Leaders at 7 NYC Companies Explain How Upskilling Transforms Their Teams

Stagnancy is a driving force behind why people quit in favor of better opportunities. Leaders at seven local companies shared insights into their upskilling strategies.

Written by Lucas Dean
Published on Oct. 26, 2022
Leaders at 7 NYC Companies Explain How Upskilling Transforms Their Teams
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Orchids and zebra plants are two of the most common indoor plants — they’re also two of the most likely to end up on the curb when trash day rolls around. 

A one-size-fits-all approach is ill-advised for these unique plants. While zebra plants prefer consistently moist soil and warm temperatures, orchids will rot when watered too frequently and moisture levels are too high. 

You might be wondering — and rightfully so — what professional development and indoor plants’ nutritional needs have in common. 

Well, people are a lot like plants. No person or plant is exactly the same, and if you want to see someone grow and reach their full potential, you need to be in tune with their specific needs and desires.

To get a sense of how important professional growth is to people, look no further than The Great Resignation. According to a 2022 Pew Research survey, one of the top reasons U.S. workers left jobs in 2021 was a lack of opportunities for advancement. Upskilling, or providing opportunities and avenues for growth, is one of the most potent solutions for enriching employee development while simultaneously achieving broader company goals. 

Built In NYC chatted with leaders at seven local companies to learn more about how upskilling drove innovation by tapping into employees’ innate desire for personal and professional growth.

 

Sujatha Bala
Director - Cloud & Infrastructure Services Program Office • Merck

Merck is a global biopharmaceutical company with over 130 years of experience developing medicines and vaccines. The research-intensive company is driven by an evolving, intellectually curious team who strives to treat and prevent complex diseases. 

 

What opportunities do people on your team have for upskilling and professional development?

Our company is very focused on providing professional and personal development and learning journeys for our colleagues. A few examples are the enterprise-wide learning platforms that are being planned for upskilling in both technology skills such as cloud, AI and ML, as well as product model implementation and leadership skills.

We are also focused on “teaching people to fish,” as it relates to job training, mentoring and gigs. This includes working in cross-functional teams, as well as three-month external fellowship opportunities where you can sharpen your current skills and learn new skills in a real-world scenario outside of the company.

 

What’s the most creative use of your learning and development resources that you’ve seen?

Recently, we started an upskill program where participants get to take an assessment of a skill they want to develop, get measures for their skill level and customize their learning plans to fill the gaps. This is a very creative and customized way of learning and is very different from one-size-fits-all approaches.

It’s very exciting to see teams building and being part of the transformation journey versus being satisfied with just consuming innovation.”

 

What’s an example of a time when upskilling drove innovation at Merck?

Teams that have taken advantage of upskilling at the company have now learned new skills and used them on the job to ideate and take things to POC and MVP status. This is different from the old ways of working, where we depended on industry experts to advise us on innovation from the outside. It’s very exciting to see teams building and being part of the transformation journey versus being satisfied with just consuming innovation.

 

 

Emily Dann
L&D Manager • Harry's Inc.

Harry’s is a consumer packaged goods company known for high-quality grooming products that don’t break the bank. Harry’s and Flamingo, the company’s women-focused brand, develop and bring a wide range of personal care products to market. 

 

What opportunities do people on your team have for upskilling and professional development?

At Harry’s, we offer an array of opportunities for folks to learn and grow toward their chosen career path.  

First, we offer L&Dough, an individual reimbursement program for learning and development that reimburses $1,000 or £800 for all full-time, permanent employees, and $500 or £400 for all part-time, permanent employees. Individuals can utilize this amount towards anything as it relates to their development towards their career path. 

Secondly, to support this reimbursement program, we’ve taken some of the most popular development goals and created a summary of self-guided resources, courses and next steps to make progress. This series of easy-to-use, self-guided learning paths span across a range of different growth areas, from coaching to project management and coding. Our very own experts here at Harry’s curate and recommend resources like podcasts, training, articles and TEDx Talks. Once individuals have identified the key skills they want to develop, they can get started on our guides and share the learnings with teammates.

 

What’s the most creative use of your learning and development resources that you’ve seen?

An individual on our retail team set up a monthly book club with members of her team to discuss books purchased with the L&Dough reimbursement. One standout was a discussion of “StrengthsFinder 2.0” by Tom Rath to learn more about how to become better managers and use their greatest natural talents to get the most out of their roles and team. This created a fantastic networking opportunity for the group to connect and learn more about each other’s strengths, which in turn led to improved collaboration and decision-making when working on cross-functional projects.

