ENGAGING HUMAN PERFORMANCE TO DRAMATICALLY IMPROVE STRATEGIC BUSINESS RESULTS
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April 2011

SEAL THINKING (Training) Vs. VALUE BASED THINKING (Learning Partner/Result Catalyst/Success Coach)

(I have adapted this from an article I wrote as I realize it has widespread value outside of the market for which it was written.)

I occasionally still get requests that read like this: “Senior team wants to do a two day session in location x. Please send outline, confirm availability and fees.” My stock response, “Any so called professional who responds to this on the face of it should be immediately disqualified from consideration!”

A few questions immediately occur:

  • A ‘senior team’ means what exactly?
  • Why do they want to do a two day session (general amusement, stimulus, something remedial, to advance certain objectives, to primarily strengthen relationships, all of the above?)?
  • An outline for what? An outline without knowing them, their culture, their issues, what else they’ve experienced, what they hope to do next? It’s beyond daft.
  • Without knowing any of that, or the preparation or set-up the nature of the session that may be needed will require, how can a fee be credibly established? A fee should relate to value.

And this gets to the nub of the out-dated and outmoded “training” paradigm. The very word raises my hackles. When someone says we need “training”, I tend to say, “Seals get trained, humans hope to get educated, be catalyzed, or to be supported in making progress towards success in one or more ways.”

Animal trainers have animals repeat certain behaviors, reinforce those behaviors, or modify them using a carrot and stick approach (heavier on the carrots). Physical trainers have a pre-set regimen and they oversee and invigilate their clients as they follow that regimen. Again, repetitive conditioning, following some known and tested path. The ‘trainer’ in the latter instance is meant to be a role model for the regimen.

Trainers work on muscles or isolated areas, coaches work on results. Ask any sports team the difference.

Why would a senior team want ‘training’ therefore, and if they truly wanted to follow a prescribed regimen, they should find someone who has followed that regimen and can administer it. This may be someone at say a GE, or a Google more recently who will say, “Follow our path and experience.” Alas corporate cultures are a lot more diverse and idiosyncratic, as is the make-up of their senior teams, than the tendons and sinews we humans by and large share in common.

Heaven forefend such senior teams should revert to the language and communication barriers between trainers and seals when indeed blandishments must rule the day.

There are numerous other incoherencies with the prevailing paradigm here. ‘Training’ is done via ‘events’, which can at best be sugar highs. People don’t change, except in rare exceptions (a truly life-changing event for example, a near death experience, a significant crisis that reorients all our values and priorities, etc) via “events”, but via processes. Education isn’t an “event”, nor is love, nor is friendship, nor is quality, nor is customer care, nor is R&D.

Because such undertakings are anchored in “events”, the ‘trainer’ is evaluated primarily as a performer, which may provide ego massage for great performers, but not great value to those on the receiving end of said performance. As someone who enjoys theatrical delivery, and has been lauded for it, I certainly don’t disdain the drama, panache and engagement that can amplify and enhance the sharing of messages. I used to deliver a four day ‘Mastery of Self’ experience that one Christian leader in Pakistan said was like 4 Broadway shows a day over four days. But still, his writing later (even this session was separated by a week of application that allowed it to move in the direction of a process) of the impact this had in his service of others, how it improved his impact as a father, means a lot more than the roar of the crowd — however intoxicating it can be.

But performance can be enjoyed as performance, and if requesting a speech for ‘edu-tainment’, that’s fine. And certainly great orators can hold people spellbound for days. But “cast a spell” should then be requested as the client outcome! In many political cultures, we too often equate leader with ‘speechifier’. But Martin Luther King’s speech was unforgettable because he embodied its premise and lived and died for the dream. Giving a speech by itself is NOT leadership.

Two other problems with this model exist other than it goes against the grain of how anyone learns and is oblivious to actual value. First, it tends to bring out the worst angels in people’s nature getting us to season our ‘performance’ with a methodology dump. And it operates via a ‘sweat equity’ model of value. I will do 1 day for $1,000 and teach model A (I bought four books on the topic last week-end and will present my version of the ‘Gullible Rube’s Guide to Managing Change’ sonorously quoting various authorities). So it’s a bad business model. It ignores leverage, it incorporates no real element of distinctive brand or remotely original intellectual capital.

And how is success measured? Happy sheets! People rate relative irrelevancies like “trainer’s knowledge” and “quality of food at venue”. Ye gads! You need a vote on the trainer’s knowledge? I call it an “irrelevancy” because “impact” not possession of knowledge is what anyone should be evaluating. Absent credible, pre-established expertise, what were they doing there in the first place?

And this way, no ROI can be assessed. I can’t understand how so called “hard-headed” CFO’s sign off on a training budget each year which has virtually no tracking in terms of alignment with strategic business results and evaluates virtually no ROI from learning efforts. A formula for ROI is straightforward: Improvement (in some quantitative measure of value and relevance to the business) – cost / (divided by) cost X 100%. Why don’t we ask learning and development to have a clear line of sight to some outcome of quantifiable value and evaluate ROI in this way over time?

Anything that can be observed and has some impact, can be measured in some way — if not always quantitatively as above, certainly qualitatively — but in terms of evidence — what you would see and experience if the change took place.

So the alternative is powerful, and calling the other approach “learning partnership” or “result catalyst” or “success coaching” (depending on what is needed) is not semantics, anything but.

The primary mode of conveying value is not the ‘workshop’ (which is where you send your car to be fixed), but a real process, which is the only way anyone learns. The aim is to improve the client’s results or outcomes in a way that is relevant and meaningful to what they ultimately wish to achieve.

