Kelly Mooney didn’t see it coming. In fact, virtually no one did. She of course had followed the bigger issue, the technology and the proliferation of innovative computer and mobile devices, but Apple, true to its tradition of secrecy, didn’t give any sort of advance notice that the iPad was coming.
“There was no heads-up from Apple and how to develop for it so you had to learn super fast,” she says. “You had to hire and train people whose skills and mindsets were adaptable, flexible and open to constant evolution and then be able to put that sort of training in place really quickly.”
That was one of the reasons why Mooney, CEO of Resource, and her team developed Resource Interactive University. It was created not just because of the tablet computers alone but because in the digital world, progress is moving so fast that daily learning was needed to keep up with it.
So the largest female-owned and operated marketing agency in the country, founded in 1981 by Nancy Kramer when she landed her first client — Apple, developed RIU as an in-house educational center. It has a full-time professor and dozens of other people inside the company who are constantly teaching and developing curriculum.
“There is daily learning available inside our company, and there is a required number of education credits that you have to have every year to be considered for an increase or a promotion,” Mooney says. “We are making that just a given; it’s part of how we think about talent not as an expense but as an investment in our people and in our future.”
The professor teaches a number of the courses and organizes other subject matter experts in the company to develop their curriculum and their learning objectives and to deliver their course material in a way that is interesting and compelling.
“You get credit if you attend the course; you get more credit if you teach a course, so the professor organizes and leads that effort,” Mooney says.
Other learning opportunities are possible; for instance, with area universities.
“More recently, we joined with the Ohio State University with a first-ever partnership of its kind for Ohio State and co-developed a course in digital marketing. We developed the content and OSU is administering the course. It's an online course, and we will jointly share the revenue.”
The professor is the only staff teacher, but a futurist is on board as well.
“We have a full-time futurist who has been studying cultural trends and the cultural trends that are happening in the world that impact the strategies that we bring to our clients,” she says. “So those are things that we are doing on our dime and on our time in advance of any request a client would make.”
Resource has seen double-digit growth the last several years — 50 percent from 2008 to 2010 alone — and doesn’t expect it to abate.
“We see in our next five years that we have the opportunity to double the size of the business, and that's what we're focused on right now,” Mooney says.
Here’s how a culture of continuous learning helps the $57 million Resource continue to innovate and expand the capabilities of its 375 associates.
Building a case
When the game is changing quickly, you have to find ways to keep up, or you will lose out. Your competition will surpass you. It’s a simple as that. Innovation has to be part of your ongoing strategic priorities. Learning the needs of your clients and developing a service, application or product to meet that need requires innovation now more than ever.
“The services we offer today are materially different from the services we offered three years ago, which will be materially different from the services that we offer three years from today,” Mooney says. “The needs of clients just continue to rapidly evolve.”
Sending out an email or a video that is to be watched by associates has limited success. That’s why it is more effective to teach in person and to investigate classroom or huddle room learning.
“I think you will find out you will share information more rapidly than you were before by having [a university] put in place,” Mooney says. “You will be connecting the dots across the company because as you grow in size and across geographies, it is sometimes hard to keep track of who knows what and who did what.
“Learning has become more of a personal sharing experience for people. We always have the Internet. We have e-mail, we have other ways of sharing, but to learn in person and with people also builds the camaraderie and helps people connect the dots in a more human way inside your company.”
Any type of training or teaching program needs its students to attend regularly. It is critical to get the buy-in not only to have the associates be present for all classes because they have been asked to, but that they want to.
If you have difficulty selling the idea of a university to your board, you may take a tip from Resource— the company uses a mandatory attendance policy that comes with benefits.
“We have a required education credit that you have to have every year to be considered for a salary increase or a promotion,” Mooney says. “It’s around 20 credit hours per year of learning.”
If you track each associate on the learning units earned, it will ensure that each is staying up to date with the education being offered.
“Our GPAT process — goals priority and action track — is a quarterly check-in with the manager and individual being managed,” she says. “A part of it is where you are on your learning credits. We called them reverse education units, REUs. The check-in is to find out if you are ahead of schedule or you are behind and need to get it in gear, so there's a mechanism four times a year that allows us to check in with each associate.”
Think of thought leadership
It’s often said that a company’s most valuable assets are not its facilities or its product lines, but its employees. Taking the comparison further, employees who are part of a continuing education program are more valuable, and those that are educated to the point of being thought leaders are beyond them in value. It becomes clearer how important an education program is.
By sharing the depth of your expertise so that you offer practical information custom-tailored to your clients’ and your prospective clients’ needs, you can position your company as a trusted resource and a recognized thought leader.
“We generally think of thought leadership as the research, the analysis, the synthesis, a point of view development that is uniquely ours that we published in some way, shape or form; sometimes it's a white paper, sometimes it is a video, sometimes it’s a speech that I or others give at a cross-industry event that takes a form that can be shared,” Mooney says.
Thought leadership sounds like it might be the buzzword of the moment. But it often brings positive results, although a bit unusual than what you might be used to.
“With thought leadership you may see different dimensions of success or results,” she says. “We've definitely seen it bring in more clients. I was giving a speech and right afterward we had seven or eight outreaches from members of that audience: ‘Gosh. Wow. Tell me more, and how can we begin talking to you guys about this?’”
