How Much Can Training Accomplish?

I was invited to give a presentation for a very large, prominent software company at a conference of help desk managers from all over the world, and the topic of the conference was, “Creating a Better Customer Experience”. Different presenters focused on different ways to achieve this important outcome. Some, for instance, focused on how to reduce wait time by optimizing certain processes. The focus of my presentation was the impact of hiring the right kind of people.

The organizer of this conference had verbatim feedback from satisfied customers displayed around the room on large posters. Every participant could read several of these comments from wherever they sat. I read these posters as I prepared to deliver my remarks, and something struck me. Every single positive customer comment emphasized character traits. For instance, “Jorge was so patient in walking me through what I needed to do.” “Shirley really knows her stuff. But more importantly she was kind and understanding. She didn’t talk down to me.” “Amith did more than solve my technical problem. His sense of humor helped me get rid of my frustration. It was actually a fun conversation.”

You can give the exact same musical score to ten different singers. Some will deliver a simply dreadful experience. Some will do okay. But maybe one will create a performance so beautiful it brings tears to your eyes. The score alone cannot create an excellent experience for the listener. It depends on who’s singing. Talent matters.

When it comes to customer-facing employees, you can give them all the same training, the same information and the same support systems. But it’s character traits like empathy, patience, positivity and compassion that create an excellent experience for the customer. You can teach people to use your computer system, but you cannot teach them to be patient or positive. Those traits (and the others I mentioned) you must hire.

Would you like to verify this from your own experience? Think of the best customer-facing employee you’ve ever worked with. What made them so good? Take a couple of minutes and jot down a brief list of reasons why they were so good. When you’re done, read on.

Is your list mostly made up of things like positive attitude, good work ethic, good team player, liked to learn, etc.? You didn’t train those into the person. They were that way when you hired them. That’s what I’m talking about.

If you want to create a better customer experience, hire better people.

Thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

Who Should You Put In Your Training Program?

In 1979 I went to Atlantic City to serve on the opening team of the Playboy Hotel and Casino. It was a boom town, bustling with activity. Numerous casinos were under construction. The energy and excitement were palpable. It was a heady time. Atlantic City was being reborn.

In conversation with a long-time resident, I learned that in days gone by diving horses had been a major attraction along the once famous boardwalk. A horse and rider would walk up a long ramp to a high platform that extended over the ocean and  jump off. Voluntarily! Diving horse.

Immediately, I became intensely curious about how one trains a horse to do that. My acquaintance said, “Well the horse trainer still lives here, and he’s often at the Good Times bar at 5:30 on weekdays. You could just go over there and ask him.”

Unbelievable. Sometimes life just hands you something good.

I was soon sitting there with the trainer. I wish I could remember his name. This is what he told me:

I don’t actually train them. I find them. I take very young horses to the beach. Some of them just like going into the water. They just go in spontaneously and they like it. The horses that don’t go in, I eliminate. I take the ones who liked the water to a very low pier. Some jump in. The others I eliminate. I take the ones who jumped in to a slightly higher pier. Every once in a while I find a horse who likes jumping off the high platform. Of course at every stage there’s some coaxing, there’s some rewarding. But there’s never any coercion. That’s how it’s done. That’s my secret.”

Years later I was listening to a famous animal trainer who worked with lions and tigers. The interviewer asked how he trained those cats to perform the specific tricks. He replied, “I watch them when they’re very young – watch them when they’re just playing, doing whatever they want. Different cats like doing different things. If a particular cat likes to jump backward, I create a trick that requires him to jump backward. I build the tricks around what they naturally like to do.”

It’s the same with people. If you find out what a person does naturally and likes to do, training in those areas will likely result in rapid growth and increased engagement. If you’re training someone to do something for which he has no affinity (e.g., diving off a high platform or making sales calls) you can make some progress, but it won’t be rapid, it won’t be easy and it will plateau long before his performance could be called excellent. In addition, his engagement will likely go in the wrong direction.

There are plenty of situations in which a person has not tried something, so neither she nor anyone else knows whether she has an affinity for it. In that case, give it a try. But after a while, if progress is slow and labored, if she doesn’t enjoy it, continuing is not good for her or for the organization. Quit wasting your time, effort and money. Find something that’s a better fit for her.

Thanks to Elisa Hillman for suggesting this topic. And thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

Are You Hiring For Today Or Tomorrow?

Many organizations today operate at such a lean staffing level that when any employee leaves it creates a stressful sense of urgency to fill that position. In previous posts I’ve discussed the importance holding out for high potential candidates rather than settling for one who can do merely an adequate job. I’ve also pointed out that creating a deep talent bench of pre-qualified internal and external candidates can reduce the time to fill open positions without compromising hiring standards.

