Corporate Profile: Caterpillar Builds a Winning Team
A culture of learning helps this global manufacturer thrive.
By Beth Black
Photo Caption: Members of the Caterpillar Employees Club (#79)
in East Peoria, Illinois, enjoy strong company support.
“Hey, want to buy a knuckleboom loader? You don’t know what that is? Well, allow me to explain...”
A company that manufactures products with mystifying names such as feller bunchers, skidders and articulated trucks needs employees who are strong communicators. When that company is Caterpillar Inc., the world’s leading producer of construction and mining equipment, it becomes even more essential to develop an educated, competent staff who can handle not only the big machines, but the big accounts as well.
Caterpillar’s senior executives are so sure of this, they founded Caterpillar University – Cat University – consisting of more than a dozen internal “colleges,” each with a specialty area of study. The company’s culture of education is emphasized on its Web site: “As Caterpillar continues to expand into new markets and our machines tackle increasingly complex challenges, our career development programs ensure every member of Team Caterpillar is prepared and ready to lead the way.”
Finding Toastmasters in the Cat University Catalog is easy, as it plays an important role in the General Studies College curriculum. If clear communication is a Caterpillar employee’s doorway to success, Toastmasters hands them the key.
A Record of Promoting Success
In 1974, the first Toastmasters Speechcraft program was introduced to the company, and company leaders immediately noticed the benefits. In the ensuing 36 years, Caterpillar has sponsored many corporate clubs and encouraged employee participation.
Cat University’s promotional campaigns help maintain a burgeoning club membership. Messages are posted on TV monitors at the entrances to all main buildings. Managers are regularly reminded that Toastmasters is available through Cat University. Notices are e-mailed to the employees. When an employee earns a Toastmasters educational award, the company records that accomplishment on his personnel record.
Achievements in Toastmasters and at Caterpillar often work together. Jon Greiner, DTM, is an Information Solutions Manager for Caterpillar and is active in several company- sponsored Toastmasters clubs. He has enjoyed tremendous accomplishments in Toastmasters, culminating with his term as International President in 2004-2005. Greiner can’t pinpoint which dream led to the other, but says that the support of his company, while building skills in Toastmasters, helped him reach many milestones along both paths.
A Worldwide Network of Clubs
Caterpillar’s offices are spread around the globe, resulting in corporate Toastmasters clubs in cities such as Singapore, Bangalore and Beijing, as well as in the U.S. states of Tennessee and Illinois, where the company is headquartered. All in all, 15 Toastmasters clubs exist to meet the communication and leadership needs of Caterpillar employees.
Balakrishnan Arasapan, who works in Caterpillar’s Asia Pacific Sales Operations Division, helped charter the Singapore Toastmasters Club in 2008 and is the club’s immediate past president. Arasapan is pleased with his progress in Toastmasters and says, “It’s critical in the business world to communicate as quickly and concisely as possible without creating ambiguity in the message.”
Caterpillar also has equipment dealerships scattered around the globe, which also support Toastmasters clubs. All in all, Caterpillar’s network of clubs offers a Toastmasters program that, Greiner says, is “pretty deeply embedded” in its educational system. The program has been around so long that managers support club membership because they were members before reaching a supervisory level. Often, these managers are willing to cover some or all of the members’ dues.
Caterpillar’s Reward: On-staff Communicators and Leaders
Greiner says there is a joke among Caterpillar Toastmasters that they help teach the engineers how to speak English – even those who were born speaking English. These employees habitually speak such technical language that ordinary people can’t understand what they say. Their managers send them to Toastmasters club so that they can learn to speak to a lay audience.
Also, English-language learners are numerous at Caterpillar – and they avail themselves of the language skills they can build through the Toastmasters program. Those who are learning English as a foreign language total nearly a third of the members at the Mossville, Illinois, Toastmasters clubs. Di Wang is one such Caterpillar employee. Wang’s language skills made her apprehensive about participating in Toastmasters. “I didn’t really understand what I was supposed to do and had trouble understanding others,” she says. “I was confused and nervous.”
As a result of these communication challenges, the corporation leans its support toward the basic communication skill-building aspects of club membership. However, Greiner and his group are working with representatives of Cat University to expand the promotion of club, area, division and district leadership experiences as a means to strengthen managerial skills for corporate executive positions as well.
Greiner notes, “The other group of Toastmasters members at Caterpillar is made up of those who are candidates for supervisory positions. They’re working to improve their communication and leadership skills to prepare for these managerial roles.”
Wang is also a skilled leader highly valued in Caterpillar’s Project Management Environment. To prepare for a supervisory role at Caterpillar, she became club president last year and is an area governor now. Currently a project manager, Wang says, “This job requires me to contact people among multiple divisions and with different backgrounds. I think I am getting more comfortable in facilitating meetings, leading discussions, clarifying problems and removing roadblocks.”
Other Caterpillar leaders mention Toastmasters when discussing accomplishments. Linda Andrews, of the Progressively Speaking club in Peoria, Illinois, has been a full-time Caterpillar employee for 15 years and consulted with the company for the eight years prior. Her current title is IT Project Manager, though she wears many hats in the company. Andrews joined Toastmasters three years ago. She credits her Toastmasters training with the success she’s enjoying in her current position. “My ability to serve as a competent IT project manager would not be possible without effective verbal communication skills,” she notes.
Andrews is also looking forward to the career achievements her training will bring in the future. “I firmly believe developing my Toastmaster skills will open the door to new opportunities,” she says. “My career growth was at a dead end without verbal communication skills. As I develop the necessary communication skills, I am more confident that I am a valuable and contributing member of the Caterpillar team.”
Arasapan, of Singapore, values the leadership track. “Coming from a corporate club, the leadership track is a highly beneficial way of developing employees’ leadership qualities – mentoring, creating and executing a vision,” he says. “This development is critical to preparing our employees of today to be leaders of tomorrow.”
As Cat University’s curriculum promotes an increasingly balanced combination of communication and leadership practice, benefits to the company are already emerging. Andrews says, “I am now able to speak to larger audiences composed of upper management and their direct reports. I could never have done that successfully prior to my Toastmaster development.” Then she notes, “I also believe I do a better job leading business meetings and discussion groups.”
Beth Black is an associate editor of the Toastmaster magazine. Reach her at email@example.com.