Every month, we sit down with transformational leaders and thinkers to discuss hot topics in rewards and recognition, employee engagement, HR, and leadership.
MEET CARLOS ABISAMBRA
Carlos Abisambra is the President and CEO of Travelers Haven, the leading provider of Workforce Lodging Management Solutions. Before Travelers Haven, Carlos cultivated a diverse track record of leadership and strategy positions at Amazon, Vortice Services, Danaher, Kimberly-Clark, and General Electric. He grew up in Colombia, earned an MBA from Harvard Business School and an Industrial Engineering degree from Purdue University. His favorite quote: “The only thing worse than training your employees and having them leave is not training them and having them stay.” (Henry Ford)
LET’S JUMP INTO THE INTERVIEW
What was your impetus for starting professional development at Travelers Haven? As CEO, why was driving this program from the top such a priority?
When I joined Travelers Haven four years ago, we had prided ourselves on promoting from within, but because we were a startup we didn’t really have the tools to teach those individual contributors how to manage for the first time.
As you can imagine, we had some growing pains and never fully addressed them. When we tried to implement formal training, we actually hired outside consultants and trainers. Unfortunately, the training sessions weren’t well attended, and some of those individuals who did attend were just happy to not be working. We weren’t seeing the ROI, and the learning wasn’t happening. We questioned how to solve this. For us, the final catalyst came while we were at a conference. The Head of Training from the Ritz Carlton was speaking about their training program which gave us an idea: the four topics that every manager and organization needs to know about. After the conference, we put our heads together as a leadership team and figured out a solution that would work for our team. Now it’s a curriculum of 24 different courses that we’ve expanded.
Could you describe the courses you put together and share why you chose some topics versus others?
At first, we went back to basics with courses like ‘What is the difference between being a manager or individual contributor?’ and ‘You’re now managing people who were your peers before’. We listed out the landmines people typically face and included conflict resolution in the first batch of the curriculum. Another course was ‘How can we have an appropriate disagreement in the workplace, instead of just letting it bottle up and pressurize until it explodes?’ We also incorporated training on written communication, which was always an issue in our company. People were hiding behind emails and not walking over to their colleagues to have a simple conversation. We focused on scenarios of when to appropriately use one versus the other.
Then we put together a curriculum on how to give constructive feedback to a direct report, basic stuff for a first-time manager, but honestly, very few people learn that stuff until they work within a more formal environment. Even then, formal managerial training is often put off until the person is several years into the position and habits are already formed.
When people hear the words “professional development” they often shudder or tune out. What are you doing differently to build engagement and relevance into your curriculum?
I have worked in Fortune 100 companies, and I’m very familiar with what traditional corporate training looks like. Initially, we tried that route. We brought in trainers and it just didn’t work. For a startup, when you’re putting five figures in to bring a trainer for three days and you see associates in the room who aren’t engaged, it is painful. It is very painful.
So we asked ourselves, what are the topics that people truly need to engage with? And what are the topics that we want to learn? Once we had our initial list, we realized the content for all of this already exists, whether via a YouTube video, TEDx talk, blog post, or other sources. We didn’t have to reinvent it or hire it out.
Take negotiation, as a topic. We looked at the top professors at the top business schools such as Harvard, found videos of their lectures or presentations online, played them, and paused every so often to have an open discussion with the team. Associates from different departments all learned together, so we had diverse perspectives asking various questions. In fact, the rest of the group often answered the questions themselves. Not only was it a lighter load on the moderator, it was also a lot more engaging compared to the prior outside trainings that were more informational, less conversational. We send a survey after each training to get an NPS score on whether participants would recommend the training to a friend. As of yet, we’ve never scored below 9 out of 10!
As a business, what has Travelers Haven gained by facilitating these types of courses?
For the associates, topics are more pragmatic, practical, hands-on, so they walk away with a new skill they can start implementing that same day. Whether it’s time management, problem-solving, how to work effectively while remote, or how to stay motivated while remote, we get to be agile and address needs as they arise.
For the business, it does two things: it saves time and brain cells. People learn how to fish instead of needing their managers to fish for them. Problems get solved before they’re ever escalated to leaders. I think it also creates alignment because we create a common language for how we at Travelers Haven solve problems or facilitate conflict resolution. A common language supports scalability, another direct benefit for the company.
What do you think is key for businesses to include as professional development in 2021?
We added training on how to work effectively while remote, how to stay motivated, how to run effective meetings (since we’re all in more meetings these days). We also added unconscious bias training. It’s important to ask what stressors your employees are facing while working remotely. Normally, we would all just get up and whiteboard when a problem arose, but we still haven’t quite solved for that collaboration piece, remotely. Companies should definitely be thinking about these elements in 2021.
For people at organizations that don’t have a set professional development program, but want to create one, what would you encourage them to start with?
Honestly, Nike’s tagline: just do it. It’s not hard to figure out what is keeping you or your team up at night. What are some tensions or skill gaps within your organization? Figure out the key topics, do your research, and launch a collaborative in-house training that naturally drives engagement — because you’re the ones running it.
As a company, Wishlist is passionate about people and technology and what we can achieve by blending those two elements. Know someone who may be interested in a rewards and recognition solution? Refer an organization today and receive a $100 Wishlist reward if the organization signs up!