Long-Term Effects of an Unbalanced Training Strategy

As more start-ups and small- to mid-sized companies start new training divisions, I’m seeing a practice that could have negative long-term implications: a narrowly focused training department.

In each of these three types of companies, it’s common to have a single division that produces a majority (up to 100%) of the revenue, with all other divisions essentially supporting the revenue source. This is especially true in retail and e-commerce.

So a natural, and correct, starting place when forming a new training division is to focus all the division’s efforts on this revenue center. I say ‘correct’ because it’s generally best to focus training efforts in the area that will yield the most gain.

The trap to be wary of, however, is to focus solely on the revenue-producing division over a long period of time. While that division will continuously improve, the resulting imbalance when compared to the other less-trained divisions in the company can have significant negative impacts.

Some effects could be:

  • Changes in turnover and retention – As employees are developed in the revenue-producing division, their turnover will naturally decrease. However, in the other divisions, the lack of robust training will begin to increase turnover and naturally lead to a poorer level of service to the revenue-producing division. As the gap widens over time, the effect will become more pronounced.
  • Communication problems – I’m not talking about training on communication here. I’m addressing problems that will arise when the focus is wrongly out of balance. A well-trained division speaks a common language, has deep shared experiences, and develops a sub-culture of its own based on a solid foundation. Meanwhile, the neglected divisions will lack this “flow”. This causes breakdowns in the ability to communicate effectively or develop a common frame of reference. Inter-department communication will especially breakdown.
  • Declining support – As the skill gap widens and turnover increases in the less-trained divisions, their ability to provide support will decrease. Here is the key – as their support function decreases, this will begin to significantly affect the revenue-producing team, negating some of the positive effects of investing in their training.
  • Fractured procedures – With declining support will come the fracturing of established procedures and protocols. This occurs as the revenue-producing team tries to make-up for the lack of support they receive and is especially pronounced in companies with multiple locations.

For example: Location A isn’t receiving proper billing support from Accounts Receivable (due to the errors AR keeps making) so they create their own reminder system to ensure revenues still come in on time.

Location B has the same problem, but they create a different system that changes how they file receivables with AR.

Locations C does something entirely different from A and B.

See how this could cause problems? Now replicate that issue across multiple less-trained divisions and you can imagine how it would corrupt the revenue-producing team.

A strong culture and good hiring practices can shore-up the lack of training in the non-focus divisions, but only for a time. Eventually, these effects will worm their way into the organization.

So how do you avoid this? Let me bypass the quick answer here that would say “train everyone equally.” First, that’s a cop-out, and second, it’s wrong. You shouldn’t train everyone equally. Like I said in the beginning, train for the biggest impact. But there is a subtle sneakiness about impact that requires a close eye, lest you look up one day and realize you’ve lost a significant number of employees due to a lack of development.

The better option is to ensure your training team, from the beginning, is focusing appropriately across the entire company. This may mean 80% of their effort is devoted to the revenue-producing team and 20% is devoted to the other teams. While those percentages are not a hard rule, the concept is sound. The key is to ensure development for each division so they all grow, without failing to put the majority of your effort into the revenue-producing team.


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Measuring Training Success When Opening New Locations

How do learning and development professionals know they’ve been successful after they’ve finished training a new staff and helped open a new location? With that question, I’m specifically talking about retail, restaurants, clinics, etc. with public-facing locations that interact with customers every day.

I’ve had the opportunity to open new retail locations for multiple employers throughout my career. While sizes and industries can vary, the same principles apply to any successful opening when considered from the training team’s perspective.

The goal of orientation for a new location’s staff is to take them from new hires to staff ready to serve customers. The first things companies look at as a location opens are sales and customer feedback. But it would be a mistake to assume that positive sales or high service marks prove new-hire orientation was successful. While they certainly can be strong indicators, they don’t tell the whole story, and stopping your analysis at those measurements would be a mistake.

Many things besides training affect the sales numbers of a new location. Was marketing properly executed? Were stock levels correct? Were displays and merchandising in place? Did the technology run correctly? Being off in any one of these areas can greatly affect sales outcomes.

What about service marks? A customer that rates service highly could just be happy because a staff member was nice to them. That’s a positive indicator that you hired well, but doesn’t necessarily correlate to successful training/onboarding.

