Welcome to the Use Case Podcast, episode 278. Today we’ll be talking to Dr. Villeneuve from bluSPARC about the use case or business case for why her customers choose bluSPARC.

bluSPARC™ is a premium learning and development solution with executive coaching at its core.

Give the show a listen and please let me know what you think. Thanks, William.

GEM Recruiting AI

Show length: 31 minutes

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Kim Villeneuve
Co-Founder bluSPARC

Entrepreneur with formidable executive search experience placing executives in venture-backed start-ups to Fortune 100 companies. Expert in leadership, adult learning and organizational diagnostics. Adjunct faculty at American University, with a Doctorate in Education from The George Washington University.


Announcer (00:02):

Welcome to RecruitingDaily’s Use Case podcast, A show dedicated to the storytelling that happens or should happen when practitioners purchase technology. Each episode is designed to inspire new ways and ideas to make your business better. As we speak with the brightest minds in recruitment and HR tech, that’s what we do. Here’s your host, William Tincup.


William Tincup (00:25):

Ladies and gentlemen, this is William Tincup, and you are listening to the Use Case podcast. Today we have Kim on from Blue Spark. We’ll be learning about the business case or use case that customers and prospects use to purchase Blue Spark. So why don’t we do introductions. Kim, would you do me a favor and introduce both yourself and Blue Spark?


Dr. Villeneuve (00:46):

Absolutely. First of all, thanks so much, William. It’s a pleasure to do this with you. So really enjoy the time. I’m the co-founder of Blue Spark, along with Andrew Rahaman, who is co co-founder as well. We started the practice about, oh my gosh, maybe two and a half years ago. It is rooted though in a executive development, executive search practice that started 20 years ago. So we laugh because it’s actually a 20 year old startup.

It’s been very successful because Blue Spark is, for the most part, an integrated learning and development technology. It’s a platform with coaching at its core. So it draws from the roots of executive coaching through the lens of executive search. So the concept is about an integrated learning system, and it’s kind of like the trifecta of creating stickiness for developing your leaders. It’s based on psychometric assessments, coaching, cohort learning. So that trifecta actually increases retention and builds succession pipelines and allows for accelerated growth and speed to performance. So very exciting. We’ve gotten just an amazing response to it because leadership development is ongoing. It never ends and have a number of wonderful clients who have some very nice proven success with it.


William Tincup (02:20):

I love this. I love it for just the origin story because coming out of executive development and executive search, you’re seeing what’s missing in the marketplace. And even within candidates in the marketplace, you see where the misses were and then you developed, obviously developed a program and technology around, “Okay, well let’s coach to where folks are missing or maybe need to be augmented in their learning.” Do you consider yourself now just a full on technology play, or do you still have some services that you do for clients?


Dr. Villeneuve (03:00):

It’s really a tech enabled play because the services are really around and they are predominantly now around the coaching, practice and the learning and development side. So we actually broke off Centerstone, which was the executive searching search side, and then created Blue Spark so it could stand alone. But something you just said is just so important in terms of the genesis of this, and that is when you come from executive search, you are actually placing the top two to 5% of executives in any functional area. So across finance, merchandising, marketing, IT, et cetera.

And so when you’re paid the fees, you are in executive search, you really need to bring to the table people who are extraordinary in their ability to deliver in those disciplines. So as I started looking at the coaching part of what we think leadership needs to have as an underpinning, we didn’t just go after coaching that was wellness or life coaching. We decided to aim for the top 2% to 5% of the kinds of characteristics of leaders that would’ve been attractive to us as we were choosing leaders to infuse talent to organizations. That was a game changer because this is coaching that actually takes people far beyond where they thought they should go to where they can go. And having coaches that are capable of recognizing what the two to 5% looks like instead of just what do you want to do, it’s a big, big deal.


William Tincup (04:44):

Which is a lot of what’s corporate learning, especially in LMSs, You see a lot of content that’s both good for the job and also content that’s good for the person. And sometimes those things overlap clearly. But if someone wants to learn about wine tasting, that’s fantastic. If someone wants to learn how to run a meeting in a more efficient manner, that’s a different bit. And I like content and from a learning perspective, I like content that kind of straddles the whole human being. So I like that. But obviously this isn’t that. This is coaching and mentoring around, especially with leaders. So a few questions. One is, what are some of the common, not fails, but let’s say just the common things that we need that you see that need to be coached on. And second part is the common misconceptions about leadership development. So where are we missing and where do people have it wrong in terms just conceptually?


