Bruce Woolpert is the CEO of Graniterock – a Watsonville, Calif.-based supplier of building materials – and a 2003 Best Bosses honoree. In 1988, he led a transformation of the then 89-year-old company from one with a top-down decision-making structure to one that emphasizes self-leadership, accountability and learning. In this interview, he discusses how learning and development have impacted the company and his people.

In order to make your company more agile, you started to push a lot of decision-making down to people on the front lines. What roles have learning and development played in this less hierarchical approach?
We adopted a standard in the company called the “Yes-We-Will Standard of Customer Care.” What it means is we’ll do anything a customer wants as long as it is not illegal, unethical or not consistent with the best standards of construction practice. As a result, we became a custom shop in all respects. In the past, all custom orders were handled from our corporate office. Of course, you can’t handle many custom orders when everything has to go through the corporate office. We needed to respond with a better training program, so that any time these special needs came in, everybody in the company would know how to respond to them.

How much training does the average employee receive annually?
Over 40 hours per year after all the mandatory stuff that’s required by law or our policy.

What kind of return on investment have you seen?
It’s been tremendous. In our first year, we introduced what is called a “short-pay guarantee.” This allows customers to withhold payment whenever they believe we didn’t deliver up to expectations. At one point, 2.5 percent of our sales were held back, and we learned all kinds of things about our 89-year-old company that the customers had put up with for years. Today we’ve got that down to less than 2/10ths of a percent, so you can take over 2.3 percent of our sales and credit that to our learning environment. In addition, one-third of our offices do about 35 percent of their business special order, so that’s developing new products or finding new products for customers that we don’t regularly carry. It’s like going to Nordstrom’s or Macy’s and asking for an odd color shirt or size and they actually get it for you. That’s what we’re doing and we couldn’t do that if our employees were not prepared to make decisions about their jobs.

Unlike a lot of training programs, yours is primarily employee directed. What advantages do you derive from making employees responsible for creating their own professional development plans? How did you get employees to actually do this kind of thing? 
The real problem is people don’t want to admit that they don’t know something. Society conditions people to believe that you learn during your school years and there’s something wrong with you if you don’t know it now. That was our biggest problem. The key was convincing people that they learn throughout their lifetime. It took us about three years before people internalized this notion of lifetime learning and believed that they weren’t defective because they were say 50 years old and still taking classes.

The reason we did this through a self-directed, Individual Professional Development Plan (IPDP) is because sending out memos to employees saying, “Lucky you, you get to go to this training,” is resented by people. I’ve never found anybody who really appreciated their boss having that kind of parental control over them. Learning is pretty personal stuff and telling employees that you’re in charge of their future is deeply resented.

People must lead their own lives. They must be able to apply for any job in the company. They must be able to believe we have a system in which they would be equally and appropriately and fairly considered for any job that they’re interested in. I want them to know that the company would be open to providing training for anyone’s career development, even if it would take 10 years for someone to get the skills that they need. We’re not saying that there’s a kind of cookie-cutter ideal person and only ideal people get to be trained.

How has your learning and development program impacted the lives of your employees? 
Statistically, we went from 20 percent of our promotions being filled from within to about 64 percent today. We have also had 18 people come forward saying that they couldn’t read or write. My favorite story is of a mechanic who wanted to learn how to read and write. All of our safety manuals had been written and all the manuals on the equipment he used to repair were written. All these years, he had been having other people read and write for him. He could sign his name, but that was it. As it turns out he was suffering from a severe case of dyslexia.

We got this mechanic some help, and he told me that in one year he was going to read and write, and on our recognition day, he was going to read a poem. One year later, there were about 80 people standing around and he pulls out a piece of paper and starts to read this poem about himself. In the poem, it says that when he was in high school he used to see things written on bathroom walls and wondered if they were about him. Now think of being a teenager and not knowing if people were talking about you, because you can’t read what’s on the bathroom wall. He only knew the words “it” and “of” and “the”; those were the only words he could recognize because of his dyslexia – the most severe case that our teacher had ever seen. He told me afterwards that now he can read the words on the bathroom wall, and not only are they not about him, but they’re not that funny.

Many people have told me that they used to make excuses for how and why they couldn’t help their children with their homework, but now they’re able to help their own kids with their homework. I almost get tears in my eyes thinking about this stuff, because it’s so difficult to think about not being able to help your own kids with their homework. I think we’ve made a big difference in their lives.