Build Your Bench: Develop Women

In 2013, Apollo Education Group’s learning team realized it had a challenge on its hands that, if left unchecked, would have lasting implications on the entire organization.

The challenge wasn’t that Apollo’s industry had become fiercely competitive. It was that despite a deep roster of women in leadership roles, the organization had very few women at the highest levels of management. It’s not alone — in 2014, the annual Grant Thornton International Business Report found that women fill only 24 percent of senior management roles.

For Apollo, the solution was a leadership initiative that not only developed future leaders but also supported the organization’s business strategy. In this light, its challenge had become a unique opportunity to grow its business. In late 2014, Apollo and the University of Phoenix launched the inaugural class of the Women’s Leadership Initiative, or WLI.

The first component of the WLI program focused on strategy with a two-day classroom experience led by Peter LaCasse, head of strategy for Apollo Education Group.

“It’s difficult to be effective as an executive if you don’t have a solid understanding of what strategy is, how it develops and perhaps most importantly, how it is implemented in an organization,” he said. “We want to be sure all leaders at Apollo not only understand the fundamentals of strategy, but they also understand our specific strategy.”

Three months later, participants gathered for a second module focused on financial performance drivers.

“We want to ensure participants understand the basics of financial analysis, including the story behind the numbers,” said Brian Swartz, former chief financial officer and one of the module leaders. “In order to determine progress toward a strategic objective, you must be able to measure performance.”

The final module, facilitated by the Center for Creative Leadership, allowed participants a three-day immersion into the principles of personal and authentic leadership through simulations, group exercises and reflection. Participants explored their own leadership behaviors based upon individual assessment research and results.

“This is a critical step in leadership growth,” said Ed Barrows, an external consultant for the programs’ first two sessions. “Using specific feedback regarding their own behaviors, participants think deeply about how to expand and grow into the roles they will eventually take on.”

Cognitive and affective learning happens by applying knowledge in a real-world setting. For the Women’s Leadership Initiative, Apollo’s learning leaders created a business challenge for participants to test themselves.

Teams formed at the beginning of the program with an eye toward cross-functional representation, Barrows said. Participants had to work together to develop a revenue idea for Apollo that would generate $100 million in new business over the next five years. The goal was to apply everything they learned and think critically about the competitive landscape, the future and the realities of the industry.

“What pulled all of the concepts together throughout the entire program was the work of the Business Challenge Teams,” said program participant Joan Saunders, dean of operations for the College of Information Systems & Technology at University of Phoenix.

Throughout the program, Saunders and her team presented elements of their plan to Apollo’s senior executive team for input, giving them the opportunity to present in front of leaders who normally weren’t accessible to them.

The WLI program was designed to be rigorous and required significant effort and commitment to complete. Designing a new business, with colleagues located across the United States, aligns with the everyday demands placed on Apollo leadership.

Even before the first cohort graduated the program, WLI’s value became self-evident. Of the initial 20 members, five were promoted into more senior roles. Further, all of the business plans presented to Apollo’s senior executive team are under careful consideration for implementation.

“Real learning is difficult,” Barrows said. “The best way to develop high-potential employees is to assign them goals they need to stretch to accomplish. And that’s exactly what Apollo achieved with the Women’s Leadership Initiative."

This article originally appeared in Diversity Executive's sister publication, Chief Learning Officer.