Suppose a mid-level manager leaves. Even if you have a deep talent bench you must still address the question, “Should we select a candidate who can do this role with excellence, or should we select one who also has the potential to be promoted?” Both types of candidates can meet the definition of “high potential”. Do you hire for today or tomorrow? I believe it’s good to have a balance of both.

If you hold out for candidates who have to potential to be promoted, you’ve established a different selection standard. Fewer people on your talent bench (internal and external) will meet this standard. Consequently, if you hold to this standard for every mid-management role, it’s likely to take longer to fill each position. But if you do hold out for promotable individuals, you’ll be stacking your bench to meet future needs as you grow.

A consequence of this approach is that you might not grow rapidly enough to promote all these high potential people. You invest in their development, and then they leave for promotions available in other organizations. You should consider these events to be graduations. This is something you should be proud of and something you should publicize. You’ll earn the reputation of investing in people and preparing people to move forward their careers. It’ll be easier to attract more high potential people to your organization.

But it’s also okay to select someone who can perform with excellence in the open position, even though they don’t have the potential for promotion. A big part of potential for promotion is interest in promotion. I’ve had the pleasure to work with professional hotel executive housekeepers, restaurant managers, sales managers and others who perform their jobs at a high level of excellence and have zero interest in being promoted. They’re in a role they love and they understand the value they add. They want to grow by becoming even better in that role, not by being promoted. If, however, you have too many people in this category, you won’t have a deep enough bench to provide leaders as your organization grows. You’ll have to bring in outside candidates, which will make it more difficult to maintain your culture.

It’s challenging enough to hold out for top performers who have the potential to perform with excellence in the current open job. There’s a sense in which that’s not settling, but it is only hiring for today. As leaders, we also have to make sure we’re hiring for tomorrow.

Thanks for reading. And, as always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

How Should You Deal With Legacy Employees?

Here’s a question being posed to one of my colleagues. Your organization has many employees who have been with the company for 10+ years, and who have always been loyal, hard-working, good ambassadors of your company. But your business has evolved significantly over the years. In many respects, you’re a very different company today. These people helped you get to where you are now, and you truly appreciate their contributions. It’s not their fault, but some of these people are no longer a good fit for the company as it is today. What do you do?

This is a common situation. In previous posts, I’ve written about the importance of maintaining unequivocal integrity to the organization’s core values. But in this situation we’re required to decide what to do when we encounter a conflict between two core values. I hate it. It’s difficult. All solutions have painful side effects.

In this case we have employees who’ve done everything right. They’ve earned our loyalty. Let’s assume that loyalty is one of our core values. And let’s also assume that another core value is maximizing organization performance, which benefits all stakeholders. What are your alternatives?

Re-cast them into another job.
This could require them to take a pay cut, or you could decide to grandfather their compensation. Either way, at least they still have a job. This alternative demonstrates a balance between loyalty to these individuals and your duty to maximize benefits to stakeholders.
Terminate their employment, with severance and help.
Unfortunately, re-casting is often impossible. You could give them a generous severance package, and you could extend yourself to help them find another job. It shows some loyalty and empathy for the employee, while emphasizing benefits to stakeholders.
Terminate their employment without generous severance or help.
This seems to be undesirable to me. It maximizes benefits to stakeholders, but it demonstrates no loyalty at all. Your employees will get the message. You expect loyalty, but you don’t give it. If you choose this option, quit stating that loyalty is a core value. This, at least, allows you avoid hypocrisy.
Carry them. Allow them to continue in their present role, even though they can’t meet the current expectations for the role.
This can be an attractive option at first glance. Perhaps some of these people are close to retirement. You could demonstrate strong loyalty by simply carrying them, tolerating their deficiencies. This requires extra investment to compensate for these deficiencies, and does not maximize benefits to stakeholders. And toleration of poor performance doesn’t enhance your image as a leader. Don’t choose this for people who aren’t close to retirement. And if they are, I’d choose option #2 above.
Allow them to continue in their current role, giving them the opportunity to meet the current expectations for the role.
This is the most attractive option for me. It’s not your fault that expectations have evolved with changes in the business. You can give them all the help and support in the world, but if they can’t meet the current expectations, you can revert to one of the other options above. But you must hold them accountable. I think this option demonstrates strong loyalty without compromising your duty to maximize organization performance. I’d try this one first.

Thanks to Mark Epp for suggesting this topic.

And thanks for reading. As always, I welcome your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg


What Can Leaders Do To Prepare For The Future?

An associate recently asked me this question, and I’m not under the delusion that I have a definitive answer, but it’s certainly an important question, well worth discussing. So here are my thoughts.

