Published July 11, 2019

Lifting All Boats: Developing Leaders Who Develop Leaders

Rachel Nelms, Director of Learning and Development at Mailchimp, delivered an informative workshop at the CLO Inspired conference on the leadership development programmes used at the organisation.

Mailchimp’s first leadership development programme was established five years ago in collaboration with Emory University Business School professors, with the aim that every employee would have the chance to take part in the programme. “Mailchimp is a very democratically leaning culture,” Rachel explains. “We wanted to make sure that everyone at Mailchimp had the opportunity to develop as a leader.”

As the business grew rapidly, the curriculum delivered by the Emory facilitators quickly ran into the challenge of scale. With around 275 new employees each year, Mailchimp had to hire a full-time employee to focus on delivering the leadership programmes and restructure the content.

employees graphic inspired business media

“We were really proud of the fact that we were able to get 180 Mailchimp employees through our programme,” Rachel says. “But we were still running at a deficit of 30%.”

Rachel’s team carried out a needs assessment to determine the current skills needed to scale Mailchimp. “We had grown significantly since we first built the curriculum,” she explains. “The way we were doing business had changed significantly, our strategic perspective had shifted – a lot had changed about the organisation.”

skills description inspired business media

The needs assessment revealed eight different behaviours that were critical for success at Mailchimp, including customer-centric product focus, innovative problem solving, holistic thinking, influential collaboration, and resilience.

“For people who are responsible for team performance, we have business acumen – so that’s not only understanding general business principles but also understanding Mailchimp’s business model, how we make money, and then contributing to that,” Rachel says. “Change management – leveraging that resilience and actually leading your teams through change. And inclusivity – this is really important for us because we want to make sure that we’re taking the diverse teams that we’re building and creating opportunities for everyone to lend their voice.”

The learning development programmes at Mailchimp are intended for everyone at the company. “This is not about high potential or top talent behaviour,” Rachel explains. “We know that everyone at Mailchimp needs to be working and thinking in this way for us to be successful. We have very high expectations and we want to make sure we’re empowering everyone at the company.”

strategic behaviour and right partners on the ground

The team at Mailchimp decided that if it wasn’t possible to get 100% of employees through the leadership programmes, they should decide on a minimum committed number. Using social science research on how a movement starts, they decided on a figure of 10%.

“Once you hit 10% of a population, where you have people who are really engaged around an idea, they are able to rapidly and exponentially engage the rest of the population,” Rachel explains. “So those ideas are going to spread like wildfire.”

This worked particularly well at Mailchimp due to its close network. “Information spreads quickly, for better or worse,” Rachel says. “Folks are really connected. There’s a lot of mobility throughout the organisation, so that’s an opportunity for us to leverage those relationships.”

Rachel adds that not everyone that goes through the programmes will be a committed and engaged partner: “They’ll be excited about what they’re going to learn, but then they’ll go back to their day jobs and they won’t necessarily want to take us up on the offer to continue engagement.”

diffusion of innovations

Mailchimp set goals for 10% of every department to be engaged as partners, and 40% of every department to go through the programmes.

“We know from the Diffusion of Innovations that this gap between early adopters and early majority is an incredibly difficult gap to bridge,” Rachel says. “But if you can do that, that’s when you really get momentum behind your new technology.”

target participation and baseline commitment department

With KPIs in place, the team uses a spreadsheet to track everyone that goes through the programme, the saturation rate in each department, and the targets for alumni and ambassadors.

Rachel also explains how Mailchimp identifies the right people for the programmes. “These skills are for everyone at the company,” she says. “We know we need to lead the conversation when we’re helping managers and individuals determine whether it’s the right time for them to go through the programme; whether they’re ready to work with us in this project.”

