One On One

William Pelster

The managing principal for talent development at Deloitte Services explains how and why the professional-services giant built its own brick-and-mortar learning center - and what conferences can apply from its approach to employee education.

William Peslter in Convene

Several years ago, Deloitte LLP engaged its 55,000 U.S. employees and 2,800 partners in a discussion about how best to offer staff training – online or in-person. This was no small matter. As the second-largest professional-services network in the world by revenue – providing audit, tax, consulting, enterprise-risk, and financial-advisory services – Deloitte conducts four million hours of training annually.

“We wanted to do something special and different,” said William Pelster, managing principal for talent development at Deloitte Services. “We are actually in two markets – to serve clients and to attract talent. We had a great debate: Do we want to develop our talent in a physical or virtual environment?” The “bricks vs. clicks” debate, Pelster said, went on for two years. Deloitte conducted focus groups, surveys, and segment analysis among all its U.S. employees. “No matter how we sliced it,” he said, “people wanted a physical facility” for training and meetings. The majority of partners, who would personally foot the bill, voted to build such a facility, and it fell to Pelster – who serves as the company’s consulting global learning and talent development leader – to design it as a learning center.

The end result is Deloitte University (DU), a $300-million, 712,000-square-foot, five-story building, which opened its doors in the Dallas suburb of Westlake last October. The facility houses 35 classrooms, a 176-seat amphitheater, 800 guest rooms, a 20,000-square-foot ballroom, and a 12,000-square-foot fitness center.

While DU is exclusively for the use of Deloitte employees, how Pelster approached its design to foster learning has broad applications for conference organizers. And when I interviewed him recently, he focused less on the gleaming, state-of-the-art building – and more on what takes place within its walls.

First, tell us why “talent development” is part of your title.


chose [that title] over the more typical one – chief learning officer – because we feel that to really learn is much bigger than taking a class. It is about all the experiences you have, about on-the-job training, formal learning, and recognizing that there is a link between what we do in learning and the broader talent needs of the individual.

With the trend toward virtual-learning environments, why did Deloitte choose to build a brick-and-mortar facility?

Money was not an issue, because creating electronic platforms is a huge investment also. The debate was about understanding what our professionals really want. We are so connected to electronic devices that face-to-face was a big differentiator. We talked to our Gen Y and Millennials to understand if they wanted a physical location. Overwhelmingly, the answer was yes. They did not just want to use electronic tools. They felt the need for a physical connection.

So, in 2008, the board decided to fund the university. Collectively, we thought this was the right thing for our company for several reasons:

One, we wanted to significantly improve the way we deliver training by moving from a lecture-based to an experiential model. When you come to DU, you will see that the 35 classrooms are set up for experiential learning and not for lectures. You are actually doing work by solving complex problems in small teams.

Two, Deloitte has a very rich history that we care about. We wanted to make sure that DU is a common place for employees to capture and understand the history. We actually have engagement letters going back to Abraham Lincoln! We want employees to know and understand that history.

Three, Deloitte is a large global enterprise. Our staff understands that they joined a company that is global and has a brand around the world. We have 186,000 employees in 154 countries, and wanted everyone to have a common experience with the company and to understand the complexities of how we do business.

Four, we are in such a virtual world that we wanted to make sure that everyone coming into Deloitte, from a culture perspective, has a shared common experience. Coming to DU is the epitome and recognition of who we are as a company, of our culture and values. We wanted employees to experience it firsthand.

How do you make values and culture a part of the learning process?

New hires get introduced to our culture through speakers who talk about values and the mandatory ethics and requirements of the firm. When they attend DU, they see values in action. You are introduced to various scenarios and have to recognize the challenges: Are they in conflict with our values? What actions do you take?

Learners have a chance to recognize this, to do the right thing, which you are applauded for. If learners don’t do the right thing, it is considered a learning moment and they are educated about the values associated with this particular scenario.

What are some of the values?

Deloitte has key values around transparency, honesty, diversity, and around the way we treat each other, which we call a sense of partnership. We tend not to be hierarchical but very flat. We operate through influence as opposed to direct orders in our day-to-day interactions.

Please describe how learning happens at DU.

When most people think of learning, they think of a presenter or a lecturer standing up front, with individuals seated and taking notes. At the end of the program, there could be assessments or quizzes as a way to test the knowledge. We have moved away from that model.

When you go to [DU], you see a facility that is optimized for simulations and case studies. The intent is to get people working in small teams, typically of five individuals. They will have a facilitator as part of the team and work on solving complex, multifaceted problems over several days.

