The Michelin Method

Michelin North America's commitment to offering diverse career paths and developing leaders from within has yielded a retention rate of 97 percent, with a majority of its managers coming up through the ranks.

By Mark McGraw

Some people start down their career paths with a really good idea of where they're headed.

Then there are those like Susan Simmons.

"I'm sure there are people who know exactly what they want to do when they leave school," says Simmons, who has served as the director of career management and development at Michelin North America since October 2012.

"I wasn't one of them."

An economics and French major from the University of Wisconsin, Simmons describes her 24-year career with the Greenville, S.C.-based tire manufacturer -- especially the early stages -- as "an exploration."

That career began in 1991, when she started as an industrial engineer at Michelin's passenger-car and light-truck tire plant in Lexington, S.C.

Eventually becoming a production manager at the plant, Simmons "found a fit there. I was realizing that something I liked doing, and was reasonably good at, was supply chain operations," she says now. "But I also started to develop a passion for working with people."

Simmons nurtured that passion by taking part in a series of Michelin-sponsored seminars "focused on developing people skills and becoming a good leader . . . ," she says.

Such seminars are still offered at Michelin today and are indicative of its focus on developing leaders within its own walls. They also underscore the company's emphasis on offering employees such as Simmons the freedom to explore different paths within the organization, whether they follow a straight line or take several twists and turns along the way.  

Simmons found her career taking such a turn when she was offered an opportunity to gain leadership experience -- and put her French-speaking skills to the test -- in an HR role in Clermont-Ferrand, France (the company's headquarters) in 2007.

Simmons ultimately spent five years there, taking a position as supply chain director of Michelin's global truck and bus division two years later.

As she approached the end of her assignment in France, Simmons sat down for discussions with both her supervisor and career manager about possible next career steps. (Michelin employs around 400 such career managers, whose roles include facilitating productive career conversations regarding workers' future aspirations.)

Simmons thought about how she had benefited from being able to explore different career options within Michelin, and how she "hoped to be able to support others in the way that I had been supported."

"This started the dialogue about specific roles," she says, and ended with her accepting the position she currently holds.

"My role in our career-management area is just the latest part of this wonderful evolution," says Simmons, who oversees Michelin North America's career management, recruiting and mobility teams. "Now I'm part of the third side of the triangle."

The "triangle" to which Simmons refers is the "career triangle" system that Michelin has embraced to help workers -- with a hand from their managers -- develop new skills and discover new professional avenues. It consists of three parties: the employee, his or her supervisor and the employee's career manager. The frequency of their meetings is determined by each individual employee and manager, who talk about the worker's current role and the skills that he or she would like to develop and put to use within Michelin.

Managers and employees rely on Michelin's internal job-posting system to search for potential jobs and career options that fit the employee's interests and goals, and workers are also encouraged to pick the brains of those within Michelin who have traveled the professional path they're interested in pursuing.

The career triangle is a key component of the organization's approach to career development, says David Stafford, executive vice president of human resources at Michelin North America.

"It's about maintaining regular contact between employees and their managers," he says. "Employees are only going to succeed when they trust their managers, and when they know their managers are going to listen to them and help them realize their career goals."

Using such a system, which "replaces complex and bureaucratic performance-management processes [with] positive conversations" can be a tremendous boon to an organization's retention rate as well, says Dave Ulrich, the Rensis Likert Professor of Business at the University of Michigan and a partner at The RBL Group, based in Provo, Utah.

"Employees learn from these conversations what is expected, how they are doing and how they can grow," says Ulrich. "Managers also learn how they are doing and how they can improve. This positive approach to accountability creates a culture where people want to contribute."

Michelin employees certainly seem to be eager to contribute -- and to grow within the company. According to Michelin, its employee retention rate has remained close to 97 percent each year since 2009. In addition, 75 percent of the organization's approximately 800 current managers have been promoted from within, and more than 50 percent of its salaried manufacturing workforce began as wage employees or production workers with the company.

"The results are very impressive, obviously," says Ulrich. Indeed, the aforementioned figures seem to support that statement, and signify that the company's commitment to allowing employees to discover and cultivate strengths in diverse areas of the company is paying off.  

Encouraging Innovation

Part of the Michelin career-development method is to get employees' input on projects and issues that affect the company as a whole, and, hopefully, expand their professional horizons in the process.

Stafford saw this idea in action when he paid a visit to Michelin's heavy truck tire plant in Waterville, Nova Scotia, in December 2015. There, blue-collar workers from the production floor had gathered along with machine-reliability technicians, front-line production management, an ergonomist and engineering-support employees.

Together, these 20 or so Michelin employees comprised the two teams that would take part in the following week's "Bib Innov" program. This event, says Stafford, who spent close to five years in research and development at Michelin before moving to the organization's HR function, is an example of one of the roughly 20 annual short-term projects -- typically less than a week long -- designed to bring teams of individuals together from various disciplines to "innovate and solve problems related to processes and activities in our facilities."

Innovation, he says, "shouldn't only happen in a company's marketing or research and development departments."

Encouraging "a culture of innovation" throughout the organization has long been one of Michelin's primary objectives, and one of the HR function's goals in developing the "Bib Innov" concept, which takes part of its name from Bibendum, the company's iconic, rotund symbol for more than 100 years, more commonly known as the Michelin Man.