With that kind of a response, it serves as a form of marketing that is intangible but effective.
“Instead of just putting a brochure or an ad out about ourselves, it’s become the way we communicate — here we are,” Mooney says. “It definitely brings in more clients; it brings in a certain type of client, and it’s a good match for us. The average size of the engagements we get has definitely increased with our thought leadership efforts.”
When you think of the education package that’s available for employees, it’s a benefit that many job candidates will look at seriously, bringing you a better supply of job candidates that can help differentiate your company when they come on board.
“It definitely will attract associates who want to be a part of a company that is in a forward-thinking way,” she says. “When I do my on-boarding, I’ve had a number of people in every class say, ‘This is really great. We never had this in the organization I came from. We didn't have access to this sort of learning opportunity.’ It might not be the only reason that somebody is drawn to us but it is probably one of the reasons.
“I think that our investment and our commitment to thought leadership in understanding how the consumer and technology are changing, what are the implications for the client, investing in that and being one step ahead has been a differentiator for our company for many years.”
Expand as demand requires
An exciting and innovative university-type program will demonstrate how employees are receiving it in an expedient manner: how many are signing up for the classes.
“We are seeing a lot of engagement, and I think we are seeing a lot of courses are overfilled so we've had to expand a number of them to address the demand,” Mooney says.
“We’ve seen a lot of our associates raise their hand and offer to be instructors, which has been great because they get to showcase their expertise in a kind of way that they maybe didn't have before. I think we are getting to see a whole new crop of leaders emerge in the process.”
The RIU is in its third year at Resource. A pilot project was held the initial year, and last year was the first year of the full rollout. In addition, for the first time, RI now has a dedicated space for its RI:Lab, which Mooney feels has become the catalyst and the fuel for the rest of the company.
“We have a dedicated team of about 10 folks, a very defined process and a series of activities that allow for and invite innovation and reward innovation inside the company,” she says. “The bigger goal with the whole innovation process is to build an innovative culture so that it is everybody's job to innovate in the role that they have.”
Thought leadership is only one benefit that can come from the university. The education program also helps to speed up new employees’ onboarding.
“The other thing that we are seeing is since we have a formalized onboarding program with RIU apart of it, it really helps us get new associates ramped up and productive more quickly,” Mooney says.
“So they have a very organized way of learning about the company, how we work, how they fit into it and what our priorities are. It's helping us get some productivity gains that we didn't have before.
“I am still a big proponent of on-the-job learning. I think there is nothing more better than being thrown into it and having to figure it out, but this is about trying to provide some guidance resources that help people find their way as they are learning on the job as well, so those things kind of go in tandem.”
How to contact: Resource, (614) 621-2888 or www.resource.com
The Mooney File
Born: New Lexington, Ohio. A tiny little coal mining community in southeast Ohio. It’s not involved in coal mining anymore, but it was when I was growing up.
Education: The Ohio State University. I majored in industrial design.
What was your first job?
I had my first paper route when I was 10 years old. I only had nine customers but it took me like two hours to deliver the papers because the customers were spread out all over town. But I thought it was cool that it was my own. It was a weekly paper, and I learned how to run my own business.
What is the best business advice you ever received?
My first boss out of school was awesome. He was actually my professor at Ohio State, and then he was my first boss at Richardson Smith, which was a design firm based in Columbus. I remember he said to me, I was only about 22 at the time and I didn’t really quite know what he meant, but he said to me, ‘Never compromise your values. Know what they are, write them down, and never compromise them.’ It really wasn’t until later when I felt like I was working with some people where my values were being compromised. I didn't even know what that advice meant until I fully experienced it as a wiser, 30-year-old at the time.
I remember calling him, and I said, ‘Now I know what you meant and this was (such) meaningful advice to me.’ I was working with somebody who was really disrespectful of individuals, who used a lot of foul language to criticize the work, had a bad temper and who was just very unappreciative. I couldn't watch it anymore and couldn’t be a part of it. I realized like, ‘Wow, my values are being compromised.’ The advice my first mentor gave me probably was what ultimately drew me to Nancy Kramer and to RI.
Whom do you admire in business?
Where to start? I, of course, admire the innovators. I admire Mark Zuckerberg for all he is doing at Facebook and Cheryl Samberg who is his right hand as CEO of Facebook. I admire Sergey Brin and Larry Page at Google.
But there is a whole bunch of people that I work with every day that I admire equally. I have a reverse mentor in organization. He just turned 30, and he and I meet every month. He teaches me just the most amazing stuff. I’m sure he is learning from me indirectly but really we set up these sessions for me to learn from him what he sees in the world, what the trends are and what it means.
What is your definition of business success?
We really view it through two lenses: if our clients are successful and our associates are fulfilled, feel that their careers are growing, and they are growing as individuals. So those two dimensions are what really make our business successful at the end of the day so … I am not a financially oriented person. It sounds ironic as a CEO; of course, I understand those are my responsibilities and I am accountable for them but I don’t run the business fully by the numbers. There is a lot of what we do that comes from it just feels like the right thing to do and is the right thing to do and a lot of times by doing the right thing, the numbers follow.