Cedar Rapids companies see benefit in leadership development

Investing in the future

CRST International 

Phil Reges (left), director of operations-after hours at CRST International in Cedar Rapids, discusses a recent training event with Marcus Schneider (center), director of capacity development, and Brian Moore (right), director of airfreight. Reges is participating in CRST’s Leadership Development for Management Professionals program.
CRST International Phil Reges (left), director of operations-after hours at CRST International in Cedar Rapids, discusses a recent training event with Marcus Schneider (center), director of capacity development, and Brian Moore (right), director of airfreight. Reges is participating in CRST’s Leadership Development for Management Professionals program.

CEDAR RAPIDS — It was back in 2009 when became apparent to CRST International officials that it became apparent it needed more managers than it had in its pipeline.

“We looked back in our ranks and said, ‘Whoa, we don’t have enough talent to do all the things that we’re doing,’” CRST International president and CEO Dave Rusch recalled. “We were to the point where it was really hampering our growth.

“We used to bring in people from the University of Iowa and Iowa State. They would work three years for us and then they would be gone to Chicago, St. Louis or other companies in this area.”

That same year, CRST International launched leadership development programs.

CRST was not alone taking action. Over the past six years, the percentage of companies nationwide with formal leadership development programs has grown from 53 percent in 2010 to 82 percent in 2015, according to GrowthPlay Analytics, a Chicago-based leadership research and consulting company.

Corridor companies are developing future generations of leaders through a combination of classroom study, hands-on experience and mentoring.

Brooke Willey, CRST vice president of human resources, was hired by Rusch from outside the trucking industry and charged with determining how many additional managers were needed to meet its revenue goal of $1.8 billion for 2018. After factoring in retirements and normal turnover, she determined that the company needed to grow from 175 managers to 241 by the end of 2018.

To get there, CRST with 1,250 employees who are not drivers or contractors implemented two leadership development programs.


Leadership Development for Management Professionals is a three-year program in which participants complete as many as 25 courses in their off hours, on their own time. The courses are offered at CRST headquarters in Cedar Rapids, the company’s facilities in Birmingham, Ala., and Fort Wayne, Ind., or over the Internet for employees working at other locations.

“Ninety-five percent of our managers across the country participate in the program,” said Jennette Douglas, CRST manager of corporate learning. “Those folks who opt out are typically very near retirement or choose not to make that investment.

“On average, we have about 85 percent to 90 percent participation in each course that is offered. After each class, participants complete an evaluation where we get feedback and make adjustments.”

CRST senior leaders select 22 employees from applications for Leadership Development for Emerging Leaders, a six-month intensive program that enables participants to explore and strengthen skills. The program ends with teams of four or five participants addressing a complex issue facing CRST with the support and advice of an executive sponsor.

“There’s a lot of interactive activity during the sessions with real life business scenarios,” Willey said. “The instructors call people to the front of the class and ask them to role play. They need to work out a solution based on what they have learned in the first half of the class.”

Natane Boll, director of CRST’s vehicle response team, said the program was an eye-opening experience.

“It gave me a lot of tools to handle the things I would encounter and the things I would have to do.” Boll recalled.

CRST’s leadership development efforts have achieved significant results.

In 2012, 69 percent of CRST’s management positions were filled with external hires and 31 percent came from internal candidates. By 2015, the numbers were reversed with 69 percent filled with internal candidates and 31 percent were external hires.


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Last month, CRST was ranked by CEO Magazine as a Top 10 Best Private Company for Leaders. The publication annually recognizes public and private companies that exemplify nurturing leaders at various management levels.

At Rockwell Collins, Martha May, senior vice president of people and inclusion in human resources, said leadership development is essential to business continuity.

“Having the right people at the right time who are ready for the right roles is a piece of continuity planning,” May said. “I spent 19 years in the airline business at American (Airlines). I had 17 jobs in 19 years, so I’m a product of what I consider the main approach to developing and readying management candidates and that’s experiential.

“If they have demonstrated learning ability, and you’re thrown them into the deep end and they’ve figured out how to tread water, then you are likely to create a success if you throw them into another deep end. They’re not reluctant to ask for help. They also are willing to say they don’t know.”

May said the 11 members of Rockwell Collins’s executive team come together once a year to have a cross-functional dialogue about the candidates who could assume their roles in the organization.

“We bring in the candidates who are ready now, ready in one to two years, and ready in three to five years,” May said. “We also look across functions to ask if someone who might be in finance could be the right person to run a particular (business) portfolio. We are looking at the talent pool across the organization in terms of two or three layers.”

May said annual reviews also are conducted with each of the company’s functional leaders. The reviews cover potential successors as well as everyone who reports directly to them and might be a potential successor.

Jackie Pelland, Rockwell Collins organizational development consultant, said the avionics and communications provider with 20,000 employees worldwide is looking beyond a leader’s business results.


“We look at how they are getting work done through others,” Pelland said. “We’re doing a lot of development around, How do they as a leader lead through people? How do they treat people and keep them whole? How do they inspire and motivate? Every business result that they are trying to achieve is connected to people.”

At Van Meter Inc., a Cedar Rapids company with 425 employee owners, senior executives are asked to annually review the names of two internal individuals and one external individual who they have previously suggested could take over their position.

“We work with those who have been tapped on a development plan to grow in the areas where they excel and look at areas of opportunity to consider another position down the road,” said Jenn Bleil, manager of learning and development.

Bleil said managers who eventually may become top executives need to develop a broad knowledge of the company’s operations.

“If they can more clearly understand the upward, downward and sideways streams that their department shares with others in the company, that will help everyone work better together and have more success,” Bleil said.

Van Meter also facilitates a 10-month emerging leaders program every other year.

“Those individuals are linked up specifically with an existing leader who mentors them and attends all of the sessions with them,” Bleil explained. “We have had two emerging leaders programs and over half of the individuals have moved on to leadership positions. An even higher percentage have been involved in leadership of committees and things of that nature, even if they did not move into leadership position.”

Last month, Van Meter was named to Training magazine’s “Training Top 125“ list for its training and development programs. The company, a wholesale distributor of electrical products, spends about $500,000 annually on employee education and training.

In addition to live and online training opportunities, Van Meter’s employee-owners are encouraged to pursue development through off-site conferences and courses. The company also offers tuition reimbursement for ongoing education.



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