How The Home Depot Uses Nudges To Scale World-Class Leadership Development

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We don’t just sell hammers. We develop people. —Michael Cabe, Senior Manager, Learning Strategy at The Home Depot

In 2019, The Home Depot ran into a fascinating challenge. Their high-potential leadership development program was a huge success. But, to achieve its success, the program relied on a high-touch, hard-to-scale approach. The challenge was this: To replicate the success of their “High-Potential Program” in their “New Director Program” (which had a much larger audience).

sustain-leadership-habits-previewTo learn how The Home Depot managed to successfully overcome this challenge, I had the privilege to meet with their Sr. Manager of Learning Strategy, Michael Cabe.

Cabe and his team build and run ongoing leadership development at The Home Depot. They help turn learning into behavior change by designing and delivering a consistent cadence of action learning and peer meetings.

Here’s what Cabe and his team did to pull it off.

The Origin Story: A Wildly Successful High-Potential Program

As is often the case with director-level and above leadership development programs, their initial success relied on a high-touch, highly customized approach.

“The program had all the bells and whistles,” Cabe said. “It had executive sponsorship, internal senior leader coaches. It had everything you could imagine for a carefully crafted high-potential development program. And it was working. The learning was sticky, and behavior change was there.” 

The results came through strong. Desired behaviors increased significantly after six months.

Cabe and his team knew the model was right. They just needed to figure out why the model worked so well. “Before we tried to scale,” Cabe said, “we first backed up and asked the question: what really made this program so successful?”

What Made the Program Successful? Action Learning, Not “Bells & Whistles.”

If you whittle it down, it wasn’t the high-touch approach that made the program so successful. It was that the high-tough approach supported, even springboarded, practice and behavior change. It facilitated what The Home Depot calls “action learning.” —Michael Cabe, Senior Manager, Learning Strategy at The Home Depot

Cabe realized that it wasn’t the highly customized, hands-on approach that enabled the program to succeed. It was that the high-touch approach enabled leaders to practice and build positive habits. Specifically, senior leaders served as hands-on coaches and their boutique LMS facilitated engagement with what Cabe calls “action learning.”

“Action learning” is actionable micro-content. High-potential leaders, typically spurred on by their coach, would engage with micro-content to practice and reflect based on what they learned. The more leaders engaged with the content and practiced it in their daily work, the more behavior changed and new habits formed.

To successfully scale this approach, Cabe and his team needed to find a way to get leaders to engage with their action learning without hands-on coaches and a boutique LMS. Cabe said, “We knew the content was right. We knew how to impact behavior change. But we had to get them to do the work.”

In came nudges…

Email Nudges Enabled The Home Depot to Scale High-Quality Leadership Development (At No Cost) 

You just have to nudge them. That’s the scalable solution. —Michael Cabe, Senior Manager, Learning Strategy at The Home Depot

To get new directors to engage with the follow-up exercises and tools without a coach, Cabe knew he had to work smart.

He decided to deliver follow-up exercises in the native environment of their learners. “What we learned was that if we leave it up to the learner to go get their learning, only a handful will do it. The vast majority won’t. What we need to do instead is remove the friction between the learning and the learner. We had to make learning seamless and available at their fingertips,” Cabe said.

Their solution was to build out an automated system of email nudges (using Microsoft Power Automate) to deliver action learning directly to learners’ inboxes.

By putting the nudges where leaders were already the most responsive (email), Cabe greatly increased the odds that the nudges would trigger action. He said, “I'm enterprise-wide. I've got folks in the field, in stores, in warehouses, driving from point A to point B all day long, visiting different locations, sitting at a desk for an hour, or constantly in meetings. The one constant across all of these leaders? Email. We are a very email-driven culture. We’re very responsive to emails. So I knew that was the best place to deliver nudges.”

The next piece to the puzzle was to develop and deliver nudges that best initiated action. They didn’t want nudges to feel like pesky reminders or irrelevant additions to learners’ workloads.

Three Types of Nudges Helped Pull Learning Through 

Our goal with our learning is to learn from doing. —Michael Cabe, Senior Manager, Learning Strategy at The Home Depot

Action learnings and peer sessions bridge the gap between two, two-day in-person training programs over the course of six months: a kick-off and wrap-up session. Between these two in-person meetings, new directors receive an action learning nudge every week and participate in cohort meetings together every other week.

The nudges filled three key purposes:

Purpose #1: Action Learning Delivery. Nudges delivered fillable PDFs that are frictionless for the learner—zero steps, zero links, zero sign-in.

Purpose #2: Reminders. Since the action learning work is mandatory and informs their peer meetings, a nudge prior to each peer meeting helps remind the directors to complete the exercise beforehand.

Purpose #3: Follow-up. Nudges also followed up after peer meetings to say, “In case you missed it, meet with a peer to learn what happened,” and, “Here’s the next set of work to complete before our next peer meeting.”

With nudges driving action learning for new directors, Cabe’s team saw attendance at peer meetings and in-person sessions increase. Engagement with the content and the quality of discussions in peer meetings also increased considerably.

Three Lessons Cabe Learned as He Scaled with Nudges 

We tried everything. You can't even imagine the number of failures that we had. We tried to go glamorous and use the newest shiny product. We tried to find the silver bullet. But, we found that the more ornate the solution, the less effective it turned out to be. —Michael Cabe, Senior Manager, Learning Strategy at The Home Depot

For those of you looking to scale your own training with nudges, Cabe was generous enough to share his top three lessons learned along the way:

Lesson #1: Nudges should be native. Put your nudges where your learners already work. “'Native to your learner’ is going to be different across organizations,” Cabe said. “There are certain organizations where, instead of dropping a nudge in their email, you would drop it in Slack or Teams. You have to crack the code of your cultural barriers to understand where your learners are native. Where are your employees spending their time? Where are their to-do lists? Then you figure out how to put your nudges there.”

Lesson #2: Create the feeling of “this is definitely what I should be doing.” In addition to delivering nudges where your leaders work, your content should feel as seamless to their usual work as possible. “The feeling your leaders should have when your nudge comes through is ‘I should be doing this already, but I’m not,’” Cabe said. The less your leaders can distinguish between their daily work and your learning, the better.

Lesson #3: Leverage the ripple effect of action learning nudges. “One intervention or one activity could go up the organization or down the organization. One leader’s action learning can develop a whole swath of folks,” Cabe said. He emphasized using activities like:

  • Finding a peer or partner
  • Holding a conversation with your leader
  • Talking to your team

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CEO of LEADx, and NY Times bestselling author, of Great Leaders Have No Rules and Employee Engagement 2.0. Get a FREE demo of the LEADx platform at https://leadx.org/preview.