How ABB Demonstrates i4cp Next Practices by Taking Leadership Development to the Edge


ABB is a pioneering technology leader in power grids, electrification products, industrial automation and robotics and motion, serving customers in utilities, industry and transport and infrastructure globally. Continuing a history of innovation spanning more than 130 years, ABB today is writing the future of industrial digitalization with two clear value propositions: bringing electricity from any power plant to any plug and automating industries from natural resources to finished products. ABB operates in more than 100 countries with about 147,000 employees.  

ABB’s U.S. and Americas operations are headquartered in Cary, North Carolina. Since 2010, ABB has invested $14 billion in the United States, and the company continues to expand and localize its offerings for customers. ABB operates around 65 manufacturing facilities and employs approximately 24,000 people across the U.S. ABB stands as a global leader in industrial technology, and the U.S. represents its largest growth market. 

In 2014, ABB launched its Next Level Strategy for the organization, aimed at preparing the business for today’s volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world. Over the last five years, the company has made good progress in implementing the strategy, changing organizational structures and reporting procedures, and establishing aspirational financial targets.  

Along with the business transformations, ABB’s senior leadership team decided to invest in leadership development, with the goal of fostering the required attitudinal and behavioral changes to support execution of the new strategy. 

Business Challenge 

To equip the company’s leadership community for the challenges of the VUCA world, ABB’s Learning and Development (L&D) team was asked to design and deliver a cultural transformation program. The resulting development initiative would first target the company’s top 200 leaders, and then be cascaded down to the next 15,000 leaders.  

The L&D team was challenged to create a program that took leaders out of their comfort zones and placed them into risk-taking and quick decision-making situations. The approach would expose participants to disruptive challenges that demanded flexibility and encouraged new ways of seeing, thinking, and behaving. Learning experiences were intended to cause leaders to re-assess their attitudes about the company, their business, their colleagues, and the teams that they lead. 

The program design included components that participants had not anticipated or experienced previously. Furthermore, the approach incorporated experiential learning delivered in unusual venues or unexpected locations. Even the program title—
Come to the Edge, or
CTE—was intended to create an aura of suspense.


ABB formed a project team that included world-class service providers, each of whom brought unique and complementary expertise and skills. One provider offered expertise in understanding and developing organizational culture; another was a leader in executive coaching. A third brought deep competence in experiential learning in outdoor settings.  

CTE design took six months. By the end of 2018, the program had delivered innovative development to leaders 18 times worldwide. During each of those program deliveries, the faculty made adaptations to match the needs of participants. Accordingly, no two programs were the same.

To achieve the objectives for which it was designed, the
CTE program incorporated a number of creative aspects:

  • Program delivery in tents on a mountainside in the Swiss Alps
  • An unclear and constantly changing (from the participant’s perspective) 3.5-day agenda
  • Experiential learning exercises that included leading calves (as a metaphor for leading teams)
  • A disruptive business simulation team challenge
  • An exercise requiring participants to traverse a cliff with a 400-meter (1300 feet) drop
  • A challenge to navigate obstacles in a forest
  • Response to outside-in change drivers in the business environment
  • An outing for overnight reflection in solo tents in a mountain setting
  • An exercise in managing mindsets and leading the organization’s middle kingdom
  • Individual and team coaching activities
  • Disruption from a wide variety of sources 

Because safety is the top priority for ABB, a full independent safety audit was conducted, and the design and delivery team experienced the entire program prior to implementation. Since most of the 3.5 days of program activities took place outdoors, the design required contingency plans in the event of inclement weather, with advance notification provided to all participants. Seven programs were conducted in the Swiss Alps, and only twice were rapid responses required to contend with severe storms. Both occasions occurred while participants were completing solo overnight reflection in tents in the mountains. 

Following the delivery of
CTE to the company’s top 200 leaders (
CTE1), the L&D team created a design that would replicate the experience—to the extent possible—for the next 15,000 ABB leaders (
CTE2). This second program iteration would roll out globally through 2020. For the new audience, the program was reduced to 2.5 days hosted in a range of venues in countries worldwide.

Given the global delivery of the
CTE2 program, local outdoor experiential learning providers in the relevant countries were engaged. In addition, the L&D team contracted two new service providers to support program design, development, piloting and train-the-facilitator sessions. The original
CTE was limited to 30 leaders per program.
CTE2 accommodated 48 leaders per program to reach the larger population of ABB leaders efficiently.

CTE2 was redesigned as an intensive and experiential personal development program, but incorporated multiple activities from

  • A disruptive business simulation team challenge
  • A high-level, off-the-ground edge activity
  • An exercise in responding to outside-in change drivers in the business environment
  • Management of mindsets and challenging commitments 

Much of
CTE2 was designed around outdoor experiences, again necessitating contingency plans for inclement weather. To date, the program has encountered disruptions by severe storms and high winds.


CTE1 called on senior leaders to commit to specific actions identified during the program’s group project and to live the desired attitudes and behaviors promoted by the program. To ensure follow-through and track the program’s operational impacts, one project team created a database site to capture the actions and commitments of the participating top leaders. The follow-through data is scheduled to be shared at the February 2019 annual meeting of the top 200 leaders. Financial and operational results tracked since
CTE development will be shared, too, along with updates from leaders who have completed

Unedited feedback provided by
CTE attendees:

  • “Let me thank and congratulate you and the learning team for the excellent and innovative training that you delivered … it was, indeed, exceptional and took us to a different learning sphere than the programs we have been used to, even with the biggest names like INSEAD or IMD.”
  • “The learning was indeed, exceptional … the topics, workshops and exercises took us really to the edge and triggered energies and creativity we didn’t know existed in us or our teams …”

  • … good mix of experiential and classroom learning, great balance of ‘push to the edge’ and ‘safe enough’ to encourage broad participation … I leave very re-invigorated and truly proud of being an ABB change-maker.”



CTE program is key to delivering the cultural transformation at ABB that will enable the company to fully achieve its Next Level Strategy and declared financial targets. This requires a dramatic shift in behavior and attitudes of ABB leaders, but L&D leaders have provided an experiential development journey that is rapidly transforming company culture. The design and rollout of
Come to the Edge, an innovative development approach that took top leaders to the edge physically and mentally, is a journey that promotes creativity and innovation and encourages leaders to take risks and rise to challenges.

By September 2018, ABB’s top 200 leaders had completed
CTE1. Looking forward, the L&D team anticipates delivering one
CTE1 program per year to ensure the same training for newly assigned top leaders. Q4 2018 saw the first 600 leaders complete
CTE2 pilot sessions in all three global regions (Americas, Europe, AMEA). Comprehensive train-the-facilitator sessions in early 2019 will require co-facilitation by a mix of internal and external facilitators. All selected faculty must possess the correct business experience and gravitas, personally experience the program, and be trained in accelerated (adult) learning methodologies and advanced/master facilitation skills. The 2019 schedule calls for 175 programs to provide training to 8,000 leaders globally.


Key learning from the delivery of


Keeping the
CTE programs’ unique activities confidential to surprise new participants emerged as an obstacle for the L&D team. Confidentiality was critical to control the timing of participants’ exposure to the program’s disruptive elements. Managing the occurrence of disruption enabled leaders to react individually and derive maximum benefit from the development opportunity. Because of this element of surprise,
CTE is acknowledged as a powerful ABB leadership development program that cannot accurately be shared, only experienced.

This submission was co-authored by Mike Sonley, Learning and Development Program Manager CTE at ABB.

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