Therefore, it’s important to consider additional measurements to accurately gauge how well the onboarding team prepared the new staff:

  • Surveys – After the onboarding is finished, the common action most trainers take is to survey the participants and see what they thought of the training. This is considered a Level 1 analysis on the Kirkpatrick scale. A better option is to escalate your analysis to a Level 3 or 4. These levels look at actual behavior and results, rather than opinions. Start with the end in mind – i.e. as you plan the onboarding curriculum, decide what you want to measure to ensure success, then train to that measurement.
  • Turnover – While there are many factors that affect turnover, it can still be a good measure of training success. A study by Experticity showed that 24% of employees leave their jobs because they didn’t feel they were trained or developed well. The key here is that HR needs to give and analyze exit interviews for those leaving to identify the root causes. Obviously, this isn’t a measurement that you’ll see much of (hopefully) in the first six months. If you do, that is an even stronger indicator of problems.
  • Conversion rate – If the organization is in retail (as opposed to a service industry) tracking conversion rate (customers coming in the door compared to customers that make a purchase) can be a good indicator of onboarding success. Just remember that a new location will naturally have a lower conversion rate than an established shop. Analyze conversion realistically based on the new staff’s tenure.
  • Sweat the small stuff –  Staff that doesn’t have complete training will often miss the small stuff. As Regional Managers visit new locations over time, it’s important that they look for the little things that would be indications of incomplete training. Maybe it’s the way cashiers put money in the drawers (it should all face the same direction), or the way staff answer the phone or greet customers as they come in. Anything can be an indicator when viewed as part of the overall picture of the location’s health.

Think outside of traditional boxes. Look for measures beyond the standard survey of how employees thought training went so you can get a deeper look at the new location’s health. Once you have that information, you can develop a plan to overcome shortfalls, and also learn from what went right. Failure is the best teacher if you are willing learn from it.


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Why Leadership Training Often Fails

There is a very simple reason why leadership training fails in so many companies across America, and it’s the same reason a lot of training fails. It’s both easy to identify, and simple to understand, yet it can be very difficult to solve. Keep reading to find out what it is and get some tips on how to solve it!

As record numbers of Baby Boomers retire, leadership positions pass to Gen X’ers  and Millenials. A massive transition is underway in America and companies have eager, but often untested employees raising their hands to take on mantles of leadership. In the process of promoting new leaders, many organizations discovered the best-qualified individuals still lacked basic leadership skills. This resulted in lower team performance, higher turnover, and missed goals.

To meet this challenge, organizations began instituting training programs to develop leadership skill-sets in their new promotees. Applying best practices in adult learning, these programs often mixed live training, reading, on-the-job training, peer groups, and self-reflection. But some programs failed because they lacked a key component in leadership training – post-training follow-up and support.

Think of it this way: imagine you live in the early 1900s and you’ve decided to design and build this new thing called an automobile. As a forward thinker, you recognize what a difference this new form of transportation can make, so you gather together the best mechanical engineers and craftsmen you can to work on your team. You get everything right. The car is beautiful, it runs smoothly, and is everything you’d hoped and dreamed.

The day comes where you make your first sales and soon your little town has fifteen cars running around. But after a week, you notice the new owners have all gone back to riding horses. How can this be? you ask. After interviewing each of the new owners, you quickly realize your mistake.

After teaching them how to fuel and maintain their new autos, you never followed-up to make sure they understood and could put their new knowledge into practice. Overwhelmed with all the change, the owners failed to practice their new skills and reverted back to old habits. The autos soon were parked until they “had time” to do maintenance on them.

Leadership training often suffers from the same errors. An incredible curriculum is written and rolled-out, teaching every concept these new leaders will need. The curriculum, developed in alignment with organization goals and executive input, also incorporated input from frontline managers, and other key department stakeholders. It exactly met the gaps identified in your research and set up new leaders for great success.

But for those new leaders, it’s also slightly overwhelming. The curriculum, for some, calls on them to change everything about how they lead others. For others, they need to incorporate major shifts in thinking. When they get back to their jobs, they fail to implement their new knowledge because they run into roadblocks they aren’t sure how to solve, and it becomes easier to “just do it the old way.”

