No team member left behind

Keith Collister

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

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The launch of Sandals Corporate University (SCU) may prove to be one of the most exciting, and in the long term important, initiatives of the Sandals group. It reflects the internal application of the group's legendary external focus on customer service, as expressed by its Chairman Gordon "Butch" Stewart, namely to "give the guests more than he or she expects" to all 10,000 Sandals employees.

Indeed, such absolute focus on training all staff, so that "No team member is Left behind" from what SCU call their "Change — included experience" (an obvious reference to Sandals success in differentiating themselves through the exceptional service quality of their "luxury included experience") to employees operating at all levels is rare, if not unique, among the thousands of corporate universities that already exist. In a recent Forbes magazine article, Dr Karl Moore, director for the advanced leadership program at McGill, Canada's leading university, a programme chaired by famous management guru Henry Mintzberg, argues that most corporate universities "focus almost exclusively on classroom learning, fixed topics, a formalistic student-teacher relationship, and lockstep planned curriculums."

Moore argues that in the future learning will need "to reach out to include every level of employee, as everyone in today's company must learn how to be an adaptable team player, subject matter expert, and potential source of innovation. In the future, talent management should partner closely with corporate learning to ensure that organisations always have the right people ready to be in the right place at the right time."

This is the approach that is being adopted at Sandals. At the launch, Sandals Resorts' chief executive officer, Adam Stewart, said that each of their 20 resorts will host a campus of the university, with the directors of each department playing the role of dean. Stewart revealed, in a reversal of the normal approach "We (will) sit down, rewrite all our standard operating procedures, the universities come in and support us". He expects more than 2,500 team members to benefit from the university over the next 12 months. "Our chairman has given us the green light to spend US$5 million over the next five years in taking and making this corporate university a reality."

One of the drivers of the SCU, Sandals' director of business processes and administration (and former Jamaica Hotel and Tourism Association head) Wayne Cummings, himself a product of former Sandals training programmes (for example those of noted Jamaican training author Ben Henry) revealed that it would not be "ad hoc" training, but teaching proper "standard operating procedures", and that Sandals was now in the process of developing a textbook incorporating the standards of the American Hospitality and Lodging Institute, but geared to the all inclusive industry.

To start, Jamaica based Western Hospitality Institute, a "nimble" operation devoted to life long learning, would certify associate and bachelors degrees in hospitality management. Individuals would be able, through a process of "prior learning assessment" to be granted exemptions from some of the equivalent modules in the programme. These include topics such as "the art of selling", "customer service", "professional communication", "leadership development", "sales management", "cost management" and "revenue management."

SCU Project manager (and now registrar) Mark Fredericks, notes that "irrespective of your education", "no matter where you are in the organisation", there is a way "to get in and move up". The difference with what went before is that all courses will be standardised, what he calls "training on steroids", with all individuals, including executives needing to perform at world class standards.

Dr Moore notes that in the future :

"Companies will need to transform learning from a formal event or activity into something more akin to what is called collaborative (or social) and emergent learning. These types of initiatives focus on topics that are highly relevant and in-the-moment for managers and workers, and where the sharing of ideas and exchange of opinions lead to creativity and innovation."

This is clearly the approach being taken by Sandals, whose planned initiatives include the quarterly showcasing of initiatives, life skills seminar on wellness and personal development, executive seminars on best practices from top experts, lessons from the past experience of company leaders and an "ideas forum" to showcase new ideas of team members regardless of their position.

Dr Merrick Fray, who was there at the very beginning of Sandals in 1981, observes that "From the very first day of Sandals operation, my thought was that training was the way to differentiate Sandals from the rest of the industry." To become a top hotel chain, he observes, Sandals needed to have staff who were the "best of the best".

"At the beginning, we were always acquiring old dilapidated hotels, and fixing them up so that they were the best they could be. However it was never the concrete, we had some of the worst concrete, but always the staff that were important".

For the last ten to fifteen years, Fray and Ben Henry, amongst others, had talked of starting a corporate university as part of their already strong training programme. However, he observes the idea has now come to fruition under Wayne Cummings and Mark Pike, and with their CEO Adam Stewart, the group looks "in good hands for the next thirty years".

Fray observes "In my experience, you don't often see four Prime Ministers in the same room looking so comfortable and unified. We don't even see that at a Caricom conference."

Other SCU partners are the Jamaica Foundation for Lifelong Learning, the International Hospitality and Tourism Institute, and Florida International University, with discussions far advanced at Toronto's Ryerson University (the home of the G Raymond Chang School of Continuing Education, Canada's leading provider of university-based adult education.) In addition, the group has been talking to Mona Business School, as well as the business schools of Edinburgh and Oxford University in the UK, which see the strong potential of opportunities in emerging markets like Jamaica.




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