The Learning House Learning Leaders Interview Series: Rob Zell

By November 17, 2015 Q & A No Comments

When Learning House set out to develop Partner Plus about a year ago, our purpose was to connect higher ed to enterprise to build a more educated and skilled workforce. The reality is there’s a gulf-sized divide between higher ed and enterprise’s perceptions of a workforce-ready graduate. A Gallup survey for Inside Higher Ed found that 96 percent of college and university administrators said they are confident in their institution’s ability to prepare students for the workforce. Conversely, only 11 percent of business leaders strongly agreed that today’s college graduates have the skills and competencies for their business needs.

To bridge the gap, we thought we should start by listening to talent and development folks at large companies to uncover how higher ed can better support their employee education goals.

Hence, our Learning Leaders Interview Series.

Over the coming months, we will interview talent development individuals from different organizations, spanning multiple industries, to hear firsthand how colleges and universities can lock arms with enterprise to develop and align programs that support talent attraction, talent retention, career-pathing and increased workforce productivity.

We kick the series off with Rob Zell from 7-Eleven, the world’s largest operator, franchisor and licensor of convenience stores. Zell, who oversees training delivery for corporate employees and who is in charge of the Second Annual 7-Eleven Training Summit taking place tomorrow, sat down with us at a Tex-Mex café in downtown Dallas to discuss employee development, engagement, career-pathing and higher ed/enterprise collaboration. Here are some of the key takeaways.

Learning House: What keeps you up at night when you think about employee development?

Zell: It’s those folks in the middle because they are the ones we don’t serve well. You give them well-organized learning departments, you get supervisor development, you get first-time management development, you learn the HRIS pieces, but very rarely is there training that says, “What does it take to go from manager to director, what does it entail to go from director to senior director?” It’s the people that fight through that middle area and get to VP who we are sending to an Executive Development program at a Duke or Kellogg.

Learning House: Do you think higher ed can factor into helping those employees in the middle?

Zell: If [higher ed] parsed it out and defined the shifts in perspective required to become a leader of a function and then built a credential or corporate badge based on learning needs. These could then be applied to college credit or credits to a degree program. Directors hear, “If you really want to be an executive, you have to get an advanced degree.” And their take is, “I’m just trying to be a director of this function, how am I supposed to get my MBA? Do I get an MBA, do I get an Executive MBA?”

Learning House: How else can enterprise and higher ed work together to support employee development?

Zell: I think the opportunity we have to partner with higher ed is help students coming out of college understand that just because you finished doesn’t mean you’re done developing. You’re going to keep learning. I think they can also create revenue streams by developing programs in graduate-level content that can be delivered in a turnkey fashion by the corporate trainer who gets certified by the institution. Imagine programs in graduate-level finance, economics, project management — all delivered by a certified trainer, in house. That makes advanced learning more accessible.

Learning House: Do you think higher ed can play in that space because there are a lot of learning companies that build courses for specific competencies, whereas a college course might encompass multiple competencies and span eight to 16 weeks? And, do you think it’s worth a college’s time to get into specialization or is the degree where they should continue to focus attention?

Zell: I think it depends on the credibility of the institution. If Kellogg puts together 20- or 30-minute programs that they can farm out, maybe they want to do some sort of certification for whomever is going to deliver that. If a company invests in the program, the trainer attends a workshop at Kellogg on how to teach; for a technically in-depth program like a finance course, they may be required to have a finance degree. Again, if I say I’m going to deliver to a group of mid-level managers a Kellogg course on depreciation, they’re more engaged. They will think, “Wow, Kellogg course on depreciation! That’s really exciting! Somewhere on my resume I can show that I completed the Kellogg 10-part course on finance,” and that’s a selling point.

Learning House: Your Second Annual 7-Eleven Training Summit is tomorrow, and by all accounts last year was a success. Share your vision around the summit and what you hope to get out of it this year?

Zell: We started it last year basically on a whim. We looked at our training budget and didn’t have a ton of money. [Allessandria Polizzi, Senior Director of Leadership and Organizational Development] wanted to do something for the team, kind of as a team workshop, and said, “What if we hosted something here at 7-Eleven and invited local learning people in Dallas?”

We polled our team on topics they wanted to hear about and we facilitated sessions. I led one of the sessions. We threw questions out there and people responded and we brainstormed. We got really good feedback.

This year, when we thought about 7-Eleven’s vision of servant leadership, serving others, serving community, we felt that this is a good opportunity for our learning team to give back to the learning community. We know these people. We’ve all worked at these different places. The L&D community is very close-knit.

We decided this year, instead of us facilitating, we would bring in outside help, and that’s when we started reaching out to some of our vendor partners or people that we knew had expertise in learning. We polled people last year what they’d be interested in. The four topics that came back were: leadership development, employee engagement, gamification and social media.

Learning House: Are you bringing in learning leaders from other Dallas-Fort Worth companies?

Zell: Holly Jenkins from Root Learning is going to talk about employee engagement, which I believe to be their core competence, helping leaders engage frontline employees. We contacted Raytheon, who we thought might have some expertise in gamification. Franklin Covey is covering leadership development. Unfortunately, our social media partner fell through, so we will be doing some group brainstorming on how to explore and use this space.

Basically the way we set up the summit is there’s an executive panel at the beginning. We invited leaders from different organizations. We have leaders from CEC Entertainment, UT Southwestern, Ericsson and our own SVP of HR, Scott Hintz. Then, we have the breakout sessions, and finally the networking event.

As the guy who is in charge of delivering training at 7-Eleven, at least above store, I want to make this something we do every year.

Learning House: Last question. Where do you see higher ed hitting the mark and where do you see an opportunity for improvement?

Zell: I think I see higher ed doing a good job with training at the executive level. I think schools are doing a good job in preparing undergrads to start working. They are also doing a good job in preparing students to think collaboratively. It’s no longer, “I got my degree and I go sit at my cube.” There’s collaborative projects and virtual work.

Where we lose it, and where we think we can get better help from higher ed is that place in between. It’s that place between supervisor and director. When I look at the curriculum for some of these executive programs, they are great for VP and above, but they don’t serve the middle managers. What do I do for a first-time director? How can they help me develop those types of programs where it’s no longer about me managing people, it’s about managing the managers? Managing managers is very different. A lot of the programs say they have a program for new directors and really it’s advanced supervisory skill, clarifying expectation, holding people accountable. That’s all great, but really that next level is much more about coaching and helping managers see how they may be impacting their people’s performance.

Managers don’t need much supervision. They need insight and awareness. And there aren’t many programs that I’ve found that do a good job of that.

About Ryan Collins

Ryan Collins is the Director of Strategic Initiatives for Partner Plus by Learning House. He is also a freelance writer whose work has appeared in American Way Magazine, SB Nation Longform, D Magazine and Gizmodo. He can be reached at