We try to work in a way that is agile and so we believe in test, tumble and try again. The other phrase that my team uses and they’re tired of me saying is pencils before pixels. Let’s sketch it out and draw it before we commit a lot of time and energy to building it or creating learning, so let’s create some flip books. And so we’ve tried to do that to keep us from making big bumbles. But we did. We spent our time and energy solving what we thought was a business problem around onboarding, designing the first 100 day experiences with these connecting points that really tied what performance management is, goal setting, with the new hire experience.

And it is not connected with our leaders. So I think the learners have enjoyed it [and] usually get high remarks from folks going through onboarding. The Net Promoter Score’s really good. But when we talk to the leaders about is this making a difference, are you feeling better, are we getting people started off in the right manner, it’s just not hitting the mark. So we’re going back to the well and I think we don’t hire a lot of people around the globe. I mean we have pretty little turnover and I think it just felt over designed, not simple to use, simple to execute so it wasn’t in line with one of our design tenets, and we’ve got to take another swing at that to create the right best experience.

And we have not solved for it. It did not solve for what our sellers need, the sales organization, which is a strategic initiative area of focus and so we’re missing the mark there. We haven’t hit it.

Mike: So it wasn’t necessarily a communication issue. It was more of a design issue than anything.

Reece: Yeah, it was. One, not taking enough time to fully understand all the unique situations around the globe. Because we were trying to figure out what can be the same. We have a saying where if it can be the same around the globe, then let’s make it same. If it can’t, make it similar. So it at least feels connected and I think we were too same where we needed to be similar.

Mike: All right, let’s do a quick speed round. What I want you to do is: I’ll give you a topic and I want you to tell us something that maybe the audience might be surprised to learn about that thing. So, we’ll start with Interface. What’s something that the audience might be surprised to learn about Interface?

Reece: We have no central HCM or HRS system. And so I can’t tell you how many people work there.

Mike: Can you approximate?

Reece: I can guess but it takes about a week. We collect data from nine sources, different spreadsheets around the globe that are a roll-up from 38 different sources of people data around the globe just to get names in the LMS.

Mike: Is that by intention?

Reece: No. Well, so this is one of those things where you have strategic data. We would all love an HCM system but it costs a lot of money. What we’re saying is right now I don’t know if we can do anything with the data if we have it because we’re just not ready for it. And is that where we need to best deploy our money? Or do we need to invest it into the manufacturing equipment to help us manufacture carbon negative products? That’s the strategic priority and that’s where it’s going. But it is painful when we try to update. So the data’s always wrong in the LMS but we’re like it’s close enough and it’s actually the best we have in the organization. But it works locally.

Mike: A surprise there. A $1 billion company doesn’t necessarily have unified HCM.

Reece: No.

Mike: Something that might surprise us about your beliefs about adult learning?

Reece: I don’t know if there’s such a thing as adult learning versus just learning. I have a 5-year old and I watch her learn, and then I watch grownups learn, and the things they do that are effective are the same. They play. They discover. They have a sense of wonder, they touch it, they feel it, they play with it and they talk about it. One of the things in adult learning theory that we just don’t spend enough time talking about is stopping to reflect. And learn. Play with it. And when I look at effective learning, we all know how important psychological safety is in that and that’s so hard to create in the work environment. But if you can get it, people start behaving and working with that wonder, same as my 5-year old does.  So though I’ve spent a lifetime about adult learning, I’m kind of …

Mike: Done with that.

Reece: Yeah I’m not sure everything is landing where it needs to be landing and that’s cool.

Mike: Which is interesting especially as we think about much of the investment in learning and development happening around reskilling, we hear those things. When you talk about psychological safety, when you talk about a sense of wonder or sense of playfulness that creates this opportunity or openness to learn. Reskilling is important but it doesn’t create that bigger impact that you’re talking about.

Reece: Yeah. Most of what I’m focused on is around leader development and not so much technical job training.

Mike: Alright, something that might surprise us about your approach to enterprise L&D? So something that, as you look at the how you do your work at Interface that might surprise folks who are doing similar work?

Reece: I spend a disproportionate amout of my time talking people out of training initiatives. Because it is the wrong thing. So some of you have been around long enough to remember the old human performance technology model. What’s the behavior desired, what’s the behavior you got, and what’s the reason for the gap? I spend a lot of time talking about the gap, talking people out of spending lots of money on learning and development. So I think that’s one of the things that I think surprises my partners is how I’m usually helping them move away from it. Or figuring out that training’s one part but there are seven other parts that we need.

Mike: Yeah when you say to somebody, “I don’t want your money” how …

Reece: Sometimes it’s frustrating because what they’re trying to do is fix somebody. You know? And I’m like, “You’re not going to fix them.” And then I pull out some data or I’ll show them the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve or I’ll just talk about their experience. Have you ever been to a one-day seminar and you walked away and you were changed for life and you’re better because of it? No. OK, let’s talk about how you learned, how you developed and then we kind of get into it. But a lot of time it’s like helping people understand that what they’re trying to solve is the wrong problem. My love language is the marker on a white board and so that’s where we go and we spend a lot of time at the white board trying to get at what problem are we actually trying to solve and then how might we solve that? Which is my favorite question, how might we?

