Thursday, December 28, 2006

David Maister Interviews BusinessWeek's John Byrne


David Maister Interviews BusinessWeek's John Byrne (20min) (2006)

John Byrne shares the lessons of his personal career trajectory from business journalist to Fast Company editor to Executive Editor of BusinessWeek, and discusses how managing a knowledge-based company is similar to running a professional business.

Saludos cordiales
Renato Sánchez 3586 dep 10
Santiago, Chile

Seminario David Maister en Chile

Seminario David Maister

El día 18 de Enero de 2007 se realizará un seminario en el hotel Ritz-Carlton

de Santiago a partir de las 8:30 a.m. y hasta las 5 p.m. especialmente

focalizado a estudios jurídicos que contará con la presencia de abogados de los

más prestigiosos estudios de Chile. Habrá dos recesos cortos, un almuerzo,

disponibilidad de estacionamiento para todos los asistentes y traducción

simultánea al castellano.

El seminario será realizado por el profesor David Maister, probablemente la

autoridad máxima mundial en el tema de administración de firmas de

profesionales. El Sr. Maister, quien ha sido incluido por BUSINESS MINDS del

Financial Times/Prentice Hall como uno de los 40 más importantes pensadores

sobre negocios del mundo, ha asesorado por más de veinticinco años a esas

firmas en temas estratégicos y de administración. Su actual clientela se

distribuye en un 40% en Norteamérica, 30% en Europa y 30% en el resto del

Saludos cordiales
Renato Sánchez 3586 dep 10
Santiago, Chile

David Maister Pronto estará en Chile.

Professionalism in Consulting

(about pdf)

by David Maister 2005

Chapter 2 of The Contemporary Consultant, edited by Larry Greiner and Flemming Poulfelt, Thomson-Southwestern, 2005

Like many profound ideas, “professionalism” is an ambiguous concept used to refer to a wide range of attitudes, skills, values and behaviors. For example, if one asks people what is meant by referring to a consultant as “really professional,” one hears a variety of replies. A really professional consultant, I am told,

  • Gets involved and doesn’t just stick to their assigned role
  • Reaches out for responsibility
  • Does whatever it takes to get the job done
  • Is a team player
  • Is observant
  • Is honest
  • Is loyal
  • Really listens to the clients’s needs
  • Takes pride in their work, and shows a commitment to quality
  • Shows initiative

This list indicates some of the differences between a “really professional” consultant and an ordinary consultant. It reveals that a high level of professionalism doesn’t stop with a foundation of technical qualifications and analytical skills. In addition to these basic attributes, the right attitudes and behavior must also be in place, and these become the distinguishing factor for achieving real professionalism. My former business manager, Julie MacDonald O’Leary, said it best: “Professional is not a title you claim for yourself, it’s an adjective you hope other people will apply to you. You have to earn it.” (David H. Maister, True Professionalism, Free Press, 1997)

“You have to earn it” may not be a bad way to summarize what professionalism is really all about. It means deserving the rewards you wish to gain from others by being dedicated to serving their interests as part of an implied bargain. Professionalism implies that you do not focus only on the immediate transaction, but care about your relationship with the person with whom you are working. It means you can be trusted to put your clients’ interests first, can be depended upon to do what you say you will do and will not consistently act for short-term personal gain. Professionals make decisions using principles of appropriate behavior, not just short-term expediency.

Significant efforts have been made, and continue to be made, to “professionalize” consulting by promoting the use of the CMC–Certified Management Consultant–qualification. However, professionalism is not about qualifications and certification. Having an MBA from a name school or official recognition from a trade association or certifying body might say something about your knowledge, but these pieces of paper are unlikely to be predictive of your attitudes and behaviors, and maybe not even your skills. No formal qualification will ever provide complete assurance to the buyer that the provider will act appropriately, even if equipped with the required skills.

Forging Attitudes

The B-School Problem

It is not clear how consciously business schools, even those with special programs on consulting, set out to forge the appropriate attitudes for consulting. Through oversight or neglect, they may even sometimes create inappropriate behaviors. For example, many professional schools, whether in the law, business or medicine, work hard to create a sense in their students that they are an elite, the “best and the brightest.” This can breed arrogance that later shows up (no matter how unintentionally) as pompous, patronizing, condescending behavior when dealing with clients. “You are the person with the problem; I am the trained expert, so shut up and do what I say.” Only in recent years have medical schools begun to provide programs to fight this socialization, and few business or law schools have anything substantive in this area.

Some schools have attempted to tackle the difference between knowledge and skill by building real or simulated consulting projects into the curriculum, but few, if any, are consciously designed to provide a critical examination of the consulting experience by debriefing and exploring issues such as (a) what does it feel like to be a client?; (b) what is the difference between being an expert (providing answers) and being a skilled advisor (helping the client solve his or her own problem)?; (c) what is the consultant’s role when members of the client organization are at odds or in disagreement?

