Intuitive and Empathetic: How Intuit Builds the World’s Best Leaders

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With TurboTax, QuickBooks, Mint, Credit Karma, and MailChimp under its purview, Intuit is one of the most well-known technology platforms in the world. Intuit's mission is to power prosperity around the world, and the company knows prioritizing leadership development is one of the best ways to get there. With over 14,700 employees and approximately 2,300 people leaders in 21 locations across ten countries, Intuit's approach to leadership development is, well, intuitive.

To learn more, I recently caught up with Joel Constable, Director of Talent Development, and Barrett Keene, Ph.D., Director of Talent Development.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

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Kevin Kruse: When you first arrived at Intuit, where did you start in developing the leadership development program?

Joel Constable: Something that was really inspiring and attracted me to Intuit is that Intuit has an aspiration to build the world's best leaders and be known for it. Intuit has a rich history of leadership development that predates Barrett and me, but about four years ago, the company decided to reimagine leadership development. So Barrett and I had the opportunity to help rethink, reimagine, and rebuild our leadership development function. We started with frontline managers and really wanted to invest in that group because they play such a critical role in the employee experience. And to do that, we first needed to get aligned on where we were at that time and where we wanted to go. That meant defining success for leaders and what great leadership looks like. And it also meant rebuilding the team—putting the right folks in the right roles who were inspired and excited by this challenge. As far as what it means to reimagine and rethink modern leadership, some of that had to do with what we focused on – identifying critical behaviors to execute against our company strategy – as well as how we delivered our resources and experiences – leaning into technology and moving away from just traditional in-person, two-day workshops. A lot of what Barrett and I think about is how do we scale individualized leadership? Because scaling leadership development is one thing, but as we know, different leaders have different challenges and pain points. And I think the real challenge was, supporting all of these leaders at scale, but in a way that's personal to each of them.

Kruse: So what are you doing for your frontline managers now?

Dr. Barrett Keene: We're trying to do three things:

  1. Help our managers build core skills and create a solid foundation of effective management across Intuit
  2. Ensure managers can augment those core skills with more advanced, transformational leadership skills and capabilities
  3. Support and enable managers to support their teams with all the emerging challenges that have arisen over the past couple of years

We started by building a flagship manager development program called Manager Accelerator. Manager Accelerator is an interactive, 6-week experience designed to enable managers to build capability and confidence in setting and accomplishing quality goals, using a variety of leadership styles to accelerate their team members' performance and development, receiving and providing feedback, and coaching their team members. We have also evolved and strengthened our manager onboarding processes, offered six months of unlimited leadership coaching to more than 1,000 managers in the past three years, and began offering virtual manager workshops and manager forums on critical topics with anywhere from 100 to 950 managers participating.

Manager Accelerator was originally designed as a five-day, in-person program — three days upfront and two days a few weeks later. Once the pandemic hit, we redesigned Manager Accelerator into a streamlined virtual experience with approximately 2.5 hours of asynchronous learning and 11.5 hours of virtual sessions over six weeks. There are three virtual workshops with three weeks of asynchronous learning, application, and peer coaching in between each workshop.

Also, since it's virtual, we're able to have leaders from all across the globe in different functions and business units spending time building relationships and learning from each other.

In order to measure the impact of Manager Accelerator, we measure behavior change through pre- and post-assessments. The post-assessment is three months after participants graduate, and we specifically look at 11 behaviors tied directly to the learning objectives. We've seen consistent growth on a strong majority of those behaviors, which is really encouraging.

Kruse: What was your experience transitioning to virtual?

Dr. Keene: It encouraged us to simplify—not just in terms of topics, but how you bring those experiences to life. I grew up in agriculture, so I imagine it being like water hitting a field. If there's too much water, it just runs off and creates some erosion, but if you allow the water to percolate, then you see the seeds germinate. And so, even though it's now only 14 hours, including the asynchronous work and virtual workshops, instead of 40, we're still seeing the same amount of behavior change coming out of it. The experience is also about 86% less expensive per person.

Kruse: Tell me more about the peer coaching element of the program.

Dr. Keene: It's fun because we introduce coaching as a part of this “adapting your management style” concept. We introduce it at a high level. We're trying to create conversations within the groups. And we provide a lot of structure—think Vygotsky's Proximal Zone of Development. We're trying to provide scaffolding. We provide a facilitator guide with questions that are open-ended and expansive. So we'll introduce the concept of coaching in the first session, there'll be opportunities to be able to practice that concept with some scaffolding, and then we'd do a deep dive in the third session to really build layers in a really safe environment so that when our managers are out in the real world and working with their team members, they're able to do that with a little more confidence.

Kruse: Where do the tools, resources, and videos come from?