We also saw another individual use her L&Dough reimbursement to purchase several subscriptions to different journals within the retail and online space and then subsequently created a monthly newsletter with her favorite learnings, which was shared with those interested each month. It’s a very cool and fun way to build a learning community within our team!

As a result of this upskilling, we saw that our team engagement results in 2021 significantly improved for both collaboration and connection at the individual and team-wide level.”

 

What’s an example of a time when upskilling drove innovation at Harry’s?

In 2021, we began trialing hybrid working with the global Harry’s team. To help teams upskill and become more collaborative cross-functional partners, we ran “How to Hybrid” workshops that enabled individuals to practice our new hybrid meeting norms and ways of working within their teams — giving them space to make mistakes, connect and support each other as they learned. 

As a result of this upskilling, we saw that our team engagement results in 2021 significantly improved for both collaboration and connection at the individual and team-wide levels. This uptick in collaboration meant that our team was able to innovate more effectively in a hybrid setting, building associations between new ideas and challenging each other — with empathy — to bring these ideas to life regardless of their working location.

 

 

Michelle Young
Manager of Professional Development • QuantumBlack, AI by McKinsey.

QuantumBlack, the AI consulting arm of McKinsey, harnesses the power of artificial intelligence to help companies grow and transform. At QuantumBlack Labs, multidisciplinary team members research and build cutting-edge machine-learning tools and assets. 

 

What opportunities do people on your team have for upskilling and professional development?

Being a part of McKinsey, our technologists at QuantumBlack have several options for upskilling and professional development. We are proud to offer that as a core principle to who we are as a firm, to ensure that learning does not stop after academia. This includes up to 200 protected learning hours, outside of work on a client engagement, that allows you to grow knowledge and skill sets in the ways that suit you best. This can be in the form of formal programs, certifications, conferences or more. There are many practitioners who join with a particular tech stack or preference for a coding language, but through experience and exposure have the opportunity to get certified in other products and grow their capabilities through our learning programs.

 

What’s the most creative use of your learning and development resources that you’ve seen?

One approach to our learning and development is to simply allow our colleagues to be in an environment where learning is encouraged, regardless of where you are in your time at our firm. For example, we get our colleagues together in person for offsite meetings dedicated to time spent learning, connectivity and socializing. At these events, you have sometimes hundreds of colleagues from the same technical domain coming together for workshops, presentations, and team-building activities. Learning and upskilling are occurring constantly and organically over the course of these few days together.

At a Data Science and Data Engineering Summit we hosted earlier this year, we convened more than 500 practitioners and showcased projects, product demos, and talks from colleagues across all roles, ranging from junior level to partners.

At QuantumBlack, upskilling, learning, mentorship and apprenticeship are all at the core of our working model and norms.”

 

What’s an example of a time when upskilling drove innovation at QuantumBlack?

At QuantumBlack, upskilling, learning, mentorship and apprenticeship are all at the core of our working model and norms. We have QB Labs — described as our learning machine for QuantumBlack and McKinsey — where we learn from our different user bases, clients and industries. It is a unit that brings together multidisciplinary teams to address complex user problems in the machine learning and data science space. 

Our technologists have the opportunity to collaborate with QB Labs or do a rotation on these teams, where we manage and enhance proprietary models and tools, as well as R&D projects. This is where our data engineers, data scientists, designers and product managers innovate together to accelerate our work in AI for speed and scale. In 2019, QuantumBlack launched Kedro, its first open-source software tool for data scientists and data engineers, and in 2022 McKinsey donated Kedro to the Linux Foundation.

 

 

Melissa Lewis
Director of Talent Enablement at Order • Order.co

Fintech and e-commerce company Order modernizes purchase-to-pay processes by organizing vendors in one place. The Order platform helps clients cut costs, track orders and save time in a single, easy-to-navigate destination. 

 

What opportunities do people on your team have for upskilling and professional development? 

One of our values here at Order is “The Limit Does Not Exist.” It’s about going above and beyond to implement creative solutions and deliver best-in-class outcomes. In order to do that, we provide upskilling opportunities that extend beyond one’s field to explore solutions and knowledge from other departments in the company. We offer those cross-functional upskilling opportunities because, in a matrixed organization, shared knowledge is pivotal to innovative problem-solving and the overall customer experience! 

