20/20 Vision: L&D OPSM style

OPSM has undergone change of almost biblical proportions in the last three and a half years. The cornerstone of this corporate change has been its L&D driven people strategy, which as Teresa Russell reports, provides meaningful career development for its high potentials

OPSM has undergone change of almost biblical proportions in the last three and a half years. The cornerstone of this corporate change has been its L&D driven people strategy, which as Teresa Russell reports, provides meaningful career development for its high potentials

At the beginning of this century, OPSM’s corporate culture “was like the 1960s”, according to Chris Georgiou, group general manager human resources for OPSM. He didn’t see this as a bad thing, but rather as an opportunity to put in place some benchmark programs that would propel the company into the new millennium and beyond. It was an organisation with a heart which flowed into a pulse of quality patient care. “There was a willingness to change, but people were afraid of change,” Georgiou recalls.

2001 saw the beginning of rapid change in the organisation as the once conservative, publicly listed company went into an aggressive acquisition phase. It now owns the brands OPSM, Budget Eyewear, Kays Optical, Laubman & Pank and Precision Eyewear, operating 620 stores with 4,000 staff across Australia, New Zealand and Asia. Employees at OPSM include optometrists, dispensers, support functions and 250 laboratory staff, who make up prescription lenses.

With this rapid change came the need to change the culture of the organisation. “We were losing market share and although customers appreciated the warm patient care culture that prevailed, market research showed us that they wanted a positive fashion experience as well,” Georgiou explains. “The culture did not encourage anyone to challenge poor performance. We were failing to meet the full retail needs of our customers.”

The board appointed Jonathon Pinshaw, a new CEO with a strong people focus, in 2001 and a management shake-up ensued. Georgiou describes the HR challenge as starting with a virtual blank slate. A new OPSM brand was launched in new stores, and the balance between patient care and meeting customers’retail needs had to be struck. “We needed tools to facilitate and accelerate cultural change, fully supported by the CEO and his leadership team,” he says.

Laying the foundations

The first thing Georgiou did was to hire Cheryl Walters, the current group L&D manager. She now oversees a team of eight people, who focus on operational training as well as the implementation of the cultural strategies. Before developing a high potential program, they set about laying the foundations. “There was no succession planning and no talent identification processes in place, so the first thing we did was introduce these processes back in July 2001. We also introduced LSI (Lifestyles Inventory),” Walters says. LSI is a management feedback tool that was used on managers in senior and critical positions in the organisation.

Both Walters and Georgiou had experience with LSI in other organisations. Walters describes the feedback tool as “a simple to use, yet powerful program that lets people understand the areas they need to develop and how to build on strengths”. Georgiou also believes LSI is a great tool for change management.

High potentials

It took 12 months to lay the foundations and for LSI to be properly understood in the business. The next layer of career development was the introduction of a training program called ‘Investment in Excellence’, which provided managers with tools to address development gaps identified through the LSI. A group of 15 people from the leadership team were also identified as high potentials and embarked on a 12-month leadership development program, provided by leadership consultancy The Meikle Files.

Walters is a participant in the program and an enthusiastic champion of its merits. As part of the program, the 15 participants were given two business problems to solve. These problems were selected in consultation with OPSM’s CEO and Georgiou. Using what they learn from the program, the participants have to solve the twin challenges of how OPSM should respond to new entrants in the market and how the organisation should retain its leadership talent. “We have seen quantum leaps in performance and results in the business as a direct result,” says Georgiou.

Once this first program is completed, the graduates will be involved in special projects and mentoring programs and take an active role in creating a high performance environment at OPSM. While the aim is to retain and grow high potentials, Georgiou acknowledges there is a chance some may leave OPSM to further their careers elsewhere rather than waiting for one of the ten leadership group positions to become available, but he doesn’t think losing them would be the worst thing. “If they do leave, there’s always the chance they’ll come back to us later with more experience, and if not, they’ll still have positive feelings about OPSM, improving our profile in the marketplace,” he believes.

Challenges

It hasn’t all been plain sailing, however. As soon as you make a list of high potentials in any organisation, there are those who are going to feel hard done by because they were excluded. “We had to manage that carefully and turn those people round from asking, ‘Why didn’t you select me?’ to ‘What do I have to do to get on the next program?’” says Georgiou.

Building the first level of management development with the LSI program also presented various problems. Walters explains that the current leadership behaviours had to be exposed, and once awareness had been raised, a high performance career program could then be introduced. “Almost all managers rose to the challenge, but a few left the organisation. The result is that we now have a committed team of leaders embracing new learning and challenges,” Walters affirms.

Stakeholders and ROI

The key stakeholders for the career development initiatives at OPSM were the leadership team, the CEO and the board of directors. “Nothing ever went to the board without first getting 100 per cent commitment from the entire senior leadership team,” Georgiou asserts. Although the board was characterised as conservative, he says it understood the value of people initiatives.

“We’ve never had a request from the senior leadership team to justify the costs or present return on investment information on our career development initiatives because they were fully integrated with the overall business strategy. They made good business sense. We were required to help improve the culture and we measure this through our employee opinion surveys. I don’t think it’s possible to demonstrate the value of a single program, in any case,” Georgiou points out. OPSM’s profitability has been improving year on year since 2001, and there’s nothing like improved profitability to take the heat off the cost of L&D programs.

Career development program advice

When asked what advice he would give to other HR professionals looking to set up a career development program, Georgiou strongly advises practitioners not to do it. “Look at what your organisational strategy is and develop a people strategy that’s integrated with it. Don’t start with the career development program,”he cautions.

View from the top

Chief operating officer Chris Beer has been with OPSM for 20 years. He characterises OPSM’s previous corporate culture, board and management team as “conservative, but very caring”. Despite this, some of the businesses it bought were much more staid and conservative and viewed OPSM as “the enemy”. The acquisitions were run as three separate businesses until just twelve months ago. “We brought three brands together under one shared service and these parts of the business entered a new phase of enlightenment. Parochialism disappeared, people were empowered and this calendar year has seen phenomenal improvement in results,” Beer enthuses.

“It’s really easy for our competitors to copy the look of our stores, but they cannot easily copy our people. Culture drives the performance of people and we’ve tried to create a culture in which people are able to achieve their potential,” he says.

OPSM’s people strategy has been a key enabler for the achievement of company goals. “We’re not a high performance culture yet, but we have developed a performance culture in the last few years,”he says. Each of the brands has started from a different base, so some areas of the business are more advanced than others. All are now growing together quickly. On the whole, he sees the culture as more creative and innovative, with people happy to challenge and speak up when they think things should be different.

Beer is highly optimistic that OPSM will be able to retain its identified high potential employees and is currently working on identifying their next career moves within the business.

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