Yet the need is readily apparent to each of us whenever we contemplate our own experiences as buyers of professional services. In working with professionals, I frequently ask them to tell me what they dislike about having to deal, as a client, with other professionals such as doctors, accountants, lawyers, interior designers and, yes, management consultants. The list I am given of how people are treated as clients by these professionals is remarkably similar, regardless of the profession being discussed. Professionals (“those guys”), I am told,

  • Are pompous, patronizing, condescending and arrogant
  • Don’t listen
  • Treat me like a job, not a person
  • Don’t explain what they’re doing and why
  • Don’t like to be asked questions or challenged
  • Leave me out of the loop and take over my issue
  • Tell me what they think I must do instead of giving me options
  • Are more interested in my money than me
  • Ignore my feelings and treat the issues as purely technical
  • Apply standard solutions and approaches; don’t make me feel as if they are customizing to my needs
  • Don’t act as if they care about me

Test this list against your own experience as a patient or client with professionals. Does it sound familiar? What should be obvious about this list is that many, if not all, of the behaviors reported as missing are the very ones we would use to describe someone as a real professional. Note, however, that none are technical in nature, and all relate, one way or the other, to the provider’s attitude toward dealing with the client.

A business school education does little to help students distinguish between the “consultant as expert” (I can solve your problem) and the consultant as helpful advisor (I can facilitate your decision-making process and help you make your decisions). (See David H. Maister, Charles H. Green, Robert M. Galford, The Trusted Advisor, Free Press, 2000)

Successfully conveying an attitude of trying to help (as opposed to being right) is a prerequisite for all consulting work: without the ability to earn a client’s trust, content expertise will not be listened to by clients.

Few consultants report that they have been trained in these human interactive skills. Their entire education in schools and in firms has been about logic, rationality and intellect, and little, if any, experiential learning was provided to them on how to earn trust, win influence and establish relationships. Many do not want to engage in the interpersonal, social and emotional activities that being a “trusted advisor” requires. Many consultants consciously avoid anything that smacks of intimacy with their clients and rush to return to the “high ground” of detached, logical analysis where they feel most comfortable.

Further attitude problems, perhaps unconsciously, can be formed from the educational experience itself. In case-study-intensive programs, the student is invited to stand as the “outsider” and form judgments on the solutions to business problems. This can breed an attitude of detachment or disengagement; a view that logical, rational, intellectual analysis is the primary virtue; and that emotions, passions, and interpersonal dynamics are relevant only as subject matter to be studied and likely of secondary importance in consulting unless one is a “behavioral” consultant. At no time does the student receive the message that immersing oneself in the messy human dynamics of a business situation is a requirement to finding constructive solutions.

This problem is accentuated by other social conditioning absorbed in business schools about what business is about and what management involves. In one school of my acquaintance, hardly a single case study was examined without someone saying something like “This company is not in business to make widgets, it’s in business to make money,” thereby dismissing any need to feel passionately involved in the product, the customers or the employees. For better or for worse, such attitudes will influence the future consultant’s view of what is important in his or her profession and inevitably send the wrong signals to clients.

Firm Weaknesses

The socialization that takes place in consulting firms varies immensely. Firms often develop their own cultures of what they think “professionalism” is, and consciously or unconsciously socialize their employees into their specific definition of the term. They use the term constantly in their hiring and in proposals to prospective clients.

These varying definitions of professionalism differ immensely from firm to firm, probably appropriately so. For example, some firms emphasize “implementation” as the key to their professionalism, while others stress that their value is added by providing a “big picture” review. Is one of these strategies more “professional” than the other? Clearly not. It would be wrong to conclude that, for example, one must be involved in implementation or give the big picture to be deemed fully professional. The underlying issue is really one of integrity. Is the firm consistent in what it claims to be and do? Does it deliver on what it claims to provide? In essence, the issue is whether or not the firm has (and lives by) a clear ideology of high standards.

Some firms with a clear ideology, such as McKinsey, go out of their way to indoctrinate new hires into their value system (their way of doing things), which includes concrete positions on the role of the consultant, the appropriate way to work with clients and the attitudes expected of all consultants. Of course, what makes this formal indoctrination “stick” is whether or not the attitudes preached are, in fact, the ones that the young consultant sees modeled every day by the more experienced people in the firm.

Other firms, such as the Boston Consulting Group and Bain, also have a reputation for articulating clear, consistent, firm-wide positions on what they consider the role of a consultant to be (an ideology) and to which all members of the firm are expected to adhere. Naturally, these definitions are not identical firm to firm, but all serve the role of communication and forming a set of attitudes that are required by the firm. Whether or not the firm provides formal training or documentation is of lesser importance than the fact that there is a clear role model that all recruits are expected to emulate, and that the culture is strong enough to rein in instances of noncompliance.

