Training is not a universal panacea

Following on from the previous article, this one seeks to define the limits of what training can and can’t achieve.

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My business has been booming lately, with requests for management training coming from a broad variety of hospitality businesses. Some requests are well conceived and display a good knowledge of management practice, and some are quite off the beam. I find myself telling quite a few misguided owners and managers to keep their money in their pocket (you can afford to do this when you are extremely busy) — training is not a universal panacea.

I constantly get phone calls that begin with: ‘I want to send some of my managers to your training courses’. My response is with the invariable question: ‘What do you want to achieve?’ This is where it often gets vague. They respond with statements like ‘I want to strengthen their skills’, or ‘I want to motivate them’. This is not too helpful to me; I need to work to more specific objectives like: ‘I want to upgrade my customer service standards’, or ‘I want to decrease my staff turnover’. Then I can give good service.

The old saying that ‘a fish goes rotten from the head down’ is very appropriate in this business. If a business or its staff are not performing as required, it is usually prudent to begin by training or retraining the owner or the manager first. Here we run into a problem. Most owners and managers are reluctant to undergo training themselves, especially in the basic supervision skills. They seem to think it’s beneath them.

If we accept their subordinates for training we can end up creating a spate of key staff turnover due to what I call the ‘bail-out syndrome’. This is where you train somebody and open their mind to good management practice, and they begin to look upwards with critical despair. They have been trained to use certain procedures and their superior is unwittingly breaking all the rules. An erosion of respect for their leader is followed by a resignation.

We prefer to apply management training in a logical sequence that I call the ‘onion method’, i.e. a layer at a time from the owner down to the supervisors. Each successive layer is reinforced by the previously trained layer above. Quite radical business changes are possible working this way. What we try to achieve is a ‘critical mass of thinking’, where most of the leaders within a business share a common vision and use this to influence and guide the rest of the staff to perform.

If you simply send odd members of your team for training they will most likely revert to their old behaviour within a short time. There are two reasons for this: First, their old behaviour is comfortable; new behaviour forces them into the unknown and can be quite scary. Second, critical pressure from their peers will often force them to abandon new methods — many people jealously guard the status quo and see change as threatening.

I’m not saying you can’t get good effect out of small quantities of training inserted into the middle of the pyramid — you most certainly can — but not by just sending them and hoping for the best. You must brief them before they come, telling them what you want them to achieve, and you must set them goals or targets when they return — then regularly follow-up for six months until new behaviour becomes ‘normal’.

The psychologist who works with me, Celina Chua-Huggins, puts it succinctly by explaining that you have to take the person from being unconsciously unknowing (where they don’t know what they don’t know), to being unconsciously knowing (where they don’t have to think about doing it, like when you drive your car). Supervisory and management procedures take time to assimilate. They are useless if they remain spread over the pages of training course handout notes and are not assimilated into normal behaviour, ready for use at will.

I’m also disappointed at the number of managers who ring me and tell me that they are sending me one of their problem children, and when the person arrives at the training course they have no idea why they are there. This suggests that the manager is submissive and is wanting me to correct a performance problem they are not willing to talk to the employee directly about. I get very frustrated about this situation and often wish I could drag the manager in for communication training.

Another favourite management activity is trying to drive square pegs into round holes. This manifests itself by people being presented for training who are obviously the wrong personality for the job they are doing (like a headwaiter who hates people, a book keeper who is dyslexic or a supervisor who is extremely submissive). You can’t train these things out of people easily, certainly not in a short training course. These are recruitment and selection problems.

To be fair though, I have some extremely professional clients who ring, tell me what they want and ask how to go about it — and more importantly they take my advice and use it. They know that $200 spent wisely on staff development is going to yield a better result than $200 spent on a new chair. Some of them have even swallowed their pride and come back and repeated the same, basic training course until they’ve got all the material down pat. Then they’ve sent their staff to learn.

There is a direct correlation between the best business and the best leaders. Very few of the best leaders are naturals — most had to learn. Earlier in my career I had to learn how to come down off my pedestal and admit that I don’t know everything. How about you? Have you become a legend in your own mind?

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