Boeing U

Boeing U – Boeing’s Leadership Center

Caroline Louise Cole

Boeing’s Leadership Center is a sort of flight-simulator, encouraging managers to explore ideas that are too risky to try out at home. Sometimes they fail, but they always learn.

[ST. LOUIS] The food is gourmet quality and the service four-star, making a one-or two-week stay at Boeing’s Leadership Center a refreshing change of pace from the day-to-day pressures of ordinary work responsibilities. But for the more than 7,000 Boeing executives and up-and-coming managers who will attend a training session here this year, the experience is not intended to be all relaxation.

* “The one word everyone used in describing their experience before I went was ‘intense’ and now that I’ve been, I’m finding myself using the same word,” said Tom Young, director of advertising for the company’s military aircraft and missile division, and a former fighter pilot familiar with “intense” experiences. “It was intense, but it was one of the most useful intense experiences I’ve ever had.”

* Added Larry Milligan, a facilities manager at the company’s Anaheim, California, location, “Before I went, I heard it referred to as the ‘velvet prison,’ because once you get there you’re stuck. You can’t leave because you have no car. But the truth is once you are there you don’t need to leave and you don’t want to leave. You are learning too much.”

* On the 286-acre campus snuggled against a hillside that overlooks the confluence of the Missouri, Illinois, and Mississippi Rivers in northwest suburban St. Louis, the three lodge buildings that make up Boeing’s Leadership Center provide just the right mix of a secluded, well-appointed, and well-equipped location for the task at hand.

And that task is part academic and part social, providing a central location to help everyone from the company’s chief executive down to newly minted managers hone their work and leadership skills within a custom-designed curriculum.

“Here participants can think about the whole company and their role in it,” said Steve Mercer, 60, the executive director of the facility. “The intention is to free the students of all distractions. I tell them, ‘Once you leave the airport you can lock your wallet away. We’ll take care of everything. We just want you to immerse yourself in everything Boeing.'”

The idea of concentrating its ongoing training program at one central facility is a relatively new concept for Boeing, Mercer noted. “Prior to having this facility, Boeing would develop a program and then run everyone through it in a year or so,” said Mercer, who came to Boeing from General Electric and its model-learning center in Crotonville, New York. “What’s different about this is that the programs here are ongoing. It shows the company’s commitment to learning as a life-long pursuit.” And because Boeing is in control of what its students are learning, Mercer and his staff of 15 instructors can take the time to design a curriculum that meets the rapidly changing demands of Boeing’s particular business environment.

“I am not the learning czar and I believe in decentralization, that learning can happen anywhere,” Mercer said. “But we do need to bring people together to integrate our operation and build cultural and company values.” The facility, the former Desloges estate and gentleman’s farm, came to the aerospace giant through its merger with McDonnell Douglas in 1997. The main building was originally an underground ballroom. Today it serves as a meeting room and dining area. The old carriage house has been renovated for seminar rooms.

“There was never any question that we weren’t going to continue this project, which Harry Stonecipher, my counterpart at McDonnell Douglas, had initiated with the purchase of the property in 1995,” said Phil Condit, Boeing’s chief executive officer, after addressing a fresh crop of students in the Executive Program. “During our negotiations he asked me how I felt about it and I said it was full-steam ahead. We both have very similar attitudes about learning being a life-long pursuit. People are our most important resource and we have some very talented people.

“Having said that, when they are here we want to push them to think about ideas that are too risky to try out at home,” he said. “Our guys are obsessed with quality because ours is a business that is focused on safety. Here, though, we want them to try out ideas that fail once in a while, because through that failure is a learning experience that builds confidence to find new limits. You can’t crash a plane on purpose but you can crash a flight simulator and learn something.”

The $60 million Boeing Leadership Center opened in March of 1999. Stonecipher, now Boeing’s chief operating officer, gave the opening address and along with Condit continues as a regular lecturer. The university-like facility has 120 private residence rooms, a workshop with a large lecture hail, three large classrooms, and 21 breakout rooms where students work in teams on collaborative projects. The dining room, with its panoramic view of the bluffs overlooking the Illinois River, seats 156. There is also a fitness center.

