Are you being Penny-wise and Pound-foolish with Training and Development?

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I cannot tell you how many times I have been told by leaders that they are simply too busy to invest in their own or their people’s growth and development. It is as if to say, “I know I’m running out of gas but I’m in a hurry and I don’t have time to get gas.” There are too many of us simply killing the goose to get the golden eggs and, in the process, leaving the people in our organizations increasingly dissatisfied and under-skilled in a rapidly evolving world.

Resources are never the problem. It is lack of resourcefulness that is the problem.
— Anthony Robbins

Having had direct accountability for various organizations in large corporations for over 30 years, I am quite familiar with the pressure to deliver results and get the job done, and I can completely understand that at times you must put all non-urgent activities on hold to do what needs to be done “right now.” This balancing game is perfectly fine and necessary to the functioning of any organization, but it begins to become a liability when you find yourself chronically and consistently pushing development efforts to the bottom of the priority list. 

Perhaps you know some leaders who consider training and development a “nice-to-have” at best? Maybe you identify with the challenge they face and their reasons for choosing to be conservative when it comes to training and development. You yourself may have even behaved the same way in the past. If this is the case, I hope you’ll hang in there with the post, because my intent is not to lecture you on the benefits of developing your people. The truth is, you already know the benefits, or else you wouldn’t even be considering the question to begin with. That you don’t recognize the benefit is not the problem. The problem is that you see greater benefit in allocating the available time and effort to other activities that you consider to be of greater value, usually more immediate issues that have discrete solutions. That’s totally normal and to be expected. As humans, we generally place more value on those things that are readily apparent and available to us than to things that seem abstract or far in the future, something known as the “availability heuristic.” We also tend to be far more comfortable choosing solutions that will lead to a certain outcome, even if that outcome is negative, than those with what seem to be ill-defined or vague benefits, even if those benefits are overwhelmingly positive; “the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t,” as they say.

I realize that in certain circumstances, if you are dealing with low-skill, repetitive work and expect no changes to the technology or work procedures on the horizon, you may be able to get away with not training people for a while, but this is hardly ever the case. There is an exception to this, of course, as there are exceptions to any rule. There is one situation in which investing in the training and development of unskilled workers performing repetitive tasks would be not only unnecessary but possibly even criminal, so it is your moral imperative to resist the urge to give in to the “leadership training hype,” and that situation it is this: your workers are robots instead of humans! Even then, I would strongly advise you to perform the routine maintenance on your “workers,” and purchase the software upgrades as soon as they became available! And don’t forget to make sure the human operators overseeing the robots have their training and development skills up to date, because they are doing highly specialized technical work and it would be very costly to replace them! Strangely enough, given that robots and machines require no intrinsic or extrinsic motivation, acknowledgement, rest, benefits, and so on, I would expect that leaders would still be willing to spend more consistently to maintain and improve the robots’ effectiveness, than they would be willing to spend to do the same for their regular workers. Many of us might even agree with them. But why is this?

Perhaps you have heard of the Stanford Marshmallow Test. It was a test on delayed gratification, in which children aged 4 to 6 were presented with a marshmallow on a table in front of them by researchers. They were told that they were free to eat the marshmallow at any time, but that if they could wait a period of time of around 10 or 15 minutes, they would be given two marshmallows. Of course, the one marshmallow represented the immediate and certain gratification available, while the two marshmallows represented the greater, but vaguer and less certain, gratification available in the future. In the Stanford test of 600 children, only 1/3 were able to prevent themselves from eating the marshmallow long enough to receive a second one. Interestingly, those that were able to delay gratification for longer appeared to be both smarter and healthier in follow-up studies years later.

Having had direct accountability for various organizations in large corporations for over 30 years, I am quite familiar with the pressure to deliver results and get the job done, and I can completely understand that at times you must put all non-urgent activities on hold to do what needs to be done “right now.” This balancing game is perfectly fine and necessary to the functioning of any organization, but it begins to become a liability when you find yourself chronically and consistently pushing development efforts to the bottom of the priority list. 

No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.
— Hebrews 12:11

How do marshmallows correlate to these robots? Robots are, of course, more discrete and less “fuzzy” when it comes to their functioning, when compared to humans; we know that a certain input will always produce a certain output for a robot, whereas we imagine humans are, as Forrest Gump put it, “like a box of chocolates: you never know what you’re gonna get.” The payouts for investing in robots’ maintenance and development are immediate and certain and limited—like that single marshmallow in the present—and so we value them more than the comparatively nebulous and deferred payouts we get from investing in our people—represented by the two marshmallows in the future.

