NCR: The Innovative Talent Factory

NCR Corp. has a long history in innovation, leadership and learning. In 1884, John H. Patterson founded the National Cash Register Company, maker of the first mechanical cash registers. Patterson […]

NCR Corp. has a long history in innovation, leadership and learning. In 1884, John H. Patterson founded the National Cash Register Company, maker of the first mechanical cash registers. Patterson is clearly one of the leading innovators in American business history, not just in technology, but in teaching and building talent. Patterson was also a sales genius, and he knew that great sales people weren’t born, they were made. In the late 1880s, Patterson developed the first sales manual titled “The Primer.” And in 1894, he established one of the first sales-training schools. NCR and Patterson were excellent at building innovation and talent. In fact, it’s been said that in the period 1910 to 1930, an estimated one-sixth of the top U.S. business executives were former NCR executives, the most notable being Thomas Watson Sr., who went on to found IBM.

From the days of Patterson, leadership training and education was a cornerstone of NCR’s culture and success. But in 1991, AT&T acquired NCR and disbanded the majority of the learning organization, its programs and resources. In 1997, NCR was back as an independent publicly traded company, and it began to build the learning organization back to where it is again by cultivating innovative leadership and business growth.

Today, leadership training, talent management and retention of top talent are still critical factors. With a new CEO at the helm and support from the company’s board of directors, NCR continues to invest in leadership training and use innovative programs and approaches to drive results. The leadership development initiative is governed by a newly formed leadership advisory council made up of strong leadership role models from across the business. The initial objectives of the leadership education strategy are simple: assess the needs of the existing leaders, act on the assessment results and ensure the entire process isn’t a one-time event by integrating it into a continuous learning culture at NCR.

To begin, NCR uses a 360-degree assessment with a behaviorally anchored rating scale. The numerical results allow benchmarking and comparisons among leaders and pinpoint overall strengths and weaknesses in the group. With most of the top 200 leaders assessed, focus is now turning toward the action objective, and NCR has structured two initial phases, the first targeting the need to drive growth through people management skills, and the second targeting implementation and innovation in terms of strategies for growth. Leading this charge is Becky Coates, NCR Global Learning’s consultant for leadership and management development. “Our first action on the assessment results is to ensure that leaders at NCR are effectively directing, coaching and cultivating talent in their teams,” Coates said. Global Learning is tackling the first phase through a six-day multi-faceted workshop titled, “Leading People for Peak Performance.” The workshop integrates key leadership skills such as setting direction, leading through values, performance coaching, teamwork and peer feedback. NCR’s belief is that by improving leaders’ practical skills in people management, the company can achieve immediate productivity and innovation gains for the business. This first phase is already producing payback even beyond the personal learning for individual participants. Cross-region and cross-functional attendees of the initial workshops are collaborating back on the job to drive growth initiatives and solve critical business issues. Case in point: Leaders from two business units met during the workshop, discussed current issues they were involved in, and worked together after the workshop to resolve a long-standing issue that benefited both units and improved sales and customer satisfaction. Lesson learned: Use relationships formed in the context of an action-learning workshop to build trust across organizations and generate accelerated, innovative business solutions.

Phase two takes collaboration and problem-solving a step further and hits at the core of innovation—execution. Market pressures, price erosion, competition and shareholder expectations can have the effect of driving a company to be focused almost exclusively on financial results in the short term. Leaders drive to get their results, but they lose sight of growth and sustainability by not coordinating the entire value chain to execute more effectively. To prevent this from happening at NCR, it is planning a series of action-learning projects designed to “move the ball forward.” Although it’s still a work-in-progress, the concept is to coordinate with business-unit leaders to identify key business initiatives. Then, assign a cross-functional team of leaders to the initiative, provide real-time action learning on how to set up and manage the action team, set milestones and timelines, and coach them through the execution in a targeted window of 100 days. The intended outcomes include: business results (revenues, cost out, etc.), improved implementation skills and practical innovation.

Overall, leaders are excited about their own personal development. They’re getting their teams engaged and requesting 360 surveys to facilitate improved development planning. NCR has gone from an average of 20 surveys per year requested by management for their managers to 150 requested last year and are on target to reach that mark again in 2006. Another indication of success thus far is around setting and living NCR values, one of the four demands of leadership taught in the workshop, which is also now top of mind at NCR. Leaders are calling for a recommitment to shared values of customer focus, innovation, integrity, teamwork and performance excellence as the foundation to relationships with customers and each other. Web forums have been developed for all employees to discuss how to improve in these areas to benefit the employees and its stakeholders.

Having an innovative leader such as Patterson as its founder leaves big shoes to fill. But NCR Global Learning is keeping good pace in regenerating the NCR legacy of strong leadership capability and business innovation and success.

George T. Brennan, Ph.D., is Global Learning vice president at NCR Corp., headquartered in Dayton, Ohio. He leads NCR’s integrated learning system, including NCR University, the global strategy, management and technology infrastructure for all training and education in NCR. He can be reached at