For example, our implementation team works with our sales team to build in-depth technical knowledge of our product. This enables our sales team to have more knowledgeable conversations with prospective customers. In addition, our data team is also working with the operations team to share knowledge with all departments on data queries. This optimizes performance at every level of the company, as teams are able to better access the data they need to make more informed decisions.

Here at Order, we like to think outside of the box and consider how that knowledge can be shared and applied, not just in team silos, but throughout the company.”

 

What’s the most creative use of your learning and development resources that you’ve seen?

Our people are our learning resources! They are invaluable learning assets with a wealth of experience and tacit knowledge. Here at Order, we like to think outside of the box and consider how that knowledge can be shared and applied, not just in team silos but throughout the company to build the company’s capabilities as a whole. To deliver the type of cross-functional learning opportunities we have, our subject matter experts serve as our most important resource. 

With such a huge focus on digital learning resources today, it is imperative that companies not only keep a human-centered approach to learning but also remember that your people — your experts — are your greatest resource and differentiator.

 

What’s an example of a time when upskilling drove innovation at Order?

One of our cross-functional upskilling opportunities is our data team’s sessions on queries. These lessons are spurring innovation across the company! Our product team is an example of this. After taking the cross-functional session on queries, the product team was inspired to build a unique analysis model for their department. This is exciting because it will help them drive better outcomes for the products they deliver in the future, and they gained that new insight from our data team!

 

 

Katy White
Senior People Development Manager • CB Insights

Machine learning, data visualization and algorithms collide at CB Insights to provide clients with valuable market intelligence. CBI’s platform offers the real-time industry insights needed to make quick decisions, identify growth opportunities and build relationships. 

 

What opportunities do people on your team have for upskilling and professional development? 

As the senior people development manager, it’s my role to ensure every CBIer has opportunities for upskilling, and it’s been incredibly fun because of the learning culture here. Our people are hungry for development opportunities. In fact, our session sign-ups fill within minutes of opening! So what do we offer that keeps the people growing? CBIers have access to an education stipend, unlimited one-on-one coaching and monthly workshops that range from topics like productivity skills to Excel skills, plus so much more. 

We hold monthly manager workshops to level up new managers on the core skills that have the biggest impact on performance and provide continued education for tenured managers. On top of these offerings, we also hold three different leadership development programs that target high performers early in their careers, mid-level and senior-level leaders. There’s something for everyone. 

On our people development team specifically, we’ve held book club discussions and, my favorite: quarterly growth conversations. These discussions have encouraged me to identify the most pertinent skills I need to develop for my career goals and prompt me to visualize the path to get there.  

Much like the wire scaffolding that concrete is formed around, a learning journey is a framework that outlines the learning needs of various audiences within the company at different points in time.”

 

What’s the most creative use of your learning and development resources that you’ve seen?

The design for development offerings is one of the most creative uses for our learning and development resources at CBI. Without this core, our resources would stand alone and carry less impact. From the intentionality that goes into the decision-making process on what to offer, to the methodology in targeting the right people at the right moment, we hustle for the details to impact performance and the employee learning experience. This learning experience is what we call a learning journey. 

Much like the wire scaffolding that concrete is formed around, a learning journey is a framework that outlines the learning needs of various audiences within the company at different points in time. This framework enables us to see the bigger picture of learning and the details simultaneously. With that clarity and structure, we are able to build into the framework, creating ideal upskilling experiences that impact our performance and culture.

 

What’s an example of a time when upskilling drove innovation at CB Insights?

One of the biggest impacts I have seen from an upskilling initiative came from our development program, BULL: “Building Up Limitless Leaders.” In this program, participants learn and apply two different frameworks that help them level up their competency in deliberate decision-making. The first framework is a root-cause analysis: If you don’t know what you’re solving for, it’s going to be very difficult to make the right decision. The second tool they learn and apply in this area is a collaboration framework. After a group has figured out the root cause of a problem, the collaboration tool enables people to seek out various solutions and prioritize the one that fits best. 

The two frameworks are very effective when used in tandem. Shortly after the program, multiple managers were praising the impact. Not only were the BULL participants applying the tools to solve problems in their departments, but they were also teaching their teams to use the frameworks as well.

 

 

Erica Schmitt
Senior People Business Partner • Catalyst Software

Catalyst Software created a customer success platform that centralizes and analyzes customer data, empowering customer success managers to target expansion opportunities, address churn risks and automate workflows. 

 

What opportunities do people on your team have for upskilling and professional development? 

