VF Corp.’s Ron Lawrence: Conduit Between Learning and Human Capital Management

Those who lead the learning function often find themselves acting as a bridge between various parts of the organization.

Those who lead the learning function quite often find themselves acting as a bridge between various parts of the organization. They might serve as conduits between learning and people, or two departments, or people and the business. CLOs can even be called upon to act as the strategic and tactical bridge between concepts such as experience and performance. Ron Lawrence, vice president of organizational development for VF Corp., a leader in branded-lifestyle apparel, found himself acting as just such a link between his company’s many brands while working to build a focused, cohesive enterprise learning function and leverage it for company advantage.

Using a melange of skills and experiences like HR, total quality management and competency management planning – developed in previous employers such as Capital One, AT&T and ChoiceCare, a precursor to Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield – Lawrence has spent the past two years facilitating VF’s organizational development team’s efforts to operate holistically.

“There are certain things we do from the organization development team that completely drive the agenda, and everyone conforms to the way we’re doing it,” Lawrence said. “We set training completely for certain centralized initiatives. But at the other end of the spectrum, you can have very decentralized decision making, for what I would call brand-specific training needs. We have approximately 50 brands that are organized into a series of coalitions. If you look on our Web site, you’ll see that there are groupings by product. We have an outdoor coalition for brands like JanSport and Vans and The North Face. We have a jeans coalition for Wrangler and Lee. We have a sportswear coalition anchored by Nautica, but it has John Varvatos. In a decentralized training environment, we let those brands do what they need to do if they have a specific need, but we have a core middle management curriculum and other core programs that are offered to associates across all of those boundaries.”

With learning responsibilities for some 25,000 of the company’s 46,000 employees, Lawrence said his greatest challenge is managing and developing a global workforce in 46 countries. VF sells products in more than 150 nations, and it’s growing due to a number of acquisitions, which challenge the existing HRIS structure. But, if a company is to do human capital management well, Lawrence said it has to have good data and good data-mining capabilities.

“To be really effective in OD and training, work at a macro level requires spending a lot of time thinking about HCM strategies and the HRIS foundation that underlies it,” he explained. “I give a lot of thought to what the big organizational needs are and how HR supports that and really enables the development of the workforce in that context.”

Lawrence said the company’s supportive culture has helped his efforts to facilitate organizational transformation. He has introduced new practices in areas such as talent management and new tools such as executive coaching and leadership development programs focused on specific needs. His team also has introduced global HR practices such as online, worldwide associate-engagement surveys offered in 11 languages.

“It’s not a pure training thing, but it’s clearly tied to workforce development because we use the results to figure out what we’re doing next,” he said. “We’ve built a pretty aggressive five-year human capital management strategy. I think it’s pretty bold and outlines great direction for our company, which is growing from $7 billion in annual revenues to $12 billion. That’s our goal, and we’re growing at a very aggressive rate. VF is really becoming a stronger company, and I feel like I’m a big part of making that happen.”

Learning is consistently a tenet of VF’s human capital strategy, which has three anchors: process, technology and people. For people, it’s all about developing the skills needed for the future. Development helps the company assure its succession plans, which are critical as VF faces the baby boomer exit wave and associated knowledge loss over the next five to 10 years. Lawrence said his team is aggressively working to capture that knowledge and develop it in the company’s next generation of leaders.

Further, this activity must take place on a global scale, which is part of the reason Lawrence is called on to act as an organizational force between various departments, bringing them together with a core curriculum designed to advance the business.

“We have a workforce that’s spread all over, and it’s a heterogeneous workforce with a lot of different functions,” he said. “You’ve got employees working in retail stores in North America, individuals in knowledge-worker jobs throughout the U.S., Europe and Asia. You have people who work in manufacturing facilities in Costa Rica. The workforce is diverse, and in the midst of all that you’ve got different locations to try and service people, which is why e-learning is a good solution for us.”

The challenge of VF’s geographic employee spread goes hand in hand with a related issue Lawrence called “America-centric ways of thinking,” to which he said the learning and development agenda is vulnerable despite his team’s best efforts.

“We’re really trying to move beyond those ways of thinking and operating at times because we are a global company, and we know that we need to operate globally,” Lawrence said. “We have people from international backgrounds in our top leadership, so as a company we’re very aware that we need that diverse set of opinions and mindsets. We try to involve partners and associates in Hong Kong or Belgium so that they are part of shaping our training agenda and determining priorities.”

