With a career history that includes multiple cross-functional roles, Deb Capolarello, senior vice president and chief learning officer for MetLife, knows the value of varied experience.
by Site Staff
October 1, 2003
Name: Deb Capolarello
Title: Senior Vice President and Chief Learning Officer
- Supporting culture change as MetLife prepared to go public.
- Supporting action learning, with 88 percent of projects started in the business acumen workshop implemented following the course.
- Supporting the movement of people throughout the company, with intentional development moves to broaden employee experience.
- Tying development planning with discipline performance management.
- 86 percent of employees attending MetLife’s management workshops said it led to strong improvement in their ability to manage their business.
- Senior sponsorship drives home the message that learning is important. With senior sponsorship, change has been simultaneous with learning.
Learning Philosophy: “Give learners the knowledge, skills and experiences needed to be more successful in their current roles as well as to prepare for broader opportunities in the future. If any learning experience makes you more successful at what you do, and you can improve your individual performance, you’re ultimately improving the organization’s performance.”
With a career history that includes multiple cross-functional roles, Deb Capolarello, senior vice president and chief learning officer for MetLife, knows the value of varied experience. A teacher by education, Capolarello entered the corporate education world due to the dearth of teaching opportunities as she left college. She returned to school for her master’s and then found an opportunity with a new airline in Newark, N.J. That was in 1980, and the airline was People Express Airlines.
“It was truly a startup experience,” said Capolarello. “I continued there until 1987, working in cross-functional roles, almost always on the human resources side, but in that airline, everyone had a staff and a land job.”
This exposure to diverse aspects of the business led Capolarello to her next role, at Citicorp. She started in the training group on the Consumer Bank side, and again held various roles in the company throughout her 12-year career there. In her final position with Citicorp, Capolarello was the global head of learning for the Consumer Bank, which employed 85,000 people worldwide.
“From very early on in my career, I saw the importance of gaining new experiences in whatever you did, which really helped broaden and build a depth of knowledge around looking at things from a business perspective, no matter what technical, functional responsibility I had,” said Capolarello.
Capolarello joined MetLife six years ago as chief learning officer, and she has taken on increasingly broad responsibilities ever since. In addition to learning and development for 29,000 employees, a number that she said will grow as she gets more involved in learning for the international organization, she is now responsible for the company’s strategic staffing, diversity and employee relations.
When she arrived at MetLife, Capolarello found the company undergoing a major change, as a mutual company preparing to go public. One of her earliest and greatest challenges was helping the company navigate the waters of that change. “Part of my role was to come here and really, from a learning perspective, prepare people for all the tests that public ownership was going to bring,” she said. “It was really about changing the culture and going from a mutual company to a public company, and they clearly knew that there were going to be different skill sets, different leadership and management requirements. It was all about giving people the skills and the knowledge that they needed to operate successfully in what was going to be a very changed environment at MetLife.”
In addition to the great challenge of preparing the company for a major cultural change, Capolarello took the position with MetLife for personal reasons. “I had two small children at the time and didn’t want to travel all over the world,” she said. “It was very much a work-life balance decision, as well as a great challenging opportunity for me personally to be part of taking a company public and preparing people for that.”
One of the first things Capolarello and MetLife did to grease the wheels of culture change was to implement a performance management process. MetLife supported this change, Capolarello said, “by aligning all of the different systems and processes from an HR perspective and then giving people the skills, the tools and the communication to help them be successful with it.”
MetLife uses learning to drive employee and business performance. Capolarello emphasized that it should be about helping people be successful, not only in their current jobs, but also for their future careers. “It’s not about learning for learning’s sake,” she said. “It’s really about giving people the skills and tools they need to do their jobs better today as well as to prepare them for broader responsibilities for tomorrow.”
When she started at MetLife, Capolarello was responsible for the entire company’s leadership and management development skills. She explained that different learning groups were located within the lines of business in order to provide technical and job skills. Now those organizations fall under the umbrella of Capolarello’s responsibilities. “So now we have a very holistic picture of learning,” she said. “It’s about learning to do your job as an individual, it’s about work-unit learning, it’s about line-of-business or functional learning, and then it’s about organizational learning, which gets into what I call the leadership and management development and the corporate training that we do that really binds the culture together.”
