Managing the training function

Feeding Your Leadership Pipeline

AN EFFECTIVE LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT MODEL – Part 2-A: Now that you have identified your high-potentials, what do you do with them?

It would be nice if we could identify our high-potential employees (Hi-Pos) and let them grow naturally into the organization’s future leaders. If we are lucky, we may have one or a few Hi-Pos who are such natural leaders that we just have to sit back and watch them grow. But for most Hi-Pos, we need to nurture them — we have to feed our leadership pipeline to accelerate their growth. Most of the your Hi-Po group will need both education and the opportunity to apply what they have learned. The model I present in my book, Feedeing Your Leadership Pipeline, has four main sectors:

1. Formal education sessions
2. Action learning projects tied to each education session
3. 360 reviews and individual development plans
4. Mentoring an coaching

In this blog, we’ll focus on the Education Sessions. Later posts will cover the other three sectors.

I have seen too many organizations send a Hi-Po to an expensive external program (and there are many excellent leadership programs available in the market), only to be disappointed when the person returns from the program and nothing seems to change. TRAINING ON LEADERSHIP SKILLS ALONE DOES NOT A LEADER MAKE! Nor can attendance at a single program, no matter how good it may be,
magically transform someone into an effective leader. To become a leader requires more than just leadership skills.

Becoming a leader requires that the Hi-Po develop in three areas:
I. Leadership Skills
II. Business Acumen
III. Execution Skills

As mentioned, there are many excellent leadership skills programs available in the market, from universities, institutes, and consultants. (In Part 2-C of this blog, we will discuss how to select an appropriate program for your organization’s Hi-Pos.) But along with leadership skills, leaders need to develop their business acumen, for without an understanding of the organization’s business, leaders will have great difficulty selecting a target toward which to lead the organization. The third element is execution skills, because the leader must be able to develop the plan for how to get from the current state of the organization to the goal being set.

Let me spend a little more time here on these last two areas (more detail and a lengthier explanation can be found in my book). Let’s start with business acumen…

Employees generally start working for an organization because of their knowledge and skills related to one aspect of the organization’s business. This may be as an accountant, a sales rep, an engineer, a marketing programs person, etc. For each step up the career ladder a person takes, his or her view must broaden. For example, I once worked in a marketing group, where the newly-appointed director of the group came from many years working in marketing communications. As Abraham Maslow once said, “if your only tool is a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail.” Because his expertise was in marketing communications, he spent most of this time focused on that part of the marketing group’s work — because that was where he felt the most comfortable. In fact, in his first two years as director, he went through three marketing communications managers, because none of them met his standards of excellence. In the meantime, the other parts of the marketing organization (field programs, marketing strategy, etc.) suffered from his inattention. I call this “functional myopia,” where you are so focused on your small part of the business that you have little perspective on the many other aspects of the business that make the organization whole.

The higher one rises in the organization, the greater problems functional myopia creates, and the greater the need to develop business acumen. For example, if you find yourself with an extra $100,000 in the marketing budget, where is that money best spent? As a business unit manager, should you focus your investments in new product development, improving the manufacturing process, marketing, or employee training? Without business acumen, these types of questions are impossible to answer.

The third area of development needed by Hi-Pos is execution skills.” In many companies for which I have worked as an employee or as a consultant, the company’s leadership team has declared a goal of increasing revenue by, let’s say, 10% in the next fiscal year, where the company has shown steady growth of 3% to 4% over the past several years. And in most of these companies, employees have been given no guidance or direction on how the company is to accomplish that goal. When you continuously set ambitious goals and provide no guidance on what people must do differently to achieve those goals, all you do is frustrate employees (especially if their bonuses are dependent on the company reaching its goals). Leaders need execution skills in order to plan how to accomplish the goals they set.

In my next blog post, I will focus on how the four elements of the leadership development program model can help develop all three areas: leadership skills, business acumen, and execution skills.

Feeding Your Leadership Pipeline

An effective leadership development model – Part 1: Identifying High-Potential Employees

In my book, Feeding Your Leadership Pipeline: How to Develop the Next Generation of Leaders, I present an effective model for putting together a leadership development program within an organization. While there are many models for leadership development in the marketplace, this is a model I developed almost 20 years ago from my own experience and the experiences of many other companies that I have researched for my books and others with which I consulted, and it is a proven model.

In this series of blogs, I will present the essence of this model. You will find more detail in my book and in some of the articles on my website.

