Jeff Tritt is a deep thinker. A philosophy major in college, he now brings that same thoughtful approach to the purpose of learning in his role as head of development at marketing firm Leo Burnett and its subsidiary, Arc Worldwide.
Socrates. Descartes. Hegel. Wittgenstein. Tritt? Perhaps not. But Jeff Tritt, executive vice president of learning and organizational development, talent management, employee relations and internal communications at Leo Burnett and Arc Worldwide, has spent his career asking deep questions about the nature of organizational and individual development. Along the way, he’s gained some insights into how the two are connected to each other, as well as the entire enterprise.
“An organization learns its way into the future,” he explained. “We can’t expect our organization to grow if our people aren’t growing themselves. As resources across the entire business landscape are condensed more and more, and we have to do more things with fewer people, the idea of having learning integrated in organizational transformation is critical. The days of siloed learning that’s disconnected from not only the competencies you want to build, but also the direction in which you want to head, are numbered.”
Tritt’s philosophical approach to learning and organizational development is not too surprising, given the fact that he majored in philosophy as an undergraduate. After he got his degree, he worked for five years at Leo Burnett — in advertising.
“I think for the first couple of years of my career, that philosophy background was a hindrance,” he said. “I was always asking another, deeper question, and I had to learn to get those questions under control. As time has progressed, though, I think that my philosophy background has allowed me to think systemically about cause and effect and think deeper. It built a lot of curiosity in my approach.”
After this stint at Leo Burnett, he left the company to become the head of consumer communications at Sherwin-Williams. Working on the client side of marketing, he gained an appreciation for organizational development.
“Really, the agency side is only 20 percent of what marketing people do,” Tritt said. “On the client side, you get into the operational, people and product-development issues. In the midst of doing all of this, I noticed that the things that would keep me awake at night often had to do with people and the structure of their interactions. I would wonder about things like how a meeting could have been organized to be more successful.”
With this intense interest in organizational development forming, Tritt began to voraciously explore the formal concepts and issues of the field. He read books and attended industry conferences in a quest for more knowledge in this area.
“In mid-career, when everyone else was running off to marketing conferences, I was going to organizational design and development forums, the Gestalt Institute and all these places where people talked about things like organizational alignment and performance management,” he said. “I think my natural tendencies were to focus on those issues because I saw a multiplier effect: I found that the marketing results always came if I was aligning with the organization and getting the most out of people.”
Finally, he decided to pursue a career in this discipline. He got a master’s degree in organizational development and analysis from Case Western Reserve University and started this professional transition as a consultant.
“I started getting involved with consulting for clients and agencies and really helped them align with their organizations to better deliver on their strategic intent. I knew the subject matter, I had a passion for learning and development, and from that point, I kept doing projects in that space.”
A little more than three years ago, Tritt found himself back at his old employer, but working in a very different capacity.
“I originally came back to Leo Burnett to be part of their organizational development group,” Tritt said. “About three months into that position, there was a need to have someone head up human resources for all of North America, which included traditional HR aspects, but also organizational development, talent management and recruiting. So three months later, I was in a completely different role.”
Tritt faced a couple of immediate and interrelated challenges: the outmoded way learning was delivered at the company and the resources devoted to employee development.
The leadership team at Leo Burnett quickly concluded that the organization needed to invest more in its people. This wasn’t just related to funding programs. It also referred to creating a new philosophy to drive those programs.
“We put a stake in the ground and said, ‘We’re going to reinvent how the organization does learning,’” Tritt explained. “One of the things I was first tasked with was bringing back a culture of learning within the agency. We’ve completely flipped the way we deliver the content.
“Three years ago, we would have all the executives come in and just tell employees, ‘This is how legal works. This is how creative works. This is how production works.’ We effectively communicated the key building blocks, but what we quickly learned was that these new people coming into our organizations felt uninspired and unengaged by that process.
“We inverted the whole thing and turned it into projects, games and challenges. So instead of having the CFO come talk to them about finance, we turned around and made them meet the CFO, get on his calendar and have him tell them about profitability. It’s through their questioning of it that they learn the content, come back to their work groups and become teachers themselves. We watched the dialogue and commitment we created just multiply. We barely allow a PowerPoint presentation in any learning environment anymore. We’ll still use it from time to time — maybe to outline the day’s agenda or briefly show a key concept on the wall — but if we don’t have everyone engaged in dialogue from there, we feel like we’ve lost the learning opportunity.”
That emphasis on dialectical learning is important to Tritt for two reasons. First, the learning audience is one comprised of creative professionals. Because of their innovative nature, they generally prefer programs that involve interaction and don’t give participants the feeling of being spoon-fed information.
Second, learning through dialogue is simply part of Tritt’s overall philosophy of development.
“Generally, I think learning happens in any relationship, and dialogue is the best way in which learning happens: You play with it, experiment and work everything out,” he said. “I really see our learning opportunities as a way to deepen and extend our connectedness to each other. We purposefully try to get people from as many different departments as possible talking to each other. The greater the diversity of ideas, perspectives and people we have in the room, the more opportunity there is for creativity to happen. And it’s almost like practice for when they go back into the business.”
Certainly, straightforward development experiences such as e-learning and instructor-led training still have their places, even at an idea factory such as Leo Burnett. Yet, these delivery models are mostly limited to basic concepts and on-boarding programs. Most key learning encounters at the company take place in the form of elaborate, transformational events.
“That gets them out of their normal, day-to-day routine, which is hard to do because we’re a service business, and they’re constantly taking care of clients,” Tritt said. “But we feel like we need to take them out of that experience. We want to cut them free from the business during those times so they can really focus on their growth.”
Some highlights of this strategy include Digital Day, when the entire agency shuts down for an entire business day to attend keynotes and workshops on digital media, and Tank, a weeklong immersion program in which people from Leo Burnett and Arc Worldwide come together to learn how the agency works and give presentations about projects they’ve been working on. The aim of these events is not only to make sure employees have critical skills and knowledge, but to enhance connectedness within the company and get all of them behind the organization’s strategy.
Tritt and his team also offer pre- and post-event exercises to build enthusiasm, prepare participants and reinforce concepts.
“When you’re going to shut down the business for a day, it takes a lot of planning to get the maximum value,” he said. “For Digital Day, we had pre-campaigns, sent letters from the president on what the day was about and allowed people to participate in the creation of their own customized agenda.”
A more regularly occurring example of this kind of interactive and experiential learning is Artists in Residence, a program that brings musicians, actors, entertainers, designers and other cultural figures into Leo Burnett’s offices to talk to a group of employees about their creative processes and trends they see in the marketplace. Then, these artists often will give a performance or demonstration of some kind that the whole agency is invited to attend. (During the interview with Tritt, this reporter actually attended a concert given by an indie rock band at Leo Burnett’s downtown Chicago headquarters.)
This might seem like a drastic departure from the traditional view of how corporate learning should work. But seen in the context of Tritt’s unique learning philosophy, it fits perfectly.
“We need to spark that curiosity in our people,” he said. “If we aren’t setting the tone about new concepts and ideas, it’s hard for us to expect our folks to go out and model that behavior with our clients.”