So how do learning and development teams build follow-up and support into their plans? Here are some ideas for consideration:

  • Start with the end in mind. As you develop the leadership curriculum, keep at the forefront of your planning that you will need to provide follow-up and performance support to the newly trained leaders. Just like a good job description, try to make the key items of your curriculum measurable so you can gauge the success or challenges of the learners.
  • Provide multiple methods of follow-up. Some learners will be successful if you just provide them reminders of what they learned. Other learners will need one-on-one coaching to work through issues. Be prepared with multiple tool options that the learner can self-select to help them implement their new training.
  • Train the learner’s managers on what to expect and how to support them. The direct supervisors of the learners will be most aware of the success or failure of the training, so guide them through the analysis and support process ahead of time. This will prepare them to reinforce what you are teaching. Oh, and don’t forget to tell them the why behind the training.
  • Give the learners limited coaching sessions they can use as they see a need. This is an idea I got from Google’s management training program. Give the learner (for example) two 30-minute coaching sessions they can use with an experienced manager or HR, at will, whenever they feel the need arises. It allows them to self-direct their support and use the time on a deep-felt need.
  • Create peer groups. Set-up an online or in-person peer support group where they can openly share successes and failures, and coach each other through challenges. This also serves to knit the fabric of the organization closer together.

There are many more ways to support the curriculum, but ensuring you have a clear plan in mind is the critical first-step.


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Effective Corporate Learning Environments Need This

What makes for an effective corporate learning environment?  Does that question cause pictures of boardrooms, or training halls pop into your head?  Maybe your first thought was of an employee’s desk or an eLearning lab.  All of these can be applicable when considering what a corporate learning environment is, and certainly all of them are different physically, but they should all have one thing in common: mental engagement.

Any learning environment is less about the physical setting and more about the emotional support. Take the best, most advanced interactive classroom in the world, and put Ben Stein from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off in front of the room, and every moment of time is now a waste. Conversely, take a mud-floored thatch walled hut and put someone that is passionate and excited to be there in front of learners, and a beautiful thing occurs: engagement.

The instructor has more power to create an engaging learning environment than any lighting, color, desk, tool, or background music. Too often companies try and fix these physical things to improve their training programs and forget the lower hanging fruit: training the trainer. How many SME’s (subject matter experts) attended training that helped them be better instructors/discussion leaders/classroom-control experts? An expert in PowerPoint is not automatically an expert at teaching PowerPoint. Head knowledge doesn’t always translate to teaching skill.

So how do we help our SMEs be better teachers? Let me tell you a story:

John was a sales rep that was consistently recognized for his ability to meet sales goals while maintaining exceptional relationships with his clients. If you read the top 10 books on how to relationally sell, John exemplified all of them. In an effort to help his clients sell more of the product they bought from his company, John agreed to come to a live training the client was hosting and put on a training seminar on his product.

Talking about his product was something John could do in his sleep. Unfortunately, it ended up being the learners who were sleeping, not John. He approached his training session just like he would a sales pitch. He had slides packed with text about the products, how they were manufactured, what their key features were, their supply chain, and pricing matrix breakdowns. As he went from slide to slide pointing out key items, the learners became more and more disengaged. By the end of the 90-minute session, no one in the room was even paying attention.

John could sense he’d lost the room, but had no idea why. In a private moment later that day, John approached me and asked for feedback. He admitted that it was a rough session but didn’t know what he could do better. Excited at his teachability, I sat down with John and started reviewing his session.

“John, the first mistake you made was with your slides. They had way too much text, not enough images, and you read them to the group almost verbatim.”

“Yeah” he said, “but I didn’t want to forget anything.”

“Tell me the top five features of product X” I asked. He looked at me oddly for that question, but then rattled off the top 5 features like I expected. “Now how can those features be turned into benefits?” Again he had a quick and thorough answer.

“See John, you won’t forget anything important. You’re putting people into cognitive overload, in other words, you’re overwhelming their brains, with so much information. They don’t need to know the nine fabrics that make up your product; just that it can stretch and is more comfortable because it has mixed fabrics.”

John thought for a moment and started to see the point. “So, key points only without overwhelming detail?”

“Bingo. Now the next thing I’d like to see you do is to involve the group more. Call on people. Get them to participate. Have them do some structured activities that teach them about your product and get hands-on with it.”

…our conversation went on like that for a while, with him taking notes and me mentoring him on how he could impove. I also sent him a Guide to Live Training pamphlet I’d written for our SMEs. Ten months later John came and presented again. His was one of the highest rated sessions in the entire two-day event. He took to heart the items we’d discussed and put together a great seminar. After he finished we talked about how well it went and he again asked me for improvements. If only all my SMEs were that eager to improve!