Dr. Villeneuve (06:00):

What a meaty question. I think that the first thing you just mentioned was treating people as whole people, and we actually do want to coach people as whole entities. And so we want to actually come up alongside them and figure out what do you know now? And then what do you need to know if in fact you have designs to be part of a succession pipeline? Some people will say,” I don’t really have the desire to be promoted. I love the kind of work I do.” So then our work is to actually enlarge and enrich them in their leadership capabilities so that they can stay with the organization for a long time. So part of the roots of how we started this was really around, and this was pre COVID, by the way it started before the pandemic. So because of that, the whole purpose of it was to build succession pipelines or to build and enrich people in the roles that they had.

And then suddenly in the pandemic, and as we moved through that, it was an evolution. We recognized that it was around retention. And what we noticed was that it was really important to use development as a way to retain your people, especially when they felt isolated. And now we see that it’s really critical because it’s part of this sense of I’m giving up in place. And so it’s like it’s begun to actually pull in development as a foundation to feeling important and needed and having this social connection. So it’s quite fascinating actually. I mean, the coaching itself and the desire, and we call it the science of leadership, is the foundation of our coaching.

All of that though, is actually wrapped up in this whole concept of belonging and feeling like you are a whole person. And so we’re pulling you into it as a whole person. So it’s an interesting question because the time, things have changed so dramatically since we started doing it. And so we’re recognizing the need to be very nimble, to be able to grab hold of the moment and to use the coaching as the opportunity to help people accelerate and to retain your best players.


William Tincup (08:16):

Do you find your customers or clients are they asking you to come down not just for the leadership development at the highest levels, but then maybe down a rung or two to some of their other managers that maybe don’t have access to that type of training? Like the next in line? If we were doing succession planning, obviously we do leadership development at a certain point for everyone at that… There’s a whole other swath of people, of managers, maybe even directors, et cetera, that don’t have that type of training. And I get asked this question all the time. It’s like, “Well, when do we train them? Or what if we train them and they leave?” But the question is, are your customers pulling you into conversations around other types of leadership development?


Dr. Villeneuve (09:10):

Yes. And one of the things that is a basis of the work we’re doing is that we want to help the enterprise. We want to help the organization actually create a culture of leadership. And the only way you can do that is by touching all parts of enterprise. So generally speaking, we come in at the ELT, SLT, LT level where the decision making is happening and we move them through a process that allows them to set the stage for creating a culture of leadership. And so what happens then is that we frequently will actually sort of capture them in a way that is fairly life changing for the enterprise because they get involved, they buy into it, and 92% of the managers that went through this kind of a program or this process with us, report that they themselves felt that the experience was exemplary.

And so then it’s not difficult to go down in and through the organization. So what happens then is that we have a client, I’ll give you an example. We have a client on the east coast, it’s a sneaker company, and they decided that they wanted to touch every single person in the enterprise at the HR, excuse me, at the home office level. So that meant that we not only did coaching for individuals at the most senior level, but we did team coaching at that middle level, and then we did webinar coaching at the front line level so that over a year’s period of time, every single person in that organization was touched by this.


William Tincup (10:49):

I love that. Oh my goodness. Well, and I love it from the organization’s perspective and also you talked about the whole self and the whole you and you even mentioned belonging earlier. It’s like this is how you get people to belong. We’ve grown up in a world, I’m squarely Gen X, so I grew up in a world where there was high potentials, high performers, top talent, whatever you want to call them, and they were treated like a different class of citizen. And that’s great. I mean, that is what it is, but I don’t think that that works with millennials and Gen Z. I just don’t think that model works at all because they want to learn those things faster. And I think that’s great on a lot of levels. Two questions, well, let’s do just one at a time. What do your clients consider you in terms of where on the line, where on the budget is it? Because you mentioned integrated learning, but do they think of you as coaching and mentorship or where, category wise, where do they place you?


