The Downside of Being a Trainer

Exercises in futility

Exercises in futility

I love helping others gain knowledge that makes their lives easier. I love exploring topics aloud in group settings to increase the  collective insight of an organization. I love learning new things and relating them to relevant issues. I love watching someone take newly developed skills an apply them in a way that helps their career and the company.

I hate wasting time and effort.

Sadly, I find every once in a while, this is the result of a training engagement. I’ve either agreed to facilitate a class that was not needed or I’ve given skills that are not able to be used because the system does not support them yet. In either event, I’ve done my audience (and my client) a disservice. In times like this, I think of Sisyphus. You know, the guy who’s personal hell is to push a rock to the top of the hill only to watch it tumble back down again so he can push it back up. When I provide a training that has little or no result in performance, I have done just that – spent a lot of time and effort only to realize I am no closer to the top of the hill than when I started. And it is disheartening.

This is what separates training from performance improvement. When training is sought as a solution, I get queasy. Because it rarely ever is. Well, that’s not exactly true – it’s rarely THE solution. Training is an intervention intended to provide new knowledge, new skill, or new perspective. It does not change systems, motivation, or culture. And changing behavior has more to do with the last three than the first. In fact, the University of Minnesota conducted a study of training effectiveness and found that forces that outside of a training event have a greater impact on behavior change than training itself.

Common performance analysis methodologies, including Mager/Pipe’s seminal work, take a more systems view of performance problems. In those methodologies training tends to be the last in a long list of options, and for good reason. Not only is it typically not the only issue, it is often the most expensive (both in hard costs of the actual training event but also in the productivity lost by taking people out of their workflow.) Clear expectations, access to resources, effective consequences, and  effective feedback structures are all a part of the mix before training becomes a solution.

So before you call your trainers, mak sure you’ve addressed all the other solutions. They may take a little longer to investigate and challenge your ability to lead to solutions but they may yield you more effective results. Training delivered at the wrong time or inappropriately can do more harm than good if you are unwilling to explore the other causes to a performance problem.


A Simple Question…

In my years as a consultant and working with leaders to develop training I’ve asked a lot of questions: “what is the audience’s previous knowledge level? When and where are you looking to hold the event? Who are the stakeholders?”, etc. But I am always surprised that one simple question stumps most leaders I talk with. And it is this one question that, if left unanswered (or worse, unasked), can hobble an organizations performance improvement efforts. And if you have never asked it, chances are you feel like a hamster running on a big wheel. The Question?

What will people be doing or saying differently as a result of this intervention?

Seems simple enough but each time I ask it, the person across the table sits back and cocks their head to the side and lets out a nice, “hmph.” Usually followed by “that’s a good question” and then a long pause. Some people have even asked if they could get back to me. What surprises me is not so much that they cannot come right back with an answer but that the question itself seems novel. As if a change in behavior was never really even a consideration when picking an intervention.

Now, I won’t lie. Each time I ask this question, I feel particularly brilliant. Not because it is an especially brilliant question but because it reminds me how often people do not begin with the end in mind when it comes to change intervention.  They just want something to change without really considering “into what”. Often times it comes out as – “make the pain go away.” Which is really vague and hard to measure. So I considered how to change the dynamic of the conversation.

As a consultant, I have a money-back guarantee in my contracts. That’s right. If I fail to meet your outcome, I will repay you all of my professional fees. And I have had that in my contracts since I started. After all, if you buy a product and it does not work, you expect your money back – why should a professional service be any different. When I first created this clause, my wife was aghast, “What! Are you crazy?! Don’t put that in there!” I believe was her verbatim response. And I have received similar feedback from other consultants. But it is still there.

Why, you might ask, would I provide such a guarantee in the challenging world of organizational development? Because it allows me to have a more realistic conversation about outcomes, accountability, expectations, and responsibility. The clause stipulates that we (the client and I) must both establish the desired outcomes and measurements ahead of time and agree on them as expected outcomes. It allows me to set realistic expectations based on the level of intervention they are choosing. I have had some people ask for the moon and plan for the budgetary and work equivalent of a slingshot to get there. This evens the conversation because now they are accountable for something if they desire real change.

Most importantly it makes organizational leaders really consider what changes they actually want and forces them to realize that changing behavior is not the same as educating someone. Changing behaviors may require incentives, milestones, performance management, managerial practice changes, organizational structure changes, personnel decisions, etc. Behavior change happens over time, and I am not talking about a 45-minute lunch and learn.

