Interview with Vanessa Walsh of Wells Fargo

I recently had the privilege to interview Vanessa Walsh, Head of Leadership and Professional Development at Wells Fargo. Walsh, who has many years of experience in L&D – with a focus on organization development and leadership development – in the banking and financial services industry, was very kind  to share her thoughts and insights into a variety of issues, including leadership qualities, mobile and social learning, and some advice to young professionals just entering the world of employee training.

Training Station: Why don’t we start off with you telling us a bit about how you got into learning development and how you ended up at Wells Fargo?

Vanessa Walsh: My background prior to Wells Fargo was in organization development and leadership development. Then I was head of OD and succession planning for California’s judicial branch of government for a while. I was a terrible government employee, as I like change. I had a friend who was working for Wells Fargo, and said to me that he thought I would really like the culture here. So I joined almost 10 years ago. It’s a fabulous organization and I’ve had the opportunity to move around quite a bit. I actually started as a learning and development consultant, and now I’m running leadership and professional development for the enterprise.

TS: If you would try to define, in the learning development field specifically, but  also in general, what it really takes to be a good leader nowadays in the enterprise, what would you say?

VW: For a leader in general, and this is a lot of what the data is pointing to as well, people want to follow and be led by somebody who is really inspiring and motivating. And the good news is that you don’t have to be a motivational speaker to be inspiring and motivating. There are multiple ways to be inspiring and motivating. What we’re finding more and more though, is that it’s not someone’s technical expertise that makes him or her a great leader. They certainly have to have some intellectual horsepower, but they don’t necessarily have to know all the ins and outs of the technical aspects of someone’s job.

Why I think that’s important is because as people transition from that role of individual contributor to manager, or leader, often times they’re promoted because they’re really good at what they do.  What we’re starting to focus on more is, ‘OK that’s great that you’re good at what you do, but can you actually lead and manage other people?’ That ability to inspire others to high performance, to motivate them and to provide goals where they are growing and learning, is critically important.

Additionally, an important skill is the ability to give feedback in the moment, on a regular basis and really have conversations about career growth and development. I think we’re doing a better job of helping to equip managers with how to have those conversations and making that a more comfortable experience.

TS: In what way is working in learning and development in the banking and financial services industry unique?

VW: I think what is unique about this industry right now, as opposed to ten years ago, is the heavy regulatory environment that we’re in. Our training organizations need to be keenly aware of the regulatory environment, the pressures that are on our team members from a risk management standpoint. So, in some cases, we’re doing training specifically as it relates to risk management, and to specific regulations, compliance training, that sort of thing. But, where that’s really going to stick from a culture standpoint, of course, is to weave that through other courses of training as well. Every industry is going to have its unique factors, but I think that’s a little bit different than, let’s say the food industry. It’s from a banking regulatory stand point.

TS: As someone deeply involved in workplace training, what are some of the technological tools that are exciting you nowadays?

VW: I’m most excited about the opportunities around mobile and social learning for our team members. Mobile learning can be used in a variety of ways. Not only is it a way to push out just-in-time information, but it’s also a way to reinforce concepts learned through other modalities. So in it of itself, it can be a form of learning, and can support learning that occurs in a classroom, or a virtual classroom.

For example, if I’m a leader, I’ve gone through a coaching fundamentals course. It’s been two months and I’m about to go into a difficult coaching conversation. Perhaps it’s a job aid that I have on my desk [to access important information]. Or, if I’m travelling, I can just pick up my mobile device and go to my app, and look up those top five tips around having a difficult coaching conversation, and it’s right there

“Learning at the speed of me,” is what we’re calling it. We have a whole generation of people coming into the workplace who have very different expectations around how they access information. We’re working to meet those needs.

Same thing with social. If someone has a question regarding “How do I do X?” or “Where can I find Y?,” either they’re going out onto our portal and typing that in, just like they would in Google, or they’re going out to the network, just like they’re used to doing on Facebook. We’re trying to create more of those forums within Wells Fargo so that people can do that, so that they can have that information at their fingertips because they have a trusted a group of people, or in some cases people they don’t even know who have some great information for them in a very timely way.

