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Professional Learning Leaders Series - Katie Vaillancourt

Friday, October 28, 2016 11:27 AM | Anonymous

Maine ATD and Our Mission

At its core, the Maine Chapter of the Association for Talent Development promotes work-related learning. This is the third in a series of profiles featuring leaders who, acting out of their core values, make positive professional change happen.

- Bill Maxwell

Brief Bio

Katie Vaillancourt works with corporate clients to develop and deliver customized training solutions. She applies her knowledge and past experiences to customize training solutions to meet her client’s learning needs. She also works with clients to develop a corporate learning strategy and infrastructure. Prior to starting her consulting business, Katie served as the Corporate Training Manager at Contech Engineered Solutions LLC where she effectively defined, developed, coordinated, implemented and refined company training programs and initiatives.

Katie is an active member of the Maine Chapter of the Association for Talent Development where she served on the Board for seven years, concluding as President from 2010-2012. And, breaking news, congratulations are in order: Katie has been chosen to serve ATD nationally as a National Advisor for Chapters beginning in 2017 for a three year term.  

She is also an active member of the Junior League of Portland, Maine where she served as a member of their Board of Directors from 2013-2014. Katie holds a B.A. degree from The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. and a M.A. degree from University of New Hampshire.

A Brief Conversation

Katie Vaillancourt’s office is in a great location – a short walk from the CIA, the coffee shop in the Mill Creek section of South Portland. Her office, a quiet space with good natural light, offers up a great space for focused conversation. Her office is apparently a good place to read: Katie’s shelves are filled with talent development books Maine ATD members would recognize. In this place, Katie graciously gave up an hour’s time to discuss some of her professional history.

So let’s start with history; Katie is a historian. She was a history major at Catholic University of America in Washington D.C. This is the same University that husband Mike Vaillancourt (originally from western Maine) attended.  Hailing from Atlanta, she has always loved learning and education in general. Her graduate degree was in American history with a museum studies concentration. Once strongly considering becoming a history teacher, she did become one in a fashion after graduate school at UNH. She served as a curator at the Brick Store Museum in Kennebunk, Maine.

While at the Brick Store Museum, a professional tipping point came along. A visiting friend introduced Katie to one of the owners at a company that would become Contech Engineered Solutions. This individual suggested contacting someone at the company. She entered the “world of construction products” that she loved, especially “the technical nature of the business.”

“I love puzzles of learning. I love the civil engineering world – I can’t help but rubberneck at construction sites and always have. So I was well-suited for this new world. They saw that I had problem-solving skills and could articulate things fairly well.”

I mentioned that I found it interesting that her history degree didn’t disqualify her from working with such a technical company. Katie agreed.

“I’m a huge proponent for the liberal arts.” Katie’s voice became more expressive. “The liberal arts encourage you to reason and think. And the jobs people might be studying for now will likely be very different in 10 years. We don’t know what many jobs are even going to look like.”

In Katie’s leadership story, love of history and love of solving puzzles both fueled success in learning projects. Once she moved into the learning work at Contech, Katie aimed her energies into learning how to do learning better.

“While at Contech, I found ATD, ASTD at the time, and have learned about the profession this way. Also through American Management Association, through Harvard Business Review – and through many other resources and organizations. I have grown up with the profession – and I didn’t even know this was a job when I started working after graduate school.”

Katie gives practical advice to those who want to become successful.

“People often are thinking too much about ‘What do I want to do?’ – Well, guess what? You need a job. And if you can find a place where you can grow and try a lot of different things and you’re willing to wear a lot of hats, you’re going to get some great experience.”

Specializing in corporate work, she encourages talent developers to embrace the real-world ethos of competition in business environments.

“At the end of the day in corporate America, you have a product you have to deliver. You have to be able to teach people this skill, this knowledge. Deliver this in a creative way – and you have to be very open. You can’t have the solution already in your mind. Given their time and resources, you might not be able to create the solution that’s in your mind – and they needed something yesterday. You put those factors and parameters together and then you create what they need.”

Working with strict deadlines in a pressurized situation is common with corporate clients.

“You’re constantly twisting the dials and massaging, and the next version might look a little different. But sometimes you might be creating and delivering simultaneously.”

What about sustainability of learning in these environments?

“Sustainability for what you’re creating and teaching and doing is very big. No one has the time to go back and create this perfect, polished version. When I left Contech we had about 1200 employees, and I was the only person 100% dedicated to training. And so you leverage and work in partnership with other managers. You work together to get done what needs to get done.”

I asked her about leadership in terms of this collaboration. What thoughts did she have on influencing managers and others without the formal authority to tell them what to do?

“Leading without authority wasn’t in my job description but should have been. Over time you build your own credibility. People know that if they work with you on a project it will get done. Sometimes I would volunteer to help someone on their project and a year later that person would volunteer to help me on something.”

Katie’s mindset was, and is, “servant-leader” oriented. “How can I help others succeed?” is a core question: part of her job. And she loves the process of figuring out how to assist.

“What I love about this profession is that you’re constantly learning. Over ten years at Contech we were launching new products, acquiring new companies – so I was learning the business and those aspects and even civil engineering. But now, in a consulting capacity for three years, I am learning different industries, different businesses. I’m rediscovering business in my backyard.”

We went on to talk about leading through conflict.

“With conflict, it’s a discussion on priorities. Understanding each other’s priorities requires having open and honest conversations. Doing this allows for reshaping and reframing the priorities – and can help get you through. I’m the type of person who would prefer that someone tell me ‘no’ than to tell me ‘yes’ and not follow through. I’m OK with disagreement.”

On a practical level, Katie believes “DiSC” can help employees better navigate as they collaborate.   DiSC is a personal assessment tool used to improve work productivity, teamwork and communication.

“At Contech, DISC became part of the common corporate language. People would have their ‘DiSC wheels posted at their cubicles. It helps communication, and people get to know one another. It’s easy to grasp, understand, and remember.”

Leadership in the field of corporate talent development must measure up to the focus on ROI. I asked Katie about how she convinces people that learning initiatives are worthwhile. She gave the example of an initiative to teach people how to do a better hiring and early career training process.

“One of the exercises I like to do is the cost of hiring and firing. We do a spreadsheet and compare costs. If you hire the wrong candidate and make the team toxic, or if you don’t manage to hire someone and your team has more work longer term – that sort of thing. You can see the lightbulbs going on when we do this exercise.”

We talked a bit about working as an independent consultant.

“I am very project to project, program to program. What I love is the “Welcome to the Organization – Roll up your sleeves.” Let me get in and see all that stuff. Let me learn your tools, learn your process, and now let’s create something.”

Katie specializes in helping organizations embed learning processes in their cultures. In short, she customizes solutions to ensure a stronger future. She also does something civil engineers and all organized professionals appreciate: she makes sure that the blueprints are clear and are kept for easy reference and for new versions. The past matters to the present and future. After all, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

Something historians like to say.


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