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Learning Leaders Interview Series: Mike Van Lente

By December 16, 2015 Q & A No Comments

When Mike Van Lente took on the role of director of talent readiness at FleetPride earlier this year, he quickly realized the need to build a leadership talent pipeline. FleetPride, the nation’s largest distributor of truck and trailer parts in the heavy-duty aftermarket channel, is projecting significant growth over the next five years. At the same time, the company is facing the retirement of many of its current brand management team in the near future.

Van Lente spent much of 2015 identifying and laying the framework for the business competencies required to run one of FleetPride’s more than 260 branch locations and outside sales team. In 2016, he is planning on exploring how to partner with higher education to provide customized content that supports those competencies in a flexible, engaging format, particularly for high-potential employees looking to move into management roles.

For this installment of the Learning Leader Interview Series, we sat down with Van Lente to discuss how higher ed can play a part in building his leadership pipeline, including developing certificates and stackable programs, identifying high-potential performers and streamlining training to scale more quickly.

TLH: This year, you took inventory on the skills and competencies you need your managers to possess and mapped them out. How do you see higher ed potentially supporting your talent management initiatives?

Van Lente: I’m interested in creating retail management certificates that can potentially apply as credits toward an associate or bachelor’s degree. But, more importantly it’s a more condensed, less expensive learning environment around retail management that can integrate our core competencies into a program.

For your industry (higher ed), maybe schools can add stackable credentials like retail management as a vocational track, or other areas like customer service, sales and P&L — all those things that you don’t necessarily need for a full four-year degree. I’d like to send my high-potential people to colleges for certificate programs that offer these competencies.

TLH: You’ve mentioned in one of our previous conversations how you have a number of baby boomers in management positions who will retire in the near future. What are you doing to fill the void once baby boomers retire?

Van Lente: It looms large for us. How do we build that pipeline quickly? My first six months have been focused on putting in foundational learning and tracks for the current state of hiring people in our branch. For example, can I have a consistent and quality on-boarding and training process in the first 90 days? Can I add a learning management system where we can see what’s going on and measure results? This year is all about building a foundation, but next year is all about building that management-leader pipeline.

TLH: How do you identify high-potential employees that would be a good fit to move into management positions?

Van Lente: Before we launch basic training, we’re working on success profiles of the roles, which include the key tasks of the role and the competencies they’ll need to accomplish them. From there we can look at top performers who have great behavioral skills and know the industry. Then, let’s look at the success profile one step above them to see if they would be a good fit. We have to look at what we can give them to make sure they have some of those leadership-management skills, and that’s where I’m interested in how higher ed can help us. I was starting to use assessments at my previous employer to see what are the critical competencies to make the next person up successful, and we’re open to using testing instruments to take some of the subjectivity out of it.

TLH: Oftentimes, you see an organization embrace and purchase content from a learning provider, but employees aren’t always quick to dive into the content. How do you increase employee learning engagement once you’ve identified a learning partner, be it a college or a learning vendor?

Van Lente: Some of it has to be mandated. Core foundations have to be required. What you want is them to pull learning as much as you are trying to feed it to them. I want to make sure the training is custom tailored, built with subject matter experts. And then, can we offer different learning opportunities—so does everyone have to take it this way, or can I put the benchmark on these things and you have different ways to learn it? If you come to me with knowledge, you may be able to test out of it. I’m less concerned with how you get it, but I want to give you the tools to get it, and I want you to show that you know it. Then, what I’m thinking about is can you provide a carrot, like pay increase, for completing the courses we’ve put in front of our employees.

TLH: What do you see higher ed doing well for the adult learner?

Van Lente: I’m in the middle of my master’s in human resource development at New York University, doing an all-online program. In the online learning experience, you get a broad range of students, and if done correctly, you get pretty interesting cohorts. I have had some really good professors that make it more engaging than regular classroom training. Ours are synchronous classes, so we’re in the classroom together at the same time with webcams, and the good professors keep you on your toes.

In my profession, I’m learning just as much about how I’d like to set up university-type training in my environment, and I like that most of the students are working so you can tap into that audience. Some of them are working at big companies like Johnson & Johnson and Google.

TLH: What are some of things that stick out to you in your master’s program that you could use in your training environment?

Van Lente: Especially in retail, there’s a distance-learning capacity. Budget and time is tight, so how do you make a quality blended learning program using distance strategies? Can you use online tools to create synchronous and asynchronous learning, and bring them together at the right times? I’ve been pretty impressed with how engaging you can make an online class, probably more so than when you’re sitting in a lecture hall.

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