The events, which began at Michelin's North American locations in 2009, were born as a way to foster collaboration, says Stafford, noting that HR was instrumental in meeting with leadership from various business units to ensure that departments would be "free to focus time on innovation, and that employees are free and expected to invest their time for innovation."

In this case, each Bib Innov team consisted of eight to 10 employees who brainstormed to develop a more efficient way to enhance one particular step of the tire-building process, as well as finding a more ergonomically correct way to handle tires after they were built.

These events are part of Michelin's "mandated innovation time" concept, which requires employees to occasionally step outside their "usual" responsibilities to tackle challenges related to improving customer service or another aspect of the overall business, says Stafford, adding that HR at Michelin is flexible as to how much time employees devote to innovation.

For example, a September 2015 "hackathon" gave Michelin employees 72 hours to work in teams to develop apps that would improve the business. The winning ideas, which are currently being incubated and funded, include an app that reduces the time required for dealers to check tire warranties and process claims by snapping a photo of the tire and sending it to Michelin for instant approval.

Ostensibly, Bib Innov events convene Michelin employees to address a specific business issue. But they also yield some "very positive by-products," says Stafford.

"Obviously, we're trying to bring people together from different areas, different business units," he says. "And in doing that, these employees are getting different perspectives on how to approach a problem or a challenge. They're also brushing up against other disciplines, acquiring new skills and maybe becoming interested in other options within the company."

Innovation events such as those taking place at Michelin can indeed be very effective when done right, says Jay Meschke, president of Leawood, Kan.-based CBIZ Human Capital Services.

"People are exposed to other individuals working in other functions within the organization," says Meschke. "[Planned] or not, this helps flatten the organization. You bring people in from different areas to solve a problem, and, ideally, you have people clamoring to get into these groups that are formed on ad-hoc bases to solve problems. I think this idea is something that is used in other places, but, frankly, it just isn't defined or communicated well in many organizations. Although this isn't a new idea, Michelin is certainly using it with great success."

HR has been critical in getting the "Bib Innov" concept off the ground at Michelin, says Stafford.

In addition to providing staffing and resources for innovation events, Stafford and his HR team actively promote them to employees, "both from a business and a personal growth point of view," he says, noting that the HR function also oversees the recognition of participating individuals and teams.

Moreover, "we provide employees with a safe space to take risks," says Stafford. Some employees, he adds, "may be [hesitant] to step outside their 'day jobs,' because they feel like they would be seen as taking time away from their 'real' responsibilities. But we want them to take part, and we encourage them to do just that."

The HR function "helps to define a company's culture, and for us, part of our culture is the belief that it's OK to 'try and learn.' I don't like to say 'try and fail,' I like to say 'try and learn.'

And it's our job to support that mind-set."

Discovering Strengths

Simmons' career arc at Michelin is an illustration of that learning mind-set at work. Her trajectory also gives her a unique perspective on Michelin's efforts to offer career opportunities that provide a breadth of experience, be it in one discipline or across a variety of areas.

Generally speaking, Michelin employees are encouraged to either "go deep" or "go wide," says Stafford.

Those who "go deep" typically focus on gaining expertise and experience in one specialty, he says. Conversely, employees who "go wide" move from one function to another, gaining broader experiences and skills.

Simmons exemplifies the type of Michelin employee who "went wide." And, in her current position, she's playing a new role in helping employees chart their career courses.

She describes, as an example, an engineer who started with Michelin about 10 years ago.

"He was a good engineer," says Simmons. "He would look to me to tell him what to do next, or what he could do next as an engineer. He was at a crossroads, and came to me for some guidance."

In career-focused chats with Simmons, the engineer expressed an interest in leadership-development roles at Michelin, she says. 

"He said he had found that what really motivated him most was developing people, developing leaders. And that's what he wanted to focus on in the second half of his career. So we started him on a different path, working in leadership development."

That path included a stint in the Michelin Managers Program, a two-week training course -- which more than 90 percent of new Michelin managers attend -- where managers old and new participate in activities designed to renew and improve their leadership and managerial skills.

"I give my colleagues in our learning and development areas a lot of credit. We have a great panel of developmental courses for managerial skills, for developing and coaching people," says Simmons, noting that most Michelin managers also opt to attend an annual managers' forum that focuses on discussing management-related topics and skills.

The former engineer, a graduate of the Managers Program, is now the director of HR in one of Michelin's largest industrial plants.

"I just talked to him last week," says Simmons. "He told me that he's found his calling. And, from the company's perspective, he's doing what we'd like for him to be doing, and what we think he's best at."

Simmons recalls another Michelin employee who spent 14 years doing several jobs in various industrial locations, building and inspecting tires, for instance.

"She basically did all the jobs we have in our industrial facilities," she says. "And one could see that she exhibited more talent than she was using. So I encouraged her to explore [opportunities that utilized] her own strengths."

Simmons helped steer that employee toward an opening for a salaried leadership position as a safety officer, a role in which she flourished, says Simmons, noting that she is now an operations manager in one of Michelin's Canadian manufacturing facilities, "leading several hundred people as second in command at the plant."

Such metamorphoses don't happen overnight, but often begin with simple conversations between Simmons and an employee -- or an employee and his or her direct supervisor -- "about where they are now and how they're trying to grow," she says.

"These discussions could take place every few weeks or every few years," says Simmons. "I really see my role as helping people find the intersection between their personal purpose, their personal passion and the needs of the company. Sometimes, people just know what that passion is, and sometimes they have to go through some exploration and discovery."

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