Employee training: Inside edition

Pitney Bowes finds external training programs sometimes just don't cut it.

Deepak Chopra (no relationship to the famed author) could have done what many executives do when presented with a $75,000 requisition for an annual off-site leadership development course run by consultants: sign off and get back to business. Instead, the president of Mississauga, Ont.–based Pitney Bowes Canada balked. A bunch of managers poring over the usual case studies for four days would do little to help his 86-year-old division sell technology and services for corporate mailrooms any better. “We’ll spend the same money,” he said, “but do it ourselves.”

His solution? A custom-designed intensive program that placed all 40 of his director-level managers on five advisory boards, each addressing a different business issue. Some boards tackled softer topics, such as customer experience; others focused on new service offerings, like a website for creating direct-mail campaigns. In May, at the end of six months of work outside their day jobs, each advisory board (which included people purposely mixed by cultural and professional backgrounds) presented a fully realized business case to Chopra and his senior leadership team.

The results are promising: three of the five teams produced proposals that are now being implemented, including a way to revitalize the company’s core mailing business by automating package mail-outs from e-commerce sites — an idea that engineers at Pitney Bowes (NYSE: PBI) headquarters in Stamford, Conn., are now evaluating for global rollout. Company execs are also looking at applying Chopra’s leadership program in other regions as a way of reducing the high costs of external recruitment and inefficient internal training.

“Bringing talent into leadership positions from the outside is an extremely high-risk venture for any company,” says Malcolm Cowan, a consultant working with York University’s Schulich Executive Education Centre, who worked with Pitney Bowes on the initiative. “The majority of leaders come from within. What keeps most CEOs awake at night is whether they have the people who get it.”

Chopra, who returned to head up the 2,000-employee Canadian division in 2006 after a nine-year stint establishing Pitney Bowes in several Asian countries, believes his senior managers are starting to “get it.” “We have the beginning of a culture where engagement for real business issues is not restricted to the CEO, or his direct reports,” says Chopra, adding that mid-level leaders are better attuned to the overall business, and more frequently solve crises with help from peers in other divisions. “We’re now at the point where the program is a true benefit to the business,” he says. “It’s not an academic exercise.”