TULSA, Okla. — Founded in 1958, QuikTrip Corp. (QT) has been a key player in transforming the convenience retailing landscape. Today, the 850-store chain has grown to a more than $11 billion company with operations across 11 states, and is consistently listed among Forbes' largest privately held companies.
But at the core of QT's longevity and success is its more than 24,000 employees, who have contributed to the operator being named one of the Best Companies to Work For for 14 years.
That comes as no surprise to those who work for QT, according to Lindsay Bennefield, corporate training manager. After all, QT prides itself on being "a company created to provide opportunities for others."
"This commitment to providing employee opportunities for growth is the foundation of everything we do and is at the heart of our leadership development initiatives," she said.
With its leaders dispersed over multiple locations and with diverse responsibilities, QT was driven to create a common leadership language that could be used universally throughout the company and directly correlated to its mission to help employees grow and succeed. With this goal in mind, QT partnered with Harvard Business Publishing Corporate Learning (HBP) in 2014 to explore new leadership development initiatives. Harvard Business Publishing is an affiliate of Harvard Business School.
"QuikTrip has a very powerful culture and is growing, which is why it needed a common leadership language. One of the most common constraints to a company that is looking to grow is that you have to have leaders who will perpetuate that culture," Marcia Dolby, principal learning partner, global solutions at HBP, told Convenience Store News. "Having a common leadership language helps to develop a talent pipeline that will help the company grow."
Joining forces to craft and define what "leadership" is and what it means to the company, QT and HBP created the Advanced Leadership Program (ALP) in 2015, aimed at high-potential leaders. They then added the Master Leadership Program (MLP), which expands on the ALP.
"We believe in growing from within, and in creating rapid development paths for those with a strong work ethic and drive who share the company's core values and philosophy," Bennefield expressed. "These paths are varied. They can take employees from operations to corporate roles, leadership roles in different functional areas, or straight 'up the ladder' in store operations. I like to think of our approach as 'the sky's the limit,' and for a [learning and development] professional, there's no better feeling than working for an organization where this is the case."
Both the ALP and MLP share the common curriculum of managing yourself, managing your relationship with others, and managing the business. The programs cover a gamut of lessons, such as decision making, effective communication, strategy, delivering impact and value, and managing and developing people. Courses consist of case studies, application and simulations, and lessons taught by Harvard faculty and authors.
Considered executive leadership programs, associates are required to reach certain levels within the company and meet certain criteria set by QT's leadership and development team to be considered for the ALP and MLP. Participants are nominated by senior managers and chosen by CEO Chet Cadieux and his direct reports.
"It is a very exclusive program that associates are proud to be a part of, and is a way for us to truly invest in our senior leaders," Bennefield told CSNews.
A Test & Learn Approach
The ALP and MLP have been highly successful from the start, consistently receiving remarkable reviews and feedback from participants, according to Bennefield. However, when she took over training and development in 2019, she looked at the overall leadership development program with fresh eyes and saw opportunities to revamp it.
When she and the team at HBP began its deep dive into the programs' landscape, there were a few certainties:
- It would continue to work on improving the critical leadership capabilities needed to support QT’s growth and evolution;
- It would still focus on creating a common understanding and common language among leaders from across the organization; and
- It would remain committed to helping the corporate organization develop a stronger leadership pipeline.
In terms of changes to be made, there was the cohort’s makeup, for starters. Previous cohort participants were primarily from corporate roles, but it was decided that the makeup of the incoming group would include more than half from store operations leadership.
Then, the COVID-19 pandemic happened and made Bennefield and HBP reexamine how to engage leaders who were accustomed to traveling to QT's corporate office in Tulsa and learning together. Now, the platform would have to become fully virtual while still providing the same experience they expect from connecting with their peers.
Together, QT and HBP came up with a number of new elements based on its goals and findings.
Firstly, they replaced moderator-led case study debriefs with relevant Harvard Business Review brief cases that cohorts could discuss together in study groups with integrated discussion guides.
Secondly, they changed the sequence of the program, moving the financial module up so that it could end with a more people-oriented session, "Managing and Developing People."
To promote engagement, a Leaderboard was set up so that participants could gauge where they stood with respect to their peers in terms of work completion. "QuikTrip is an organization with a healthy competitive atmosphere, so this was a big hit with our participants," Bennefield noted.
Then, they optimized context-setting sessions to make them QT-centric. Instead of having a HBP employee moderate the executive conversation, Bennefield conducted the discussion, which she said turned it into a "homier, fireside chat."
Because of the thoughtfulness and thoroughness of their preparation, QT and HBP received tremendous evaluations that exceeded the already-stellar ratings the leadership programs had received in the past, Bennefield said. To date, nearly 130 leaders have completed the ALP and MLP.
"This is a continued refinement — just like QT grows its people, this is a growing experience. We have Harvard thought leadership, but it is a pure QT program," Dolby added. "One of the principles that make the program successful is the peer-to-peer component. It is contextualized, so those who attend and complete the program can say, 'I know how to make better decisions than I used to;' 'I know better how to create value at QT than I used to;' 'I have more ownership and tools to grow my people.' At the end of the day, these are the things that they want."
Based on the success QT has had in strengthening its pipeline at the senior level, the company is now looking at how it can apply the same approach to provide more opportunities for leaders at the middle level to develop and grow.
"One of the great things about the partnership with QT and Harvard is how genuine it is. It has given us the ability to build something special and pushed what a partnership is beyond the status quo," Bennefield concluded.