However, many firms, particularly those who provide widely varying services to widely different marketplaces, experience a harder time in conveying a clear, unambiguous view of the consultant’s role. In addition, many firms do not have a firmwide ideology on this point. For these firms, which are probably in the majority, there is no enforced, common approach to working with clients. Individuals are socialized not through formal indoctrination but informally and randomly by the specific individuals they happen to work with. Little or no attempt is made to formally discuss the consultant’s role and the attitudes it requires. As a consequence, the concept of professionalism is left ambiguous and, almost certainly, randomly implemented.

Skills with Clients

The range of skills that an effective consultant who wishes to become “fully professional” must develop is, in fact, a long list. While many firms train their people in such things as presentations, written communications, proposal writing and selling, a much smaller percentage actually teach their people about how to work with a client. Client service training, where it exists, is spotty and usually an afterthought. Almost none of it is taught in business schools.

Again, there are singular exceptions. Not surprisingly, McKinsey, with its reputation for making a heavy investment in training, is one of the shining examples. Formal programs of “influence skills” are available and required, taught by psychologists, and there is a common practice of reinforcing this learning by inviting a second or third consultant to sit in on client meetings to observe and debrief the interactions. Such activities take place in other firms, but few have such an organized approach that is clearly signaled and is mandatory for skill development, rather than one that is optional and idiosyncratic.

Other skills are required as a consultant develops. Paul Glen, in his book Leading Geeks (Jossey-Bass, 2002) lists, among others, the following competencies needed by an IT professional:

  • Ability to manage client relationships
  • Ability to manage technical teams
  • Ability to play positive politics
  • Ability to help expand client relationships
  • Ability to work through others and make them productive
  • Ability to manage ambiguity
  • Ability to manage time horizons
  • Ability to manage client relationships

To this fairly familiar list one could add a number of skills that most consultants wish they had mastered earlier in their careers:

  • How to earn other people’s trust and confidence
  • How to earn, deserve and thereby nurture a relationship with a client
  • How to give advice without being assertive or patronizing
  • How to deal with conflicts among client personnel
  • How to manage meetings
  • How to supervise others so they want to work for you again
  • How to get the best out of those in support or administrative roles
  • How to get someone in a more senior role to want to help you
  • How to receive work delegated to you so you know what you’re supposed to be doing
  • If, when and how to say “no” to a senior person or client
  • Getting feedback from others, inside and outside, in a timely form you can use

All of these are learnable skills (some are even teachable), and all are components of what I mean by the term “a fully skilled professional.” Some of these are commonly contained in the typical firm’s training program; a remarkable number of these skills are not.

Integrity at the Core

Integrity is usually taken to be central to the idea of professionalism. But what, precisely, does integrity mean? Consider the following list of statements, each taken from the mission or values statement of a real consulting firm:

  • We always put the clients’ interests first, ahead of our own.
  • If a client wants to pay us to do things that we think aren’t in his or her best interest, we’ll turn the work down.
  • If we have even the smallest doubt that we can’t do this work to excellence, we’ll turn the work away.
  • We never lie, misrepresent or exaggerate, in any way, to anyone, under any circumstances.
  • We stand by our work. If clients don’t like our work, we refuse to take their money.
  • If a client treats our people badly, or with a lack of respect, we’ll walk away from that client.
  • We will fire any employee who fails to treat others (at any level) with respect and dignity.

How many firms do you know that could meet all these standards? If you think the standards are too tough to be realistic, how would you change them? Do you think a firm that lived by these rules would flourish financially or die? What else do you think belongs on the integrity rules list? Every firm (and individual consultant) should reflect on the above questions.

The key point is that integrity cannot be judged by what you advocate, only by that which you always do. A claim to integrity is only meaningful if it includes this follow-up statement:

“We treat our espoused values as nonnegotiable minimum standards, and counsel anyone who is not in compliance with them. If, after counseling, the person does not, or cannot, get into compliance with our values, we will help them find alternative employment.”

One of the readers of my website, where I first posted this statement, responded as follows:

“No firm meets all these tests. Putting the clients’ interests first, ahead of our own, is difficult to rationalize in public corporations. The commonly held guideline for behavior (maximize shareholder value) inevitably leads to a violation of the spirit of this principle. Leaders are willing to deceive (if not outright lie) to anyone producing a “drag coefficient” on revenue, including customers. Can (should) this change? I don’t think that adherence to strict integrity rules would actively constrain a firm’s performance. However, the traits that lead to violations may lead to disadvantages down the road, e.g., lying can work in the short term, but not the long term.”

Another reader of my website posed the following question:

“Do you think many professional firms are compromising their integrity in favor of money? The more competitive their environment and the larger their firm, it seems the pressure to maintain or increase revenue is just too great. Are professionals in such firms just high-paid technicians if the driving force from the firm is to make money even if this means risking its reputation?”