Asking the simple question of “what behaviors do you want to be different?” leads you to the beginning of your gap analysis. It also helps you determine how you will judge success or failure. If you do not know what you want to be different or if you are not willing to be accountable to help make that happen, then save your money and figure out how to tolerate things being the same. If you want change, start with the end in mind so at least you know in which direction to go.

BTW: To date, I have not had to pay any client back for my services. Something my wife is incredibly grateful for. 🙂

Training, Development, and Learning

In this time where talent is getting easier and harder to find (lots of people, hard to find the right ones – ie. the paradox of choice) the need for talent management continues to grow. However, something I see from many organizations and HR leaders is the confusion and the interchangeable use of the words “training”, “development”, and “learning”. One is an event, another is a strategic process, and the latter is an individual experience. Yet many senior level leaders continue to ask for training to answer their development problems…the fly by night training and instructional design contractors (and pretty much EVERY eLearning developer) is all to happy to provide training for a price. And after thousands and sometimes 10s to 100s of thousands of dollars of training design and expensive Learning Management Systems, organizational leaders are not seeing a direct return on their investment in terms of development. And it is killing the credibility of talent management professionals.

Training is like building a house – you start and you finish within a pretty narrow timeframe when you think about the larger span it takes to build a city.  Good training relies on a number of qualified people: contractors, architects, sub-contrators, etc. And if you do it right, it is a great addition to your company. But just as building a house does not create an entire community, training does not develop your pool of talent. It is a piece to the puzzle but it is not development. Development of talent is closer to the development of a community. It takes a greater vision to see how all the pieces fit together. You have the houses, sure, but you also want roads, common areas, sanitation, sales and marketing, regulatory affairs, and landscaping.

The “roads” of your organization is how people navigate. If your organization is clogged with politics (think narrow roads with too many cars), misaligned communication structures (roads to nowhere), or broken systems (potholes and ruts); you can’t channel talent and effort in the right direction. People either get lost, frustrated, or just stop. Either way, if the pathways for people to develop are hard to navigate (just like a neighborhood that is confusing) people start to looking to live elsewhere.

The “common areas” of your organization is the culture and how people interact with each other. Without whitespace and freedom for people to move around without constantly bumping into each other, bad things can start to happen in even the prettiest of places. Most employees seek some level of autonomy and room to move independently to some degree. When you ask people to think “outside of the box” for a solution and the only place they can go is into someone else’s “box”, you’re not likely to see a ton of creativity.

Sanitation is your performance management system. How are you getting rid of the stuff your organization doesn’t want and would be better without? Poor performance management, just like bad sanitation, can make a community sick. Even people who are otherwise healthy become infected by toxic and underperforming employees. You have to execute your performance management plan. Holding people accountable is in many ways its own sense of feedback. People want feedback, they want to give feedback, and most of all, they want the employees who are not pulling their weight to either get the feedback they need and adjust their performance, or be shown the door. Poorly executed performance management, similar to missed trash pickup for months, can create a pretty apathetic environment. People stop doing what they should simply because they see that it doesn’t matter.

Sales and Marketing is how you get new people into your community. You have to have a talent acquisition strategy and you need a brand or at least a concept of what you are selling that is bigger than just the location of your community. Without a talented and aligned recruiting team, you’re getting the wrong residents to your company. With the wrong people in your group you risk turning what could be a great place to live into a culture rife with challenges and conflict, not to mention poor performance.

Human Resource Management is your regulatory affairs group. You need to make sure all the permits are filed, all the taxes paid, all the nuts and bolt of invoicing, etc. Human Resource Management is a huge part of your organization and without all the daily transactions taking place (payroll, time tracking, benefits, etc.) you can’t have employees. Keep in mind, however, that human resource management is not the same as human resource development.

The landscaping is exactly what you might think it is; it is the physical climate of your workplace. Do you have art? plants? carpet? tile? etc. Are there drinks in the refrigerator? Do you have a refrigerator? etc. It is the physical appeal of your exterior and interior. It helps create the vibe. While different from the culture, climate can still influence people’s moods so it is something to pay attention to. Does your company look like a nice place to work?

Oh, and learning. That is something individuals do, not something companies do. I cannot make someone learn, I can create an environment that encourages and rewards learning, I can give tools and resources to help people learn, but ultimately, whether someone learns or not is an individual process. I see many employees who are sent to training to correct behavior and they are resistant, combative, cynical, and sometimes toxic to others who want to learn. Learning is not under your control, just as you cannot make someone like where they live. You can create an environment that is makes learning easier and supports it, but it something each individual goes through at their own pace.

