Learning Without Limits

When it comes to training at The Limited, Beth Thomas is the queen. Here are her secrets for making training smart and fun.

“I’m from the training department, and I’m here to teach you.” At most companies, there’s no sentence that inspires more dread — or that creates heavier eyelids — than that one. Not so at the Limited Inc., the retail giant based in Columbus, Ohio. Let’s say you work for Victoria’s Secret (a unit of the Limited), and you need to learn the key indicators by which that unit’s stores are run — dreary (but vital) stuff about costs, returns, and inventories. Do you sit in a classroom or stare at a computer screen? No, you participate in a game show.


That’s just what nine store planners and merchandise planners from Victoria’s Secret Beauty Co. are doing at a training session in midtown Manhattan. The morning starts with the theme from “Let’s Make a Deal.” Then it’s on to Lingo Bingo, in which planners compete to demonstrate their mastery of retail buzzwords. A session inspired by “Jeopardy!” tests these “contestants” on their familiarity with critical financial metrics.

This session — “Retail Math/Retail Speak” — is one of 70 courses created by the Limited Training Group and its 34-year-old director, Beth Thomas. “People hate generic training,” says Thomas. “But they don’t hate training that’s fun, that’s relevant to them, and that’s rooted in a deep understanding of our business. And that kind of training is good for business. It takes less than a 2% increase in productivity to generate a 100% return on an investment in training.”

The Limited is getting a big return on its investment. Three years ago, Thomas trained 50 people per month, with a cancellation/no-show rate of 35% to 50%. Today she and her 12-person team train as many as 1,000 people per month, with a cancellation/no-show rate of less than 5%. The sessions vary widely — from an entry-level class on the basics of retail to a 60-hour course on how to use business-critical applications to make better decisions.

Behind all of these courses are a few guiding principles. First, Thomas argues, training can’t add value if trainers don’t understand how value gets created in the trenches. That’s why courses at the Limited are specialized, customized, and cooperative. When a business unit calls on Thomas’s team for help with a new computer application, trainers go into the unit, analyze how the teams there work, and then design courses that emphasize the features of the application that are most relevant to that unit.

There’s a second principle: Even the best courses aren’t worth much if people can’t take them. Most employees at big companies like the Limited are too busy to eat lunch — let alone spend four hours in a classroom. Thomas’s answer: Bring your work to class. Many of the sessions that her group offers are “learning labs,” in which students work not on abstract problems but on real-world tasks.

Thomas even brings training into the home. One executive at Victoria’s Secret was eager to become more proficient at using the Internet. But there was no time on her packed calendar for a standard training program. So Thomas organized at-home training sessions for her. That kind of one-on-one teaching (“sneaker-based training,” Thomas calls it) isn’t just for the folks with corner offices. People throughout the company are encouraged to meet with trainers for personal instruction.


In the era of virtual work and distance learning, “sneaker-based training” seems decidedly low-tech. And indeed, although Thomas is a fan of technology, she also sees its limits. “A lot of companies believe that online training is the key to just-in-time learning,” Thomas says. “But most people find it hard to do big chunks of learning online. It’s just not the right solution for a lot of businesses, including ours.”

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Sidebar: 5 Ways to Train

Most people hate to be trained — but love to learn. How do you turn training into learning? Beth Thomas, director of the Limited Training Group, offers five reality-tested pieces of advice.

1. Let business schedules determine learning schedules. “We don’t train on Mondays. In the retail world, Monday is a heavy reporting day: That’s when people compile their reports on weekend sales. We make sure that our schedule reflects the corporate calendar.”

2. Interaction is where the action is. “We want each group to drive its own learning. That’s why, during a training session, we aim to create some form of interaction every eight minutes.”

3. Games are good. “There are two kinds of games — those designed to break the ice, and those related to the work. One of my favorite games is ‘Two Truths and a Lie.’ Everyone goes around the room and tells two truths and one lie about himself or herself. Then the group has to guess which statement is the lie.”


4. Four hours, not forever. “With learning, retention is key. After four hours, overload kicks in.”

5. Get ’em while they’re young. “How many times has this happened to you? You start a new job. Someone walks you to your cubicle, and you’re on your own. That’s why we have an ‘on-boarding’ process for all new hires. It’s their first interaction with the training department, and they love it. They become ‘trainees’ for life!”