The arrival of the so-called “new economy” over the past few years has brought about a new emphasis on the role of human capital in business. Whereas the focus was on tangible assets—the means of production—in the industrial economy of yesteryear, enterprises today speak often and approvingly of the power of their people in shaping success.
Yet Equifax—an information and technology solutions provider that works with clients in financial services, retail, healthcare, telecommunications, brokerage, insurance and other industries—has highlighted the importance of its employees in its operations throughout its history, which extends back more than a century. The company has embedded this concept of people as its cornerstone in every expression of its corporate ethics and values. For instance, the seminal statement of the organization’s ideals, The Equifax Way, reads, “It is all about growth, innovation and the deployment of technology, led by the greatest people anywhere.” Additionally, one of the points in Equifax’s code of ethics states, “We recognize that people are our greatest strength. The quality of our people differentiates us and personifies our leadership position.” Lynn Slavenski, Equifax’s senior vice president of global learning and organizational development and chief learning officer, is charged not only with assuring employees are aware of their own significance, but also with ensuring they are indeed the “greatest.”
Slavenski started her journey to her current role in academia, obtaining a master’s degree and doctorate with educational emphases in career development, organizational development and management. Previous employers included various government organizations and Blue Cross Blue Shield. Interestingly, she worked at Equifax prior to her current stint, but left to pursue career opportunities at Coca-Cola. However, she was asked to come back to lead Equifax’s learning and development initiatives. One of her first actions in this new role was the establishment of a corporate institution of higher learning, Equifax University. “I was hired in as the top person (in learning) and began Equifax University as the top person,” she said. “When I first started, Equifax University was not only nonexistent, but (there were) also disparate individual training groups all over the company. Just starting it and bringing it together was a success. It was a political nightmare for a little while. It started at the leadership level, but it’s grown since then.”
Because of Slavenski’s effectiveness in her position and the increasing recognition of high-quality learning and development as a competitive advantage, she has seen her profile rise within Equifax. “My level has increased. At first I was reporting farther down the organization. Although I don’t report to the chairman/CEO now, I report to the administrative officer who reports to the chairman/CEO. The position has been elevated over time,” Slavenski explained. “I feel like I have a good relationship with (leaders). I try to work with each one to understand their needs. At various times, I’ve had advisory councils for different ones. We’re on a first-name basis and that sort of thing. I do have a seat at the table.”
“Equifax University (EU) not only has a full curriculum of courses, but also helps with specific needs,” said Julie Anderson, vice president of marketing services. “Recently, EU helped my group develop a navigational mentoring program specific to our business needs, which provided the division with a strong foundation for helping the acquired company become a productive part of the Equifax corporation.”
Building up the Equifax learning function over the past 17 years has been no mean feat, particularly given the organizational challenges Slavenski faced over that time frame. “I’ve had the experience of going through lots of changes, because we’ve had different CEOs. The first one was one of the top 10 officers from IBM. He supported starting a corporate university. We had another CEO who was quite different. He was internal, but earlier in his career hadn’t come from a big-company background, so he brought a different perspective, a whole new set of strategies.”
In addition, the organization was split up in a move that benefited the companies’ owners, but compelled senior leaders like Slavenski to overhaul education and development strategies. “Fortunately for our shareholders, we spun off two companies, and that made a lot of people wealthy,” she said. “But in doing that, we became smaller and didn’t have the bench strength to go to that next level of leadership that was needed. We had to go outside for our new leader, who came on board last October. He was at GE. Through all of this, Equifax University has survived. I think it’s because we try to align with senior leadership and their strategies. I’m still here!”
Leadership development continues to be a priority for Equifax, she added. “Right now, with our new CEO, we have done our leadership talent review,” she said. “Next, we’re going to realign more with our new strategy, which will be announced in June (2006). We have done a study to look at our business. We’ll have to step back, look at that strategy, see where we need to go and make all kinds of adjustments to make sure that we get there. We’re going to use the data that we’ve gathered from our leadership talent review to see where our leaders need to be based on that strategy.”
