Case Study

A Development-Focused Organization
By Sarah Fister Gale

bbVie has defined a radical new approach to live, web-based content that captivates its audience and has transformed the learning culture at the $33 billion biopharma company.

AbbVie, based in North Chicago, Illinois, was spun off from Abbott Laboratories in 2013, taking over all of the global company’s pharmaceutical activities. Rather than replicating the Abbott Labs environment in the new organization, AbbVie’s leaders saw an opportunity to create a new corporate culture that reflected the scientific focus of the business and its people.

“AbbVie is full of scientists who love to learn,” said Michael Poll, director of talent development. But he knew that if they were just learning for learning’s sake, it wouldn’t help them perform any better.

“We wanted to help them improve their learning and development, which would be a lever for increased performance,” Poll said. “Our goal was to create this deliberately developmental organization.”

Humble, Voluntary, Excellent

Poll, who was hired to lead talent development when the companies split, believes the goal of any learning content should be to drive better performance. This philosophy led to the concept of Learn.Develop.Perform, a series of live interviews with AbbVie leaders and industry experts talking about skills and how different workplace strategies helped them build their careers. “We saw it as a way to get people thinking about their development in support of higher levels of performance,” Poll said.

Their initial goals: “It had to be humble in style, always voluntary and in a format that is easy to access,” Poll said. “It also had to deliver excellent content that would be relevant to everyone.”

AbbVie kicked off LDP in October 2016 with a single webinar interviewing one vice president produced in the basement of the AbbVie headquarters. Poll wasn’t sure how people would respond, but when he heard applause outside of his office minutes after it aired he knew he was on to something. That led to an idea for a full day of back-to-back interviews.


Through its wildly popular Learn.Develop.Perform global program, AbbVie has transformed its learning culture, getting people actively involved in their development and, in turn, leveraging performance.

“These would not be your average webinars,” he said. Poll’s team wanted to create a coolness factor around the content and a sense that it was an exciting event. So they created the concept for a 24-hour LDP radio program featuring live interviews with leaders from across the global company, then they plastered offices and cafeterias with signs, stickers and commercials encouraging people to tune in.

On the day of the program, the first interview began with a vice president in Singapore (at 2 a.m. Chicago time). Then the LDP team moved across the globe, conducting fast-paced interviews with leaders sharing stories about their own careers and development experiences. Between interviews, a team from Second City did radio skits on workforce development topics.

“The whole thing was amazing,” Poll said. Thousands of employees listened, and even though it was planned as a one-time event, the CEO was so impressed that he told Poll they had to keep it going.

‘Nothing is Off Limits’

Today LDP is AbbVie’s signature global development program and an integral piece of the learning and development culture. Open to all employees, it is an annual weeklong series of live, interactive learning events. Employees choose topics from titles such as: “Feedback: What Were You Thinking?” “Why Careers Fail,” “Flex Your Design Making Muscle” and “Influential Leadership,” to name a few. Webinars are then made available for replay on demand.

In each webinar, a host introduces a company leader and then asks them four questions — two related to their own development experiences and two related to the specific career topic. Then an outside expert speaks about the topic for 20 minutes, and the session ends with a live Q&A with the audience. “Nothing is off limits in the Q&A,” Poll said.

For the 2018 LDP weeklong event, more than half of AbbVie’s global workforce — 16,000 employees — voluntarily participated in the program, which was almost three times the team’s target goal. The webinars were so popular, many had to be run twice because the network couldn’t handle all the traffic.

Employees also organized 405 viewing events where they gathered in a room to watch the live events, and the following week, another 250 replay viewing parties were planned for people who missed the live events.

“People gravitated toward the idea that this learning was available, but at their own discretion,” Poll said.

Formula for Success

The enormous success of LDP is due to a number of factors, said Melanie Gonzalez, talent development manager, who helps lead the program. First, sessions are company-agnostic. “It’s always based in an employee mindset rather than an organizational mindset,” she said. For example, a session on goal-setting doesn’t focus on “how we set goals at AbbVie.” Rather it provides advice from experts on how to set goals and stories from leaders on their own goal-setting experiences and how they achieved them. “It has to be relevant to everyone, from administrators to VPs,” she said.

Each topic is also carefully chosen to help people improve their own performance. “We don’t just talk about theory,” Gonzalez said. While facts are important for AbbVie’s research-focused employee population, each session includes practical advice on what good looks like, how to know when you are succeeding, and steps you can take today to improve. “It’s all designed to be relevant to the viewer and easy to digest.”

Involving corporate leaders and experts together also helps drive engagement, Poll said. “Employees like to hear the VPs’ stories, and to see that they are ‘just like me.’ ” His team coaches each VP before their interview on how to stay focused on the topic and helps them narrow their stories to the best ones. “That can often be the hardest part,” he said.

However, having a great host helps. “You have to have someone who can keep things moving,” Poll said.

Michael Poll, director of talent development
“We wanted to help them improve their learning and development, which would be a lever for increased performance.”
— Michael Poll, director of talent development, AbbVie
It Never Gets Old

While each live webinar garners an impressive 1,000 or more registered viewers, the content remains relevant long after the interview ends, said Gayle Elleven, director of business HR. All of the webinars are stored on the LDP microsite, along with related articles, development guides, podcasts and other relevant content. Employees can access any of it on their own from their computers or mobile devices, and leaders often include elements in their team events or in preparation for performance reviews or meetings. “They can easily pull LDP content to highlight or expand on training for their people as they need it,” she said.

Each piece of content is tagged and titled, making it easy to scroll through the options or to search for specific webinars or interviews. Elleven believes the just-in-time nature of the stored content can be even more valuable than watching the events live. “If someone is having difficulty with an issue and they need a resource, it’s there for them,” she said. “It provides instant learning gratification.”

Keeping the Momentum Going

Over the past three years, LDP has proven to be a great format for learning, but Poll noted that it won’t be the right fit for every company. “You have to stay true to your own mission and purpose,” he said.

It helps that AbbVie’s employees are very interested in learning, and they see value in the storytelling format, easy access and rapid pace of the webinars. “We’ve created a brand around LDP so people know what to expect,” Poll said. And while his team is constantly looking for ways to keep the content innovative and fresh, they won’t use the platform to broadcast other types of more conventional AbbVie-specific training. “We have to stay true to the brand because that’s what people count on.”

The webinars are now recorded in a glass studio in the cafeteria, making them more visible to employees. But to further encourage participation, Gonzalez also sends out reminder emails, posts event slides on screens around the company, and puts up brightly colored signs highlighting the next three events along with information about registering. “It is important to create awareness so everyone knows what is coming.”

Finally, leadership sponsorship is critical, Elleven said. Along with participating in the webinars, AbbVie leaders actively promote the events and even host their own viewing parties. “Our leadership is at the forefront of LDP,” she said. “They create the momentum, which goes a long way.”

Sarah Fister Gale is a writer based in Chicago.