One example is our senior managers’ program. Part of the three-day scenario is to work on a complex opportunity with a client around a merger and acquisition. [They need to have] technical skills around understanding the transaction and a variety of client challenges that they have to work through – such as dealing with the friendly client, unhappy client, difficult client.

We bring in actors. Learners gather additional information, and we have in-depth conversations. The art of the conversation is critical. They think through a series of presentations to get to the end result, which is to be able to consummate the deal. That happens over three days.

Many events are happening along the way that turn their roles upside-down or present various challenges. They have to think through the decisions. They have team members who may want to roll off the project, team members with personal issues that are brought up as part of the scenarios.

The scenarios demonstrate our values, ethics, and business components that they have to think through. Is it work we want to bid on? What is the risk associated with that? How do we actually go through this type of work? Do we have the right team? Are we looking at it from all different angles?

It is like a flight simulator. The ultimate solution can change as decisions are made by the team.  Even though you have 800 people going through the simulation in teams of five, all of them are in different spots and their learnings are different because of the choices they have made. Facilitators are there to help shape the decision-making process.

How are the facilitators trained?

Great question. As part of the analysis we did about what constitutes great learning, we went back and researched our internal results. We found that when students experience face-to-face interaction in the classroom, their learning is superior. It is relevant that facilitators speak their language. They are guiding discussions on topics they understand because they are actually living the situations – 95 percent of all our instructors are Deloitte senior managers and partners who experienced a train-the-trainer program.

If you are bringing in Deloitte leaders to teach and to guide conversations among the employees, where is the opportunity for innovative thinking?

It depends on the intended learning outcome. There are some programs where we would not want innovation. For instance, if the core of the simulation is around how to conduct an audit, this is not the place to innovate. It is about developing the core skills. If the learning is on the consulting side – for individuals who are looking at new markets – that…lends itself to creative thinking.

How do you handle the second?

Again, facilitation is designed to listen to – not to prejudge – the outcomes. One of the simulations we do is for our industry programs. If I am working in the field of aerospace and defense, we need people who bring that specific knowledge to the clients. One of the ways we teach this is to invite you to run a company in the aerospace and defense business. We run a series of simulations where you actually are on the executive committee and your team of five is the CEO, director of development, and so on. You run that company through a series of three-year cycles. You make decisions – it is a complex game.

You can take many different avenues, and that is where creativity comes into play. As a prerequisite to be invited to that program, you create a white paper and a point of view by doing independent research just like a master’s degree thesis. You document and present the research. We stimulate creativity and individual thinking with rigor.

What have you learned about adult learning that can be transferred to conferences?

One very simple but important idea is less talking and more doing. The easy approach often is to create lecture formats and invite popular speakers to address the audience. However, adults learn best when they are actually doing and applying skills. The quicker you can get them to grasp and take responsibility for the intent of the learning program and apply themselves – that is huge, and the bedrock of what we do at DU.

I can talk about swimming all day long, but until I throw you into the deep end of the swimming pool, I don’t know if you can swim or not. So at DU, we stop talking about swimming and we actually swim.

Adults would rather sit and listen, but they get very motivated if you offer the right experiential learning. People are always looking for easy answers – Give me the list, give me the insight. We can give that to you all day long. The key is, how do you apply it and are you really masterful at it? It is one thing to know it intellectually, it is yet another to have the skills to actually perform well.

It is very hard to assess if learning has taken place at conferences, because attendees are participating on a voluntary basis. What would you advise?

You are touching on the “stickiness” of training. We create online forums that allow individuals to continue the learning at various touch points during the year. We share successes and best-practice stories to keep the learning fresh.

The second thing that associations can do is to actually connect with the learner 90 days after the learning takes place. Remind them what they learned and ask if they are applying it. This will do two things – refresh the learning and remind them that they actually attended a learning session. It also will raise their awareness about applying the techniques. The results should only go back to the individual, without including [his or her] supervisor.

With all our learning programs, I ask two very specific questions: 1) What is the business problem we are trying to solve?, and 2) How do we know if we are successful? Until we can answer those questions, we don’t fund or build it.

What advice would you give people who are creating learning in voluntary organizations?

One of the things that I encourage our learning designers to think about is the brand of their particular learning and to think as a brand specialist. In addition to solving the business problem, what is the buzz that is potentially to come out of this program? If you think as a traditional learning designer, you are thinking about the learning outcomes. It is very linear. Think instead in a nonlinear manner. It has to be foundationally great, but what is the sizzle?

More Resources

Deloitte uses Kirkpatrick’s Four Levels of Evaluation model to measure the impact of its training sessions, in terms of participant reaction, learning, behavior, and results.

Susan Sarfati, CAE

Susan Sarfati, CAE, is CEO of High Performance Strategies LLC.