Dr. Villeneuve (12:05):

So there are three parts of how we approach coaching, which might sound a little unusual because one part is really around assessments. So when we have proprietary assessments, and we also use Hogan assessments, we think that they are the gold standard for pre-selection and then also for development. So we will come in with an assessment process at the very beginning for each person that is part of this program in the engagement. The next thing is because they need to know where am I, they need feedback. And then the second thing is they have content that will actually mesh with the one to one coaching that they’ll be getting. So if we know for example, that this is a new leader, it’s kind of like leadership 101. The content has 22 competencies attached to it. So we pull out the competencies associated with someone that would be a leader at 101 stage, and that’s the content that they’re given in cohorts where they meet other people within their organization at the same levels.

And there’s a facilitated process where the content is given to them. Then the coaches work on them based on their assessment and their ability to be able to actually execute that content. And so it’s very sticky because you’ve got this assessment coaching, cohort learning process going that allows everyone to actually learn and then to really lock it in through the coaching process because it also creates accountability for using the new behaviors. So a lot of clients see us as their L and D budget. That is, we come in through the L and D side and occasionally when it’s a CEO, a CHRO as an example, or even a founder or director of the board, when they hear about the coaching part, they’re most excited about the coaching because chances are at that level they’ve had extremely good success being coached themselves and they want to give that to their organizations.

So we’ve effectively tied in or integrated the coaching with the content and then we created it on, we have a tech platform. So it’s all done digitally. And so it’s fast, it’s easy, it’s a wonderful and easy way for a coach to communicate directly with the leader and for us to derive data from what’s happening within the overall organization or enterprise so that we can give metrics back to the L and D, through the L and D lens of the 100 leaders that are being coached right now, what are the themes that are predominant? And then we can actually give some feedback to the head of HR to say, “You may want to have us come in and actually do content on this particular thing. That way they all hear it and they’re not using up their coaching time to actually be listening to the same thing over and over from many different coaches.” So it’s very interactive. It’s like a living process. There’s nothing cookie cutter about what we’re doing here.


William Tincup (15:18):

Which gets to the highly personalized part that’s needed for the coachees, which is my next question is how do you align coaches with coachees? Or you can call those, I guess, different names, but how do you align the… Because some of this is chemistry. So some of this, and I’m a huge Hogan supporter as well. So some of this is personalities. So some of this you can probably do through assessments, but we’ve all had good coaches. We’ve all had coaches that weren’t as good, so stated and covered. But how do y’all at Blue Spark itself, how do y’all kind of match people up?


Dr. Villeneuve (15:57):

So one of the things that we needed was an algorithm. And so we acquired a company, it was a coaching company that it started as, I think the intention was to coach college graduates on how to find their first job. The platform they used was everything we wanted at the time. And of course it’s evolved since then. That platform had the algorithm we wanted. So you could actually put 20 coaches in or 25 coaches into that particular engagement and it would spit out the top three coaches based on an assessment you would take.

So it reminded me of, it was sort like this is the eHarmony part of what we’re doing. And so those three coaches would be pretty close to include diversity. Our coaches are diverse. So when you’re being coached, it’s by someone that looks like you and likely has the same kind of background as you and has the same understanding of what meaning does that have in a business environment. So we have probably about probably 90 or so 95% hit rate in terms of getting that coaching connection correct. And so it’s the coaches, the leaders, and then every leader has an opportunity within a very short period of time to actually do a different chemistry test with a different coach if they’d like to do that. But we have nice success with that algorithm. It’s made a big difference.


William Tincup (17:23):

So you get asked this question probably weekly, but the ROI on coaching. First of all, I don’t know if there’s real math or if it’s just you can take people down a path to understand why it’s important. I understand it’s important. I think everybody listening will understand it’s important, but I know at one point finances are going to get involved, procurement’s going to get involved. So at one point we’re going to have to justify the spend. Without doing a master’s thesis, how do you get them emotionally and intellectually over to a point where they understand, “Okay, I get it.”


