WarnerMedia on why leadership must “navigate through change and motivate”

by Fin Murphy

Last year, alongside the pandemic, WarnerMedia faced a series of additional changes. In March, lockdown began and in April a new CEO, Jason Kilar, joined the business, bringing a new focus to the organisation. This resulted in a significant business transformation in Q4, reorganising divisions, flattening organisational structures, and broadening the scope and responsibilities of many leaders.

The leadership development team were working on a longer-term project to identify the WarnerMedia leadership framework and learning strategy aligned to it, but that work was going to take time.

“As I was meeting with leaders, a common and consistent theme emerged; the need to engage and support leaders right now to help them feel equipped to manage their teams effectively through the transformation,” said Tina Gupta, VP of talent development & employee experience. “This was not just about development or learning – it was about providing clarity, guidance and letting this group know – we are here to help you.”

In this case study, Tina Gupta outlines the launch and progress of WarnerMedia’s global interim leadership programme, LITE (Leading in a Transforming Enterprise).

Defining the challenge and desired outcomes for LITE:

Tina challenged her team to create an interim leadership development programme, with a goal of building skills and driving engagement by focusing on navigating through change, leading and motivating teams and supporting those in enhanced and broadened roles.

In just a few weeks, the team introduced a global interim leadership program called LITE (Leadership in a Transforming Enterprise). The programme was aligned to four emerging themes of the business strategy: focus on the consumer, build trust, seek innovation and lead with agility. The key outcomes were characterised as:

  • Leaders understand the WarnerMedia business strategy, evolving business environment and broader market trends and practices
  • Leaders understand what is expected of them to support change, motivate a team and drive integration across WarnerMedia
  • Increased focus on collaboration, innovation and agility amongst the leadership talent pool
  • Increase in employees’ trust and confidence in leadership, and increased overall engagement to WarnerMedia

The programme was aimed at leaders across the globe at the director level and above (~5,000 in total). They were playing the critical role of driving business transformation while supporting an evolving strategy, adapting to new expectations and supporting and motivating their teams through change.

It ran over a ten-week period – every few weeks, leaders received curated content focused on one of the four key areas/modules and allowed leaders to participate flexibly in a time and format that suited them.

Prior to the launch, participants were sent a high energy ‘sizzle reel’ in the form of a movie trailer, building excitement and using nostalgia for the WarnerMedia brands with a teaser of what leaders can expect from the programme.

This contained an invite from the CHRO, Jim Cummings, acting as a ‘save the date’. A video from Jason Kilar was played at the launch, encouraging leaders to make time for personal growth and to engage with the programme. This advocacy from senior leadership, alongside senior leader participation throughout, encouraged leaders to prioritise attendance.

Making learning agile and innovative

The team had historically leveraged more traditional classroom and in-person learnings, which would no longer work due to the global and virtual workforce. Leaders also had much less ‘free’ time as they were focused on setting up new business strategies. Learning needed to be digestible, available in a variety of formats and lengths, but also supported by deep dives for those who wanted or needed it.

There was also limited time to roll-out the programme so the team adopted an agile approach. They built each module in real-time, customising content in line with feedback and evolving needs. The first module was launched and evaluated, with learnings and feedback applied to the evolving program design as they built the next module.

The programme introduced a flexible learning approach with multi-faceted forms of learning and content to suit every learning style. This included a mix of compelling internal and external live speakers, group coaching, TED talks and podcasts, practical tools, case studies, external best practices and more. This was all hosted on an internal microsite which was regularly updated with events and recordings.

Connecting through coaching

Coaching forms a critical part of the WarnerMedia learning and leadership strategy, so group coaching was offered as both a way to support leaders but also to demonstrate expectations for leaders to act as coaches.

These optional sessions were facilitated by certified internal coaches and allowed leaders to connect and learn from each other in facilitated and structured ways. One leader shared: “I found the peer-to-peer (coaching) approach very unique and thought-provoking. I’ve been a part of several executive coaching workshops but never has the feedback come from peers facing similar challenges with similar concerns and questions.”

Leaders as teachers

Internal speakers reinforced the ‘leaders as teachers’ philosophy to inform on vision and strategy. There was a leadership panel for each topic with a specialist internal speaker discussing the topic in the business context. External speakers were handpicked to inspire, provoke, and educate leaders on best practices, external trends and innovations.

Speakers included the head of research at Twitter, head of product – US at TikTok, chief programmes officer at BetterUp coaching and CNN reporter, Zain Asher. There was a very proactive and deliberate focus on diverse speakers and leaders to ensure we were showcasing diverse perspectives while demonstrating our commitment to DEI in leadership.

Impact and outcomes

After ten weeks, the program had achieved its goals and exceeded expectations. The business found success in using leadership development to provide leaders with inspiration and clarity as well as connection to other leaders, insights from external thought leaders and practical ways to help their teams and their businesses move forward.

More than 4,000 participants joined live sessions with overwhelmingly positive feedback. “I’ve found the sessions… to be very insightful and great opportunities to hear directly from a cross section of our leaders,” one participant shared.

On average, more than 90% of surveyed participants said they learned something new they could apply with their teams. Leaders shared the encouraging impact the LITE program had on their engagement and ability to lead at WarnerMedia. One key leader shared “LITE has been highly beneficial to me as an employee and manager… I feel more supported now as a manager and leader as I did before this programme.”

“This was my first big initiative at the company having only recently taken over the team, so the stakes felt high. We didn’t know whether this unique method of learning was going to work. We just knew we needed to move quickly and focus on new and different ways of providing learnings to support these critical leaders at this time,” said Tina.

The team were extremely pleased with the level of engagement and impact. “Feedback showed that participants achieved better clarity around the skills and capabilities required to lead through change, had opportunities to come together to solve common business challenges, and were inspired by the experiences and advice from seasoned internal and external leaders. We knew we had got it right and the fast pace, high energy and commitment from the team all paid off in business impact.”

The learning development team had many learnings along the way which now inform the go-forward learning strategy. They realised the importance of supporting leaders in the moment when they need it, to help leaders inspire and keep employees engaged in a culture of continual change and that there is immeasurable value connecting with other leaders and learning from one another. They also recognised that leaders truly appreciate and want the support.

The LITE programme has contributed to WarnerMedia leaders’ ability to lead with more confidence and has resulted in a permanent development series, LITE+ which brings a range of key concepts to life as an ongoing programme, with monthly topics and content to support the ongoing development of its leaders.

The LITE programme recently won a coveted Brandon Hall Group Bronze Award for Excellence in the Learning & Development Category for Best Learning Program Supporting a Change Transformation Business Strategy, in recognition of the impact of the programme.

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