Get real and train people to achieve

Companies should beware of the ‘rain-dance’ approach, write GERARD VAN HOEK and TED BLACK

South Africa’s future depends on managers who can increase productivity. We need them desperately. That’s why companies and government are sitting ducks for improvement gurus, consultants and a host of specialists in leadership and management development.

TALLY-HO: White-water rafting is fun, but does it produce measurable bottom-line results?

TALLY-HO: White-water rafting is fun, but does it produce measurable bottom-line results?

They put people through endless programmes and courses to solve problems, overcome weaknesses, improve relationships and build capability.

It’s a “rain dance” and companies perform it with high hopes. They expect training and workshops to produce, as if by osmosis, improved results.

While some do improve year-on-year, others prance around lecture rooms and bush campfires wasting untold energy and money.

The cash, invested in people, “our most important assets” as annual reports put it, pours out at an ever-faster pace. The return on training “investment”, like rain in the Karoo, rarely comes. Why?

There’s no link to results. The focus is on “motivation” and “knowing”, not “doing”. We squander precious cash resources on lots of learning activity. Without behaviour change, or visible returns, cynicism flourishes.

So what can you do about it? Adopt an approach pioneered by Robert H Schaffer in the US and used successfully all over the world, including South Africa.

Start with a result. Link the learning to bottom-line performance. Instead of using a training situation to learn how to lead, or eliminate politics and conflict in the workplace, organise a well designed attack on a specific, short-term performance improvement goal.

The impact on results and teamwork is fast, visible and measurable. When managers employ new skills to get the results, success reinforces them immediately.

Instead of hoping for education and training somehow to lead to better performance, you achieve improvements in a way that grows people and builds teams. In turn, this sustains a cycle of momentum as one project leads to another.

The business impact approach to leadership development is to get managers to focus on what can be improved, not diagnose what’s wrong. It’s easy to develop a long list of obstacles and to find reasons why things can’t be done.

The challenge is first to convert a problem into an opportunity. Second, it is to carve out a short term goal and achieve it with minimal help. Third, the result must be achievable within the team’s resources and authority.

Go for a result, and use only those new methods and processes that help you achieve the goal.

In a loss-making steel service centre, that’s exactly what happened. The team focused on its bank overdraft for 100 days. They aimed to reduce it by several million Rands.

They didn’t hit target first time around but by day 150 they had a very different company. It generated a return on assets of 30%.

Specific learning points? The project forced them to redesign the business and to tackle many operating problems that leeched out cash and profits.

A cash focus also forced them to think like owners. That’s the only way a manager can act with intelligence or integrity.

No classroom course or business school case study will do that for you.

The education arm of a global IT company set a three-month sales goal to launch some new products. It brought them in 114% above their plan.

It was a wonderful lesson in leadership for the project champion, who acted as change agent, mentor and coach, all in one.

The effects? Two new members of the sales team were integrated far quicker than normal.

Collaboration between regional offices improved. So did the relationship with the field sales team, who found the customers.

Projects like these do more for morale, confidence, team-building and learning than any amount of white-water rafting or abseiling can do.

Our message is: strike off in an exciting new direction. Train for results with a business impact. A new vista of opportunities will open up for you. You’ll grow your people fast, furiously, measurably and productively.

Gerard van Hoek is senior managing partner of GvH & Ass and represents Robert H. Schaffer & Ass (USA) in Southern Africa. Ted Black is an author, independent productivity consultant and associate of Morgan University Alliance, a member of the Adcorp Group.