MetLife uses a blended learning strategy to ensure that individual learners have access to the forms of learning that suit them best. “All people learn differently,” Capolarello said. “We really want to create different learning forums that appeal to different people’s learning styles. Some people learn better by reading, and we have different reading lists. Some people learn better by doing. Some people learn better by participating. Some people love e-learning; others prefer to come to a classroom program, so for some of our core skill programs we offer it both ways.”
MetLife offers classroom learning, but Capolarello said the company is using a lot more e-learning now, making sure that the programs are user-friendly and intellectually stimulating. In addition, she said they focus a lot on action-learning programs. Through one business acumen workshop offered in partnership with Babson College, employees attend two weeks of training that Capolarello describes as a “mini-MBA program.” Attendees work on a project identified by a senior member of the company that deals with a relevant issue facing their organizations. They work on the issue in teams and then present their work to senior executives. The effectiveness of the program speaks for itself – 88 percent of the projects that have been worked on in the workshop have been implemented. “I think that’s a good indication of combining learning with work, dealing with relevant issues that are integral to making our business better and producing higher results,” said Capolarello.
Making sure that learning has an impact on the overall functioning of the organization is key, Capolarello said. “We’re always looking at impact – How much of an impact did the learning have? – and either quantifying it or qualifying it is always something that we continue to strive for,” she said.
Specific results surrounding impact are found in the survey of those who attend MetLife’s management workshop. Six months after attending the workshop, “86 percent of the people who went through it reported that they had moderate to strong improvement in doing their jobs better and managing the business, which is ultimately what you want to hear,” Capolarello said. “They’re saying that this made an improvement in how they managed their business, and they can see it going back to the learning that they got from the program.”
Capolarello said prioritization and demand are her greatest challenges at MetLife. With numerous lines of business going through various types of change – from changing systems, products and processes to improving quality and customer service – it’s tough to decide which needs come first. “Everyone believes their demands are the most important, but you have to look at resources and funding and prioritization and what’s going to add the most value from a cost-benefit perspective,” said Capolarello.
Timing is also an issue. Capolarello explained, “Of course you want everything quickly, so being at the table early on and understanding whatever the issue might be, whether it’s a change in performance issue or it’s a change in the work environment or a reskilling of the workforce, the earlier we’re brought in, the better we are in meeting the needs of our clients in the most effective way.”
In addition to being at the table to work with the lines of business most effectively, Capolarello said that learning benefits from senior sponsorship. MetLife’s chairman and CEO Bob Benmosche is very committed to learning. “We have a MetLife management workshop, which is our core management development program,” Capolarello said. “It’s for all of our directors and above, and over 2,500 people have been through it in the last five years. He comes on the last day and spends the entire day there asking people about what they learned, about what they’re going to take away and do differently, and about a barrier they face in their organization and what they’re going to do about it. So he’s very involved in perpetuating the importance of learning in the organization.”
To control the costs of learning at MetLife, Capolarello said her team works closely with her HR clients and their colleagues at prioritization and considers carefully when it is best to build something or to buy a solution that already exists. “Where do you really need the resources internally that you need to build?” she asked. “Where can you go out and buy and maybe customize a bit and get the leverage of what others have created out there so that you don’t need to start from scratch?”
It’s all about carefully leveraging internal resources across the board. “I might have a trainer teaching in our operations group today, but then being in front of an investments group tomorrow based on their area of learning expertise,” Capolarello explained. “It serves the company well because we’re leveraging our resources further. It also serves the business well because now they’re with a trainer who’s had perspectives from different parts of the business and can bring it together for people.”
Capolarello said that the company’s dedication to learning and development results in a very low turnover rate for top performers. She explained, “People are looking for companies that invest in developing their people. We retained nearly 97 percent of all our top performers in 2002. That to me says that we have a workforce that’s getting the challenges, getting the benefits, not wanting to leave the company. And I think a lot of that is about development. If you’re learning and growing and your job is challenging, you want to stay.”
Capolarello added that survey results show that MetLife employees are engaged with the company and pleased with the development opportunities they see. In fact, two out of three people at MetLife who answered the survey said they believe they have the opportunity to learn and grow at MetLife. “Developing our people is a top priority at MetLife, and it is clear that our employees agree with me that our investment in learning is paying off,” she said.