So, I’m pretty excited both about the mobile and social space because I think that we can leverage them in a formal way to support our formal program but also provide some parameters around it where we can create a really rich, informal learning environment.

TS: Speaking to a lot of training professionals, there’s always a dilemma between whether we should place a lot of the weight on the initial training period itself or on learning as a continuous strategy. People are frustrated sometimes because they put in a lot of information into initial training for new employees and only a fraction of the knowledge is actually retained and is easily able to be applied once he or she starts doing their daily work. What do you think the balance should be between training and performance support, or learning as a long term continuous strategy?

VW: We are employing the 70/20/10 model. 10 percent of learning happens in training, 20 percent happens from continued coaching and support feedback, and 70 percent happens from on-the-job learning. If you think about learning to drive a car, it’s one thing to sit in a classroom and study all the laws and rules and how the clutch works with the gas pedal, but until you’re in that car grinding the gears, stalling out in the middle of an intersection, you’re not really learning how to do it. So we’re starting to shift that balance a little bit more to a broader strategy around performance support.

What that looks like varies across the organization, but I think there’s less focus on throwing information at people and hoping something sticks, to whether we can give people information and skill building in manageable chunks and bites, so that they can go and test and learn and come back and get more. Coming back and getting more may be in a classroom but it could also be on a social site. We’re really starting to focus more in the experiential space and allowing people’s different methods to come together to talk about what it is they’re applying in learning. Some parts of the organization are very early in that journey and some are a little farther down the road, but strategically that’s the direction we’re trying to go.

TS: Finally, you spoke earlier about the ability to inspire as a key quality that people are looking for in a really good leader nowadays. As someone with your many years of experience both in Wells Fargo and before, what advice would you give someone who is just starting their career employee training and development?

VW: I think more  than ever, we have a real opportunity in the space of technology and meeting the needs of millennials who are coming into the workplace. The way that we’ve done training in the past is not going to fly for millennials coming into the workplace. Even now, if we have a 2-day training program that’s in person, asking people to put away their smart phones isn’t even culturally acceptable for some generations. Multi-tasking is in some cases how people learn. It’s something very important that new people coming into this industry now be in tune with the team member, and be in tune with the audience as a collective, in understanding how different generations learn, and how we must design learning solutions that are going to meet the needs of multiple generations, rather than a one size fits all.

It probably goes without saying, but there is also the importance of  really strong communication skills.  We have to be very crisp, clear, and concise about the information that is being shared, and really making things learner-driven as well, by pulling out information from the audience. And as we start to go into the virtual learning space, finding new and different ways to keep people engaged is also key. I think all of those are going be important.  From a design stand point, it’s the same thing. It’s doing all that as well, on the back end, and making sure things are designed in a way that is appropriate for each audience.

The other thing I would say is measurement, measurement, measurement. I think we’re all getting better at it, but in many cases we tend to just jump in and design training or learning because a client has asked for it, without really getting to the root of the issue, what is it that we are trying to solve for and how to we plan to measure that?

The final thing that I will say, is being willing to call it out when training is not the right solution.

TS: What do you mean by that?

VW: Well, in some cases, if there’s a particular organizational development need or intervention that needs to occur, training might not be the right answer. If there’s a client that we’re working with and they say, “I think we need some training on collaboration.” It can be easy for the training partner to say “Great, we have a great program over here around collaboration, no problem, let’s go ahead and implement that.” As it turns out, there might be some cultural issues on the team that they need to work through. People aren’t getting along, people aren’t communicating well. And training is not going to solve that. That is more of a customized deeper intervention that needs to occur. So, it’s important to ask those really tough questions on the front and consult well. And if training isn’t the solution, be able to call it out.

TS: Thank you very much.

VW: Thank you.

Jason Silberman
Jason is the former Lead Author & Editor of TrainingStation Blog
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