Kathy Sutter: Creating a Balanced Toolkit for Learning

Office Depot offers endless rows of colorful pens, folders and gadgets designed to make working easier, more organized and efficient. A former schoolteacher for grades 4-8, Kathy Sutter, vice president of leadership development and global learning for Off

Name: Kathy Sutter

Title: Vice President, Leadership Development and Global Learning

Company: Office Depot


  • Developed and implemented leadership development curriculum that spans the needs of front-line management through executives.
  • Partnered with the CEO and executive team to define the core leadership competencies that underpin all aspects of performance management.
  • Focused on driving cultural change to differentiate performance by instituting a new talent review process to assess the talent base, raise the bar, identify strengths and gaps, and execute rigorous development plans.
  • Employed a customized 360-degree feedback instrument for leaders to increase self-awareness and self-management toward inspirational leadership.
  • Implemented C.O.N.N.E.C.T., a mentor/protege program, to encourage a pipeline of diverse talent to senior leadership positions.
  • Leveraged multiple e-learning solutions and an LMS to provide information and skills training for improved performance in a highly distributed organization.

Learning Philosophy: “Engaging high-quality talent and building a compelling place to work is paramount to our success at Office Depot. Developing worldwide talent is a fundamental strategy that will fuel our ability to attract and retain exceptional people. Our developmental experiences are intended to impact the whole person – providing expanded thinking and thought-provoking concepts. Our responsibility is to give our employees the learning, tools and skills they need to maximize their performance and potential to help build a compelling place to work, shop and invest.”

Office Depot offers endless rows of colorful pens, folders and gadgets designed to make working easier, more organized and efficient. A former schoolteacher for grades 4-8, Kathy Sutter, vice president of leadership development and global learning for Office Depot, has firsthand experience with the tools of teaching. It’s only right that since Office Depot is virtually a one-stop shop for all supply needs, she implement a few new tools to help create an organization with a holistic view of learning and development that trickles down from the top VPs and front-line managers to the cashiers who greet you at the checkout line.

“We have seven strategies for Office Depot,” Sutter said. “These are the strategic objectives for our entire business. One is to develop worldwide talent. It’s fundamental to all of the other strategies. It’s at the companywide strategic level, which to me says that acquiring and retaining and developing talent is not buried somewhere in the organization for the HR department to do. It is a strategic objective at the CEO-level strategy.”

In order to attract and acquire high-quality and diverse talent, Sutter created a robust college-recruiting program, including internships and campus recruiting. “We have 18 core schools that we work with, and they’re a great opportunity for acquiring diverse talent, building the brand and potentially doing some coursework,” Sutter said.

Other strategies for Office Depot include driving breakthrough growth and delivering a customer-centric experience. “We also have a mission at Office Depot – to build a compelling place to work, shop and invest,” Sutter said. “And it is specifically designed in that order. We believe in building a compelling place for employees to work, where they’re challenged, motivated and they feel like they have a future. If we build that kind of engaged workforce, we will then have a compelling place for our customers to shop, whether they shop on the Web, through our contract business or in our stores and catalogs. If we have a compelling place for our customers to shop, then we will obviously have the fruit to entice shareholders to invest. It’s part of our overall strategic framework for the business.”

With more than 20 years of experience in organizational effectiveness and leadership development earned at companies such as General Electric and Capital One, Sutter has used her expertise to create thought-provoking learning for all of the college recruiting and staffing, leadership development, professional development, e-learning and training efforts in approximately 900 stores. That equals nearly 38,000 U.S. employees to train in different population segments: 3,000 to 3,500 managers responsible for the learning for the general employee population, executive education of the top 100, the pipeline to the top 100, and e-learning distributed to between 50,000 and 55,000 employees worldwide.

“I’ve been able to build collaborative relationships with all of our top executives here,” Sutter said. “We have about 100 vice presidents globally, and I’ve been able to work with each of them through the strategic leadership program that we teach. And, we do 360, and I follow up and do coaching with each and every one. So over the two years, I’ve been able to get my arms around that entire population and know the strengths and opportunities. I set out to do that – to bind our talent activities with the corporate strategy – and we really began to fulfill the CEO’s vision of what leadership and learning would look like at Office Depot.”

When Sutter joined Office Depot in 2002, the company was transitioning from rapid growth to infrastructure implementation, essentially figuring out what core processes to put in place to ensure long-term growth and sustainability. With a blank slate on which to create a fundamental leadership development curriculum for front-line leaders and executives, Sutter has created a truly blended learning approach that offers off-the-shelf e-learning packages, customized learning simulations, instructor-led learning and e-learning modules for pre- and post-class assessment with 360-degree feedback. Additionally, Sutter put in place a talent management process that allows the company to track who and where talent is at the middle-management level and above, and understand where the gaps are and how to fill those gaps to fuel the talent pipeline.