As these cynical comments show, there clearly are those firms out there that send a clear message to their people: “It’s about the money, stupid: do whatever it takes.” I have experienced first-hand those consulting clients who create such pressure to meet short-term financial goals that their people are led into faking orders, padding bills, neglecting client service and beating their staff to a pulp. In fact, if you read the gossipy bulletin boards on the Internet about consulting firms, you can easily conclude that such behavior is more common than not.

Integrity Pays Off

It is difficult to prove with hard science, but my 20 years of watching consulting firms leads me to believe that in consulting you can’t get away with a lack of integrity or ethics for long. I’d risk the generalization that those consulting firms that have, over the years, vigorously enforced values, standards and principles will also have achieved the best brand names and the highest profits.

In my book Practice What You Preach (Free Press, 2001) I surveyed 5,500 people in 139 professional firm offices in 13 countries, posing 74 culture questions, as well as obtaining three years’ worth of financial performance data. Using both stepwise regression and structural equation modeling (path analysis) I discovered that the answers to only nine questions accounted for more than 50 percent of all financial performance differences between and among these 139 businesses. They were

  1. Client satisfaction is a top priority at our company.
  2. We have no room for those who put their personal agenda ahead of the interests of the clients or the office.
  3. Those who contribute the most to the overall success of the office are the most highly rewarded.
  4. Management gets the best work out of everybody in the office.
  5. Around here you are required, not just encouraged, to learn and develop new skills.
  6. We invest a significant amount of time in things that will pay off in the future.
  7. People within our office always treat others with respect.
  8. The quality of supervision of client projects is uniformly high.
  9. The quality of the professionals in our office is as high as can be expected.

The firms that succeeded financially were not those that preached these standards (nearly every firm does) but those whose staff, top to bottom, agreed that they were the principles on which their firm actually operated. What’s notable about this list is how familiar it is. All it says is that the firms making the most money are those who are actually living up to familiar standards that everyone preaches. The message is that you can make more money when you behave and enforce standards, not when you superficially advocate them or merely post them on a bulletin board or company website.

Whether or not a consulting firm actually has the necessary standards of professionalism is proven by whether or not there are consequences for noncompliance. If a firm has a partner who does not treat others with respect, that partner must be counseled, and if the counseling doesn’t work, then that partner must be fired. If the firm is prepared to go that far, it can, in my opinion, be called truly professional and will likely make more money.

Origins of Failure

If all this evidence is valid, why then is excessively risky short-term behavior reported to be so common in business in general and is even found in many consulting firms? Why do we keep hearing of managers “forcing” their people into behaviors that at kindest can be described as “cutting corners” and at worst as unethical?

The most important point to make is that you don’t have to be unethical to be dumb. As my questioner put it, consulting firms are doing things to make short-term profits that put their reputations at risk. That’s not necessarily a lack of integrity, it’s just stupidity. And, at some level, it’s even understandable stupidity. A slightly compromised reputation might hurt you tomorrow, or the day after that, but, hey, that’s the future, and you wouldn’t believe the discount rate we apply to profits in the future compared to today! (And we’ll have a year or two to make up for it, won’t we? And maybe the clients will forget that we weren’t that great two years ago!) Call this the short-termism excuse.

There are others too. I have sat in strategy meetings where firm leaders acknowledge the future cost of compromising reputation, but argue that by the time it hurts the firm they will have made their pile and cashed out. These people aren’t really short-termers; they’re just selfish and greedy.

Then there are consulting firm leaders who don’t really believe their own mission statements, vision, values and strategy. They say that they believe a reputation for excellence is worth its weight in gold, but they are not willing to actually put the proposition to the test. For example, how many firms that preach dedication to outstanding client service are also willing to give an unconditional client satisfaction guarantee? Not many! These people are not being excessively short-term thinkers: they are cynics and unbelievers. They don’t really think that building or sustaining a reputation is worth sacrificing any amount of short-term cash.

Another pathology that occurs among a firm’s leaders who are not short-term thinkers, are not greedy and are not cynical is that they are very scared and lack courage. They would really like to stick with the firm’s strategy and standards and not accept a short-term hit, but they are frightened to take such a risk, either because they think their partners will rise up and revolt, which is actually quite possible, or, if they are publicly held, that Wall Street will take out a substantial chunk of their market value.

A final group of consulting firms with low standards engages in short-term compromises and acts of expediency because they actually don’t have ambition. To accept a short-term adverse consequence, you’ve got to have a passionately held ambition to get somewhere. Otherwise, why would you make sacrifices? Yet many firm leaders are more concerned about not messing up than they are about “going for the gold.”

So what have you got to have as a person to “do the right thing?” You have to have integrity, and really believe in your strategy, mission and values, and have a dream, fervently desired, and have the patience and courage to bet on the long term, and resist palpable pressure from the constituencies you serve and

be willing to accept the short-term consequences of your actions. This all takes a level of self-discipline that few of us measure up to in our everyday behavior. I guess that’s why it’s not common. And I guess that’s why they call it professionalism.