The fact of the matter is that, as long as you work among and are tasked with leading your fellow human beings, training and development will always be necessary to keep pace with the changing business environment, lest you risk being outpaced by organizations whose leaders understand this; you may feel right now that you can’t afford to spend time and money on training, but the truth is that you can’t afford not to for the sake of your organization’s future effectiveness. And the fact is that people aren’t really “like boxes of chocolates,”; we know that a certain type and level of investment in development and training will lead to a certain type of outcome for individual employees and organizations on the whole. The difference is that, whereas the outcomes for something like a robot are certain and therefore limited, the outcomes for an organization’s people and culture are less immediately apparent, precisely because their potential is unlimited, i.e. it far exceeds what even the greatest limited outcome could deliver and there is no end to the future benefit it may bring. Unlike the linear returns we expect from optimizing systems and equipment, the returns we can expect from investing in our people are exponential; it isn’t just twice as many marshmallows, it is marshmallows all the way down!

To determine whether you are actually making training and development a priority, take some time to reflect on these questions:

  • What percentage of your total budget do you allocate to training and development of your team members?
  • How much time do you set aside for proactive coaching and development of team members?
  • What mechanisms do you have in place to ensure informal, on-the-job training gets done on your team?
  • What resources, internal or external, do you have working on training? Are they dedicated resources or do they work on training on the side if they have time?
  • What methodology do you use to quantify the gap between the current or future skill needs and your current skill profile?
  • How much time do you personally spend developing your leadership skills and qualities compared to that of your team members?
  • Are your training and development efforts being documented, reported, and reviewed as often as your other Key Performance Indicators?
  • How long are you willing to wait before you deem training and development efforts a success or failure?
  • How often do you find yourself thinking or saying, “I know we need to get some training done but we don’t have time/money right now!”?
  • How often do you identify lack of training and development as the contributing factor to performance outages? Do you take action to address the opportunity when it is identified as the root cause?

These questions are not intended to be part of a mechanical benchmarking exercise to see how well you’re doing in comparison to others, but rather a way for you, as a leader, to reflect upon how you view training and development, what you feel you’re doing well, and where your opportunities lie. If going over these questions gives you a sense that you are doing well in some of these areas and have opportunities to get better in some others, then all there is to do is to identify 1-2 steps you are willing to take and go to work on those.

If you realize that you have not paid enough attention to building the capability of your team and are feeling compelled to do so, but you don’t know where to start, please understand that it is never too late to acknowledge this outage and involve your team members in finding solutions that fit within your budget and time constraints. Training efforts don’t have to start with hiring expensive consultants, deploying fancy tools and systems, or having people spend days in a classroom setting. They can be as simple as having a conversation about the current results and tracing the opportunities to potential skill deficiencies, and brainstorming how you might address those opportunities by doing some cross- training or taking advantage of free resources that are available on-line. It is amazing how creative people can get and what resources they can tap into when they know that their training and development is actually important to their leadership. In due time, as investing in training and development begins to pay off and the perceived value of it becomes apparent, you will find it easier to make decisions to invest more time and money in developing your team.

I’d encourage you to reflect on where you stand as a leader and be intentional about adopting the mindset that it is always worthwhile to invest in your team’s development, and just take 1-2 steps immediately in the direction of actively demonstrating your commitment to your team through your actions.

The Bottom Line:

We all have a bias towards investing in things that are immediately available and deliver certain results, even when we intellectually know that we would reap greater rewards investing in things that have a greater payoff in the future. Whether it is making the choice to eat tantalizing junk food rather than healthy foods, or watch TV rather than exercise, or keep plugging leaks rather than calling the plumber, this behavior is completely and unavoidably normal and there is nothing wrong with it.

However, just because there is nothing wrong with it doesn’t mean we are immune to the consequences of our choices. When you choose an action, or lack thereof, you are simultaneously choosing its consequence. So if you choose to each junk food, you are choosing to be in poor dietary health in the future, regardless of your intentions or proclamations otherwise.

Similarly, when you choose to do busy work playing “whack-a-mole” with urgent, but not important, problems in your organization rather than devote resources to developing the capability of your team members, you are choosing to be under-prepared and ill-equipped to adapt to and take maximum advantage of novel opportunities within your organization and the market in general in the future. Again, there is nothing wrong with that, as long as you are willing to take responsibility for the consequences. The question is if it is worth more to you to have one marshmallow now or an endless supply of marshmallows in the future? Unlike the Stanford researchers, I won’t be coming back in 15 minutes, so let your choices and actions suffice as your answer to the test.

When you choose an action, or lack thereof, you are simultaneously choosing its consequence.

Have a great week! May you Boldly Declare, Courageously Pursue, and Abundantly Achieve the Extraordinary! As always, I would love to hear about your victories and/or challenges. Please leave your comments below or send me an email at

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