Volvo leadership program lets employees fast-track success

By | January 27, 2020

In some companies, there’s a way to avoid the slow ladder to success and take the elevator instead, by using fast-track leadership trainee programs.

At Volvo Cars, one path to a leadership post is through the Operations Development Program, launched in 2010. Positions are available across all business functions, including at the headquarters in Gothenburg, Sweden. Those with a master’s degree and no more than one year of work experience by the start of the program can apply for one of the 50 highly-sought-after spots. The competition is fierce, however, with 5,000 applicants annually.

Since its onset, 213 graduates have finished the training and 85 percent are still with the company today, with over 60 percent of the alumni now in a leadership role, says program manager Diana Hartmann, who is an alumnus herself.

“I moved from the Netherlands to Sweden in 2014 to start it and am still with the company, learning and enjoying every day,” she says.

Trainees are of diverse backgrounds, with 16 nationalities represented and 50 percent female participation, she says.

To help drive the car manufacturer into the future, “we are looking for graduates who are full of energy, committed to success and eager to make a difference,” she says. “You see yourself as a future leader, you like to organize and inspire people to achieve things together. You’re able to manage complex situations and see the bigger picture. You are open to change and are curious to discover opportunities in a constantly changing business environment.”

Volvo’s two-year training encompasses four- to six-month-long rotational assignments, during which time trainees focus on different aspects across functions of the organization. Grads are assigned a senior mentor from the start and “learn how to build our products and services in our production facilities and what the commercial activities for our markets and retailers look like,” says Hartmann.

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Volvo crash test dummy
Volvo Car Corporation

Graduates of the program earn permanent employment at Volvo Cars, with roles ranging from product owner to project manager, program manager or technical expert, she says.

Those who excel “are humble, curious and enjoy working with others. They want to develop cross functionally, desire to make a difference, and feel passionate about our purpose,” says Hartmann.

There’s a similar structure in the hotel industry, with Hilton’s Caribbean and Latin America Elevator Program paid traineeship, designed to advance candidates towards a general manager position at a full-service hotel within five to eight years.

Getting into the 18-month program’s six to eight spots is fiercely competitive, though. Roughly 500 to 650 applicants go through a multistep online application, assessment and interview process, says Orr Rivero, Hilton’s vice president of human resources for Caribbean and Latin America.

A minimum of an undergraduate degree is required to apply, but “with a master’s degree and actual work experience, you’ll have more of an opportunity to surface to the top,” says Rivero.

Volvo Car Corporation
Volvo Car Corporation

They don’t strictly recruit from schools with hospitality management programs, either. “The hotel industry has many disciplines,” he says. “It’s important for us to look at people with degrees in marketing, accounting and finance. Students with MBAs have been successful with us, too.”

Originally from Brazil, Laura Castagnini, general manager of Hilton’s Rio de Janeiro Copacabana, rose from these ranks when the program launched 20 years ago. She was studying hospitality at Florida International University in Miami when she was accepted into Hilton’s inaugural year of the program.

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“The program was innovative — giving you an experience, feeling and taste of what working in an international company means,” says Castagnini. “The candidate profile they sought was clear and is the same today — someone who is internationally mobile, who loves hospitality, is curious and open for every experience in the industry, and who speaks different languages.”

Throughout her training, “I spent months in Canada, Venezuela and Argentina. I had the ability to develop myself in finance and operations, front of house and guest relations, and human resources,” she says.

To stand out and succeed, Castagnini advises “networking with senior leadership. These people are looking after talent and understand what opportunities exist in a region.”

Upon completion of the program, roughly 70 percent of trainees go on to become general managers, says Rivero, while the others find a passion for other things around the hotels. Placement assignments are confined to the Latin American/Caribbean (LACA) regions since “we want to be able to reap the benefits of us developing you.”

For Castagnini, once she finished her training, “I was given a position of training manager at a hotel opening in Brazil. By my seventh year, I was offered a GM position at a small hotel opening in Costa Rica. I only got the opportunity because of the support of senior leadership who believed it was the way of developing new talent for the future. The program was the gate for my international career. It’s a lifestyle and an amazing journey.”

Volvo Cars Operations Development Program application period is Nov. 1 to Dec. 1, 2020; Hilton’s Caribbean and Latin America Elevator Program application period closes on Feb. 28;

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