True confession time.
I once worked for a large, global conglomerate that was in a death spiral and struggling to turn things around. The company was harvesting its mature and declining business to pump cash into its growth bets.
This company had a proud tradition of investing in the development of its employees. Sales reps were trained in their products and how to sell them, scientists went to conferences, engineers were offered continued training to keep their skills up to date, and new managers were trained how to manage.
There was even a requirement that every employee received 40 hours of training.
A new CFO came on board and decided that training was a luxury that could no longer be afforded. Instead of a way to improve skills and make the business stronger, it was seen as an expense — even worse, a strategically irrelevant expense, like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.
Training budgets and staff were drastically cut. What training staff was left was charged with trying to convince the remaining employees that the company’s 40-hour training commitment was really a 40-hour development commitment. That is, projects, books, discussions with your manager, just about anything could and should be counted toward those 40 hours.
The Center for Creative Leadership is known for its “70-20-10” model of leadership development. That is, 70% of an executive’s learning comes from job changes and actual work, 20% from others, and the remaining 10% from books, courses and hardships. We took that research and peddled it as a reason to eliminate all training, including sales, product, technical, management and anything else that took place in a classroom. We replaced it with e-learning courses and development plans and told employees, “Go at it, you’re on your own.”
I’m not proud to tell that story, as I was a part of peddling that garbage until I had had enough and joined a company that was really committed to employee training and development. The reason I’m baring my soul is that I still see HR and training professionals trying to sell themselves and their employees the same propaganda. Sometimes they are doing as they are told, but sometimes they really seem to believe it.
Look, I’m not naïve, and as a training practitioner, and now a provider, certainly have a strong bias towards the value of real training. I totally get the need to watch the bottom line, and eliminate any form of wasteful spending. I hate wasting money and people’s time on lousy training!
Development is important — it truly is where we learn most of our lessons in life. But so is training. There are key points in a leader’s career, such as the new responsibility of a first-time promotion or major shift in strategic direction inherent in getting ready to become a senior executive, where a good old-fashioned dose of training (yes, even classroom-based, where you can learn and network with others) will accelerate that learning curve.
Sure, without training, people can still “wing it,” try to learn on their own, and sink or swim. Eventually, though trial and error, they may pick it up. But when you are in a leadership position, your mistakes can hurt others, and the higher the level, the more costly those little lessons learned become. Wouldn’t it be worth the cost of one or two days of training to prevent a million-dollar mistake?
Let’s stop using pushing “development” as a cheap replacement for training, if it’s really just an excuse to cut costs, and let’s get smarter as to how we invest our limited training budgets.
Dan McCarthy is the director of Executive Development Programs at the University of New Hampshire. He writes the award-winning leadership-development blog Great Leadership and is consistently ranked as one of the top digital influencers in leadership and talent management. He’s a regular contributor to SmartBlog on Leadership. E-mail McCarthy.