Catalyst is a people-first organization. We hire top talent and understand that continuing to invest in their professional development not only doubles down on our commitment to them, but also is a powerful investment in the future of the company. 

We offer a $1,000 educational stipend each year for every team member to use toward their continuing education goals and learn new skills. In addition to the educational stipend, all new managers receive a structured and developmental training program that consists of four in-depth sessions to ensure they are equipped with the tools and resources to lead with confidence while developing their managerial skill set. 

 

What’s the most creative use of your learning and development resources that you’ve seen?

We have created a space for our future leaders to come together in various ways leveraging virtual events and internal pages. Our hybrid virtual events engage our team members in learning soft skills while having fun! Virtual escape rooms build teamwork and strategic thinking, while our employee-led lunch and learn events foster communication and training skills! 

In addition to our virtual engagements, we leverage a shared internet page titled “Leadership Lounge,” allowing for shared resources such as developmental book recommendations, book clubs, leadership articles, recorded training videos and more!

When our employees leverage their counterparts’ expertise to broaden their own skill sets, they then subsequently apply these learnings to their respective roles.”

 

What’s an example of a time when upskilling drove innovation at Catalyst?

Our employees tend to be intellectually curious, and therefore are often interested in learning about the work that their colleagues are doing. This desire to learn has led to not only formalized cross-functional training but also to employee-driven job shadowing and mentorship.

When our employees leverage their counterparts’ expertise to broaden their own skill sets, they then subsequently apply these learnings to their respective roles, resulting in more innovative and well-informed perspectives that bring insights to advance our platform and product strategy.

Additionally, this cross-functional learning has even led to successful internal transitions — people moving from sales to customer success, from customer success to marketing and product.

 

 

The DAS42 gathered outdoors for a company picture.
DAS42
Amy Petkanas
Director, People • DAS42

The DAS42 team is on a mission to help businesses unlock the true potential of data, working alongside organizations to transform their data ecosystems into indispensable resources and identify tools that address specific needs. 

 

What opportunities do people on your team have for upskilling and professional development?

Upskilling and professional development are values we hold at DAS42. We offer employees opportunities to obtain certifications, engage in self-guided learning journeys, take one of our internal training programs, learn from their mentors and even use the development stipend to find outside resources.

An important part of our growth strategy is adding managers as we hire new employees. Most of our team is new to management, so it was critical that we developed a training program that could take inexperienced, new or potential managers and teach them the soft skills required as leaders as well as upskill their technical skills. 

We now offer our Leadership Lab Program two times per year for anyone that wants to further their skills and development. The program consists of weekly virtual workshops which are about half soft skills — effective communication, giving and receiving feedback — and half technical trainings on the core pieces of technology we use or work within our projects.

 

What’s the most creative use of your learning and development resources that you’ve seen?

DAS42 is constantly assessing the way we provide learning and developmental opportunities and adjusts as needed. We try to provide trainings in various learning avenues so that everyone has the opportunity to succeed. However, if we can see that a training is not working, that just means we have to get a little creative. 

In the fall of 2022, we had an urgent need to enable our new sales team. We scheduled an in-person training session, but, using our new Learning Management System (LMS), we built a longer-term, more effective learning journey for each employee. Through this journey, we delivered live trainings with quizzes and activities through the LMS app to make sure the content was engaging and helped the learners better retain the information. We also assigned pre-recorded orientation courses, a continuing enablement series of live sessions, surveys to gauge effectiveness and engagement, and checkpoints to ensure learners were participating and completing the trainings.
 

Sharing and collaborating on data is quickly becoming the fastest path to insights and better decisions.”


What’s an example of a time when upskilling drove innovation at your company?

Sharing and collaborating on data is quickly becoming the fastest path to insights and better decisions. About six months ago, one of our principal consultants began studying Snowflake’s data sharing in an effort to better understand all the details involved, especially as it relates to security. His research helped him understand not just the various ways to share data — Snowflake’s Marketplace and Private Data Exchanges, for example — but also the various features which would need to be employed to ensure data security, like masking and row-access policies, secure UDFs, secure views and so on. 

Armed with this knowledge, our principal consultant gave a presentation and demonstration at the Disney Data and Analytics Conference to establish DAS42 as thought-leaders in the data-sharing space. He also put together a proposal for a potential client who wished to create their own Data Clean Room. Having this institutional knowledge and practical experience will certainly ensure that DAS42 continues to enable our clients to arrive at faster insights and better decisions.

Responses have been edited for length and clarity. Images via listed companies and Shutterstock.

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