Homebuilding isn't done how it used to be; neither is training at Toll Brothers, led by VP of L&D Cynthiann King.

Inspired by their homebuilder father in 1967, Bob and Bruce Toll built two colonial-style homes in rural Pennsylvania. Fifty years later, Toll Brothers is a Fortune 500 company building luxury homes, urban condos, golf resorts, and active adult communities throughout the United States.

Toll Brothers is a public company traded on the New York Stock Exchange. In 2016, the company had revenue of $5.2 billion. Even with that track record, the firm is gearing up for serious change.

Cynthiann King started with Toll Brothers in 2012 as a training director. Three promotions later she is now vice president of learning and development, with company-wide responsibility for L&D. Her boss, Joy Roman, was hired early in 2017 as the company's first chief human resources officer. Both women's organization-wide roles signal the rising importance of human resources and talent development at Toll Brothers.

Technology revamp

As in many industries, increased attention to talent development is linked to greater use of new technology. Today's homebuilders use drones to inspect building sites, robots to lay bricks, and 3D software to design and construct buildings. Smart hard hats promote workers' safety. Virtual reality apps help architects design homes and let customers visualize and customize their homes before they are built.

Recently, a group of Toll Brothers corporate officers, led by the chief information officer and the director of business improvement, delved into the implications of some of these new homebuilding technologies. They determined the company needed to make a major transition to new technology to realize their goals for growth and speed. They also wanted to improve the customer experience and engage potential buyers through technology in choosing and designing their homes. The Toll Brothers website today features a virtual design center where customers can view and customize hundreds of floor plans, browse exterior and interior finishes, and even place virtual furniture. These virtual spaces are model homes on steroids.

"Like many companies, we have a Vision 2020. Ours is a very comprehensive revamp of our technology for the homebuilding world. Using more technology will require extensive changes to systems and processes, as well as a major skill reset for many employees," says King.

"Our new CHRO, who had experience in talent development at 3M before joining us, is helping lead the people side of change management and acceptance. Our latest big initiative in learning and development is ascertaining what people in different work streams need to do to negotiate the change in cooperation with other teams and departments."

Work streams exist in areas such as architecture and construction, customer experience, employee alignment, sales, accounting, finance, and communications. "Groups from these work streams are commissioned to work on specific element of the change," King explains. Each group has a sponsor from the company leadership. The groups evaluate problems that technology could alleviate, and look at potential hardware and software solutions with an eye to how they could be deployed and how they would change policies and procedures. They also identify which employees would need training to make those changes happen.

The L&D group has been designing, delivering, and deploying a variety of change management courses, job aids, and toolkits since April 2017. Early reviews have been positive.

One change already under way is the implementation of new customer resource management software. Customers for Toll Brothers homes typically want to customize them. The buyer of a $1 million home adds an average of $500,000 in custom options. Buyers in California and New York spend three and four times that, respectively. These buyers want to download floor plans and use apps to explore options for customizing their homes. This approach to shopping for homes has changed the way sales and marketing associates interact with customers and set requirements for new skills for these staff members. Sales and marketing are just two of many groups affected by Toll Brothers' move to new technology.

L&D's broad reach

In addition to supporting change management, the L&D unit at Toll Brothers designs, delivers, and evaluates learning tools for 5,000 full-time associates, and 2,500 part-time associates of the Toll Brothers building company, including several hundred employees in subsidiary companies. The company has subsidiaries for land development, engineering, marketing, golf courses, architecture, mortgaging, title insurance, and landscaping. A range of professional development opportunities serves the employees of all these entities.

"Professional development is the overarching goal of our work," says King. "So, whether it's formal training classes, or being involved in a mentor program, or doing a stretch assignment, or being coached, we consider all of that to be professional development. I know that's not a common definition of professional development, yet that's how we look at developing our talent."

L&D also is responsible for deploying compliance training. "Some of that covers what any company would have such as courses on corporate ethics and the prevention of harassment. And there is compliance specific to homebuilding such as fair housing, anti-discrimination, personal credit card protection, and storm water control.

