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By: Kathy Albarado on November 13th, 2012

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Interview: David Sylvester, Director of L&D, Booz Allen Hamilton

Helios HR | Business Management & Strategy | Employee Relations | Talent Acquisition


This month we interviewed David Sylvester, Director of Learning & Development for Booz Allen Hamilton. Even during a time of economic uncertainty, BAH is staying focused and investing in the development of their employees. We think they might be onto something...

Helios: What’s a development program that you are most proud of?

David Sylvester: Last year, we launched a new program called “Leadership Excellence.”  We worked with leaders in the business to identify a select group of senior associates and principals to move through an intense, multi-month program designed to accelerate their development and readiness for taking on broader roles in the firm.

This is a high-touch program that involves coaching, leadership diagnostics, and experiential learning. One of the innovative components of the program is the Community Leadership Project. We partnered with nine national not-for-profit organizations with compelling, complex business problems related to enterprise-level board development or strategic alignment. Our top-talent senior associates worked in teams to tackle these organizations’ challenges with the same commitment and professionalism they would any client engagement.

The results were astounding! We consider it a triple-win. First, it’s a win for all the participants. They grew professionally through the stretch activities – with unfamiliar clients and challenging tasks. They gained confidence and new skills, and strengthened their peer network and engagement with the firm. Second, the firm reaps tremendous reward from serving our community. In addition, the program strengthened the firm’s pipeline of diverse leaders. Third, the not-for-profit clients receive expert pro-bono consulting to support strategic initiatives they otherwise would not have resources to fund.

Helios: What’s been your biggest workforce planning obstacle to overcome?

David Sylvester: We’ve grown rapidly over the past 15 years, going from just under 5,000 employees in the late 90’s to over 25,000 today. In addition to this rapid growth, we recently announced the acquisition of ARINC’s Defense Systems Engineering & Support division, which will bring us to over 26,000 employees. All of this growth into more specialized areas, on the foundation of our general management consulting heritage, has highlighted the need for a technical career track. To meet this need, we are in the process of designing a new technical track that will complement our consulting and leadership tracks. This new track is intended to reinforce our employee value proposition, helping staff not on the traditional consulting/management track see a “fit” for themselves in the firm.  A new career model will provide additional opportunities for advancement and development in an effort to attract and retain talent and give technical staff the opportunity to develop both vertically and laterally.

Helios: How the economy has affected the training and development budget per employee?

David Sylvester: We’ve actually seen no impact at all on our learning and development budget. Booz Allen has a very strong commitment to the learning and development of our employees. In fact, we expect to see an even greater investment in employee development programs in the years to come.

Helios: What development or training programs have you leveraged at Booz Allen Hamilton to help prepare those entering the consulting field for the first time?

David Sylvester: Employees who are entering the consulting field for the first time are directed to complete either Booz Allen Consulting or Booz Allen Commercial Consulting.  These courses are intended for employees with little or no experience, have no background in consulting, or staff who are new to Booz Allen. Participants will learn engagement skills, listening techniques, data gathering methods, how to create logical structures within presentations, and demonstrate feedback techniques. The courses are facilitated by Booz Allen subject matter experts, who directly interact with our clients.  In addition to these classroom courses we offer a Consulting Skills Webinar Series that provides employees tools to provide effective feedback and create client briefings.  Employees are also offered courses in presentation skills, grammar, technical writing and problem solving.

Helios: What’s your biggest source of talent?

David Sylvester: About half of our employees come from the federal government, with one third of our overall workforce self-identifying as having served in the military. We also have very aggressive campus recruiting programs to complement our experienced hire recruiting efforts.