The Secret to Teaching? Make it Interesting

How Kristy Balsanek, gategroup’s general counsel for North America, keeps the company’s comprehensive training program applicable and dynamic

Kristy Balsanek

In southwestern China, near the Yangtze River, Kristy Balsanek learned a lesson she still uses today. Balsanek was in the middle of a stint with the Peace Corps, teaching English to college students. She watched as her young students struggled to conjugate verbs and form simple sentences. Many of them sat quietly, rarely volunteering to read out loud or answer questions from the textbook.

That’s when Balsanek started to notice something. If her students found a discussion topic interesting, their fear seemed to dissipate. When given the right topic, timid students would speak more. She adjusted her approach and selected topics—such as family and American culture—that were popular in the Asian classroom. By the end of the semester, students who had started without a foundation in English were having full and complex conversations in their second language.

Today, Balsanek is general counsel for gategroup’s North American region. In that role, she’s responsible for creating and implementing a business-wide training program in the US and Canada designed to keep the global airline catering company compliant in many legal areas and across several jurisdictions. Given the organization’s size, though, it’s not an easy job. Created in 2008, gategroup operates ten companies with forty-three thousand employees in more than sixty countries and territories. Business in Europe and North America accounts for the majority of its annual revenue.

A cohesive approach is what brings success, and to deliver, Balsanek is importing the lessons she learned in that Chinese classroom. “My time with the Peace Corps showed me that we retain information when it comes alive to us,” she explains. “We learn best when we’re invested, and that usually happens when we find teaching both relevant and useful.”

Gategroup disseminates training information related to a global code of conduct from its global headquarters in Zurich, Switzerland. Balsanek then works with regional business compliance committees to identify pertinent issues and localize content. They watch hot issues, read daily updates from legal associations, scour alerts, solicit ideas from outside firms and internal clients, attend webinars, and meet each month to pinpoint risks and discuss new issues.

Balsanek doesn’t simply make gategroup’s global code relevant for her region. Her legal team has established a multilayered compliance training program delivered online and in person. The online component covers standard issues, and the legal team tailors live modules to address specific risk areas. Balsanek or one of her colleagues may travel to a gategroup kitchen to train food prep staff on issues related to harassment in the workplace, for instance, or they may brief corporate employees on nuanced data-privacy issues.

Regardless of topic, Balsanek and her team strive to keep their in-person meetings lively and engaging by using real simulations, scenarios, questions, and case studies ripped from the headlines. They might do a postmortem on a high-profile security breach, discuss the issues behind a well-known harassment claim, or dive into a prominent litigation. “We deliver training content loaded with real examples because it helps our employees grasp the topic at hand and walk away knowing the information we need them to remember,” Balsanek says. “It’s memorable.”

Legal leaders wanting to develop an effective program must also consider the culture and makeup of their company’s workforce. Gategroup has nearly ten thousand employees in the US alone, and workers in one large gategroup kitchen speak a total of twenty-two languages. Since those employees don’t work with computers, online training isn’t an option. In that setting, Balsanek’s team delivers all training in person in English and uses translators as necessary. “We make sure to use everyday language and eliminate all legalese because we need everyone to walk away with a clear understanding,” Balsanek says. Short sessions, which take about five minutes and include two or three main points, occur just before a work shift.

Balsanek encourages everyone on her team to spend as much time as possible in the field. A lawyer who visits a gategroup kitchen to gather documents or collect a signature should walk the floor and get to know employees and the daily issues they encounter. “There is no possible way each employee can walk away with a complete and total understanding of every legal matter we face as a company, and we don’t expect them to,” Balsanek says. “But, if we can communicate issues well and stay approachable, then we can start an ongoing conversation.” This approach gives employees needed resources and helps gategroup remain compliant while staying true to the company’s values and global code of conduct.