When talking about management problems; training comes quickly as a solution. This shortcut assumes that the problem is always a lack of management abilities: “Give it to trainees or correct it and things will be just fine”. Problem solved. Why is it that senior leaders make the same mistake again and again ?
Client / Supplier mindset
First, senior leaders are able to spot the dysfunction in their organization. This capacity make them think that they are not part of the problem. “My managers are broken, please fix them for me”. HR on the other hand has training budgets to spend. This is the Client / Supplier mindset. It literally kills potential management improvement.
I have dozens of examples illustrating this situation. Take this one, coming from a big name in European real estate business. The request from HR is “train the management team to manage conflicts”. The reality behind the curtains is “The head of Accounting Department is a very authoritarian person unable to work without pressure”. I asked: “Can I meet her and talk to her to understand how she could be related to this problem of conflict?”. The answer came quickly: “No you can’t. Just focus on her team.” The unspoken message was “We, as HR, don’t want to mess with her”.
HR and senior leaders pair to solve problems with training because the 2 of them gain something in this game. Senior leaders exempt themselves from questions regarding their role and HR doesn’t have to confront them (which is not easy). Training is a seducible solution. It can deploy principles, techniques and behaviors which look perfect on paper. Working in this “laboratory” is comforting for both players: They focus on content rather than looking after people in real situation. Later, on the ground, things get more complicated, but HR and senior leaders can blame staff “for not adapting although they were given the opportunity of a training”.
Big picture vs the narrow one
A more systemic approach would obviously be more efficient. It supposes to diagnose the problem ( decison making, role definition, conflict/cooperation, culture, leadership, …), determine the level of intervention (intra personal, inter personal, intra group, inter group, etc.) before identify the mode of intervention : process consultation, data feed-back, problem solving, plan making and of course training and coaching. But the 2 latter are tools among others and not the universal answer!
Engaging senior leaders
Coming very often from engineering or finances studies, senior leaders are barely in touch with psychology and behaviour sciences. And MBA are fine for that matter but they just give very basic infos. In short, they are not aware and reverse to their original view : linear, sequential and mechanic view of human being. But senior leaders are also, by definition, problem solvers. The first move, then, is to put them in that position, by questioning “Tell me about your problem, give me a full perspective of its context”, “What does make you think that training is the solution to your problem ?” Link the management problem to business consequences “How is that problem incapacitating your business performances ?” Use analogies to justify your approach (“Can you launch a new product without research and data ? Can you define a strategy from a single interpretation of the competitive landscape ?”) These tactics are powerful enough to convince them. to go further than a simple training solution. Add a more subtle way : put them in the driver’s seat by including them in the decisions : “The problem you expose is serious enough to need a research phase. We need to see if everybody shares this same vision. What do you think if …”
Your questions must lead them to think that their managers are not empty vases in which they will “pour” training content ; their managers are stakeholders in a game. It could be more efficient, then, to act simultaneously on the rules of that game and on the players ‘ strengths and weaknesses. In others words, keep all options open before deciding for a training…