Mike: One more surprise. What might surprise us about something that you think is overrated? What do you think is overrated in the work that we do?

Reece: I don’t want to piss off the vendors that are in the room. Just kidding. Mentoring programs. Formal mentoring. I pretend not to be but I’m in introvert. I just hate it. I personally hate it. I’ve never had success with it. I think we like to do it because it sounds good and we think mentoring is good. Most of them don’t seem to work. There are flashes of brilliance that occur. I don’t think mentoring is bad but I think this kind of notion of solving mentoring ….

The other thing is we’ve got to rethink how we’re developing leaders because if you believe Gallup’s numbers the engagement is kind of hovering at 30%. It’s been at that for 20 years. We’ve invested just absolute crap ton of money trying to drive engagement but we can’t seem to move the needle so we’re doing something wrong. And we know leaders are the key in moving that needle so I think we’ve got to let go to some of our beliefs about what leadership development needs to be.

I don’t have an answer for it but I just feel like that’s an area where I just don’t think it’s working and looking for a better way.

Mike: I think it’s even bigger than the organization, what you’re talking about. It’s our approach to work and approach to life that has created that lack of engagement. But that is a whole different conversation. So something that might surprise us about you personally. What would surprise us to learn about you?

Reece: I’m an introvert. I hate this.

Mike: Leave him alone after this. He’s going to need some decompress time.

Reece: No, I am here because it’s part of my growth and development. I wanted to be a rock and roll star so being here on stage feels good. The surprising thing about me is I’m not generally kind of wanting to be in large groups – wanting to be in front of people. But I do appreciate the opportunity and I do like working with large teams and large groups.

Mike: I think that perspective actually adds to being in the people business because if you have that perspective of not being naturally or coming naturally, to be able to bring that in adds an edge.

Reece: Yeah.

Mike: Which is good. Alright, so we just have a couple minutes left on stage. I want to broaden this picture out. You’re doing some interesting work at the intersection of talent and learning at a company that’s growing [and] really trying to make some changes. As you look out at the learning and development industry, as you speak to people who are in executive learning roles, what are the things, the absolute things that you feel like they need to be grappling with right now if they aren’t already? What are some of those key burning issues? I think you mentioned engagement is one. What are others?

Reece: It is the rapid evolution of how we do work in organizations. And so as we go through this digital revolution within work, as we move from hierarchy structures to teams, as we move from employees to the gig economy and part-time contract, ad hoc, and the way the business is working, I think we’ve got to get ahead of that quickly. Because what does it mean if 40% of your workforce is not a full-time employee? Or they’re only going to be here for the duration of the project? So how do we engage? They also need to learn and grow. How do you connect with them? How do you build a culture of an organization with folks that are coming and going?

What does it mean for teams when the team you’re working with for this week is not the team you’re on next week? And so how quickly can we get through and help those teams get to performance? So I think the nature of work getting done, understanding how to use the digital tools, and then being ambitious to embrace the technology – and I have no idea what AI means for us – but it’s going to be a part of how we do work and how our people do work so we’ve got to run to catch up in that space.

Mike: How do you yourself learn? How do you learn about … you mentioned AI, or anything new that’s converging? How do you approach and how do you learn yourself?

Reece: So I made a commitment to myself several years ago to read 30 minutes every day. And so at a minimum I read 30 minutes every day.

Mike: That’s tough with a 5-year old, by the way.

Reece: It is extremely tough. There are some times where that 30 minutes is stretched out over an hour and a half because it was a nap in between. But I do it in the morning so I kind of build this routine to read, to explore and I think purposefully about adjacencies. So I’m not reading specifically about our industry, or L&D, but things that are next to it. So for me the space between talent management, HR business partner work and L&D is all the same. And so I push into those and then I explore things that are completely outside of the realm. I have a passion for architecture and design. I believe in a past life I was an architect or something, I don’t know. I have no math skills so I know I wouldn’t have been a very good one.

Mike: That didn’t come over into this life.

Reece: That didn’t make it into this life. And so that helps me thrive. And then the other thing is just be an active listener at work and trying to [figure out] what’s the business problem and then throw yourself into it.

And then if I land on a topic or find a problem then I crawl down the rabbit hole and I’ll immerse myself into that subject and go deep. Talk to experts, reach out, whatever I can do. But it’s always about trying to learn a way to be better. Like how can I be a better person ultimately? I think I’m a humanist and so for me it’s not just being a better leader, better person first. If I can be a better person, I can be a better leader.

Mike: Thank you, Reece, for joining us today. I appreciate you taking the time.

Reece: Thank you, folks.

Mike: Thank you again, for joining us for the Chief Learning Officer Podcast. If you like what you heard please consider giving us a rating on iTunes and if you have a comment, a topic or something that you’d like to see us tackle in an upcoming episode, be sure to drop us a line at editor@chieflearningofficer.com. We look forward to having you back again soon and keep on learning.

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Listen: Interface’s Reece Roberson explains why taking risks is part of professional growth
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