Expecting Too Much from Training

Training is expensive in both a financial sense and in terms of the time it takes away from operations. It has to be justifiable, and even better, it should be measurable.

Some things are trainable and some are not. And naturally, some are in between. Teaching knowledge and transferring skills works, but attempting to reshape abilities and talents is generally doomed to failure. Most people would agree with this, but some confusion occurs over defining the difference between abilities and skills. If we mislabel an ability or a talent as a skill and then attempt to teach it, the training is still no more likely to succeed. Several of the more prevalent mislabelings and misendeavors are described below.

1. Leaders are made not born…

It’s the nurture versus nature argument once again! Let’s look at business leaders, because business leadership is not the same as military leadership in all respects, and that’s the form of leadership that is closest to us. It’s not true to say that leaders are born not made. It’s also not true to say that leaders are made and not born. There don’t appear to be any absolute truths about leadership.

To quote Shelley Kirkpatrick and Edwin Locke (Leadership: Do Traits Matter? Academy of Management Executive 5, 1991): The evidence indicates that there are certain core traits that significantly contribute to business leaders’ success… Traits alone, however, are not sufficient for successful business leadership – they are only a precondition. Leaders who possess the requisite traits must take certain actions to be successful (e.g. formulating a vision, role modeling, setting goals). .. (Leaders) do need to have the “right stuff” and this stuff is not equally present in all people.

Many researchers have identified sets of characteristics that are essential to leadership, and there is considerable overlap in what they conclude. There seems to be a general consensus about leadership qualities. We also know that experience and development come into play to some degree in fine-tuning the abilities and qualities that leaders innately possess.

Today, the term leadership is a buzz-word. It is greatly over-used and has become diluted as a meaningful description of what is really a critical but rare capability. Given the vagueness and lack of meaning that now surrounds the term, leadership development has now become a euphemism for anything trainers want to put into a program.

But what is a leader, really? To answer that question we have to have some criteria for both defining and measuring leadership. The very use of the term leadership implies a notion of success; however, if we describe someone as a leader, does that mean the person is successful? Is Bill Gates a leader? Could someone else have taken Microsoft further faster? Were the people “leading” Enron really leaders?

One of the core qualities of leadership is the ability to establish and pursue a vision. Another is the ability to communicate that vision and express it in a manner that enthralls, enthuses, elicits commitment from, and motivates employees. When we think about these qualities, it should be pretty clear that these are not found in manuals. Training, in this instance, might provide some touch-up, but training cannot put in what is not inherently there.

2. Time management, assertiveness, (you fill in the blanks) can be taught…

More than thirty years ago Dr. Fred Fiedler, a highly-regarded business professor, warned whoever would listen about the millions upon millions of dollars being wasted on training. His message was train what can be trained and don’t spend valuable resources trying to change what cannot be changed.

It is an identical message that Buckingham and Coffman repeated in their excellent book, First, Break All The Rules: understand the talents that people individually possess and build on those. Don’t try to engineer success by “overcoming” weaknesses.

A while back, one of our clients, a large trust company that spent millions every year on employee training, measured the results of their time management training, and reached an interesting conclusion. They could predict in advance of the training who would apply the techniques and who would not, and the ones who did had a predisposition to be organized and work to priorities even before the training.

Good time-managers got even better and weak time-managers stayed the same. But what about other behavioral abilities? For example, assertiveness training? The same thing essentially – assertiveness is not an intellectual response governed by a set of rules. It’s predisposed, it’s emotional, it’s visceral, and there are no rules. For non-assertive people who feel disadvantaged, this training certainly has appeal. If it makes them feel better about themselves, that may be beneficial and even justify the experience. But we shouldn’t expect people to walk out changed from who they once were.

There are other implications to consider. For example, if you use competencies in your organization, it is important to realize that, for the most part, competencies cannot be taught in training programs. Why? Because competencies are complex blends of traits and acquired skills. If your training population has the requisite traits for a particular competency, then you can transfer and develop the specific skills that people with the right traits will be able to apply.

3. We will teach our customer service people to sell…

This is like a pothole full of water in the center of the road that people keep stepping in, because they didn’t see the guy before them do the same thing. Being smart, if they did, they wouldn’t.

Every year additional companies try to pursue some unattainable synergism by “teaching” their customer service staff to sell. They’ll brand the adventure, spend mega-bucks and then wait for results that only seem to trickle in. Two years later they will quietly kill it and look for a new strategy.

Some people get into selling, and they love it. Or at least, they are comfortable with the expectations. There are other people who, when they see what’s involved with closing or asking for the business, quit. But that is their decision to make.

Think how difficult it is for people who take service jobs of some sort, a bank teller, help desk, whatever, because they like to help people and then learn that sales behaviors are being imposed upon them. No longer are they expected to assist people; now they are expected to leverage relationships to generate revenues.

In service when there is tension in a relationship, it is because the customer creates it. The service person can handle that and finds satisfaction reducing the tension level. In selling, the salesperson generates the tension by asking qualifying and closing questions. People who are not comfortable in that role don’t seek out sales jobs and when expected to act in a sales-like way, don’t initiate the necessary questions. In fact, they feel great when the interaction ends and the pressure to sell is off!

It has happened before. Not so long ago companies were seeking programmer-analysts before they learned that that particular hybrid of talents just didn’t exist anywhere in nature.

Like so many decisions about people, it is a matter of understanding why people do what they do, and what their talents and limitations are. We need to draw upon their talents rather than try to force-fit (i.e. train) them into more stressful situations in which they are not likely to survive.

When a strategy changes, before training is initiated, an audit of employees in the affected roles should be undertaken to assess their compatibility with the new expectations. It is far more productive to do some hiring and train the right people than it is to cut corners, try to re-engineer the wrong people, and stall before ever getting out of first gear.

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