Dr. Keene:  A little over a year ago, we rolled out the Intuit Leadership Playbook for the company that clearly outlines how leaders add value at Inuit. So with our leadership playbook, we built out resources—podcasts, videos, and one- to two-page manager guides that specifically summarize what managers should know and do on approximately 35 different aspects of leadership. So that could be creating a high-trust environment, how to ask for and receive honest feedback from your team, how to utilize escalation paths to surface an issue to the executives and drive effective and fast decisions, etc. So whatever our managers need in terms of our leadership playbook, they can go and self-service. We've developed at least 95% of our content and resources internally, but we'll do some external curation because there's just such great content out there.

Kruse: What are you doing for higher-level executives and more advanced topics?

Constable: As Barrett mentioned, we rolled out the Leadership Playbook a little over a year ago at our annual Intuit Leadership Conference, which is for directors and above. It was led by our CEO and our C-suite telling stories, talking about the playbook, and bringing it to life through their own experiences. And then, we started to focus on VPs, with something we call our VP Leadership Lab. It's a cohort-based experience—five to seven VPs go through three, 2-hour Zoom sessions over two months. The program is co-facilitated between our team and our C-suite and SVPs. Participants do a few things in that program. They first take a development-focused leadership assessment that we created based on the playbook. They take it for themselves, their team takes it, but it doesn't go to their manager. They use that as input to create a development goal for the course of the program. We then have them work on a very realistic case study in small groups that we developed internally. And they use the playbook to figure out their 30, 60, 90-day plan to address the challenge in this case study. They present those either to our CEO or our previous CEO, who was very involved in our first year of executive programs.

They spend the last session working on what we call their “teachable point of view” grounded in the playbook. So, how would you teach others about leadership and about the playbook through your own experiences and observations? We are deep believers in the leader as a teacher—we believe that is the only way that you build a very strong leadership development culture. Teaching is a core expectation and responsibility of leaders, and that's true all the way to our CEO. So we have our most senior leaders—including our CEO—teaching others about leadership, particularly within our executive programs, but also with some of our manager programs.

We got about 95% of our VPs through this program. And then, we rolled out the next iteration of this program for our directors, called the Director Leadership Lab. So we have our VPs now teaching directors. We believe in this cascade of leadership with our most senior leaders setting the tone, modeling what we expect, and then transferring that knowledge. And hopefully, we'll now have our directors, as they get through this program, teaching leadership to our managers and other parts of the organization.

Kruse: How does Intuit measure employee engagement?

Constable: We measure employee engagement twice a year through a Glint pulse survey. The most recent survey that we have results for was from November 2021. We're proud to have received an 85 engagement score, which is extremely high among tech companies. Our Manager Score, made up of four questions from the survey, increased by a point which tells us we are on the right track. Employees positively highlighted Feedback, Performance Evaluation, and Recognition, all primarily driven by managers.

Dr. Keene: One of the practical things we've done over the past year is to organize five manager forums and also some workshops inviting all of our managers to come together. We have an average attendance of about 750 folks, and thanks to some wonderful learning experience designers on our team, we've experimented with and unlocked individualized, personalized action planning at scale on topics like how to prevent burnout for you and your team, which has really been really helpful for our leaders and for our people as well. Sometimes we'll create an equivalent version of a resource for our employees and then work to link those together. For instance, in the employee guide on preventing burnout,  we included questions to ask your manager. And then on the equivalent manager guide on preventing burnout, we included related questions to ask your team members. So we've been able to help our managers and our team members be in dialogue with each other about these really important topics.

Kruse: What advice would you give someone who's just starting out, or who has been asked to reimagine the leadership development program in their company?

Constable: One thing I would share is we pride ourselves on being really “customer” obsessed. It's a core part of our internal design thinking approach, called Design for Delight (D4D). And my team's customers are our managers and executives. So we do customer empathy sessions, which is having conversations with our managers and executives on a regular basis to understand their challenges and pain points. We talked about the pulse survey—every time we get results, we come together and pour through all of those results.

We also do a ton of these customer empathy interviews in advance of that. On a regular basis, we try to ask ourselves, “are we solving the right problems? Are we listening to our customers? Do we really understand what their pain points are?” And so my advice would be to always stay really close to your employees, your managers, and your execs to make sure you understand what they're going through in real time and you're solving for that. And don't be afraid to look at the data. Use the data to inform that design.

Dr. Keene: Coming out of that data, we pull together what we feel is the updated understanding of the problems our managers are facing on a quarterly basis. And then, one practical tip is to create a customer empathy repository. So when our team members do customer empathy interviews with our managers, they identify their key insights and add their notes to the customer empathy repository. And it's a shared document across our teams. So the Manager Development team members are able to have insights into what is happening in our Bangalore office, for instance, or the challenges our new managers are sharing during Manager Onboarding.

Constable: The only other thing I would emphasize because I think it's so significant and so unique, is the level of our executive buy-in. When you have your CEO out in front leading these initiatives—not just saying that they're important, but actually in the classroom, teaching our employees about leadership and every member of the C-suite sharing their stories—it sets the tone for the rest of the company.

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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 trial of the LEADx platform at https://leadx.org/preview.