Problems of Enforcement

If you really want to obtain the commercial benefits from any strategy, you must put in a system that forces you to execute that strategy. The tragedy of many consulting firms, and the source of their lack of professionalism, is that they have not put in place systems to enforce accountability for standards.

As an example of one that has, consider EDS, the computer services giant. They have a Web-based project management system that records everything about the project–when are the next due dates, what have we done, what’s on time, what’s delayed, how much of the budget has been spent and accumulated? Here is the key point: this information is entirely accessible to the client! At any time, the client can log in and see where his or her project stands, with budget, due dates, deliveries, etc. EDS asks its clients to log in every two weeks to indicate on a simple scale of one to four their level of satisfaction with the client project so far. The chairman of this multibillion-dollar company logs in every day and can see client feedback from every client for the entire company, and that is the first thing he does every day.

What’s impressive about EDS is not the technology but the willingness to be held inescapably accountable to high standards. Many consulting firms haven’t even got a decent internal project management system, let alone one that they would give clients access to. Most firms have a mission statement that declares a commitment to client satisfaction and client service. But how many have a feedback system where they regularly ask clients, at the end of every transaction, how happy they are with the work? Only a few! How many publish those results with the names of the relevant partner to everybody in the firm? Even fewer! Instead, what exists in most firms is a frequently espoused belief that client service is very important, but a refusal to establish behaviors to accept accountability for it.

Firms typically leave it up to the individual and his or her self-discipline to accomplish high standards of professionalism, but that usually doesn’t do the job. If there is no system that keeps people honest about performing up to standard, you don’t get the benefits. The key, if you really want to make something happen, is to not leave it to self-discipline. If you really want to make something happen, create an external discipline. And if you don’t want to try that hard, and if you don’t want to be held strictly accountable, then fine, move on to something else. But if you can’t find anything you’re prepared to actually commit to, then recognize that you’re probably never going to be anything other than no worse than anybody else.

The Upside

Imagine a world where every junior member of the firm says, “In this firm, one thing you can bank on is that you will be superbly supervised on every transaction. It is a matter of professional principle with us. We don’t do work unless we supervise it superbly” (note that this was one of the nine profit predictors in my statistical study). What commercial benefits would come to that consulting firm if it were true that supervision was always done superbly?

First, from the firm’s point of view, there would be less wasted time and rework, and the firm would experience lower write-offs and higher realization. You could obtain better economic leverage because people would feel more confident in delegating work to trained people. Second, the firm would spread skills faster and the firm would do a better job of retaining people.

Clients would notice a higher level of quality and therefore might feel less fee sensitive, knowing that they had found someone who always supervised the work well. This is terribly scary, because maybe that might mean they would also notice when the work was not supervised superbly.

If, as a senior partner, I knew that every junior consultant had been supervised superbly since the day they joined the firm, I might actually trust these young people and delegate more to them; whereas if I am living in a normal consulting firm where excellence in supervision happens only sporadically then it’s quite logical never to delegate because the juniors are untrained, unguided missiles.

This list of benefits for both firms and clients can be obtained by diligent, enforced adherence to a high standard of project supervision. But here is the issue: Why are many consulting firms not getting these benefits despite everything they promise to new recruits about the importance of quality, professional pride and great work environments? Why does the average consulting firm not enforce this standard? Because they can get away without doing it!

Many consulting firms fail to meet the high standards of professionalism not because they do not believe in them and advocate them, but because they fail to enforce them. It’s not an issue of being “unprofessional” or unethical. It’s simply a matter of the difference between the true pursuit of excellence and the acceptance of mere competence. They have wonderful standards of quality that are preached. But they will forgive any partner who does not do this, as long as he does not go to the opposite extreme and do something ugly–sexual harassment or get us sued. Competence (“don’t mess up”) is not the same as professionalism (“uncompromisingly high standards”).

Partners’ Failed Leadership

If you go to the typical consulting firm today and ask, “What percentage of your partners would put hand-on-heart to say that they regularly read every issue of their main client’s trade magazine? Not all your clients–just your main client?” I can report from experience that, around the world, the answer is sadly in the single digits. Yet we all know that clients like for their consultants to show an interest in their business. So let me ask again: “Do you act as if you care about your clients?” In the typical consulting firm, the honest answer is, “We believe that we should care, but we frequently don’t act that way.”

I often talk about meeting three kinds of partners in consulting firms: dynamos, cruisers and losers. These, by the way, are not different people; they are all of us at different stages in our lives. A dynamo is somebody who is always acting like they have a career. In addition to taking care of this year, every year they are doing something to bring about their personal future. Every year they’re always saying, “Where do I want to go next, and what do I do today to make that happen?”