Despite best efforts for inclusive program development, Lawrence said there is often content that’s very specific to one environment — diversity is one example.

“Diversity training in the states doesn’t look nearly the same way when you go to do it in Europe,” he said. “The focus might be more on awareness of cultural differences. We try to recognize that and work with it. There’s a responsibility for everyone, but at the same time there’s the pragmatic side, which is prioritizing what will help the company deliver results the soonest, in the best way.”

Using that bottom-line thinking to power the learning function, Lawrence said he devotes a great deal of energy to leadership and managerial development and professional skills training. Programs in these areas are delivered via a variety of methods, including instructor-led, blended and self-paced learning materials. Stateside diversity training for awareness purposes, for instance, is delivered using an online prework module followed by a highly structured, instructor-facilitated half-day session. Lawrence said managers follow up again months later with conversations among their intact teams.

“[That’s] very much a hit over time, the same content delivered in different channels, in different ways,” he explained. “We try to emphasize learning by doing whenever possible, but we pay a lot of attention to getting people onto action-learning and project teams, giving them different job assignments. We try to track movement. We know who’s in a new job or needs to be in a new job, and we’d rather do that than just rely on a training class. Not that we don’t think training programs work, but we’ve seen tremendous value in putting people into experiences where they have to do the job.”

It makes sense that just seeing tremendous value isn’t always enough — learning leaders need metrics to help quantify that development contributes to business success as a whole. Lawrence said to illustrate the link between dollars and development, VF relies on many traditional HR measures, such as the company’s employee-engagement survey data around satisfaction and its productivity and engagement index.

The company also is consistently mindful of Kirkpatrick’s evaluation framework, uses qualitative assessments for key leaders at all levels and measures retention from multiple filters, including overall retention, high performer retention, top talent retention and voluntary retention.

“Our attrition’s been extremely low, and that’s a tribute to the culture that VF has,” Lawrence said. “We ask: ‘Do they think training and development is contributing to their bottom line?’ We pay attention to how the company is doing on earnings and productivity, but there’s still an opportunity for us to keep building those metrics and making them as robust as they can be. We struggle with it for the reasons that most companies do — you can say there’s a correlation [between development and dollars], but it’s really hard to establish causality.”

Lawrence said he and his team are focused on fully leveraging workforce intelligence and VF’s data-driven human capital management work, and they are trying to use technology wherever possible so that managers and associates can use self-service learning outlets as needed. The company’s future learning forays will vary according to an individual’s position, level in the organization and geographic location, among other things.

“If I had to boil it down I would say we’re obsessed with two things,” Lawrence said. “One is innovation. We’re spending more and more of our resources teaching tools and practices tied to creativity and innovation in product development, supply chain and reinventing the customer experience. The second training obsession is how we field a high-performance team, developing managers’ abilities to assess their associates’ performance, communicate and give them really good feedback, especially really tough messages about inadequate performance. Those two thematic drivers will underlie a lot of training and development efforts.”

NAME: Ron Lawrence
TITLE: Vice President, Organizational Development


• VF has excellent retention rates among its high performers and rising talent as a result
of extensive talent development and robust performance management practices.
• VF believes in and utilizes a “leaders teach leadership” approach. For example, in the VF Leadership Institute, a weeklong, biannual program for rising leaders across the global enterprise, teams compete on a business case program judged by the CEO and other corporate officers. This program was profiled in a BusinessWeek article in October 2006.
• VF created an innovative talent development program called EMC2, a leadership mentoring program. EMC2 stands for Executive Mentoring Cohort 2 (the first cohort was a pilot), and is the company’s formal mentoring initiative. It pairs senior and junior leaders together on a monthly basis.

Learning Philosophy:
”We hear constantly these days that the only sustainable competitive advantage for any organization is its workforce, and it’s true. Technological advancement and globalization continue to change the nature of work, so developing each member of the team to learn and contribute in new ways gets more important every day. My favorite line of poetry is Tennyson’s exhortation ‘to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield,’ for that’s how you become better at anything — by never being complacent and satisfied with where you are today. In fact, it’s why I remain a student!”