Nerd herder? No. Geek wrangler? Nope. How about the “tech whisperer?” Nah.

Gretchen Clarke is AppRiver’s director of training and development, but she resists those half-hearted attempts to characterize what she actually does for the company. Instead, she offers her own, more fitting description: “guidance counselor”. She sees her role as helping Appers be all they can be, both on the job and off.

Clarke joined the AppRiver team almost two years ago, taking on a role that had not existed before – adding value to the company by making sure that its employees get the training and professional development opportunities they need to succeed.

By at least one measure, her efforts at the company have been a resounding success already. As of now, approximately 35 percent of the employees hold some form of accredited technology certification.

But for Clarke, the challenge is to do more than simply make sure Appers are technically competent. She wants to create an environment where learning and growth, even beyond the technical skills, are built into the job. For Clarke, this is the natural foundation for the “Phenomenal Customer Care” ethic that AppRiver has made its top priority.

“The training and other activities AppRiver provides helps employees feel more fulfilled at their jobs,” Clarke says. “And happy employees lead to happy customers.”

Toward that end, Clarke and AppRiver have instituted some unique and creative programs that promote training and development, as well as incentives to keep them motivated in the process.

AppRiver University: App U doesn’t have a fight song or a football team (yet), but its four employee teams might well be mistaken for co-ed fraternities. The “university” concept began as a way to formalize the company’s training process, both for current employees and new hires. Its first major endeavor was a new-employee orientation program that featured a scavenger hunt to help new Appers learn who’s who and what’s where around the office. It was so successful that it was included in a Florida Trend story and had other companies calling for tips on how to replicate it.

“The most common questions new employees have are ‘Where can I find this?’ or ‘Who do I see about that?,’” said Clarke. “We like to help them learn in a way that’s fun and interactive.”

BrainTrain 2010: Each of App U’s four “fraternities” is engaged in an ongoing, quarterly competition in which points are awarded for internal or external training and community service activities. Winners enjoy extra time in the company’s massage program, gift cards and other goodies. Points are continually updated on a “leader board” in the App U classroom, so interoffice bragging rights also provide a strong incentive to participate.

According to Clarke, adding the community service category was an eye-opener. “I never realized just how many AppRiver employees are active and volunteer their time in the community. Their good works are a positive reflection on our company and in the community.”

Health and Wealth: Those Appers riding the “BrainTrain” also have opportunities to participate in free seminars about nutrition and personal finance, which might not be directly related to their jobs, but can improve their state of mind and their performance.

To Clarke, the success of these programs is a direct reflection on the employees themselves because they are not mandatory. Employees choose to participate or not. However, she also credits the strong support from company founders Michael Murdoch and Joel Smith for building interest.

“AppRiver is fortunate to have selfless leaders who want to set employees up to succeed,” Clarke says. “They have made it clear that they believe in training and that makes it easier to get everyone on board.”

In addition to providing training opportunities and the incentives to participate in them, Clarke also works with Appers one-on-one to help them determine what types of training or certification will be most beneficial – and, equally important, helping them overcome any barriers that stand in their way.

As a telling example, she discovered that there were some employees who lacked certification only because they were nervous about taking the tests. Thus, Clarke arranged a field trip to the test site and helped them gain confidence.

As AppRiver’s “guidance counselor,” Clarke recognizes that these individuals collectively represent AppRiver’s greatest asset – its talented team of professionals. Taking care of the team means first looking after the people who comprise it.

“The specific needs are as diverse as the individuals,” she says. “The bottom line is that I want to do whatever it takes to help our people reach their goals.”

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