L&D folks, two take-a-ways for you from John’s story:
1. Mentor your SME’s (preferably ahead of time) to help them be successful. Many are experts in their field, but not experts in ours. So help them improve!
2. Never stop critiquing and learning how to improve your own training. As the world moves forward, if you are standing still, you are actually moving backwards. Never grow tired of perfecting your craft.


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Stop Blaming the LMS

There is a fast growing movement in the learning and development industry that has me troubled. Across all channels, I see L&D Professionals, especially those that are not experts in their field, espousing “the LMS (learning management system) is DEAD.” A quick Google search yields hundreds of articles focusing on this “emerging trend in learning.” There are also numerous twist on this same topic such as:

  • the traditional LMS is dead
  • the LMS is dead but what the article says is replacing it is actually an LMS
  • the stand alone LMS is dead
  • Moving to Learning Engagement Platforms
  • and more…

As far back as 2015, the Twitter-verse was proclaiming the LMS’ demise and how the best companies were moving on. Yesterday, I was in a LinkedIn discussion started by a guy who was writing an essay on how the LMS is dead and looking for sources he could cite. He’d clearly taken a position without even researching it. Frankly, if the LMS had an AI, I’m sure it would quote Mark Twain right now: “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”

There is no doubt that the older versions of LMS’s are dying off. Like any software, when something doesn’t keep up with technology trends and modern programming, it tends to go away quickly. This early form of the LMS is often where horror stories exist of forced compliance, long boring trainings, and extremely poor user experience. This is also the type of LMS that big companies are finally moving away from, and why there is suddenly so much press about it “dying.”

Yet even with this traditional form of the LMS, the sad reality is that it’s not the tool that was the issue (though it certainly did have its problems.) The real failure lies in the way training departments were using the LMS. My favorite quote in all of Learning and Development is by Marc Rosenberg – “Bad training + technology = more efficient bad training.”

Of course learners will rebel when forced to sit through voice-over PowerPoint compliance training that goes for 65 minutes, with the “instructor” simply reading what is on the screen. It doesn’t matter what tool is used; even in a Learning Engagement Platform that behavior is revolution-worthy.

Call it whatever you like – learning engagement platform, content curation platform, eLMS, LMS 3.0, etc., if the training is bad, it still won’t help people learn any better. I’ve seen “traditional” LMS’s used incredibly well, with high learner engagement, when they were loaded with effective content.

Stop blaming the LMS. That’s like going on a bad date and then saying all dating is dead. Get off the Fad wagon and work on developing effective, engaging content for whatever tool you have.

Yes, there are newer versions of LMS’s that run better, smarter, smoother, with more user choice, improved functionality, and focus on multiple media types. But guess what, they are still LMS’s (whether they are called that officially or not.) I don’t doubt that a company running original versions of Moodle wants to shoot the server and declare an end to all LMS’s (I would too in that case,) but be realistic about the real source of the problem and takes steps to fix that first, before investing a new “cutting edge” platform where you repeat the same mistakes.

The LMS is not dead. It’s not even dying. It’s just morphing, like all software does, into a better version of itself. The rest is just hype, marketing, or ignorance.


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Reflecting on the Frustrations of Learning and Development

Working in Learning and Development (L&D) can be a very rewarding career. Few jobs allow you to impact so many people on a daily basis without an emergency involved. As I develop and implement training, what I do has a measurable effect on my co-workers.

L&D can also be very frustrating and mind jarring. Any full-time L&D professional I’ve spoken with over the years shared a similar story of joy and woe. Common frustrations often include:

  • too many people in the company wanting training and all of it is high priority
  • not enough people in the company supporting training
  • not enough support from the top
  • not enough support from the bottom
  • technology problems
  • software failures
  • overloaded schedules
  • resources pulled without warning
  • failures of others that affect your own output
  • lack of recognition
  • recognition of others for work you did alone
  • budget cuts
  • lack of professional development

All of these and more I’ve faced in my career as an L&D professional working across several companies. I’ve faced days, weeks, months, and even years where I wanted to throw in the towel, tap out, and walk away.

But then, I have a moment.

A moment where someone unexpectedly thanks me for helping them finally accomplish that thing they’ve been trying to do; a moment where genuine recognition comes after a really hard job; a moment where the light suddenly goes on for a group of people I’m training and they leave to have a huge impact on the company. I first learned of moments like that when I taught Jr. High and High School history classes. There is something really special about watching the light turn on for someone.