Since opening, the center has proven so popular that Boeing is preparing to add a seven-story residence hall, doubling the space provided by the current wings, Mercer said. With its own training programs well underway, Mercer is putting energy into developing a Web-based program to augment his residential program. In May, the center also hosted a meeting of the Global Forum on Business-Driven Action Learning and Executive Development, a four-day consortium of 90 executives representing 40 companies in more than 20 countries. The event included representatives of Alcoa, Motorola, DuPont and Eli Lilly.

There is one thing you won’t find at the Leadership Center: a golf course. Instead, Boeing has chosen to maintain the fields of corn that have been farmed on the property for more than 100 years, Mercer said.

“We have nothing against golf but we wanted to get away from a country club atmosphere,” he said. “For recreation we offer team sports like volleyball, softball, basketball, and tennis. We also have billiards and miles of natural hiking trails. But right off, we wanted to destroy the idea that this was going to be some kind of executive hideaway.” Participants are here by invitation only, though, and are intentionally matched up in working groups with people they don’t meet in their normal work assignment. And every Boeing manager will come here at a key point in his or her career, Mercer said.

Mercer said the facility has been designed to promote networking so that students go home with dozens of new e-mail addresses and the knowledge that they are not alone in solving problems and challenges. For instance, outside the main lecture hail, the center posts photos of all participants, their titles and worksites, so identifications can be easily made. The executive program for the company’s top 2,000 managers is scheduled at the same time as the Transition to Management Program for those recently promoted to supervisory level. That way, participants at all work levels have a chance to meet in the dining areas and residence hall.

This bringing together of workers from diverse business units is a key to the center’s success. It’s particularly important as Boeing works on integrating its newer employees, who came to the company through its merger with McDonnell Douglas in 1997, North American Rockwell a year earlier, and those from Hughes Space and Communications, who will join the company later this year. Boeing currently has 180,000 employees. “The classroom program I participated in, like the computer simulations we did, could very well have been done at my work site but I realized as soon as I got here, a critical part of the program was the people I met,” said Milligan, the facilities manager from California. “Since coming home in July, I have traded dozens of e-mails. The emphasis is on working out common processes together, whether you are working in Anaheim, Seattle, or Houston.”

In addition to the facility’s education-oriented architectural design is a deep-seated commitment to the value of learning from both top quality instructors and the students themselves. “What amazed me was the level of instruction,” said Anne Toulouse, 42, who is vice president of brand management and advertising and who works at the company’s Seattle headquarters. “I expected one or two great presentations but the caliber of every one of the presentations was phenomenal. We were engaged nearly every moment.”

Toulouse said she still marvels at the thought put into the curriculum of the executive leadership program, which she attended with 60 others in July.

“One of our simulations involved dealing with union negotiators, and for this segment they brought in people in our company who negotiate with the unions, except they were role-playing their counterparts,” she said. And Milligan, 43, said it was refreshing for the company to teach its managers when it is okay to push a project back to the boss because a request is unrealistic.

“That the company would put that concept before us shows they are interested in our success, that Boeing feels it’s important that managers at all levels treat their employees decently,” Milligan said. Added Young, “There are a zillion books and articles on coaching tips, which is one thing we talked a lot about in my sessions, but somehow working on them together there makes it easier to apply them at home.”

Caroline Louise Cole is a freelance writer based in the Boston area.

Top Goals of Boeing Leadership Center

* Ensure that Boeing has the smartest and best-educated leadership team in the world.

* Effectively communicate and deploy Boeing’s growth strategy of transitioning the company from a product orientation to a business performance model.

* Create a new Boeing culture based on best practices from our individual organizations while building on the diversity of the entire organization.

* Ensure that all Boeing leaders have the financial acumen needed to produce consistently spectacular business results.

* Develop managerial bench strength necessary to continue our growth well into the 21St century.

The Success of the Boeing Leadership Center

Workers who report to managers who have participated in programs at the Boeing Leadership Center consistently give them higher ratings in employee satisfaction surveys than they give managers who haven’t attended. When asked if senior executives clearly communicate the long-term strategy of the company, leadership center grads won a 75 percent rating, 10 percentage points higher than managers without the training. Likewise, in answering the question “I am given a real opportunity to improve my skills at Boeing,” leadership center grads got an 85 percent rating over the 69 percent scored by non-grads.

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