This first part discusses how to identify candidates for your leadership development program, i.e., those employees who are believed to have high potential for future leadership roles within your organization. To learn more about this, please click on the “Articles” tab at the top of this page and then on my article “Competencies and Indicators of High Potential.”

I hope you find them of value to you as you strive to develop your own organization’s next generation of leaders. As always, I welcome your reactions and feedback — I am always on the lookout for new ideas.

Dan Tobin

Are you getting your money’s worth from investments in leadership development?

Many companies have spent large sums sending a “high potential” individual to an external leadership development program, only to complain that they got no value from the investment. The major reasons why there has been little to no return are that the organization has not done a proper job of planning what that person needs, has not prepared the person before sending them off to the program, and done little-to-nothing to follow-up with the individual after the program. In my article, “How to Get Maximum Value from an Executive/Leadership Development Program,” I present a multi-step approach that will ensure that the individual attending the program and the organization as a whole get maximum value from it. Click the “Articles” tab above and click on the article title to read it.

As always, you comments and your own stories of experiences with these types of programs is most welcome.

Working with Subject-Matter Experts to Develop and Deliver Training

At one time or another, training personnel must rely on subject-matter experts to help them develop and/or deliver training. Over the course of my career I have learned a lot of lessons on what works best in these situations. For more information, please click on the “Articles” tab above and read my article on this subject.

As always, your comments, suggestions, and war stories are more than welcomed.

Dan Tobin

The Virtual Follow-Up Session

Here’s an idea I came up with and used successfully when I was at the American Management Association: The Virtual Follow-Up Session.

How many times has a student attended training and was eager to try out the newly-acquired knowledge and skills back on the job only to be stymied. When we attended the training, we may have thought we understood what was being taught, but back on the job we find that we didn’t understand it as well as we thought, and rather than make errors in applying it to our work, we return to the old methods. Or… we run into a roadblock in the implementation that wasn’t discussed in class and we’re stymied?

What now? The class is over. The instructor isn’t available to us. What do we do?

As trainers, we may have received great ratings in the end-of-course evaluations, but what good is the training if the participants can’t use what they learned back on the job?

The Virtual Follow-Up Session is a 60 – 90 minute video conference or conference call held about two weeks after the class concludes. Several days before the call is scheduled, the instructor sends an email to participants to collect their questions and concerns. These may include questions such as
– “I thought I understood this topic when we discussed it in class, but back on the job I find that I didn’t fully understand it. Can you go over this topic again?”
– “I ran into one of the problems we discussed in class and I tried what was recommended, but it didn’t work. Can you suggest another approach to overcome this problem?”
– “I ran into a roadblock that we didn’t discuss in class. Any suggestions on how to get through it?”

At the AMA, we tried holding these sessions for our corporate customers. We found that only about one-third of those who attended the class participated in the follow-up session, but almost everyone who took part in the follow-up session felt it was very valuable.

Give it a try, and let me know how it goes.

Cost versus Time versus Quality — An Essential Aspect of Critical Thinking

There is an old saying that goes something like this: Cost, Time, and Quality – pick two out of the three. That is, if you want high quality fast, it will cost you a lot of money. If you want high quality and low cost, it will take a long time to develop. And if you want low cost and quick development, the quality will suffer. In today’s global business environment, you want all three: high quality, low cost, and fast development. But in developing any new product or service, the job of management is to use critical thinking to consider the trade-offs among the three and select the optimal combination.

One facet of my first job as a software services curriculum specialist at Digital Equipment Corporation was to provide training for the field software specialists in their role as sales support, i.e., helping sales reps configure solutions and put together their sales proposals. The challenge was that the information they needed was spread across literally dozens of sources generated within the company, ranging from sales update magazines published by the sales training organization to technical product specification sheets produced by engineering groups to product brochures produced by various marketing groups. When I asked one of the specialists in my area how she kept up with all this information, she took me to her car and opened its trunk. The trunk was full of the mailings she received from various corporate groups. She estimated that if she stacked one month’s worth of the mail she received from these groups, it would be 12 to 18 inches high (per month!) – no wonder she wasn’t able to keep up-to-date.

[PLEASE NOTE: This was well before the introduction of the world-wide web, and while Digital had one of the largest internal networks in the world, the tools for creating what we now call web pages were years away.]