In between moments, when the road seems dark, I think of something Rory Vaden said. Rory Vaden is an author, trainer, and inspirational speaker that focuses largely on sales training in his consulting firm. He wrote a blog post called the Myth of the Lifestyle Entrepreneur and in it, he said something the resonated with me as an L&D professional. Here is a partial quote of that article:

Quit buying into the lies. 

Quit allowing yourself to be deceived. 

And instead, put your head down and go back to work. 

When you get tired, suck it up and go back to work. 

Then, when you’re ready to quit, go back to work. 

After you’re sure you can’t take anymore go back to work. 

Once you’re completely empty, keep going back to work.

While he was speaking to entrepreneurs, it was a really good reminder to me that the work I choose to do isn’t always, or even often, glamorous, or fun, or exciting. Sometimes it is drudgery, pain, and anguish. When those times come, and they will, I find myself thinking of Rory’s statement above, putting my head down, and getting back to work. When it gets really bad I channel a little Jimmy V and my mantra becomes “survive and advance.” I hold out for that next ‘moment’ that reminds me why I do what I do, and why, in spite of it all, I love it.


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When Training Fails Epically

Tonight, Greg Gianforte, the Montana candidate for the House of Representatives seat that was opened due to political appointment, allegedly body slammed a reporter for asking him tough questions. Tomorrow is the election. True or not, this can’t go well for him.

Greg Gianforte (Getty)

I’m going to skip an overall account of what is being reported (read more about the incident here.)  I want to focus on something Alicia Acuna, the Fox News reporter that is an eyewitness, said: “At that point, Gianforte grabbed Jacobs by the neck with both hands and slammed him into the ground behind him.” Grabbing someone by the neck and slamming them to the ground speaks of either great fear or great rage. That’s an extreme action taken under extreme emotion.

I feel fairly confident in saying Gianforte’s advisers coached him during the campaign to avoid doing something extreme that would grab media attention. That is Politics 101. I also feel confident in assuming that Gianforte understood that coaching and worked hard throughout his campaign to properly implement it. Now, whether the allegations are proven true or not, this happens on the eve of the election. Uber.Epic.Fail.

Right about now I imagine political advisers all over the country, from both sides of the aisle, are placing themselves in Gianforte’s advisers’ shoes and thinking about what they would have done differently to prevent this. Their thoughts aren’t all that different than what trainers feel after coaching a team and then having something go badly awry.

So what is the trainer’s next step when something goes so badly wrong? Here are some suggestions:

  1. Perform a frank analysis of the training that was originally presented. It’s important to deeply understand what was attempted in the past that failed to prevent the current situation. The last thing that should be done for better results is what was tried before. That’s the definition of insanity. Look at all aspects of the original training: communication, learning environment, curriculum, evaluations, engagement levels, interruptions that occurred, discussions or lack thereof, etc. and then search for improvements.
  2. Discuss the findings of your analysis with someone impartial, if possible. Fresh eyes and minds on a problem can yield incredible results. There is wisdom in the counsel of many. Get expert opinions from others that can see things you might have missed.
  3. Formulate a plan for retraining. Unlike with politics, most situations are recoverable long-term and people will need to be retrained to prevent further disasters. The plan for this retraining needs to address repairing the initial training gaps, as well as properly training new learners.
  4. Schedule retraining as close to the incident as possible. You want to prevent further mishaps. If the incident calls for it, put the breaks on further activities that could lead to the current disaster. Be decisive in your actions at this point. For initial retraining, I strongly recommend keeping new learners separate from those that are being retrained. The conversations will be very different between the two groups. Don’t fall into the trap of adding a few new people to the group for cost savings.
  5. Discuss the incident openly and frankly in the retraining session(s), if at all possible. There may be a lot of questions, heated emotions, or maybe even hurt feelings. Be prepared and ensure those delivering the training are properly armed with answers.
  6. Follow-up with extra performance support materials after the training ends. Re-enforce the new training stronger than you would otherwise, because you need to rewire the brains of the learners to stop thinking of the original training (which has had more time to settle in) and think or act in a new direction.

While Gianforte’s political career may be over at this point, most training failures aren’t  permanent. Quick action can prevent further failures and begin to repair the damage.



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