The SME leaders’ dilemma: buying personal development

I know I need development but will I make a good buying decision?

Were you working for someone somewhere and frustrated at how you saw the business being run?  Did you think you could do better and so struck out on your own? You recognise you could be a better leader but are concerned about making a poor buying decision for your development.

Your business is doing OK.  It employs a dozen or more people incurring a monthly salary bill of the order of some tens of thousands of pounds.  Yet, you have a lingering sense of frustration that your people are not doing what you need them to do.

Is the boot now on the other foot with some of your people feeling like you did that you could do better.  The likelihood is that like you were they are probably your better performers and could more easily find a job elsewhere.  Lose them and your business will suffer a marked dent in its performance.  It is not that they are irreplaceable (no one is; you can lose someone to an accident or a lottery win), but they are effective and efficient workers.  What can you do differently as their leader to improve the odds that they will stay?

The cost of your frustration

Your frustration about people under performing is justified.  It costs you.  Consider this simple illustration.

Say you have 20 employees.

20% are C performers.  Each of them incurs an annual total cost to your business of £25k, so £100k in direct costs.

What is the “opportunity cost” of their poor performance in missed sales, poor service, sorting out mistakes, disrupting colleagues etc?

Another £100k?

So, possibly £200k of ‘cost burn’ rather than ‘value add’

Can that cost be turned into value?

How through your managerial and leadership development can you raise the C performers’ game?  Yet this apparently upbeat question masks a significant risk.  Concentrate too much of your time on the weaker performers and you can catch a cold.  This old saw sums it up, “People join an organisation and leave a manager.”

Why do good people leave an organisation?  Often because they feel they are not getting sufficient support and encouragement from their boss.  They see lots of time being spent dealing with the issues of poor performance.

So what approach to your leadership development can you take that will equip you with the means to invest effective time in growing the talents of your A and B performers as well as dealing with the issue of under-performance?  It is not about buying a bag of mythical pixie dust, however.

It demands hard work on your part as a leader to acquire, understand and put into practice an extensive range of capabilities.  At the heart of everything is the fundamental human activity of conversation.  How can you learn to converse effectively and who can teach you?

So what new, fan-dangled approach are you flogging?

I’m not selling anything in this article.  Instead, I want to sound some alarm bells before you sign any purchase order.

There are countless approaches out there nowadays.  Some are as much use as a chocolate kettle; others appear to be so complex that they’re beyond rocket science.  Which remark is as good a reason as any to provide this link to a Mitchell and Webb comedy sketch;

The “science” of human engagement in organisations is rooted in work from 70 to 80 years ago when the school of organisational psychology was established in the USA.  One of its founders was Kurt Lewin, who remarked, “There is nothing so practical as a good theory.”

The model below provides a good litmus test to assess whether you’re being offered a chocolate kettle or something more helpful. You need to select development that has a tangible research root and can actually be applied in the reality of the workplace.  Development that is popularist (it’s a fad), puerile (it has no connection to your firm’s line of work) or nit-picking pedantry (tick-boxing) isn’t going to deliver the sustained impact in your performance that you seek.

How do I avoid getting robbed?

In an article called “The Great Training Robbery” published by Harvard Business School, it stated US firms spent $165bn on corporate learning and development in a recent year.  Of that spend, some 90% produced no discernible performance gain within 12 months.  So, lots of money was spent that enriched the “trainers” more so than the buyers.  Which, as the article’s title suggests, is larceny.

Dan Pink’s book about selling, “To Sell is Human”, offers a very helpful clue, I recommend.  He suggests the old adage of caveat emptor no longer remains valid because the buyer knows all about the “features and benefits” of the product or service being sold, courtesy of the internet.

If the salesperson comes in, opens their lap-top or tablet and says, “I have the best thing since sliced bread” or equivalent remark, say, “Thanks and good-bye”!  They are doing nothing whatsoever to understand your challenge, problem or issue.  Pink remarks that selling is no longer an exercise in purveying “solutions” but, rather, one of selling the identification of the real problem that needs solving.

I remember at the advent of e-learning in the 1990s, salespeople sitting in front of my desk saying they had “the panacea to all my training problems”.  Twenty years on that panacea has been nothing more than a placebo, which has boiled down learning into tablets of information transfer, i.e. “read this”, “listen to this” or “watch this”.  Receipt, rather than understanding and ability to practise, is validated via multiple choice tests (aforementioned tick-boxes).

Turn the tables

I like the phrase, “you have two ears and one mouth, use them in that ratio”.  So, the salesperson who immediately goes into autopilot mode and reels off the sales pitch for a super deal on “gizmo XYZ135” isn’t honouring that law of conversation.  They’re subscribers to the Glengarry Glen Ross mode of selling, “always be closing”, see  (Parental warning: this clip contains LOTS of profanity.)

Interrupt, break the flow, pose lots of open, exploratory questions.  Listen intently to their responses and then ask some more questions.  At any time that it all seems too good to be true, close the conversation.  And don’t agree anything on the first meeting; ask for a second date.

I’ve often thought training and development should be sold based on the terms of an assassin’s contract, i.e. half now and the rest later when the promised benefits have materialised.

This demands a relationship, not a one-night stand in which the learning event is run, the money is collected after which the trainer is off over the horizon to their next conquest.  (I can remember one pitch at the bank I used to work for where one of the slides still showed the brand of a competitor with which, I guess, the salesperson had which met in the days before.)

You need your chosen trainer to stay close to you, your business and your people; get them to show a genuine interest in what’s happening and the progress that is being made.  Agree how the performance impact is going to be openly measured so the trainer has fair chance of getting their second-stage payment.  While you don’t want to be conned, neither should you be trying to con the trainer!

Above all, make the person you chose to guide your leadership development has to sweat for their BMW or Rolex!  That requires a different set of brass balls!







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