Irene Brank worked as director of life and annuity operations for the life division of First Allmerica Financial. She faced one of the most difficult of situations someone could face: managing employees facing almost certain job loss during a company closure. The 250-plus employees in the life business had to service existing clients while transferring knowledge to an acquiring company.
The potential for harm was great: en masse departures, careless work, or even retribution and sabotage were possible if Allmerica failed to help its employees with the consequences of closure. To meet the challenge, leaders of the life division decided to embark on an ambitious learning initiative. They would answer the “what’s in it for me” question by encouraging learning about career changes and personal development while asking employees to share knowledge with the acquiring company.
The learning strategy had three key components:
- Employee leadership. Employees staffed the cross-functional team charged with guiding the learning strategy. The team took unexpected and creative measures to engage employees in learning. Employees stepped up to moderate book groups, lead sessions on managing stress and encouraged their peers to take advantage of learning opportunities.
- Learning environment. The life division decided to create a place conducive to learning. Called “Educate U 4 Life,” this innovative space included library resources, online tutorials, posting boards, and computer work stations for employees needing a quiet space to study for certification exams, work on stretch goals or polish their resumes.
- Knowledge sharing about the life division’s practices and procedures was critically important to the sale of the business. But the division went beyond sharing just business knowledge—the list of activities was broad and included industry, personal interest, transitional and motivational activities.
These efforts wouldn’t have worked without connected, open executive leadership. “People need to trust you for the organization to be successful,” said Marilyn Smith, life division president. She and other division leaders let employees know exactly when individuals would be released, and when dates changed, they informed them. As a result, employees could rest assured that their leaders wouldn’t hide information from them. They knew the leaders would be honest, and this helped them to focus on preparing themselves and the company for change.
Finally, Brank and Smith say that change leadership couldn’t have been successful without intimate knowledge of individual employees. “It’s important to know employees personally and professionally,” Brank said. “I met with each of the remaining employees to discuss their situation.” Brank encouraged employees to take advantage of learning opportunities, like industry certification. She supported stretch goals and cross-functional team experience. She helped them to see that life-long learning was the best way to secure new and rewarding jobs.
How does your organization support learning and growth?