The cruisers (by definition, not losers) are a very important category that includes the majority of partners. They are good, solid citizens, coming in each week to make the sausages. They come in next month and they make the sausages. They come in next year and they make the sausages. And everybody knows those sausages are fabulous. The quality is there. The hard work is there, but that person isn’t actually going anywhere. He’s acting like he’s got a job, but if you said, “Where do you want to go next with your career? What kind of transactions do you want to be doing three years from now?” he’d say, “Sausages!” He has no particular desire to advance his professional career.

At some stage in your life, you’re probably a loser. The usual reasons: divorce, alcoholism, cocaine, manic depression, the kids have been arrested again. Things happen. If you’re lucky you deal with it and recover; if you’re unlucky you get stuck.

In the typical consulting firm, I am told by firms around the world, the percentage of partners in those three categories is about 15 percent dynamos, 75 percent

cruisers and 10 percent losers. If that’s the makeup of the typical partnership in the typical consulting firm, only 15 percent of the partners are trying to get somewhere and the large majority is just coasting along while making sausages day after day. Is that professionalism?

If my estimate is accurate, firms should not waste their time doing strategic planning. Because strategic planning in that environment is like trying to figure out which way to point the thundering herd when the herd isn’t thundering. The issue is not direction or strategy. The issue is, “Do they or do they not have the appetite to go somewhere, and to accomplish it with high standards of professionalism?”

We therefore come to the key choice if you’re considering a firm to join as a partner: which gang do you want to belong to? The tolerant firm says, “If you want to cruise, that’s okay. Not only is it acceptable, it’s actually the overwhelming norm here,” just like in many consulting firms. Or you might want to join a firm where they say, “The rule here is you’ve got to be learning and growing, because otherwise you’re not meeting your requirements as a partner. It’s something we have a right to expect of each other, that we are all continually learning and growing.” Notice that there’s an option here for firm leaders to confront and decide. The choice is, do you want to set forth and enforce a high standard in your partnership agreement?

The Real Bottom Line

The lessons should be clear. You get the benefit of that which you actually do, not that which you encourage. Ultimately, professionalism goes beyond attitudes, knowledge and skills and is about dependable, reliable, consistent behavior. You may believe in something, know how to do it and be skilled at doing it. But unless you can be relied upon to actually do it, and do it unfailingly, then you cannot hope to develop a reputation for professionalism.

The way you make money in consulting is not to be good at managing the money. The way you get money is to decide which product you want to deliver–quick, hot fast food or fabulous cooking for some cuisine connoisseur–and then enforce the standards appropriately for that choice though superb leadership. The money is an outcome of how high your standards are and what you do about them. He or she who lives to the highest standards–in other words, is most professional–wins.

Saludos cordiales
Renato Sánchez 3586 dep 10
Santiago, Chile

by David Maister

Why (Most) Training is Useless

(about pdf)

by David Maister 2006

This article began as a series of posts on my blog. My comments elicited quite a lot of encouraging interaction, so I am integrating and updating them here in a form accessible to a broader audience.

For much of my professional life, I have been paid to do training. It has been very well received in the sense that I have (usually) obtained high ratings, and clients not only paid their bills, but invited me back to do it again and again.

However, I now believe that the majority of business training, by me and by everyone else, is a waste of money and time, because only a microscopic fraction of training is ever put into practice and the hoped-for benefits obtained.

Unfortunately, training and other kinds of meetings and conferences are too often organized as stand-alone events, with a life of their own, disconnected from the firm’s progress.

What companies don’t seem to understand is that, as I shall discuss later in this article, training is a wonderful last step in bringing about changed organizational and personal behavior, but a pathetically useless first step.

Companies train people in new areas but then send them back to their operating groups, subject to the same measures and management approaches as before.

People can detect immediately a lack of alignment between what they are being trained in and how they are being managed. When they do detect it, little, if any, of what has been discussed or ‘trained’ ever gets implemented.

A good example of ill-conceived (and premature) training approaches is seen in the many calls I get to put on training programs to help people become better managers. I put my callers through a standard set of questions:

  • Did you choose people for managerial roles because they were the type of people who could get their fulfillment and satisfaction out of helping other people shine rather than having the ego-need to shine themselves? (No!)
  • Did you select them because they had a prior history of being able to give a critique to someone in such a way that the other person says: “Wow, that was really helpful, I’m glad you helped me see all that.” (No!)
  • Do you reward these people for how well their group has done, or do you reward them for their own personal accomplishments in generating business and serving clients? (Both, with an emphasis on their personal numbers!)

So, let’s summarize, I say. You’ve chosen people who don’t want to do the job, who haven’t demonstrated any prior aptitude for the job, and you are rewarding them for things other than doing the job?

Thanks, but I’ll pass on the wonderful privilege of training them!

A good test for the timing of training would be as follows. If the training was entirely optional and elective, and only available in a remote village accessible only by a mule, but people still came to the training because they were saying to themselves, “I have got to learn this — it’s going to be critical for my future,” then, and ONLY then, you will know you have timed your training well. Anything less than that, and you are doing the training too soon.