My solution was to create a “Network Presales Handbook” – a loose-leaf notebook that contained all of the information needed by software specialists in their sales support roles, with one tabbed section for each of the products in the networking arena. The notebooks would be updated once per quarter with the provision of any new or revised materials. Today, we would do this all on-line, but then there was no way of doing that, so we did it with print materials.

The response to this “training product” was overwhelmingly positive. But it took 6 months to get it out to the field. For the initial edition of the handbook, the development work was done in a little more than 2 months, but production seemed to take forever. I asked the production people why it took so long. The answer I got was that their standard operating procedures required them to go out to bid on each part of the job. That meant separate bids for the 3-ring binders, the tabbed sections, the printing of the materials, the printing of the tabs, and the assembly and packaging of the materials. And then, after getting the lowest bids on each job, the coordination of all the pieces so that the handbook could be assembled and mailed.

Once this was all done, and the initial mailings took place, I asked the procurement people to choose any one of the selected vendors and ask what the price would have been for that single vendor to do the entire job and, along with the consolidated price, to estimate how long it would have taken to do the entire job and have the handbooks ready for shipping. The answer came back that it would have added 27 cents per copy to the total price and that the job could have been done in 30 days. So, for a savings of 27 cents (on a total price of $37 for the four different vendors used) the publication of the materials was delayed for more than 2 months!

One of the key aspects of critical thinking is to question assumptions and beliefs. Was the savings from the use of multiple vendors in this case worth the delay in getting vital information to the field?

Be a “Smart Dummy”

One of my first jobs strictly in the training field was as a curriculum specialist for networking products in the software services training organization at Digital Equipment Corporation.  In this job, I received information on new products and product revisions, then planned what training would be needed by field software specialists to support the products.  I then contracted with an internal training development group to create new or revise existing training materials.

The training group I joined had been in existence for many years before I arrived and had longstanding methods and systems to accomplish its work across all of the company’s products.  I saw my two major challenges in this job as follows:

  • There was no master calendar of product introductions for new or revised products. My information on these products came from a variety of sources:  engineering, customer services software engineering, product managers, or marketing managers.
  • There was no standard way of determining what training would be needed for any new product. What was needed could range from a simple update to product documentation to a quick computer-based training module, to a new instructor-led training program or the revision of an existing instructor-led program.

As a result, I found that I was spending about 30 to 40 percent of my time answering questions from various corporate and field offices about what training I was planning for various new and revised products.  My colleagues, who had responsibility for other product groups, were similarly spending as much time with the same tasks.

My solution was to convene a quarterly meeting with the heads of product management, engineering, marketing, and other relevant groups to create a master calendar of the products in the pipeline over the next six months and, for each product, to discuss what level of training or information provision was needed.  I then created a master calendar, which I updated quarterly, from which I could plan development efforts and provide information to the field software support groups.  As a result, the amount of time I spent on the phone answering questions was reduced from 30 to 40 percent to about 10 percent, and I was able to spend that additional time working on the quality of the training products.

The group I worked for had been doing the same things the same ways for more than 10 years, and they got the job done.  My approach of convening the advisory group and creating the master calendar was adopted across the group and greatly improved the group’s efficiency.  Was this a revolutionary improvement in training methodology?  No, but we all fall into the trap of continuing to do things as they have always been done because we know the methods, are comfortable with them, and know they get the job done.  It is often helpful to bring in someone who is not familiar with the old methods to see if there might be a better way.

A senior vice president at a Fortune 500 company once told me that when he put together a task team to tackle a longstanding challenge, he always included a “smart dummy” on the team.  A “smart dummy” was a very bright person who had no background in or knowledge of the problem under consideration – someone, he said, who could ask the “dumb questions” that no one else would ask and question the assumptions under which the others were working.  This is the essence of “critical thinking” – being able to question basic assumptions and biases that affect peoples’ judgment and behavior.

When I first suggested the approach of putting together the advisory group and the master calendar, my group’s manager said that it couldn’t be done – the product managers, engineering managers, and others I planned to invite were too busy to take time to meet with me, and that these people considered training as more of a necessary nuisance that as an added-value service.  I found that these people were anxious to participate because they too were constantly interrupted by calls from people wanting to know what was planned.  So my solution not only benefitted me in my work, but also was a benefit to them.

Have you really looked at the assumptions and biases you carry with you every day and which affect your decision making?  Try being a “smart dummy” for a while and see if you can identify ways in which longstanding beliefs and practices are holding you back.