JV Culture Shock Calls for Custom Education

Human Resources managers face a unique set of challenges in joint ventures, the unions that companies form to share in the risks and rewards of a specific enterprise.

In Andy Burton's case, BG Group, a world leader in natural gas, partnered with EXCO Resources Inc. of Texas, for the purpose of tapping into the vast natural gas reserves of the Marcellus Shale formation in the Appalachian basin.

"Change is a natural progression of any organization, but it's exaggerated by a joint venture. Two different companies are coming together in a 50/50 arrangement," says Burton, the vice president of human resources for the new entity created by the shale joint venture, EXCO Resources, PA, LLC.

In this new partnership, Burton saw the need to develop a common culture and attitude that embraces change. But he knew a traditional leadership development program wouldn't do. So Burton found his outside-the-box solution and worked to build a custom program with the Center for Executive Education at the University of Pittsburgh Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business.

The five-module effort, called Innovative Leadership Program, focuses on experience-based learning, innovation, and risk-taking. Participants knew immediately that this learning experience was different, as several of the modules were held at the Mattress Factory contemporary art museum in the North Side's historic Mexican War Streets district.

Burton says the Mattress Factory venue sets the right tone with its unorthodox atmosphere.The Mattress Factory, named for its location in the former Stearns and Foster mattress warehouse, exhibits eclectic works known as installation art. Since 1977, more than 500 artists from around the world have come and built room-sized exhibits using odd combinations of media.

"The best partnerships are ones which inspire both to take risks and innovate in order to create value - and this is one such partnership," says Anne Nemer, assistant dean and executive director of the Executive MBA and Executive Education programs for the Katz School.

The ILP program features a mix of Pitt Business faculty members and outside consultants who have backgrounds in global management, entrepreneurship, managerial accounting, and leadership development.

Audrey Murrell, Associate Professor of Business Administration, Psychology, Public and International Affairs and Director of the David Berg Center for Ethics and Leadership, focuses her workshop on how leadership impacts organizational effectiveness.

Horst Abraham, a consultant specializing in leadership, change management, and innovation, says adaption is the cornerstone of his workshop, as participants must learn how to function in an environment that is "disorienting, different, and demanding."

"We aim to create a learning experience in which participants learn to feel responsible for the change that is essential for their organization to thrive in the future. All change starts with self change," Abraham says.

The 12 ILP participants, a group coming from all ages, disciplines, and experiences levels, say that the program has helped them find a common voice.

"I've noticed that we apply what we've learned so far in ILP and tie it to our day-to-day activities," says Ryan Kerr, a project manager.

Burton, who in September was honored with a 2011 HR Leadership Award by the Pittsburgh Business Times, says the ILP builds confidence, camaraderie, coaching, and self-awareness. He's already on board to hold a second ILP round this winter.

"We're creating a culture of innovation," Burton says.