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Upskilling to Flourish
CTDO Magazine

Upskilling to Flourish

Monday, September 16, 2019

Liz Janssen is focused on ensuring ICF employees have the skills and mentoring to support the company's innovation and growth.

In 1969, a former Tuskegee Airman and three U.S. Department of Defense analysts founded the Inner City Fund to finance minority-owned businesses in Washington, D.C. Fifty years later, ICF has become a billion-dollar global consulting and digital services firm focused on solving complex problems for their clients in various industries such as energy, environment, public health, economic development, and more. With client partners and project work to its credit such as ENERGY STAR, Head Start, and the World Health Survey, it remains a purpose-driven company.


"Many of the people who work at ICF are very passionate about their field and committed to having an impact," says Liz Janssen, vice president of learning, talent development, and change management at ICF.

Janssen joined ICF three years ago and has oversight of the company's L&D strategy, organization, and programs. For almost 15 years, she has been honing her own passion for learning, organization transformation, and building high-performing teams. Before ICF, she served as senior director of worldwide learning at Xerox, where she led the strategy and execution of skills development in alignment with key strategic business initiatives and workforce objectives.

Focusing on core development needs

Along with passion, the 7,000-plus workforce based in 70 countries needs a diverse set of skills. To tackle such transformative projects, ICF employees are equipped with deep expertise, whether their focus is a specific industry such as utilities or healthcare, a particular function such as infrastructure or technology, or a specialized role like research and policy analysis or marketing.

ICF's wide range of capabilities and product offerings creates a unique challenge for talent development, says Janssen. When she joined ICF, she acknowledges that there was little in terms of a core curriculum, thanks in part to a large number of acquisitions that spurred the organization's growth. To pinpoint and understand the firm's business and learning priorities, her team partners closely with HR and business leaders.

"You don't need to be the expert to lead a business."

There is a perpetual need to recruit and upskill talent for multiple types of roles, from scientists to designers to researchers to technologists, and the list goes on. And for those technical or industry- and function-specific L&D needs, Janssen and her team advise employees to turn to partners such as LinkedIn Learning for content and courseware. ICF offers tuition reimbursement for higher education, when appropriate.

Instead of focusing on technical skills that can be developed by formal education, technical training, or work experience, Janssen's team concentrates on developing core business and organization skills in three areas: people management, project management, and business development.

Janssen chartered the learning practice leaders on the talent development team with building the curriculum for these core areas by working with the different lines of business to make sure the content and learning is relevant. Meanwhile, the learning operations team is thinking about innovative and cost-effective technology, tools, and systems that ICF needs to deploy training and other talent development resources. "We're focused on talent development in those skills and knowledge that transcend specific areas of expertise and help people progress through their careers," she notes.

Janssen explains that the essential principles of project management are the same whether it's the government or a commercial business. While there may be some different rules for handling a project for a federal client or a small versus a large company, there's a cross-section of project management skills that will apply to any successful effort.

And rather than go wide, Janssen works hard to ensure that the talent development offerings go deep. She focuses on "building curriculums in these core areas so that there is one program in place targeted for new hires, one for experienced associates, and all the way up to vice presidents, from fundamentals to advanced project management for leadership."

It's a similar story for business development. The challenge here is that technical expertise rarely translates into business and financial acumen. "You can be an expert at any one field, but as you move up, you really need to understand the levers of the business," asserts Janssen.

Making people management a priority

Like most companies, ICF prides itself on promoting from within. But as experts are promoted up the chain, their people management skills can become a weak link. Just because someone is proficient in a technical area, says Janssen, doesn't mean they're skilled and equipped to be an effective people manager.

"You don't need to be the expert to lead a business. You have to understand how to tap into people's knowledge and feel comfortable not being the expert," she says.

During her tenure, Janssen has prioritized helping people managers become more effective at managing, leading, and developing their teams. With that mission in place, three years ago, her team launched a 16-week, cohort-based manager training program focused on teaching leaders the key principles around "managing self, managing others, managing teams, and managing the business." Each session includes 125-150 managers who are broken into groups of 25 learners, based on such factors as core skill, industry, business line, and geographic location.

Conscious of time constraints, participants are expected to dedicate only two hours each week engaging in various learning content—articles, videos, journal writing, e-learning courses, scenarios, or other activities. Janssen says that approximately 80 percent of the content is general to ICF, and 20 percent is tailored to the specific cohort.

"Our job is to curate the content so that it's relevant and what they need to perform better," she notes. "We're not giving them everything and the kitchen sink to figure out."

The cohort discusses the material online and during a bimonthly virtual class that a subject matter expert facilitates. This model enables consistency but also nuance. "The different scenarios or SMEs facilitating the discussion ensures the content is appropriate and applicable to each cohort," Janssen says.