Legendary coach and seminal thinker, Marshal Goldsmith (for whose magazine I had the pleasure of contributing a piece on generating a “ROC” or ‘return on crisis’ during the economic crisis), did some original research on the type of leadership development that produces value. He found that one-time events virtually never did. And any kind of leadership development could add value if it had two key dimensions: a) it required follow-up and follow through over time across clearly identified areas of improvement and b) got involvement and input from people who interact with that person or team and see them in action. In other words, define the bull’s eye, gain skills that relate, agree actions that build those skills and advance you towards the target, and get ongoing ‘feedback’ (how we did) and ‘feedforward’ (what we need to do next) from stake-holders (those who have a ‘stake’ in how you do).

When this type of approach is opted for, the learning partnership, or results catalyzing or success coaching can deliver a real ROI. However, the value will be worth real fees, that will have to be authorized by someone with P&L responsibility, not people guarding budgets for ‘training’ x number of people via ‘y’ hours for entirely untracked, unsubstantiated value.

Consultants who provide this value are not claiming to have superior knowledge, which they often don’t. They claim to have enough knowledge to understand answers clients give, enough knowledge to ask the right questions and to understand their implications, and enough humility to be students first (of the client’s situation, challenges, realities and opportunities) before being a teacher. And they are true coaches, evoking and enabling options more so than specialists giving one size fits all prescriptions.

Great learning partners, catalysts and success coaches help to turn the tumblers of the mind, the heart and the will by providing partnership, an external perspective, expertise in the process of change, sustained commitment to client success, and solid experience in working with leaders and teams whereby concepts have been tested in the crucible of actual impact.

The greatest value is not the performance here but the relationship. Getting permission to help, gaining trust that the agenda is the client’s growth and success, creating frameworks that minimize labor intensity and maximize value, and allow meaningful follow-through is what top partners in progress should and do offer.

A client sought to improve corporate governance practices in their company. Two approaches were offered. One was to train the senior leaders in the concept of corporate governance by an ‘expert’. The cost was about $25,000. The second approach for this disparate conglomerate with a challenging structure and a slew of Boards, was to create the corporate guidelines by studying the company, talking to its leaders, understanding its needs, looking at the Board experience of its Directors and creating a customized approach to not only understanding corporate governance but how to apply it in action re some of the key decisions and trade-offs this company would face (many of which had clear economic impact). The fees were $75,000-$95,000 based on the amount of follow-up opted for.

Now, you could say one solution costs three times the other and make the decision on that basis. Or you could realize that the $25,000 will be almost certainly a waste if applied knowledge and not just generic education is being sought. And the $75,000-$95,000 if it includes (as it did), a customized set of Board practices, engagement and coaching of the Directors, monitoring and then responding to issues situationally as they emerged and then a Board assessment based on actual decisions and results, would be outstanding value which could save measurable time and money, build the trust and credibility of Directors and all the management teams that report to them, and let the company take critical, timely, effective decisions where it strategically most needed them.

Then comes the issue of leverage. On a sweat equity model consultants will flog as many days as they can, as that’s how you make money. Clients will perversely rejoice in how many days they’ve gotten committed from the consultants! Why celebrate how much time is taken rather than reward speed of delivering real value?

On a value basis, both consultants and clients will try and save the client time, and look for value through perhaps a combination of direct engagement, distance follow-up, coaching (face-to-face as well as virtual), tracking and then subsequent recalibration based on results. And if the client’s aim say to create tangible functional and goal alignment among the senior team is cracked early, you stop. They get full value, you get full fees, and you get congratulated for producing results fast. Why incentivize people to take longer? Btw, in value terms, re one key team as an example, this led to them cracking a stalled acquisition which required real collaboration, taking some stubborn and nontrivial costs out of the system (ditto) and consulting each other more proactively and co-creating an approach that helped them to win substantial new business in three of their regions. Very easy to track ROI there.

A senior leader I know who was based in an emerging market was being shown houses by real estate agents. One innovative agent knowing the leader was busy, interviewed him and his wife to find out what they were after. He then did a video essay of the top contenders on the basis of the requirements. They viewed it in about 45 minutes, short-listed down to three, arranged to view all three in a morning and made a decision by lunch-time. His fees were thrice that of others, and people complained to this leader, “Other agents have spent days upon days, and in a half day you pay this guy three times the amount they wanted!” He replied, “Should I penalize him for being smart, for bothering to understand me and my wife, and saving me precious time? Shouldn’t he get paid more for that?” Sure…in value terms that makes perfect sense!

The other embedded paradigm here is that diagnostics trump cures, otherwise you’re curing the wrong thing, or are one of those characters who have a “solution looking for a problem”. The greatest doctors, lawyers, architects, CPA’s and other professionals have to understand the need, the illness, the case, the balance sheet and then create a game-plan that is distinctive and that builds your confidence. Any learning partner or success coach who doesn’t ascribe a large part of their value to that demonstrated capability, should be shown the door.

There is the wonderful story of the plumber who comes to fix a bad leak in the toilet, quickly identifies the problem, strikes one blow of his hammer and resolves the issue. He gives an invoice for $100. The customer is mortified. “You took 5 minutes, hammered once, and you’re charging $100?” Unfazed, the plumber offered to itemize the invoice. It said, “For hammering, $1. For knowing where to hammer, $99.” Absolutely!

So let’s move from performances to processes, from events to follow through, from happy sheets to real outcomes of value, from sweat equity to leverage and real partnership, and from methodology dumps to the application of real expertise in both relevant content and experience in the necessary human dynamics to make a difference! Let’s leave “training” to the seals, and focus on the success of human beings, catalyzed and coached in a true learning partnership instead.