And now to my point. Development is how all of these things come together to build a community. And while my analogy is somewhat simplistic, it  illustrates that development is a long-term and continuing process. Training is an event, and usually has a very specific design for a very specific purpose. You build a training class, people come, they leave. Training is a tool in the development process. What are you doing to create a culture that encourages people to do more, try new things, recruit new talent, keep the landscape nice, and keep their “common areas” clean. How are you translating a development strategy into something more than just going to more trainings?  One of the worst things you can do is expect people to be better simply because of training. No matter how great the training is, if people are not allowed and encouraged to do anything different when they get back, then the training was just something they went to and will NEVER translate into different behavior. (read “Dumping the Water Back in the Pond”). How are you creating an environment where people CAN learn, change, and grow?

Daniel Pink’s book “Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us” highlights Mastery, or an innate desire to  get better at whatever we are doing, as one of three drivers of human behavior (the other two being Autonomy and Purpose). People want to get better, they want to develop. Good talent professionals create communities and houses and cultures that help people do what they instinctively want to do anyway – develop, grow, learn, and expand. So the question is: are you simply building houses or do you want to develop a community?

Generation Y and eLearning

ELearning Rooms at UC-BCF

Image via Wikipedia

While it is very true that Generation Y (those born between 1980-1995), also known as “millenials”, grew up with the internet, wikipedia, txting, Facebook, Google, and email, the fact that they are more technologically adept than previous generations does not mean they value eLearning over other forms of training and development.  This may explain why companies are unhappy with results after spending grand amounts of money converting to an eLearning delivery platform. The people just don’t want it as much as other forms of learning.

According to a recent (and on going) study by the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) set to appear in Issue 6 of the IEDP’s publication, Developing Leaders magazine, different generations tend to react very similarly to how they engage and are motivated to learn. In fact, though GenXers and Millenials respond slightly more favorably to blended learning, CCL’s research indicated “all generations are less motivated to learn through technology-based methods like online learning, simulations and distance learning.

So before you spend tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars converting to training a la mode; remember, eLearning, class-room based training, on the job training, feedback intensive sessions, etc. are only delivery tools for learning – they are not the learning itself.  If you want to help people learn, make sure you are picking the right tools so you can get the greatest level of impact. If you don’t know which tools to use…hire a training professional. It’s what we do.

Anyone Can Build a House?

Training is a delicate thing. We have all endured bad training and hopefully some of you have had the benefit of quality training. The difference, training and learning professionals versus subject matter experts (SMEs) or HR generalists. I am not questioning their intellect or skills in what they do, and while all have great intentions, the subtleties of quality training design and facilitation go beyond knowing Adult Learning Principles or the ADDIE method. And sadly, yes, with much fumbling and frustration, anyone can and has designed training. Often resulting in an immediately cynical workforce when it comes to further training. If you want people to engage in your development efforts rather than blithely walk through them (with little or no result) then you need properly educated and qualified learning and development professionals. Saying anyone can design quality training is very similar to saying anyone can build a quality house. Anyone can build a house, really?

Tools are Not the Same as Design

One of the biggest travesties I see in training is the confusion between instructional design and material design. The misconception that delivery tools are the same as delivery design is a gross oversight in many training programs. If you focus is on the delivery tool and not the purpose of the training, then you are likely spending a lot of money and not getting the results you are looking for. Sure, eLearning can increase efficiency in training delivery…but it does not always corollate to an increase in impact. ELearning, social media, PowerPoint, webcasts, etc. are training TOOLS, not training design. The neatest new drill or hammer cannot replace a good blueprint. And just because someone is skilled at using a hammer or drill it does not mean he/she could/should build a house.

Focus on the Result First

If you do not know what you want to be different, then stop and figure it out. I have asked this simple question a hundred times to people requesting training of one sort or another – “what would you like participants to know, do, or think about after this training that they cannot do now?” And I often left with a blank stare and a few seconds of silence. Training is meant to increase knowledge, skills, or shift perceptions…that is it. If you do not know what you want as a result of the training, don’t waste your time or money. Continuing the house metaphor – if you do not know what you want that is different than what you already have, then why would you build a new house? And similarly, be clear on what is accomplishable thru training.  Saying you want people to get along as a result of the training is kind of like telling an architect you want the kids to keep the house cleaner as a result of building a new house. Training cannot make people want to do anything; it cannot make people like anything (or anyone), and it cannot make anyone believe something different. It also  cannot make them accountable – that is YOUR job as a manager.


Contractors know a lot about the overall process of building a house.  They can schedule resources, get workforce mobilized, and manage the building project’s timeline.  But they are not an architect or an engineer.  When it comes to design. Contractors are generalists or project managers.  The have a broad understanding, but most contractors at one point or another outsource a lot (if not all) of the construction work. The same can be said about HR Generalists. HR Generalist are the consumate organizers of HR functions – they make sure people get paid, processed, retain benefits, all while keeping you (the employer) out of employment legal trouble. They have a great broad understanding of the HR functions including training AND often is it best to outsource parts of the work. Be sure to acknowledge your limitations and outsource when necessary.

Plumbers, Electricians, and Carpenters

Masters in these trades are skilled beyond belief. They make the parts of the blueprint come to life. Yet many, though skilled and handy, have a deep knowledge of one or perhaps two areas. They are the subject matter experts. Though, I would not ask a master plumber to design my house, nor electrician, nor carpenter. Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) are wonderful resources of copious amounts of knowledge and expertise. You call on them when you want to dig deeper or need specific knowledge.  Techincal, finance, or sales SMEs are no different. They are wonderfully skilled at what they do. And interestingly enough, have a lot in common with training professionals.


Architects are the masters of bringing a vision into a physical form and detailing how it needs to be executed. They understand the concepts of flow, sequence, material usability, and innovative concepts. They are design experts both in an artistic form as well as in physical possibility. Training Professionals are the architects when it comes to developing talent. They understand the importance of flow, timing, sequence, design, appropriate materials, and adult learning. They understand the value of SMEs because in many ways they are themselves subject matter experts in the realm of knowledge, learning, and skill transfer.

Foundations of a Company

The inescapable fact of organizations is that without people, companies die. Even if you are the sole proprietor – if you abdicate, your company dies if there is no one to replace you. People are the foundation, walls, floors, aesthetics, HVAC, plumbing, and electricity of your company. Talent development is not arbitrary or accidental just as the quality construction of a purposeful building is not dumb luck. Of course if you are only looking to hang some pictures or build a box, finding someone who can drive a nail and handle a saw might be all you need. But if you are looking to build or rebuild your talent development programs- you might want to talk with a learning architect.

The Mid-level Gap

No, I’m not talking retail, I’m talking about the development gap that exists somewhere around Middle Management and Director level professionals. Most Executive-level employees will tell you that there just doesn’t seem to be enough good leaders out there to take over executive functions yet there seems to be a void in development activity for the next level of leaders. And I think the problem is two-fold.

The Content Problem

Entry level managers have access to all sorts of developmental opportunities – management classes, project management classes, priority management classes, meeting management classes, decision-making classes, problem solving classes, the list goes on.  And relatively, the developmental classes are fairly inexpensive for the gains received.

Executives, too, have a fair share of options. Most of which focus on coaching and specific developmental mentors or business strategy driven development. There are Executive MBA programs and senior leadership retreats reaching into the tens of thousands of dollars. Typically, a good executive coach will cost you close to or over $10k as it is.

Mid-level managers (MLMs) or Director level employees, however, seem to experience a gap in the availability of options. While some (and I mean, very few) have already taken some of the entry-level classes (some need to go back in my opinion) most of the training that MLMs or Directors are aware of target towards those entry-level employees. Or at least that is the perception, which brings me to the next hurdle.

The Perception Problem

Most MLMs and Directors think they are doing a good job, but most of their employees don’t. A number of studies have shown this perception gap in management performance and yet, many MLMs and Directors hold fast to the belief that training is something for their employees, not them.  Oddly enough, this is the group many 360 assessment instruments are designed towards…yet, very few are used.  It is complete ignorance, or is it fear of the answer?  I suppose that answer depends on the person but one thing is true, the more classes I teach of supervisory basics, the more I hear people say “my bosses should take this class.”

The Incentive Problem

At most organizations, there is just no incentive for people to develop themselves. And this is a universal once you get past individual contributor level. While companies profess the value of promoting internally, it happens less than 50% of the time. So the odds are actually against you getting promoted over an external hire. While many companies will make a training course or two mandatory, taking more does not gain you favor or increase your bonus or raise at the end of the year. With the stress of doing more with less in today’s workplace, most managers (unless there is some direct corollary to their status or pay) will opt to not spend half a day or longer learning to do their jobs better. The benefit of doing so is just too far off of people’s radar to make it a priority.

The Budget Control Problem

The point at which most managers become aware and responsible for their total annual budgets is right around MLM or Director level. This is often the first time employees are also judged on whether they come under budget or go over. And easy thing to always cut is self-development, especially given the reasons above. And most upper level development interventions such as coaching 360 assessments, conferences, retreats, are fairly expensive, sometimes $10k and up.  Which is often 10% or more of a MLMs/Director’s salary. So the developmental dollars are spent developing others (if at all.)