First, we must acknowledge that we can’t prepare for all possible future states. So we have to decide which ones to prepare for. Paying attention to emerging trends can help us make some decisions. Periodic SWOT analyses (or some similar exercise) can help as well.

However, many of the most important opportunities and threats are unknowable today because unpredictable events dramatically change the economic and competitive landscape. Here are a few examples: the invention of personal computers, earthquake, terrorist attack, creation of polio vaccine, aids epidemic.

Based on the unpredictability of the future, I propose that leaders can best prepare for whatever the future holds by focusing on the following four fundamentals:

  • Selection and development of highly talented leaders, at all levels.
  • Developing a system that delivers rapid, just-in-time learning, where and when the learners want it.
  • Cultivating a culture of creativity, innovation and experimentation.
  • Fostering close relationships with customers, partnering with them to create products, services and solutions that meet their current needs and known future needs.

The first three bullets empower the organization with the agility to respond rapidly to unpredicted opportunities and threats.

The final bullet is the best method of learning about emerging trends and gaining deep customer loyalty as you explore together the possibilities of the future.

Leaders who focus on those fundamentals will be prepared to meet the unknowable challenges that lie ahead. In today’s world, an appetite for change is a competitive advantage.

Thanks to my associate, Libby Farmen, for suggesting this topic.

Thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg


Can Leadership Be Taught?

At the time of this post, Nelson Mandela, one of the greatest leaders in recorded history, has just passed away at the age of 95. I cannot think more insightfully or write more eloquently about Mr. Mandela than those who are currently doing so. But today I’m thinking about this great man in light of a persistent question: can leadership be taught?

I suspect that even those who believe leadership can be taught would readily agree that one cannot create a course of study that would endow the participants with Nelson Mandela’s capacity to lead. That’s easy to see in the case of Mr. Mandela. He was extraordinary in many ways.

But can we create a course of study to create leaders who are somewhat less extraordinary? Military generals, for instance? CEO’s? General Managers? Mayors? Team Captains? Many people believe we can. And I agree — if our goal is to teach people to perform at a merely acceptable level. But can a course of study (including a series of assignments and experiences) enable participants to achieve excellence as leaders? I believe not.

In this respect leadership is no different from other endeavors such as nursing, car racing, or film making. Anyone can learn to do them to some level of undistinguished performance. But excellence in performance requires aptitude, giftedness, talent. If the aptitudes related to leadership exist in a person, that person has the potential for excellence. A course of study in leadership will help actualize that potential, as will the right life experiences, mentors and so forth.

But if the right aptitudes do not exist in a person, no combination of intellectual and experiential learning will bring them to a level of excellence as a leader.

Can leadership be taught? Of course. Anything can be taught. The more important question is: Will that teaching produce truly excellent leaders? It’s not enough to have great leadership and management training. You also have to decide who you invite into those programs. My advice: focus on aptitude.

Thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your comments.

Larry Sternberg


Are You Investing Properly In Your Mid-level Managers?

If you’ve lived in the same neighborhood or section of a city for several years, there are probably some restaurants and shops you visit frequently. Do you remember occasions where the experience was suddenly much better or much worse in one of those shops? The root cause was almost certainly a new manager. That’s the subject of this post. It’s hard to overestimate the value created by a great manager.

Many organizations invest heavily in selecting high potential people for senior leadership positions. But for reasons I’ve never understood, they often don’t put forth as much effort at the mid-management level. For those organizations, improving the cadre of mid-level managers presents a low-risk, high-return strategic opportunity to improve organizational performance. Who doesn’t want that?

So how do you get more great mid-level managers? Performance management and competency training are only partial answers. Want to understand why? Think about the best mid-level manager with whom you’ve ever worked. The Gold Standard. Jot down six reasons that person performed at such a high level of excellence. If you want to get this point, please take a moment to jot those down…

Now, how many of your items were NOT the result of training or education? Did that person go through training, for instance, to make them more positive? More determined? More hard working? More caring? Probably not.

How can you ensure you’re putting potential Gold Standard performers into your management training program? Study those Gold Standard performers, but don’t focus on their learned competencies, focus on those crucial character traits that are not addressed in their education. Use available scientific methods to develop a profile of these Gold Standard performers and recruit to that profile. And don’t forget to assess your current hourly employees. There are future Gold Standard managers among them.

How many of your current mid-level managers are Gold Standard performers or have the potential to be in that club? If they don’t have the aptitude, training won’t get them there.

Great mid-level managers ensure that strategies are properly implemented, that employees are highly engaged, that customers are intensely loyal, that processes are optimized and that organization values are upheld. Furthermore, mid-level managers can be, and should be, the organization’s farm team for future senior leaders. Are you investing properly in their selection and development?

Thanks for reading. As always I welcome your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg