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Ahhh…if only I had a dollar (or twenty) for every time I’ve heard people say to me “we did some leadership or management training and we’re not sure we got much return from it”. So I usually ask a follow up question “How much change in behavior have you seen as a result of the program?” The response is often just a shrug or a shake of the head. It hurts to think you invested all that time and money into training and haven’t got much return from that investment.

So particularly when it comes to developing those all-important leadership and management skills – why doesn’t most training produce the results you want?

As a seasoned campaigner in delivering Leadership Development programs it pains me to say but I have been guilty in the past of designing a program with great content, great process, with all the shiniest new models, tools and research and have that program fall absolutely flat in terms of results. What results? Well I’m glad you asked. The one that really matters – sustainable behavior change.

Let’s face it, that’s what we are really looking for out of our investment, did someone as a result do something different in terms of their approach to people, tasks or problems. Did they then develop consistency of doing something different so that it impacted engagement, motivation or productivity that produced a return for the business? And did everyone on the program develop this sustainable change in behavior? This is what organisations are ultimately looking for and a training program in isolation will not produce this. Never. At least I’m yet to hear of one that has.

Why am I picking on training?

I’m not against training, far from it. People need to be exposed to new ideas, tools and ways of looking at the world. The key word here is exposed. Not in a take my clothes off, get naked, skinny dipping kind of exposed (that’s a blog for another time)! Training exposes people to new ideas (it is one avenue for acquiring knowledge). However, knowledge and action are two very different things. We can expose people to all the knowledge in the world, but depending on a host of other variables that knowledge may be stored in the recycle bin of the old grey matter never to see the light of day.

There is an old Chinese proverb “to know and not to do is not to know”. It is easy for us to invest in development programs that dramatically improve people’s knowledge but do little to improve taking action on that knowledge. This requires doing something different, it requires real behavior change.

Building effective Leadership and Management Capability requires a different approach to putting people through training programs.

What do we need to do to enable real behavior change?

So the million dollar question is ‘what do we need to do in our organization to enable sustainable behavior change’?

David Maister wrote an article several years ago titled ‘why most training is useless (including mine)’. Hmmm…the title seems vaguely familiar! In the article he spoke about getting much demand to do training in organisations but learnt over his career to ask 3 questions before he would accept the invitation to work with a company. An excerpt from his article is below.

A good example of ill-conceived (and premature) training approaches is seen in the many calls I get to put on training programs to help people become better managers. I put my callers through a standard set of questions:

  1. Did you choose people for managerial roles because they were the type of people who could get their fulfillment and satisfaction out of helping other people shine rather than having the ego-need to shine themselves? (No!)
  2. Did you select them because they had a prior history of being able to give a critique to someone in such a way that the other person says: “Wow, that was really helpful, I’m glad you helped me see all that.” (No!)
  3. Do you reward these people for how well their group has done, or do you reward them for their own personal accomplishments in generating business and serving clients? (Both, with an emphasis on their personal numbers!)

So, let’s summarize, I say. You’ve chosen people who don’t want to do the job, who haven’t demonstrated any prior aptitude for the job, and you are rewarding them for things other than doing the job? Thanks, but I’ll pass on the wonderful privilege of training them!

So getting the right people on the bus, with the right strengths and the right reward structure is hugely critical to getting sustainable behavior change. Training can work when these factors are in place. Don’t invest in training before you do!

Yet there are a number of other levers that matter to the success of our development programs delivering on the behavior change element, including:

  • The organisation’s culture in supporting transfer of the learning
  • The degree of supportiveness and effectiveness of that persons manager
  • The degree to which development is taken seriously in the organization as a whole

Supporting the transfer of learning into the workplace is what produces results. According to research by Change International, when taking both learning and transfer of the learning together to produce effective change, then the top 3 factors in order of priority that determine success are:

What the participants manager does after the program finishes – this includes:

  • Catching up with participants one on one to see what they have learned, how they have started to apply it and what challenges they are finding in applying the learning
  • The manager taking a coaching approach to help the participant work through some of the challenges of applying the learning. This may mean multiple coaching sessions to help build their confidence and momentum.
  • Setting up a future one-on-one meeting 2-3 months after the program with the expectation that the participant will report further on how they have used the learning and what results they are getting

What the participants manager does before the program starts – this includes:

  • Providing adequate context for the development program
  • Helping the participant see the links between attending the program and the organisation’s goals and strategy
  • Providing feedback to the participant on what development needs/gaps they see, prior to the program
  • Helping connect the program to the participants own goals
  • Conveying the importance of not only developing the skills but having a plan to practice and implement them back in the workplace.

What the facilitator does on the program – this includes:

  • How they build rapport with and relate to the participants
  • The quality of content
  • Taking a facilitative approach vs. a tell approach
  • A mix of activities that cater to different learning styles

The degree to which participants are able to practice and plan how they will use their new found skills
Thus the top two influences on success of participants applying new skills and changing their behaviour is what the manager does. The third most impactful is the quality of the development program. Thus much of the responsibility for teaching the skills and knowledge falls to the program facilitator. For actual learning transfer this means much of the responsibility falls to the participant’s manager.

Food for thought, before deciding the first thing we need to do to improve our capability is to jump into training!

Scott Erskine

Scott Erskine

Scott has successfully delivered leadership and performance solutions for management across a number of industries including retail, resources, construction, government and finance and has worked with organistions such as BHP Billiton, Woodside, Rio Tinto, Veolia, Western Power, GESB, Ramsay Healthcare, Police & Nurses Mutual Banking, Flight Centre, and the Australian Defence Forces.