The Cost of the Gap

The ultimate cost of all these factors is a serious talent gap that companies are experiencing…and paying through the nose for. Not only in soft costs but in recruiting effort and hiring bonuses for people with specific experience. It also is a contributing factor to paradox of high unemployment but a talent shortage.  So while millions are out of work, most companies have positions that are nearly impossible to fill (despite the hundred of applicants).  And part of that problem goes back to the budget issue, most companies are not actively developing people at middle levels. In the past few companies I have worked with I would estimate 80% of talent development budget is spent on entry-level and individual contributor level roles, 10% on line-supervisor roles, and perhaps another 5-9% on senior leadership.  And I may actually be generous to say that 2% is being spent on mid-level development. In fact, the last few companies I worked with had none, nothing, ZERO focus on mid-level development. And they were losing talent left and right, though sadly, no one seemed to attribute the reasons to their own doing (see Attrition and the Fundamental Attribution Error)

Though it would be easy to point to the content gap, the larger problems are the self-perception and budget issues. No one is assuming responsibility for the active development of mid-level managers or directors and, left to their own initiative, most will never seek development as a priority. The budget issue comes into play when searching for content. Sadly, while there is content out there, most mid-level managers or directors, do not think they are worth the cost. More troubling still is that many executives do not see the value either. When a talented mid-level manager desires a $10 development plan for the year, it is received with a great deal of scrutiny. However, when an outside recruitment firm is paid a $10k commission for a replacement hire, no one seems to give it more than a shrug.


Directors and mid-level managers need to get rid of the notion that they don’t need developing and that it is not a priority. Senior leadership needs to take a more active role in development and succession planning and not expect people will seek out their own development. Companies need to face the reality that they are the cause for the talent gap and stop investing in an external hires potential, and instead, redirect that effort and money to develop the internal potential and talent. Far too many good people are leaving organizations simply because the company chooses to pay for someone’s stellar resume and fast talking during interviews, rather than developing the talent within. Integrating talent development, succession planning, and employee engagement can save organizations much more money than buying talent is costing them…both short-term and long-term.

Dumping the water back in the pond

An analogy I often use when working with clients goes something like this:

“If you scoop a cup of water out of a pond and train it to babble, tell it to babble, convince it what a good idea it is to babble, and then dump the water back in the pond…don’t be surprised that it doesn’t babble.”

The underlying message is, if the underlying system or support means are not set up to facilitate a change in behavior, then chances are you spent a lot of time and energy training or coaching someone to do something that may never or very rarely ever happen.  It is not a question of chicken or egg in this case, it is more a case of make the batter? or put it in the oven? – If you want cake – you gotta do both.

Whether you are working to fix a problem behavior or develop new skills, the solution is the same.  Yes, coach and train IF they do not have the requisite skills AND look at your system and see if it supports new behavior (or old behavior).  The greatest way to inhibit change is to not support it. Not only do people do what is rewarded, they also do what they have the opportunity to do.  If they do not have opportunity to exercise new skills/abilities or are being rewarded to do it the old way, then chances are, no change will happen.

I see this most often in developmental training efforts.  People are sent, invited, voluntold, or in the rare case, seek out, training on a new or developmental skill deficiency.  They attend a potentially career changing training and are super excited to try some new stuff. They then return energized and with new skills/tools/awareness/or ideas and either no follow up happens from the manager or there is no support to do anything different. Imagine going to a photography class and then never being given the opportunity to use a camera when you got back. According to a University of Minnesota study, this is the number one reason training is seldom effective as a change method – no support from the direct supervisor to exercise new skills.

If you want change or you want training to be effective, you have to intentionally alter the bedrock upon which people are working, change the environment, give them support, and create opportunity (not just look for it, CREATE it) for them to do something different.  In BlessingWhite’s recent engagement survey, “opportunity to do more of what I am good at” is cited as a top driver for employee engagement.  Moreover, the same report cited that the number one reason people worldwide indicated they were looking to leave their current organization was “My career: I do not have opportunities to grow or advance here.”  People want to be good at what they do and increasing research is showing that not only do we want to be good at what we do, getting better is actually a motivational driver (Dan Pink, “Drive”).

If you want high performance, change, and people to do innovative things, you have to make sure your foundation supports it.  Are you building a pond that stagnates, or are you building a river to keep your organization current.