Four Surprises on the Way to a Winning Corporate University

Roger Friedman

A core of our culture at The Motley Fool is the concept of "celebrating the suboptimal": finding areas for potential improvement and looking at them not as challenges, but as opportunities. Euphemisms sure are good for the ego.

In the course of developing the corporate university for our 215-person investment advice company, we’ve had a few opportunities to celebrate. Here are four of those opportunities, findings that surprised us and gave us a chance to take a better path toward learning and development success. Though some are obvious in retrospect and some are more picky than grand-thematic, all have allowed us to refine our offerings and move toward an environment of learning.

1. Size matters.

We recently offered a team-taught course on investing. One teacher had been in front of a class before, his slides looked more engaging during our walkthrough and his subject matter was of greater mainstream interest. His teaching partner had way too many words on his slides (even after many edits), he was not used to presenting in public and he was charged with tackling the in-the-weeds numbers that supported the more accessible material the other teacher had presented. We were shocked when the latter class went over much better.

The difference, we eventually concluded, was the size of the classroom.

The first presenter gave his talk in our cavernous training space, standing at the front of the hall as a lecturer. When we were forced to move part II to a smaller conference room, the students and teachers gathered together around a table, and the atmosphere forced a more conversational tone. Because interactivity is one of the tenets we stress to all teachers, we’ve since moved all of our courses to smaller rooms in order to provide them a more conducive atmosphere.

2. Don’t forget the calendar.

When we put together our Fellowship—the 18-month leadership development program in which our senior leadership takes a dozen of our top performers on a deep dive of the key areas of the company (i.e., six weeks with our CFO to learn the Fool’s methods of forecasting and budgeting)—we didn’t give much if any thought to the calendar. When summer rolled around, we saw waning attendance and an overall lack of momentum for the program. We also had to scramble throughout the program to accommodate board meetings, company ski trips, and religious holidays, and, of course, April Fool’s Day.

For the second cohort, we scheduled a two-month break during the summer and shared the entire schedule with Fellows before they accepted a position in the program. For all three tiers of our corporate university, we now check with our speaker series to ensure we don’t have conflicts, with HR to avoid overlapping with company-wide events, with the executive team to steer clear of board meetings and retreats, and with our astrology department to circumvent the largest waves of negative energy. (OK, we’re not really quirky enough to do that last one.)

3. Look beyond the obvious.

When we started educating, amusing, and enriching our Fools (that’s what we call our employees), we thought it made sense to start with the basics: survey-style courses on what makes up a brand, the key components of community, the different styles of investing, and all the possible ways to wear a Fool’s cap. We quickly learned that it’s often the less-obvious classes that prove to be the most memorable, the most valuable, and the most likely to help us create a culture of learning.

Someone who studied anthropology could examine the culture of tribes as a way of gaining insight into our community. Creative, innovative thinking can be taught with helpful hints from a textbook, but an improv class with one of our employees who does stand-up on the side will stick with the students far longer. We’re now working with the International Storytelling Center to develop a course with us based on the assumption that someone skilled at the art of storytelling will also be able to create engaging business presentations and communicate with colleagues more persuasively and successfully.

We think these less-obvious courses are just as effective—if not more so—at getting across the key messages we want our Fools to learn. But worst-case, even if we don’t clearly make the link between innovation and improv, we had a dozen employees bond and laugh together for a couple hours.

4. Money doesn’t buy happiness.

We have a small budget for learning and development—our dean’s salary makes up more than half our annual L&D expenses, and he doesn’t make that much. But occasionally, we do spend a bit to bring in an external teacher. We often regret the decision.

The courses are rarely inexpensive. The instructors are decidedly hit or miss; some classes are taught by inspirational, transformative teachers, but just as many are led by people who simply read the training workbook. Most importantly, none of them are targeted specifically for the business or the culture of The Motley Fool.

In the year since we started developing our corporate university, we have learned that the people best equipped to teach our employees about the ways and workings of the Fool are Fools themselves: our own employees. We have decided to put essentially all of our learning and development opportunities in the hands of Fools. If we have a little extra money at the end of the fiscal year, we plan to provide stipends to our best internal teachers.

While some or most of these "discoveries" might be obvious to more seasoned educators, they allowed us to make small but important changes in our approach and to constantly improve our learning and development focus. By making these quick and easy fixes, we’ve been able to seek out other areas in which we can celebrate the suboptimal.