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Focus_Sales Trainer Onboarding: A Fresh Approach at Bristol-Myers Squibb

Sales Trainer Onboarding: A Fresh Approach at Bristol-Myers Squibb

By Candice Lenkowsky, Dona Bone, Steve Daniel and John Bye

Training departments are working to have their people be considered strategic business partners. The challenge these departments face, however, is that tighter budgets have led to a reduction of specialized roles. This means that individuals have to take on a wider range of responsibilities in order for the organization to be successful, and as a result, they need to be trained in a wider variety of skills.

To realize the vision of putting together a world-class training organization, the Bristol-Myers Squibb Sales & Access Learning team decided to update its trainer onboarding process. Because of the overwhelmingly positive feedback we received regarding the initiative, we have taken a step back to consider what we did right and how we made this work where other companies typically fall down.

Beginning with Benchmarking

The story began in the third quarter of 2013, when we performed benchmarking for our entire training department, including trainer onboarding. At that time, Bristol-Myers Squibb had what we believed to be a comprehensive sales trainer onboarding program focused on nine competencies and designed to span three to four months. However, through focused interviews with trainers and training managers, the benchmarking revealed that when trainers were asked about the program, the responses varied from, “I don’t remember the components of the onboarding program” to “I don’t recall being on-boarded!”

Perception is reality, and no matter how good we believed the program to be, clearly something was missing. The benchmarking led to a lot of hard questions and left those responsible for trainer onboarding scratching our heads wondering what went wrong.

To address the problem, we pulled together a task force of trainers, training managers, project managers, and leadership development managers to try to understand perceptions and gaps of the onboarding program. As the benchmarking revealed the problem, it didn’t provide a broader understanding of how we compared to our peers; therefore, we enlisted the assistance of the consulting firm Campbell Alliance Learning Solutions to provide that broader view, diagnose the problem, devise a solution and develop the content.

Time & Accountability

After assessing the problem, the focus group determined that the issue came down to time and accountability. Given their daily workload and the rush to put new trainers on to existing work streams, the training managers were not prioritizing trainer onboarding and pulling it through, and the trainers were not taking the time for their own development by completing the program. It was clear that training material must not only be perceived as valuable, it must also be concise, structured and executable.

The decision was made to focus on the key behaviors that trainers need to exhibit and group the nine competencies into three buckets: Collaborative leadership behaviors, organizational behaviors and technical training behaviors. It was then necessary to take the existing content and programs and map them back to this new framework. Some material was subsequently eliminated, some new material was created and some material was simply refocused in terms of where it would sit within the new framework.

The key was making sure an organized structure was in place and was designed in such a way that it could be used by multiple roles, including the trainers, the leaders and the peer mentors. The material needed to serve multiple purposes; for example, as instructional material, a reference, a job aid and a coaching guide. Providing one document to be used by everyone prevented version control issues and difficulties finding documents. This simplified structure now makes it easy to communicate what the program is about and what the key functions are, to make available the right tools and job aids and to consolidate content.

Managers and Mentors

The emphasis of the new onboarding program is on trainers and their managers and mentors. A single project manager is responsible for initiating the program with each new team member, scheduling and facilitating live training events and following up with managers to ensure pull-through. The project manager is also responsible for tracking trainers’ progress through the program and providing regular updates to the executive director, who reinforces the importance of a positive onboarding experience with his leadership team. While having the central program manager in place to initiate and pull together the managers, mentors and trainers is a critical differentiator of this program and an important key to its success, ultimately the pull through on the manager’s part is the most important element.

The peer mentor involvement is another important differentiator of our onboarding process under the revised program. Every trainer has a peer mentor with whom they are asked to meet weekly during the first 12 weeks of onboarding. Another component that makes the Bristol- Myers Squibb onboarding program unique is the inclusion of stakeholder discussion guides. A key role of the trainer is to influence stakeholder relationships, and we created discussion guides to help them conduct productive conversations and meetings.

The new program also includes differentiated onboarding tracks for home-office trainers, regional field-sales trainers and the training leaders. Beyond the onboarding program for the ongoing trainer development program, even more customized tracks are available based on where the trainers want to take their careers.

Breaking Barriers

The biggest barrier to the success of an onboarding program is competing priorities for the new trainer’s time. The first two weeks are critical for all new employees in terms of building knowledge and skills for their new roles. A major reason our program has been successful is that we ensure that, from the start, focus is placed almost exclusively on onboarding during those first all important weeks in the role.

Feedback from the end users has been fantastic. The materials have been described as a breath of fresh air, particularly compared to experiences within organizations where onboarding activities are less robust or even non-existent. Trainers report that the majority of their questions are addressed in the materials provided, and as a result, they are able to focus on doing their jobs, as opposed to searching for answers.

In Conclusion

The challenge faced at Bristol-Myers Squibb is not unique in the industry. As a company or portfolio grows, as teams turn over, or as budgets tighten, the vital tasks involved in building the training organization can become starved for time and resources. Companies need to be willing to take a step back and invest the time and thought into addressing the problem. The importance of trainer onboarding must be recognized, and a well thought out process must be put in place to enhance and create value.

No matter how good a program may be, without the proper resources, roll-out plan, pull through, and accountability, the onboarding program stands little chance of success. Having a successful trainer onboarding program is critical because of the domino effect it will have on the rest of the organization. Well-prepared trainers will deliver better training to field teams, which ultimately has a positive impact on the effectiveness of your business and your ability to deliver for your customers.


Candice Lenkowsky ( is director, worldwide training design & development, Bristol-Myers Squibb. Dona Bone ( is project manager, USP sales & access learning, Bristol-Myers Squibb. John Bye ( is general manager, Campbell Alliance Learning Solutions. Stephen Daniel ( is director, Campbell Alliance Learning Solutions.

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