Learning & Development COVID Action Recording with Kohler's Michelle Keith - 8/20/20

This week’s Learning and Development action call hosted special guest Michelle Keith, Human Resources and Talent leader at Kohler. An American company that dates back to 1873, Kohler today is a remarkably diversified company that remains best known for its plumbing products but also manufactures furniture, cabinetry, tile, engines, generators, smart devices, and more, in addition to having a hospitality division spanning golf, spas, resorts, etc. Keith was interviewed by i4cp CEO and co-founder Kevin Oakes and senior research analyst Tom Stone. Here are four highlights from the call:

COVID-19 has accelerated Kohler’s culture journey. Kohler is a very global company, with only about 30% of their associates based in the US. Over half work in manufacturing and a large percentage are in administrative/operations/corporate roles, but over 2,000 work in hospitality. This means the associate population is very diverse in terms of the work they do, and this makes it a challenge to have a consistent culture across the organization. The COVID-19 crisis required a lot of agile decision making, as manufacturing had to continue meeting customer needs (while also shifting some production to creating masks, shields, etc.); administrative staff initially had new safety protocols, but quickly shifted to remote work; and hospitality had to be shut down pretty quickly, with the need for furloughs, benefit consideration, and ongoing connection to staff.

Kohler is on a multi-year culture journey that was already moving towards an outcomes-based performance model. Digital aptitude has also been a focus, and both of these aspects have been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic period. To enable what was needed in the past few months, the organization pulled together a multi-disciplinary team, including some new expertise such as a leader with military and data background to assist. The value of expertise increased, while reliance on hierarchy decreased. Kohler’s culture already included taking action in response to their associate surveys, but during this time they have been doing more input gathering in real-time and this led to launching some new groups and collaborations in the organization.

Learning and development had to rapidly shift in recent months. The impacts of COVID-19 and the social justice crisis were layered on top of existing changes that required L&D involvement at Kohler. For instance, they are focusing on a new leader model called “Leading Boldly,” as they need to build stronger leadership consistency and talent movement in the organization. They have a strong Cornerstone implementation as their LMS, and are now focused on some new content providers that are culturally sensitive and multi-lingual. Recognizing that people often don’t like to read training content, Keith mentioned that the L&D team has gotten savvy with fast video production, as audio and intonation get messages across better. Some key topic areas include enterprise thinking, rapid innovation, less control / more delegation, leveraging external perspectives, challenging the status quo, smart risk taking, product manager expertise, delighting customers, and data / analytics.

Diversity, equity, and inclusion are a major focus. Like many organizations since the killing of George Floyd, issues of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) are top of mind at Kohler and real action is being taken. Keith noted that their business resource groups (BRGs) have been very active, and their CEO and other executives have jumped into those conversations. The truth-telling has been uncomfortable at times but also enlightening. They’ve consulted externally so to help go beyond things like traditional unconscious bias training to question how they measure diversity and to now insert the E of Equity into their focus on DEI. They are focused on finding and developing leaders who truly value diversity, and will constantly reevaluate all DEI initiatives, in the similar way to the fast growth they’ve seen in using data and analytics in recent years.

What is vital to the future of work and learning? When asked that question, Keith noted the importance of developing and maintaining personal connection, whether in person or virtual. She mentioned the value of book clubs, where often people remember a book that they actively discuss with others far more than one that they read in isolation. Similarly with learning in general, this speaks to the power of instructor-led training with peers in a social setting, whether that is in-person or virtual. A second area that Keith emphasized was the power of using data and analytics in HR and learning, noting HR professionals need to leverage them if we are going to continue to be relevant to our businesses.

In addition to this recording, please see the the i4cp Coronavirus Employer Resource Center for new research and next practices to help address the COVID-19 pandemic.

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