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Innovation and Agility Fuel Adobe's Commitment to Experiential Learning

"In a tech company nowadays, flexibility and adaptability are key," said Adobe President and CEO Shantanu Narayen. "Part of the reason for our success is our ability to adapt, to change, and to course correct."

With the acquisition of Macromedia in 2005, Adobe had more "real assets" than ever before--more than 7,000 employees. With growth, however, came the growing pains of integrating leadership, cultures and teams. 

"People would associate with their own product line," Susan Rusconi, manager of Executive and Leadership Development, added. "They hestitated to move across teams and felt there were no growth or development plans."

At the same time, Adobe was maturing from a product to a solutions company and looking at new, global market opportunities. It hired leaders from the outside but often found they didn't fit its corporate culture.

"We needed a more flexible group of leaders who could move to different parts of the company," said Rusconi. "We needed to take our internal folks to the next level."

With a long-time commitment to training, Adobe executives set out to tranform its leaders and build a deep, agile leadership bench within the company. 

"Historically, we've had a section in the budget for employee training and development," said Narayen. "And, to be honest, that's one of the things we never cut, even in tough economic times."

Donna Morris, senior vice president, Human Resources, took up the challenge to develop exceptional senior leaders who could:


  • Think and act like general managers of their respective businesses
  • Engage global, cross-business teams in a manner consistent with Adobe's values
  • Build a collaborative network with other Adobe leaders

Another key goal was to build a flexible and adaptable program that, like the company itself, could quickly adjust to market opportunity year over year. This adaptability would prove to be particularly auspicious when, with the 2009 acquisition of Omniture, Adobe added even more people assets.

Morris engaged TRI
® learning experts and the faculty of the Haas School of Business to design the Adobe Leadership Experience (ALE). Launched in 2007, ALE is the flagship program for Adobe's global executive leadership development. Today, a second program, the Adobe Business Leadership (ABL), rounds out development for director-level leaders.

Participation in either program is by nomination only. For ALE, executive members of Narayen's operations team nominate vice presidents and senior directors based on achievements and potential to help Adobe reach its next level of growth. Narayen personally invites each one.

"Executive nomination increases the relevance of the program and helps make sure it meets our business objectives," said Rusconi. "People don't take participation casually."

ALE consists of three phases:


  1. A 360-degree evaluation based on Adobe's leadership criteria. Each participant is assigned an executive coach who helps identify existing strengths to build on as well as opportunities for development.
  2. An intense classroom experience with Haas professors leading sessions on strategy, finance, marketing, innovation, leading global teams, and more. Adobe's CEO and executives lead discussions on applying leanings to work at Adobe.
  3. An action learning component with both an individual and a team business challenge.

For the team challenge, Adobe senior executives select a real business issue that leaders work on together for eight weeks. Executives take this work seriously and make decisions for next steps on the issue based on the team's recommendations.

"We use each graduating class to help us with particularly vexing problems," Narayen said. "They act as consultants, and the areas they chose to focus on is built into their goals for the year and become their areas of development."

ABL focuses on business leadership and business acumen at the director level with an emphasis on making better business decisions based on a better understanding of financial impact.

® worked with industry experts to develop a new software as a service (SaaS) business simulation for ABL that challenges participants to push the envelope in a familiar business model.

The simulation drives home the interconnectedness and interdependence of decisions. When participants understand the ramifications of their chocies in the value chain--how an increase in price impacts demand, which in turn impacts production--they make better decisions. They know how their actions will affect multiple functions and operating profit.

Each year, Adobe modifies the content of the two programs to target the leadership capabilities it needs to get the business results it wants. The ability to customize training content to business needs was key to Adobe's selection of TRI as a leadership development partner.

"I like TRI's responsiveness to our business needs," Rusconi said. "I know I can go to TRI and deliver a successful program."

"We've done a number of new things to try to provide development opportunities for executives," said Narayen. "In traditional companies, you get pigeonholed into roles such as engineering, marketing, or finance, so one thing we're trying to do is champion leadership in overall general management."

To measure success of its leadership development innovations, Adobe is tracking the retention, performance and upward mobility of ALE and ABL participants. It also looks at lateral mobility, knowing that broader experience can enable Adobe leaders to further develop as general managers.

Since launching the programs, Adobe has achieved a lower-than-industry attrition rate, higher internal promotion rates, more internal lateral moves, and above average returns to stockholders. The results confirm Adobe's belief that leadership development translates into business results.

Participants agree that ALE and ABL are a winning combination for challenging, inspiring and stretching them toward new levels of leadership and performance. Understanding the relationships between business decisions and metrics, engaging in business analysis of real issues with real executives, and being taken outside their comfort zones in an exciting SaaS simulation are just a few of the reasons ALE and ABL alumni are enthusiastic about the programs.

"Based on the sustained heart rate alone, it was great!" one leader reported.

Participants also value building relationships with executives and their peers from around the world, and Adobe executives enjoy the engagement and strategic business analysis with their leadership bench. 

As noted, ALE was so well received that Adobe introduced ABL to extend similar training for director-level leaders and further develop its bench.

"The growth of our business depends on the growth and development of our people. TRI
® is helping us build an even deeper bench of leaders who excel in their current roles and are ready to take on greater responsibilities," said Morris.


Innovation and Agility Fuel Adobe's Commitment to Experiential Learning

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