After attending learning programs, Office Depot’s mid- to senior-level executives get 360-degree evaluation and feedback, and after participants go back on the job they either get group team coaching and reinforcement for three months or one-on-one coaching for a few months after the learning experience. “We use a lot of assessment, classroom, coaching, group learning,” Sutter said.

Sutter also offers professional development courses, which include financial acumen, project management, presentation and communication for all front-line managers and executives. There are different offerings for different levels of the employee population, including job function training for all North American stores. “We want to provide people the opportunity to choose their destiny and what path they take in their career,” Sutter said. “We really believe that is critical to the retention and engagement of our folks. Our philosophy is about helping people become more effective and successful in their lives and enabling people to understand how they make a difference in our organization. I think if you have people feel successful through work, it makes them successful in their life and they understand how they fit in.”

In response to a cultural shift in the enterprise that began to drive a higher demand for performance excellence, Sutter encouraged competency model development and performance appraisal, as well as changes in some basic performance management tools, to ensure that Office Depot can differentiate employee performance and deploy learning on a personalized level. Sutter has built strong relationships with vendors to provide learning experiences that will directly impact job performance and put consistent staffing and recruiting processes in place across the organization.

Sutter also has built an e-learning center of excellence with the infrastructure to provide world-class technology-assisted training and deployed an LMS to track that learning for the organization, which is important because Office Depot has a global presence. Office Depot learning includes simulation work and self-awareness training. “We’re trying to build that experience where they’re really thinking about themselves as leaders and really having that thought-provoking experience so that when they walk away from a class, they’re applying new skills to work and to their lives,” Sutter said.

To measure the success of Office Depot’s learning offerings, Sutter uses Kirkpatrick’s four levels of evaluation, employee engagement results and retention rates, and gauges lateral and promotion-based movement in the talent review process. To show learning growth in core competencies, Sutter employs repeat-360 evaluation measures at 12- to 18-month intervals and tracks training at the job function level. However, in terms of direct return on investment metrics, Sutter said she doesn’t have to prove her worth every day to the executive team and CEO.

“There is an inherent belief that providing training and development and growth for our employees is the right thing for the business, and that it will build a compelling place to work,” Sutter said. “I don’t have to sit and justify why I spent whatever dollars on some leadership training. We take a more holistic view of our organization, and we look at our ability to improve in a particular competency as an organization. I’m glad that we have an underlying philosophy on the value and investment of training as opposed to always pinching pennies and looking at the cost of things. I won’t say that it’s an open checkbook, but we’ve done a good job managing our costs year after year. We’ve outsourced a number of our learning and e-learning functions to save costs, and it has produced a higher quality of content. We’ve also done some centralization to generate efficiency across the board and gain synergy.”

Sutter added, “It was just the right time in Office Depot’s history to have these kinds of curriculum and practices built. We couldn’t go wrong, and what made it most successful is the fact that our CEO is 100 percent supportive, involved, teaches at every program. I had full executive and CEO and board support. They were involved, and that made a big difference. We built this competency model with the game plan and the rules of engagement: Do your job and demonstrate these competencies, and you will be successful at Office Depot. We were able to give people the how – How can I be successful? – which they’d never had before, and that was important.”

Sutter said that Office Depot’s future learning and development plans will continue to put core HR functions and processes in place to build consistency and efficiency in the business, as well as look at some action learning opportunities and continue simulation training to encourage better development opportunities for retail store managers. “It’s not an easy task to create a customer experience at 900 locations and have it be perfect every time,” Sutter said. “You have so many opportunities for variation. Our store managers are key to driving a great customer experience.”

With so many elements in place, it’s important to create a balanced effort in the learning curriculum for recruitment, job-function training, leadership development and succession planning. To build succession planning efforts, last year Sutter rolled out a performance ranking system that rates people on their demonstration of leadership competencies and future runway potential. “We rate our individuals, rank them and put them into a top 20 percent, highly valued 70 and least-effective 10 percent of the population – high, medium and limited potential,” Sutter said. “We do that exercise once a year with a mid-year review. So really, we look at our talent pool twice a year to understand who our talent is, where our gaps are, who’s in the pipeline. Do we have the skills to match up with our strategic objectives? What are the retention and development plans that we like to put in place for people?”

Balance is important for Sutter, who is married with two teenage boys. “I think I’m a fairly balanced person. I have managed my career over time so that work is satisfying and challenging for me, but not at the sacrifice of my family. My husband is a high school guidance counselor and has more flexible hours to be there more for my children. I travel no more than 30 percent of my time. If I have to work at home or in the off-hours, I’ve always done that after I put my children in bed. Work has to be fun for me, and Office Depot has been so far. I enjoy the people I work with; I enjoy the people who work for me and who I work for. That’s important. It’s an important part of what’s stimulating for me.”

Kellye Whitney is associate editor for Chief Learning Officer magazine. She can be reached at kellyew@clomedia.com.

October 2004 Table of Contents