The Keynote Speech

Most of the calls I receive about speaking at in-house company events are from companies that want a speech that is entertaining, informative, stimulating, or motivating. What they don’t seem to want is anything that specifically addresses the way they run their firms or the real-world changes they are really trying to make.

For example, I recently received an enquiry asking me to convey to the audience the importance of living up to the organization’s “sacred values” (including the need for collaboration). They wanted me to be inspiring.

However, when I asked if I could take votes at the meeting as to how well everyone thought the organization was currently performing on collaboration and what the current barriers to collaboration were, the organizers were terrified at the potential for disruption. I was not hired for that speech.

Very frequently, the person who calls me to discuss a speech or a training course is a conference planner or someone in administration — someone who is often the least empowered to engage in a discussion about how to bring about the changes that management desires.

Their role is frequently unenviable. Such people are often (perhaps even usually) given an impossible task: put on a development program that will change things around here, but leave management out of it!

The connection between management and potential speaker can be even more remote. For a few months I experimented with working through a speakers’ bureau. I met with their agents to explain the type of work I was willing to take on. I was astonished to discover that this was a relatively unusual request for them — most speakers and most clients operated on the principle that if the date was available and the date was free, then a booking was made.

There was no norm, it appeared, on either the client or the speaker side, whether an extensive discussion should take place to see if the speaker could be used to further the organization’s goals and fit in with other changes that management wanted to bring about.

Business versus Management

Another problem contributes to the minimal impact of much business training: the fact that it’s about “business!”

“Business,” as a subject, is about things of the logical, rational, analytical mind: concepts such as ‘the value chain’ or the numerous P’s of marketing. Even when it’s analyzing and discussing people, business is often treated as an intellectual process of analysis and discussion: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the characteristics of great leaders, etc., etc. Business, at least as it is taught in our business schools and most training programs, is about understanding and knowledge.

These are, of course, both very important. However, managing is a skill, and (as it transpires) has nothing to do with rationality, logic, IQ, or intelligence. Whether you can manage is a simple question of whether or not you can influence individuals or organizations to accomplish something. It’s about influencing people, singly, in groups, or in hordes.

No amount of understanding, knowledge or intelligence will help if you are not able to interact with people and get the response you desire. I know a lot about management from my education. That doesn’t necessarily mean I’m any good at doing it.

The same tension between knowledge versus skill, and rational versus emotional development, exists in many other developmental areas.

Consider the topics of marketing, cross selling, building client relationships, earning trust, and providing client service. It has not been unusual for one of my clients to use all of these terms in outlining their needs for a seminar.

Yet what a mixture of varying attitudes, understanding, knowledge, and skill needs are hidden behind that collection of words!

Becoming good at dealing with people (inside or outside the organization) is not accomplished by taking a college course in psychology, sociology, anthropology, or any other ”-ology” where people sit around and intellectualize about “human resources” or “market segmentation” but never have to actually deal with a real, live human being.

The same, alas, is true of schools dedicated to the study of business. Business school faculties around the world tend to be made up of men and women whose backgrounds (and inclinations and temperament) are based in things of the logical, rational mind. They are well equipped to teach business, but are not structured to develop skills.

If, however, we really want to help people develop skills, we must view “training” the way an exercise instructor would use that word — designing a planned set of activities that engage the right “muscles” and slowly build them up through the experience of doing.

To help people develop as managers doesn’t mean discussing management (or, even worse, leadership) but rather requires putting people through a set of processes where they have to experience it, try it out, and develop their emotional self-control and interactive styles.

As Bill Peper, a facilitator within General Motors’ Standards for Excellence process, reports on my blog: “Businesses often use training as a surrogate for the hard work of true skill development.”

The Hard Business of Making Change

The truth is that most firms go about training entirely the wrong way. They decide what they wished their people were good at, allocate a budget to a training director and ask that training director to come up with a good program.

As Ted Harro commented on my blog: “Training is too often used as a (personally) inexpensive way to look like you’re doing something if you’re a manager. As typically done, it requires little time and little personal change.”

Bringing about change is immensely difficult. It requires that managers address questions in four key areas:

  • Systems: Does the company actually monitor, encourage, and reward this (new) behavior?
  • Attitude: Do people want to do this? Do they buy in to its importance?
  • Knowledge: Do they know how to do it?
  • Skills: Are they any good at implementing and executing what they know?

Issues that exist at each of these levels require a different intervention. But note that skills development, as important as it is, is the last step, not the first.

There is no point putting on skills training if there is no incentive for the behavior; the people don’t believe in it and they don’t yet know exactly what it is they are supposed to be good at!

The importance of the attitude questions is often underestimated. It is management’s job to make people want to learn things by managing the “why” — helping them understand why this is important, why it is exciting and fulfilling, why people should sacrifice their time and attention to get involved.