Dr. Villeneuve (18:02):

So we’re doing two things. One is sort of the softer side of data, and that’s really doing 180s. And these 180s start at the beginning. So I have a 180 that I fill out on myself around the 22 competencies of leadership, and I score myself based on two things. One, what do I think is the top priority for those competencies in the job that I think my manager would expect me to think are the top priorities and how well am I doing at all of the 22 to include these top priorities? Then the manager is given the same exact 180 of their leader.

So now we have the coach, one of their first meetings after the assessment process is to actually facilitate this 180 conversation between the leader and their manager. And that’s where you begin to see, “Oh my gosh, we’re the same. This is awesome. You think that I’m really performing well or that I’ve got the top priorities in place.” Or “Oh my gosh, we are way off. We are not aligned, and I can see where you think I need to improve in areas where I thought I needed to improve, you think are okay.” So it’s like this is where the coach is really helpful in terms of being a facilitator to get that down. Then at the end of a six month process, that 180 is redone, they redo it and then the coach goes back and compares it. That’s the data that’s driving this 92% statistic that we have, which is managers reporting improved performance for their leaders after this part of the Blue Spark experience. So there are pieces that we can do like that, but there are other pieces that are important to us.

Those are the pieces that would be connected to a full enterprise HR system like Workday or Bamboo. Those are things like how many of the people that went through Blue Spark got promoted? How many of the people that went through Blue Spark actually got bonuses? How many people were tapped to be in a mentor program where they were mentoring now? How many people actually who were retained? How many moved into your succession plan in terms of moving on to larger roles? So we’re actually connecting this directly up into the pulse of talent management. And that’s something we’re super, super excited about because that’s data. You can’t argue with that data. And then at the end of the day, our goal is to be able to show you’ve got a five time improvement on your investment and your return would absolutely tell you it’s worthwhile as a CEO or a CHRO. So we’re certainly not looking at the soft side only.


William Tincup (20:47):

So if someone listening to the podcast has never bought coaching before, what questions should they be asking of Blue Spark?


Dr. Villeneuve (20:58):

The biggest thing is, is it leadership coaching as opposed to life coaching? There are many, many incredible life coaching programs out there, but this is about leadership and basically mentoring and helping a leader learn how to manage in the business environment to meet the strategic goals that reflect the vision of the CEO. That’s what this is. So it’s making sure they know the difference between the two. The next thing is to make sure that it’s a diverse group of coaches that are highly skilled and understand the science of leadership. If they don’t, then we don’t… Then you are likely to get mixed sort of results in terms of their ability to actually move the leadership needle as it relates to business. And so I think those are the two things that are critical. And then I think that there is partners. You and I both know that it’s the partnership with, we don’t even call them vendors.

It’s like the partnership with your partners. We consider ourselves a partner to you. So it’s really the partner that’s sitting there listening and they’re morphing their program to meet your needs. They’re coming up alongside you to say, “What are your measurements, not ours? What is it you need to have prepared to help the organization manage this kind of a change from an OD perspective?” So we’re asking those questions as your partner as opposed to, “We have this program, here’s how it works. It’s very transactional, but you can touch everybody with it.” So it’s really being thoughtful about making sure you’ve got the right partner


William Tincup (22:39):

Drops mic, walks off stage. Kim, thank you so much for coming on the podcast and taking us into the wonderful world of Blue Spark.


Dr. Villeneuve (22:47):

Oh my gosh, thank you. It’s been such a pleasure, William. Appreciate it.


William Tincup (22:51):

Absolutely, and thanks for everyone listening to the Use Case podcast. Until next time.


Announcer (22:56):

You’ve been listening to RecruitingDaily’s Use Case podcast, be sure to subscribe on your favorite platform and hit us up at recruitingdaily.com.

The Use Case Podcast

William Tincup

William is the President & Editor-at-Large of RecruitingDaily. At the intersection of HR and technology, he’s a writer, speaker, advisor, consultant, investor, storyteller & teacher. He's been writing about HR and Recruiting related issues for longer than he cares to disclose. William serves on the Board of Advisors / Board of Directors for 20+ HR technology startups. William is a graduate of the University of Alabama at Birmingham with a BA in Art History. He also earned an MA in American Indian Studies from the University of Arizona and an MBA from Case Western Reserve University.


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