There are currently two different programmes at Mailchimp: one for individual contributors, and one for people leaders. The team put together readiness profiles for each programme to help employees determine their suitability.

ready to mentor colleagues inspired business media

“For Core, which is for our individual contributors, we outlined five general areas of what readiness might look like,” Rachel says. As the programme will result in employees eventually taking on additional responsibilities, the profiles were approached like a job description. Areas include demonstrating strong self-awareness, modelling Mailchimp’s core values, and making clear progress in their personal and professional development.

Rachel explains that the criteria for the Lead programme are slightly different: “These are folks who are further along in their careers, who might have a broader span of influence, so here we have our modelling of the strategic behaviours – a proven ability to already drive performance on your teams, and a really great technical, tactical acumen.”

One final, critical indicator of readiness for both programmes is the ability to take on additional responsibility in mentorship and leadership. “This is really important for both the individual saying ‘yes, I’m ready to do that’, and for the manager saying ‘yes, I empower them to do that and I’m ready to give them the opportunity’,” Rachel says.

Mailchimp uses a nomination form for managers to put forward members of their departments and commit to empowering them. The employee then applies, commits and is invited to join a cohort.

core and lead nomination process

“There are a couple of things we get out of this process,” Rachel says. “The commitment is a big piece of it. Empowerment is a big piece of it. We also get a lot of clarity around goal setting. We ask them to give specific examples of this profile and ask them to think very clearly around what they want to get out of the programme.” The team also use the process to mitigate bias, asking people to think clearly about why each nominee is the right person to go through the programme.

core inspired business media

At the beginning and the end of each programme, the participants are asked the same questions. “We have to set a benchmark and then we measure against that in an exit survey,” Rachel explains. Results show a clear increase in confidence, sophistication and understanding, allowing Mailchimp to build out the ‘leaders developing leaders’ strategy.

lead inspired business media

An ambassador programme has been created for people completing the Core and Lead courses. In order to set up the programme, Rachel says they needed to ask a series of questions: “What is the role? How can we directly support their use of what they’ve learned? How can we provide them opportunities for exposure as a leader, both formally and informally/ And then how can we make it where it’s a personal and professional advantage for them, as well as helping us pay forward the strategic behaviours outside of that classroom?”

core and lead ambassadors

As established partners throughout the organisation, ambassadors are empowered to continue to use what they’ve learned to influence and lead in their day-to-day work.

“We are asking for a formal commitment but we are not requiring it,” Rachel says. “We’re inviting people into this process, but we’re looking to make sure it’s a true leadership opportunity.”

core and lead ambassadors

This is achieved by offering a facilitator certification to ambassadors. “We will be training them and then activating them as facilitators,” Rachel explains. “It’s also a clever way to democratise some of our work too.”

Later this year, Mailchimp will pilot impact groups – formal roundtables facilitated and led by alumni ambassadors. “They’ll be selecting the content and engaging the participants,” Rachel adds. “We’ll be supporting them behind the scenes but the idea is that they will be seen and understood as the true leaders of those conversations.”

Alongside a formal mentorship programme, Mailchimp is also working on more peer coaching. Rachel describes this as a “speed dating approach to coaching”, where ambassadors can answer questions and give coaching on command. “The idea is to continuously make them visible as leaders,” she says.

The team is also focused on giving ambassadors job aids to ensure that their learning, skills and tools are always at the top of their mind when doing their day-to-day work. This includes a programme booklet and a series of special emails designed to help activate the ambassadors as leaders.

“Our goal is for 10% of our departments to be engaged as a partner with us in these behaviours,” Rachel says. “We see that as critical to moving forward the behaviours across the organisation – beyond what we could possibly reach on our own.”

Rachel describes the Mailchimp workforce as very engaged and interested, but as they are also very busy, it is important for Mailchimp to make the development programmes worth their while. “People at every level are hungry to lead and hungry to influence,” she says. “We can give them that opportunity and recognise that opportunity. We’re excited about our success.”

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Watch Rachel Nelms’ Masterclass Presentation at the 2019 CLO Conference in New York

Nikki Swift

Content Manager

Inspired Business Media