Why a Corporate University Mantra Drives Long-term Success, and How Philips Lighting University and Flipskool Created One

Written by: Dr. Martyn Rademakers Managing Director of Center for Strategy & Leadership

[Martyn] Stefaan, you are known in the field as someone who has established multiple successful corporate universities around the globe, from China to Western Europe to India. In the past decade, I have seen many corporate universities decline or even parish after their creator has left. How come that the ones you have created for Nokia, Agfa, Philips Lighting and Flipkart are still thriving?

[Stefaan] I am immensely proud that, after I left, the corporate universities continued to flourish and reinvented themselves further on the foundations I have left. One of the keys is: Be clear on the mission of your corporate university. Get the answer to the ‘why’ question right. Why does your corporate university exist?

[Martyn] Sounds nice. However, many corporate universities carry a mission statement that is not effective at all. So, what’s your secret?

[Stefaan] Many corporate universities spend far too little time and effort to creating a clear and compelling mission. They focus immediately on operational issues and get lost. They do not get much further than totally uninspiring statements like: ‘we support our company’s strategy by…’ Just filling in the dots with trivialities does not mean you have a mission that works. Even worse, it is a missed opportunity to win buy-in and support from important stakeholders. In a nutshell, an effective corporate university mission clearly articulates the following: What is our unique contribution to the organization? What is the corporate university Mantra?

[Martyn] Mantra?

[Stefaan] Yes, Mantra. It is the essence of the corporate university mission put in just a few words that touch a deeper emotional level. Having a Mantra endorsed by the top management team of your organization, starting with the CEO, will create much deeper engagement. Failing to have this clarified will result in not being able to connect with your organization in the long run. You simply won’t get sufficient attention.

[Martyn] Clearly, emotion matters when it comes to the ‘why’ question for corporate universities. Sounds easy, but is not easy. Why is it worth to spend substantial time and effort on creating an emotions-touching Mantra?

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[Stefaan] Because when business gets tough, the Learning & Development budget is among the first to be cut. You simply put your corporate university in danger if you fail to connect with top management on an emotional level. Their engagement is often viewed as ‘C-suite’ members merely sponsoring the corporate university. They might preside over the corporate university review committee, teach at some of the events and agree on a yearly budget. This of course is all fine, yet my experience is that if you can take along the ‘C-suite’ in a compelling mission of what your corporate university contributes to achieve key organizational ambitions, the rest will be easy. Practically, the very essence of your mission should be translated into a corporate university Mantra: A tagline that touches the hearts and minds of key stakeholders.

[Martyn] So, the Mantra is a powerful tagline that appeals to the heart, and derived from a well-articulated mission that appeals to the mind, right? To make it a bit more concrete: Could you please share one or two examples from your own practice?

Sure. Let’s have a look at Philips Lighting University first – it is the corporate university I established before moving to Flipkart in India. The Mantra at Philips Lighting University is ‘Take the Lead in Light’. For outsiders, this tagline might not say very much. For insiders, it means a lot. The Mantra ties into the Philips Lighting ambition to transform into an undisputed market leader in a rapidly and fundamentally changing business environment. No doubt it hits the emotions of the C-suite members. Moreover, every single word in this corporate university Mantra has a deeper meaning.

: Stands for a sense of individual ownership. Everyone interacting with the university is supposed to act and not merely be a passive observer;
the Lead: By joining any of the programs (games, knowledge portal, video channels, webinar series, (e)books, communities, expert access, …) one gets access to the right knowledge to be a leader in one’s field;
in Light: Light is our business, yet it light transcends ‘lamps’ (the traditional business of Philips), and includes deep knowledge of lighting theory, automation principles and systems, old and new technologies.

[Martyn] And how about Flipskool, the corporate university of this young, rapidly growing and millennial-driven internet firm Flipkart?

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[Stefaan] The Mantra for Flipskool is comprised of just four words: ‘I Learn, We Grow’. Just good to know: this Mantra has not been dreamed up in isolation from behind a desk or in a cubicle. We involved literally hundreds of people in searching, creating, finetuning, and voting to eventually arrive at this short and meaningful ‘why’- statement. Here is what the words stand for:


I stands for individualism and empowerment in the 21st century. That’s much in tune with what millennials want. The new workforce is valuing individualism like never seen before in modern history. Expression of individualism in learning translates into ‘I have freedom to learn whatever I need, whenever and with whoever.’ Empowerment of the individual is key here – ‘I can create my own path towards greatness, whether I do this by sharing, by listening, by reading, …’

Learn is a broad term. Learning is something I do, it is not done to me. So, it is not about being trained on behalf of the company. Learning means exploring knowledge and skills in its widest definition like sharing one’s own knowledge to the benefit of others and mine, reflection on good and bad experiences, listening to respected others, focused searching for knowledge

We stands for the collective – our team, our department, our organization, our partners and our customers. I don’t learn in isolation. I am part of a family that needs my increasing knowledge, skills, and capabilities. The word ‘We’ also stands for the organization as a dynamic entity. If the organization changes course, then ‘we’ all need to pull our weight, unlearn old stuff, learn new things, and move forward with it.

Grow is the result of the ‘I learn’ part. It says 1+1 = 'we' and equals 3.

Great examples. Let's wrap up: To take (or keep) the lead in learning for the long run, corporate university leaders should invest time and effort in developing a mission that strikes the right emotional chord in the C-suite. Next, get a large group of stakeholders to help you translate the mission into a powerful Mantra of just a few, meaningful words.