Another challenge includes the company’s operational expansion globally, especially in Latin American countries. Because of the geographic distance involved, Slavenski and her team have put a fair amount of learning offerings online. “We’ve done a lot of global training through e-learning,” Slavenski said. But she added that this isn’t always a satisfactory solution because of the limited foreign-language learning products on the market. “Just trying to get programs in Portuguese is difficult. Not that many vendors do Portuguese, even though Brazil’s the largest country in Latin America. The other thing is that we’re trying to get more training people within those countries. When we started out with our expansion into Latin America, we did it not through startups, but through acquisitions. We’ve inherited a lot of good people, but not all of them are fluent in English. We’ve had to put a lot of emphasis on teaching the right people English.”
Many of the learning programs the company rolls out both in the United States and abroad fall under the rubric of Equifax University. About 90 percent of high-level and high-skill (management, leadership, sales and technology) educational initiatives come directly from this institution. Although product- and job-knowledge training functions generally do not report directly to Slavenski, they must align to objectives laid out by her and other organizational leaders. “We have branding in Equifax University,” she explained. “We came together as a whole group to establish branding so that ideally, although everything wasn’t reported to me, it would all be Equifax University.”
Slavenski offered a few examples of Equifax University initiatives that have had a significant impact. One of these included a rigorous assessment program for the organization’s sales force. “In our sales arena, we have a certification program that certifies employees on our products,” she said. “That’s one method of quality control. That works better inside of the United States, frankly, than outside the United States right now. We’ve mostly worked on the sales product certification here, but we’re planning to take it to other countries.”
This and other curricula have elevated the proficiency of Equifax’s sales professionals, and helped them adjust to shifting organizational needs, said Dann Adams, senior vice president of the company’s North American information services division. “Equifax University has played a crucial role in helping us transform our sales organization from problem solving to demand creation,” he said. “EU took a holistic approach, which included alignment, selection, training, coaching, performance management and governance. Demand creation is now (helping) and will continue to help us differentiate ourselves in the marketplace now and in the future. We could not have done it without them. They have been great partners.”
Another notable offering is the Equifax University mentoring program, in which key senior-level personnel counsel roughly 50 high-potential employees each year on leadership and management essentials. This program has born fruit in terms of both development and retention. “Seventy-seven percent of the mentees in the past three years have been promoted or moved laterally, and there’s been only 2 percent turnover with mentees versus the organization’s average 10 percent turnover,” Slavenski said.
Perhaps the most significant and far-reaching program, though, was an enterprise-wide educational initiative designed to edify employees vis-à-vis The Equifax Way. “On an annual basis, we roll out a program to send a key message to all of our managers around the world,” Slavenski said. “We take a key subject that we’re trying to get across the organization, and we have key leaders teach it. The past year, which was quite successful, we did it on The Equifax Way. To measure that, we recently did an employee survey. It came out very high in terms of people understanding and embracing the Equifax Way.”
She added that the workforce’s understanding of The Equifax Way was vital, because although the organization changed often in the past and would continue to do so, this principle has always served as the underpinning of the company. “The reason I chose values this year was because of the fact that I knew we were going to get a new CEO, and we were going to go through change. I wanted to prepare the people and help them hang on to the foundation of our values. Equifax has been in business for over 100 years, and the values haven’t changed.”
—Brian Summerfield, firstname.lastname@example.org
Name: Lynn Slavenski
Title: Senior Vice President of Global Learning and Organizational Development and Chief Learning Officer
- Established Equifax University in 1989, thereby making the company’s learning organizations more centralized and more efficient.
- Guided Equifax’s learning functions through various organizational changes, including corporate restructuring and incoming and outgoing CEOs.
- Helped the company expand and enhance its educational offerings to its international workforce, particularly in Latin America.
- Served in leadership roles in various human resources and learning and development industry organizations.
Learning Philosophy: “I’ve had a motto since I began Equifax University in 1989. I’ve repeatedly said it to both myself and my people, and that is, ‘We don’t do training. We do change.’”