The Best Way to Waste Money on Training:

Remedies for low-impact training

Michael Couch
President
Michael Couch and Associates Inc.
Pittsburgh, PA

It is an all too often occurrence. I get a call from an organization that holds regular (usually annual) leadership training programs that every supervisor, manager or executive must attend. However, the company is concerned that they are not seeing an impact – those attending the training are not taking any action or changing their behavior. As a result, the company does not feel that they are getting a return on the millions of dollars invested in the training.

As we discuss the details of each training intervention, it becomes clear why the training is not having the desired effect. A pattern of practices emerges that I’ve seen before, practices that describe training that is done as an activity or task that has to be accomplished and not a process focused on achieving a targeted business result.

The training often started when someone at the executive level decided that we “had to do something.” The executive thinks he or she knows what the “something” is and HR is tasked with coming up with a program. The program is implemented, usually packing several learning modules into a single multi-day session. The number of “butts in seats” and whether those attending liked the training are the typical measures of success. Over time, people start complaining about having to attend the training, the number of butts is below expectation, and an executive finally asks if the training is worth it.

That’s when I get the call. Here’s how I answer it.

In the book Courageous Training by Tim Mooney and Robert Brinkerhoff, the authors describe a basic logic behind any successful training effort, which can be described as follows:

  • The training process normally begins when an employee or group of employees lacks a capability that is critical to their job and/or to the success of the business. This gap is evident because a critical behavior is missing or is not being used effectively.
  • The target employees understand the gap and see value in learning and using a new behavior (they are motivated to learn)
  • The employees participate in training specifically designed to address the gap and master the critical capability.
  • The employee uses the new capability in an important work behavior back on the job that is recognized and supported by their manager and others.
  • The new behavior produces a result that adds value to the organization.

As we discuss the details of the company’s leadership development program, it becomes obvious that there are some significant gaps in the training logic. The logic gaps usually fall into one or more of the following areas.

  1. The training is “one size fits all” that every employee in a leadership position must attend, no matter their need. This approach assumes that every incumbent lacks a key knowledge, skill or ability (KSA) that is preventing him or her from applying a key behavior on the job. However, it is more likely that the learners actually fall into one of five categories. They either:
    • Already have the KSA and are using the behavior,
    • Already have the KSA but are prevented from applying it because of environmental factors,
    • Lack the KSA and do not have the ability to acquire and use it,
    • Lack the KSA but don’t see the need to learn, or,
    • Lack the KSA and are interested in learning.

    These different conditions are why training that everyone must attend, no matter their individual need, is seldom very successful. Effective leadership development should be more personalized and less “one size fits all.”

  2. The training is the only development resource offered to supervisors, managers, and executives. Research has repeatedly shown that effective leadership development follows a 70, 20 10 rule.
    • 70% of what successful managers and supervisors learn about key leadership skills comes from jobs, assignments or projects.
    • 20% comes from coaching, mentoring and support provide by other people.
    • 10% comes from self-study, education and training.

    Therefore, classroom-based training should make up less than 10% of the tools used to develop managers and leaders.

  3. The leaner’s manager is not on board. Research has shown that the #1 reason why training fails to transfer to the job is because the new knowledge, skill, or ability is not reinforced by the learner’s manager. Management reinforcement has to be built into the training process for it to be effective. The learner’s boss should be part of assessing the need, encouraging the learner to attend the training, modeling the new behavior him or herself, and reinforcing the new behavior after the training. The best tool to offer managers to get them on board is a competency-based performance management process.
  4. The training is not just-in-time, action-based and/or team-based.
    • Just-in-time training is training that occurs at a point in the learning process when the trainee needs the KSA. For example, you could not easily learn to play golf if you took golf lessons 3 months before you planned to play a game. The same applies to leadership capabilities.
    • Training is action-based when the learners come into the training with a specific task or outcome in mind and then work on that task in the training. For example, a project manager that needs to learn project planning would bring his/her specific project to a Project Management class. He/she would come away not only knowing how to do project planning but would also have a fully completed project plan that is ready to be implemented.
    • Training is more effective if naturally occurring teams attend the training together so that they can get on the same page, learn from each other, and reinforce the use of the new skill after they get back to the job. Take the Project Management example cited above – an even more effective scenario would be for the project team to attend the training together.

If you follow these basic practices when you design leadership training (or for that fact, any training) then the effectiveness and impact of the training will improve. If you do not, then I await your call.