Which of the following is true about The Home Depot University:
a) Member of the NCAA’s Southeastern Conference;
b) Offers scholarships to outstanding DIYers; or
c) Provides centralized, management training to the company’s new leaders.
The answer is “c)”—but don’t expect multiple choice questions as part of the curriculum.
The Home Depot University (HDU) was an idea hatched in January 2010 to centralize the training of the company’s far-flung leaders, replacing a regional system of management training. A couple months later, the conference rooms were built on the fourth floor of the Atlanta headquarters, the classes and content were organized, and the training began.
The HDU training is focused on “new in-position leaders”—those who have been hired or recently promoted into management positions. They generally arrive at HDU for a week’s worth of training within their first 90 days of moving into a leadership position.
“By centralizing this event we’re able to drive a consistent message,” said Michelle Thompson, senior manager of learning delivery for Home Depot University. “We’re able to immerse new leaders in the Home Depot culture. We want to give them more than a few classes. We really want to give them an experience.”
During an interview in the HDU cafeteria, the room begins to fill up with people wearing orange aprons. These are students taking a break from the weeklong ASM Fundamentals course for assistant store managers. These fundamentals are described as finance, merchandising, inventory control and labor management. Also in the cafeteria are a group of new managers from logistics.
“There is great networking at lunch times,” Thompson said. “Here, they get to meet and interact with folks they don’t normally get to interact with.”
Among those folks is CEO Frank Blake, a surprise lecturer later in the day during the ASM Fundamentals class. (He was speaking on the importance of customer service, according to the class’s regular instructor.) CFO Carol Tomé and executive VP U.S. stores Marvin Ellison are also regulars on the lecture circuit.
“Fortunately, we have a CEO who understands that development is important,” Thompson said. “Frank makes the time investment, he comes down and spends time with every group. Marvin comes down, Carol Tomé comes down. Our senior leaders have been really supportive. That makes a big difference.”
The centralized management training for store leaders known as HDU is just one facet of the overall learning department at The Home Depot. The executive overseeing the big picture is Tom Spahr, VP learning. The decision to centralize its training of store leaders not only made sense from an efficiency standpoint and a consistency standpoint, it also makes sense historically.
“We looked back at the way that our founders trained all of our leaders,” Spahr said. “They trained them all here in Atlanta. And, if you look at some of the old agendas, you’d literally see Bernie [Marcus] and Arthur [Blank] spending full days in classrooms with the leaders.”
One of the advantages of bringing the managers from the stores to Atlanta for centralized training is the education that can flow up from the stores. “In the past, you might be sitting here in Atlanta thinking, ‘All my programs work great in the stores, everything’s terrific.’ Today, every week you get a dose of reality,” Spahr explained. “You get the unvarnished truth from the managers who are here saying, ‘Hey, you know it would be better if you did a little more of this, a little less of that.’”
While HDU is the latest Home Depot training initiative, more than half of the learning in Spahr’s department is focused on the stores in the areas of product knowledge and customer service training. And that probably will never change because of the complexity of home improvement retailing.
“When you think about walking into a Home Depot store and the levels of questions and the level of knowledge that we have to be able to impart on a customer, it is tremendous,” he said. “You start with 40,000 SKUs in the store, so you’ve got a vast array of products. But what makes it even more complex is that our business is a project business, not just a product business.”
During a recent visit, a visitor was allowed to observe a classroom of logistics managers, who were split into groups. They were writing down lists of things that associates expect from managers, and what managers expect from associates.
Inside one of the classrooms of supply chain leaders, students split into groups, and a trainer of logistics managers went over what supervisors expect from associates and what associates expect from their supervisors. On the latter list were some of the following: consistency, clarity, vision, communication, integrity and knowledge.
These items come as no surprise to Thompson.
“We have to set up those leaders for success, and that’s what we do here,” she said.
THE EDUCATION OF A VP OF LEARNING
Home Depot’s VP leaning Tom Spahr offered a fair description of the challenge of home improvement retailing:
“You’re standing there at the end of the aisle, and there’s a customer coming,” Spahr said. “It’s anyone’s guess what they’re going to ask. It could be a five-minute conversation or it could be two hours.”
Not many companies have to prepare for that. But that’s the scenario that keeps Spahr busy every day.
The man in charge of learning at Home Depot is a 10-year company veteran. His first job was in a local hardware store in Smithtown, N.Y., when he was 16. His education continued at Wickes Lumber and Builder Square before he joined Home Depot.
“My dad is a weekend warrior, and he taught me so much in my early years, building decks or remodeling bathrooms,” Spahr said.
What’s the toughest job to train for? Electricity and plumbing have low margins of error. But kitchens are the toughest, he said.
“It’s not just the technical knowledge, but then there’s the design and the creativity that’s involved in helping a customer work through the biggest purchase they’ll ever make in their house,” he said. “You certainly don’t want to get it wrong.”