She has found that spacing out the content and limiting the commitment to a few hours per week makes the program not only more manageable but effective. As she explains: "As opposed to having people fly in for two days and learn a lot of stuff that they never implement, the program is designed to say, ‘OK, this week we are learning about this, now go apply it. Then, come and talk [about] what you learned next week.'"

To build buy-in at all levels and aid reinforcement, program participants' managers receive information on what their people have been learning. Additionally, at certain intervals throughout the 16 weeks, Janssen's team sends reminders and updates to managers about the training. For example, they may urge managers to schedule hour-long meetings with participants to discuss how they can apply newly acquired skills and knowledge.

Janssen believes that blending content with experiential and social learning is critical to the program's success,. "Most learning doesn't happen in a formal classroom training environment," she asserts. What's more, how the management training program has line people and SMEs assist or act as instructors is a good example of her belief that "talent development is every people manager's job at ICF." 

According to the results from the most recent cohort, this approach is working. In fact, 96 percent of the participants said they feel like they are a more competent manager, and more than 80 percent of their managers agreed that their employee has demonstrated an improvement.

Mentoring tomorrow's leaders

In addition to formal training, ICF believes constructive learning occurs through experience and with colleagues. "We have introduced tools, resources, and programs that encourage the concept that people grow and develop through new experiences and assignments and through learning directly from others. We emphasize that. We live that," says Janssen.


With that in mind, the firm offers a six-month mentoring program geared toward helping team members prepare for current work projects and future leadership needs. The company launched the open-enrollment program corporate-wide three years ago, and full-time employees at any level can participate. Employees can seek participation on their own, or managers can suggest involvement. Janssen makes it clear, though, that the mentoring program is not a job advancement program.

Using a software system for recruiting and managing mentorship participants, volunteer mentors and mentees complete profiles that explore work experience, interests, personalities, and goals. Based on those profiles, the talent development team matches mentors and mentees. As part of the profiling process, mentees can say whether they want to learn from someone in their same group and line of business or in another group. Or they may prioritize certain skill development. Not surprisingly, popular topics are career development, project management, and business development skills. Likewise, mentors identify their own preferences and strengths. Once a match is made, HR and managers review it for any potential conflicts.

Although Janssen and her group do not shape the specific structure of individual mentoring relationships, they do provide an orientation session that discusses what a good mentor and good mentee look like. They also provide guidelines and aids. For instance, there is an agreement that mentors and mentees can use to detail relationship boundaries, content emphasis, and communication tools and meeting times. In addition, videos, articles, conversation starters, and other resource materials are made available to help guide the duo's one-on-one interaction.

But in general, Janssen says that mentors and mentees are responsible for making the program work. She adds that they are investing their own time, so they need to be committed. However, periodic check-ins from the talent development team evaluate how things are progressing. "We can quantify how many hours are spent, what they're talking about, and whether or not pairs are continuing or disengaged," she says.

Leaders are encouraged to promote and participate in the program. Janssen has even acted as a mentor all three years, and she sees it as an opportunity for her own growth. She describes how she has learned about the people she's designing learning for and the real environment they're working in. "I'm able to coach and guide them on some things. But it's also helpful for me to hear their perspectives and the reality of client-facing work," Janssen explains.

Always innovating and changing

A big piece of ICF's work is helping its clients respond to evolving business trends. The firm's employees need to grow, stay ahead of trends, and ensure that the firm stays relevant. Fortunately, managing change is something the company does well—and that expertise starts from within.

"How do we make sure our learning is staying current, looking forward, and forever changing?"

For example, to deal with its internal plans to implement new financial and HR systems in 2020, ICF launched a change management office. This group is focused on rolling out communication plans and working with the talent development team to build necessary training. "But we also have an eye toward how to help the whole company get better at change management," Janssen adds. Plans are to maintain the office after 2020 to build change management skills internally.

Equally important to managing change is having a culture that supports innovation. And while that may be lip service in other organizations, ICF has been delivering innovation workshops and learning programs that teach design thinking across the firm "to help reinforce and infuse that way of thinking and approach with and for our clients."

In the end, ICF is "all about challenging ourselves to improve, piloting new technologies, and finding new paths forward," says Janssen. That idea is a guiding principle for her work. As she puts it, she and her team are always asking, "How do we make sure our learning is staying current, looking forward, and forever changing?"

Read more from CTDO magazine: Essential talent development content for C-suite leaders.

About the Author

Ryann K. Ellis is an editor for the Association of Talent Development (ATD). She has been covering workplace learning and performance for ATD (formerly the American Society for Training & Development) since 1995. She currently sources and authors content for TD Magazine and CTDO, as well as manages ATD's Community of Practice blogs. Contact her at [email protected]

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