If you can be convincing on the why, the training itself can often be trivially easy. When people understand and “own” the importance of a topic, recognizing its purpose, meaning and value, and its role in their own careers, they often seek out (and find) the books, the videos, the on-line materials, and the college courses, without the company needing to make any provisions for these things.

In fact, when I do training-like sessions, that’s what I focus on — primarily trying to get people excited about the topic, so they will leave the session actively seeking out the new learning for themselves. However, this only works if they believe that their company’s management also believes this is important, not just that I do!

The Right Approach

The correct process in thinking about training would be to sit top management down and ask: “What are people not doing that we want them to be doing? And do we really know why they aren’t doing them?”

Then it will be necessary to figure out a complete sequence of actions to address each of these questions:

  • What behaviors by top management need to change to convince people that the new behaviors are really required, not just encouraged? If the behavior is going to be optional, then so should the training be.
  • What measurements need to change?
  • What has to happen before the training sessions occur in order to bring about the change?
  • What has to be in place the very day they finish?

A full change program would include, at least, an examination of the following:

  1. Scorecards (new, permanent measures of performance being trained)
  2. Coaching (continuous monitoring and follow-up on the new metrics)
  3. Tools (to help implement the training, in place before the training)
  4. Training
  5. Rewards and/or recognition for achievement

On my blog, David G. said: “No manager should ever be given a training budget until they show which business metric that training will impact — they should set a goal for that impact and review performance against that goal before allocating more training budget to that manager.”

For maximum effectiveness, it is usually better to train people in their regular operating groups, so that the training can be action- and decision-oriented, with collective, “monitor-able” commitments. Training classes that are drawn from different parts of the firm force the program to be “educational” only.

Large training sessions may be more efficient, in the sense that they expose a large number of people to the same set of thoughts simultaneously, but they are markedly less effective in bringing about change, and hence, are much less economic.

Training should only be scheduled on topics that can be applied straightaway. Too often, companies give people tools and techniques days, weeks, months, or even years before they’ll need them and then hope they will somehow recall them (and perform them!) flawlessly when needed. This is wishful thinking at best.

The best training is usually done by the firm’s own practitioners. Although often seen as an expensive use of high-priced practitioners’ time, the greater credibility obtained when the firm’s own people do the training results in much higher acceptance and subsequent application of the training. Outsiders should be used only to help develop programs and “train-the-trainers.”

Too often junior people are sent off to be trained and they continue to speculate whether their seniors or leaders are really committed and serious about the topics being discussed. As previously noted, they often are not.

I was counseling one training firm, which was preparing to bid on a training job. As part of the request for information, its client company had asked the training firm: “What are you going to do to ensure that our managers apply the lessons you teach?” It may have seemed a reasonable question to the client company, but it only revealed the common abdication of responsibility that firms bring to training.

Even if the group leader is not conducting the training, it really helps if the operating group leader attends the training as a participant. In fact, it should be mandatory. This ensures an action-orientation to the discussion and credible public commitment built in to the closing of the program (“We’re going to do this!”).

Even if the group leader has been through the training many times before, it’s good for him or her to be there, because only the leader’s presence can lend the sessions the seriousness they need and make the action commitments both practical and monitorable.

To ensure discipline, training programs should have mandatory prereading and pretesting (whereby attendees can’t participate if they don’t pass). Yes, this sounds like a tough rule, especially when training senior people, but I have seen numerous examples of firms that invested in highly customized programs, designed to bring about corporate consensus and change, where one-half of the participants prepared, and one-half did not. The ensuing discussion was a waste of everyone’s time, annoying both sides.

As Cem Kaner pointed out: “Rather than distracting from people’s ongoing work, training should be structured to help them improve the quality or efficiency of what they are doing today.” As such, participation and preparation should not be optional.

The litany is simple: if it’s worth doing training, it’s worth doing in a way that’s going to make a difference. That means using session time wisely, and that means preparation. If someone doesn’t want to prepare, they should not be allowed in the room, no matter how senior. And if your training program doesn’t warrant this degree of rigor, then you are almost certainly dabbling and wasting a significant percentage of your time and money.

In 1994, I wrote an article entitled Meeting Goals which tried to make clear that, to be effective, a meeting must not only have an agenda, but must have a limited set of clear goals. Many seminars, keynote speeches and training programs suffer from misunderstanding this issue. Too many companies know the agenda topics they wish to cover, but have thought through insufficiently well the goals they have, and how these goals are going to be met.

The summary is this: If the training has been in regular operating groups, in carefully chosen topics, right when the group can use the training, and with the group’s leader in the room, they can immediately begin a discussion of how they plan to integrate the training’s ideas into their practices. With the right preparation and follow-up, training can be immensely powerful.

Without all this, it can be (and usually is) an immensely wasted opportunity.

Saludos cordiales
Renato Sánchez 3586 dep 10
Santiago, Chile