"Under development is supervisory skills training for anyone who manages people. We also offer sales training, not just in the new customer-facing technologies but also in practices that drive our sales volume and closing percentages."

There are also lunchtime sessions on common business skills such as how to use Microsoft Outlook, run a meeting, manage stress, and present like a pro.

King is especially proud of the company's Assistant Project Manager Development Program for recent graduates with degrees in building industry specialties such as real estate, construction management, and finance. These new hires work with mentors and follow a year-long program that combines critical courses with on-the-job experiences preparing them to be considered for project manager positions as they open up.

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The Assistant Project Manager Development Program was recently revamped and relaunched. "In our new approach, we use a 70-20-10 learning model. On-the-job experience comprises 70 percent; mentoring and coaching, 20 percent; and formal coursework, 10 percent," King explains. The trainees spend three months in construction learning how to build a Toll home. During three months in sales and marketing, they market properties, make advertising decisions, and show and sell homes. In the remaining six months, they learn Toll Project Management plus purchasing, auditing, how to work with city officials and subcontractors, and some people spend additional time on areas of particular interest.

Evaluation of the program's effectiveness includes pre- and post-test assessments, plus mentors' evaluations of how well a trainee demonstrates specific skills. A mentor will teach a skill to a trainee who must be able to teach it back. After program graduates become project managers, their performance is reviewed to see how it matches the training they received.

"We're building our bench strength in project management with this program," says King. "And this is also one of the areas where we've introduced microlearning. We've created about 50 mini e-learning videos related to many aspects of the project manager development program."

Evolution

Since joining the company nearly five years ago, King has seen L&D evolve. As the firm's first certified training director, she began the consolidation of L&D into a centralized effort focused on meeting the professional development needs of all employees. She advanced to assistant vice president of training, then vice president of training, and then to her current position.

During that time, her unit introduced needs analysis and solutions with a robust learning management system. They added mentoring programs that spread the knowledge of good performers through the company.

"The scaffolding for design and delivery that needs to occur today is much different than it was five years ago," she notes. "That's true in every industry, not just ours."

By scaffolding, King is referring to the variety of learning methodologies and sequential paths needed to reinforce and build on learning to take employees to the next level of skill or to increase the depth of their skills.

"The foundation of learning today is a blended approach," says King. "There's not just one way of learning. There's not just one modality. There's not just one learning theory. Today we need to ensure that learning has occurred and knowledge has been transferred by whatever means is most effective.

"The technology changes called for in our Vision 2020 are one part of the new L&D story. The influence of Gen X and Millennial employees entering our workforce is another part. Their preferences for instant fact-finding with mobile devices are forcing us to rethink our delivery systems and blended learning approaches. And I love that."

King acknowledges the influence of Google search and YouTube videos in learning today. "It has led people to expect learning at work to be available anywhere, anytime—just as it is in their personal lives. In the past year, we have been designing and delivering a lot of microburst learning videos. People can view one just when they need specific information or they can watch a related series of short videos if that's a better fit with their needs."

One example is a series of micro-videos for entry-level salespeople on the different stages of home construction. It features current employees explaining and demonstrating the work. Several more micro-videos on a range of topics are in the planning stage. "People have very much embraced them, and we have a long list of new ones that we're getting ready to design and make available," King states.

L&D not just for others

Despite a heaping plate of responsibilities related to the development of Toll Brothers employees and the future direction of the company, King does not neglect her own development nor that of her L&D colleagues.

"It is so important for those of us in these types of roles to continue to embrace our own development," she says. "It's something we need to make time to do. If I'm going to expect others to grow and develop and learn, I better be growing and developing and learning myself. There are so many worthwhile resources out there today. You can watch a TED Talk, jump on a webinar, read a blog."

King also likes the mix of learning opportunities at industry conferences. "I can hear case studies, network with other learning leaders, try out new software, and rub elbows with noted speakers. It's very energizing and it makes you evaluate what you're doing at work, if you're doing it right, and what else you should be doing. This is the best way I know to progress to our next best selves and our next best performance as talent development professionals."

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