Embracing the challenge culture: 6 top takeaways (Ep11)

What are the secret ingredients for a healthy culture? How should you be designing compliance learning? What does a CEO look for in a successful L&D team? And finally… How can the challenge culture help transform your organization? We took a slightly different approach to Learning at Large this week, speaking with Nigel Travis, Executive Chairman of the Dunkin’ Brands Group. We’ve pulled out six top takeaways from Simon’s conversation with Nigel, plus some key recommendations.

nigel travis challenge culture

About Nigel

In his over 40 years of experience as a leader in large and successful organizations, Nigel has developed ideas of how to build what he calls a “challenge culture.” This is where organizations deliver success through embracing challenge and encouraging pushback. He has served on the board at other corporations, including Papa John’s International and Blockbuster LLC, and has worked in HR for over 20 years. More recently, he’s taken ownership of English Soccer Club, Leyton Orient Football Club, which he has been a fan of since childhood. 

Hear what Nigel Travis had to say on the Learning at Large Podcast

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Here are the 6 top takeaways from Nigel’s episode:

1. How HR/learning technology can make a transformational impact

Advances in technology can drastically change the way we work, but learning can be just as powerful. Nigel explained:

“I was moved to Burger King when we acquired it in 1989. And we took the view immediately that the company was too bloated, so rather than bringing in consultants, we did it ourselves in HR. And we restructured the organization to be much more focused on the franchisees, to become much more efficient.”

“One of the things that’s interesting—and it shows the change of technology at the time—we introduced voicemail [at Burger King], which was a brand-new technology. That completely changed the way that people operated when they went to restaurants. Previously, district managers would go to restaurants, and rather than talk to the franchisee or the operators of the restaurant, they would spend all their time on their phone—doing their phone calls, because that was the only time they had to do their calls. Voicemail changed all that. It effectively gave us much more time with the franchisees and with the store operators.”  

“So, HR has to be a leader, and it has to be at every level. I think it’s a tendency for a lot of HR people to think about just the senior people, but they’ve got to be critically involved with people in retail at the store level.”

2. Companies should invest in developing their own content.

Off the shelf training may be quick and easy to purchase and implement, but that may not be the most beneficial option for your organization. 

“I would encourage companies to invest in developing some of their own content so it isn’t a generic, bought off the shelf piece of training. It is something that actually relates to your retail company or a manufacturing company, or a biochemical company—whatever it is. You need to relate it to the situation, and you need to give clear examples. I truly believe that will improve not only compliance, but people’s understanding and commitment to the reasons for doing it.”

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3. Organizations training people must involve the actual people who are taking the training themselves. 

A bottom-up approach to learning design can make your training more learner-centered and help define a positive culture. 

“I think what companies fail to do when creating compliance training is to involve the actual people who receive it.

“So, why not get the individuals who are receiving the training to help develop the training? I think by that approach, you’d get a much more effective training, you’d encourage the individuals to challenge the whole notion of how the training is done, what’s actually covered in the training, and at the same time—if anyone believes in the challenge culture, I mean—you’d actually quietly build a small microcosm of the culture in the organization.”

“What tends to happen in most organizations is the compliance training comes out of the blue, it’s landed on people, and they feel strictly inclined to do it for a start because it’s a chore. But there’s no buy-in, which is a keyword in the challenge culture. Rather than compliance coming from outer space, so to speak, this would be built into the organization.” 

4. Create a “challenge culture” in your organization, constantly challenging the leader, monitoring, and developing. 

Nigel delved into some insights from his book, The Challenge Culture, explaining how the best way for organizations to succeed in today’s environment is to embrace challenge and encourage push back.

“When I was running Dunkin’, I’d say it took me two or three years to get the challenge culture applied throughout the organization. You have to set the tone at the top, you have to demonstrate it—every single meeting or contact you have, because the important person to be challenged is the leader. I was the CEO there, so I was the leader, and I had to accept that I was going to be challenged, get a lot of pushback.”

“And I think it doesn’t matter whether it’s an organization of 20 people or an organization of 200,000 people, I think you apply it—obviously, the scale is different, but you have to continually monitor it and develop it and set an example. The leader has to be the key example, as I said before.”

5. Don’t be afraid to destroy what you’ve created in order to stay competitive.

What’s worked before, may not always work again, Nigel pointed out:

“I think companies too often fail to challenge their own way of doing things. And I think something that’s very powerful in its own right that comes out of that is—and I talk about it in the book—I was CEO for 10 years. By definition, it means you have to destroy what you created. If you’re going to stay truly up to date, the things that you said in place—in my case, in 2009, 2010—probably don’t work now in 2019. So, it’s just constant renewal, I think, is a very powerful message.” 

6. Use questions and playback data to analyze what you’re doing right – and more importantly, what you’re doing wrong. 

Nigel made an interesting point taken from football – everything is broken down.

“The second thing is, in football now—and I have to say, I’m not sure how you translate it, but it has to be translated—we film everything. We film every training session; in the middle of training, they’ll play an activity which might be, just a recent example, two defenders against three attackers and a goalkeeper. So, what happens? They film it, they break it down there and then. We don’t do that at work, do we? We don’t film meetings and say, “What went wrong in this meeting?” But just think about it: it could be very powerful. Why was that meeting successful, why wasn’t it?” 

We’d love to hear your thoughts on these takeaways! Leave a comment below.

Nigel Travis’ Book Recommendations

A More Beautiful Question, Warren Berger

“…there’s very few books on questioning. Warren was a guy… I used to be on the school board—where my kids go to school, a local private school. He came and he spoke, and he talked about questioning, and it really was a beneficial session. I think people in our profession, let’s call it HR, would benefit enormously.”

The Culture Code, Daniel Coyle

“Some really interesting examples in there, and there’s a great example of how they trained the SEALS to pick up Bin Laden.”

Execution by Larry Bossidy

“…the Larry Bossidy book talks about a corporate strategy, and operational strategy, and a people strategy, and HR is very important in my mind, and people management is very important. I think Larry possibly gets the balance of all that right in his book.”

Nigel’s Book

Challenge Culture, Nigel Travis.   

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