Covert Consulting: A Survival Competency for Today’s Training Organizations

What do you do when a client makes a request for training, and you are unsure that a comprehensive solution will actually be rendered via a training intervention? Certainly, you want to honor the request for training, but somehow you must articulate that training may only represent one component of a fully effective solution.

The phone rang early, and I answered without the benefit of my first cup of caffeine. The Senior Vice President of Sales and Marketing was on the line being his usual all-business self, even at 7:05am. He made a simple request – “If we’re going to become a world-class Marketing organization, we’re going to have to fix the Marketing University catalog.”

The need for caffeine kicked up another notch as he got to the heart of his professional opinion – and his request. “We don’t have the right courses in the catalog, and I need your help to fix that.”

I gave him my standard consultant’s reply. “Tom, I can help you with that, and I need to ask a few additional questions to clarify what you seek to change about your current marketing organization. Additionally, I think it critical to know what success will look like. In other words, how will we…more importantly…how will you…know we’ve been successful?”

A little background context is necessary before I continue. Prior to this call, I had completed a comprehensive front-end performance diagnostic for the Sales organization that reported to a VP one layer beneath that of my early morning caller. The results of that diagnostic recommended several changes in the Sales organization – most of which had not been requested. What is remarkable about that is the original request from the VP of Sales sounded a lot like his boss’s request – the Sales VP knew what was wrong and training would fix it. “Sales are down, so we need to beef up our sales training approach.”

Again, after the standard consultant’s reply I just shared with you, the VP of Sales gave me both permission and sponsorship to drill down into his sales management hierarchy to sniff out clues affecting sales performance. Some might call that searching for root causes…and it is…and I did…and I found several…and some of them actually had something to do with training. Major point here…SOME OF THEM…had something to do with training.

Recall the initial request? Beefing up sales training – was not the solution. Certainly, it was what he requested, but beefing up sales training (which we did accomplish); was not enough, by itself, to drive sustainable sales performance.

Shortly, I found myself in front of the Sales & Marketing leadership team – the EVP General Manager, the all-business SVP, a couple of VPs and a scrum of Directors. Being in my new role of Director of Sales Training for barely two months, I took a huge risk and avoided the direct route to the recommendation they all anticipated. You will have to visualize this moment because I am hard-pressed to describe the looks on their faces when the “new guy” makes a solution summary with two words – “Stop Training!” Did I mention I was Director of Sales Training?

For the full benefit of blunt effect, I had a single PowerPoint slide with Sales Training smack in the middle of it…72-point font…bold…that’s it…and an animation with that red circle with a diagonal slash through it that over-layed a second later. Add to that, my proclamation that they should stop training – Priceless! Did I mention I was Director of Sales Training?

Every head in the room turned away from my blasphemous PowerPoint slide to look at the EVP seated at the head of the table. He was the genius who made the hiring decision to bring me on board two months earlier. I reconfirmed just how risky the move was when I winked at him with that it’s-going-to-be-okay wink – the panic on his face did not diminish…at least not due to the assurances conveyed by my wink.

I only paused for a second before adding an additional phrase. “…And Start Learning Continuously.” Regardless of this new conceptual wrinkle, the pucker factor remained above the red line, but I at least had their attention. I will not bore you with the details, but suffice it to say, in the end, the recommendation met with unanimous approval. The only other piece of context you need is this – start to finish the front-end diagnostic took six weeks and involved 36 sales professionals and managers for a couple hours each. While that might sound like a lot of time, you must realize that this was a driven sales organization, and a six-week investment to improve $770M in sales represented chump change.

I share that background context because it represents exactly how I would pursue any future performance challenges – dive into and understand the work context of those tasked with flawless execution.

Diving in again is exactly what I attempted to repeat with the SVP of Sales & Marketing. The SVP flatly denied my request to complete a similar front-end diagnostic on grounds I did not anticipate. “We don’t have the time for that kind of thing!” I was at a loss to discern how he could even see his watch with his head so far up his…all-business self. What he did not say was a more accurate truth – “I know training will fix this, so you just need to get on with it…”

Matters not, because he was the client, and I owned his request, so it was time to make busy. So I did…I went ninja on his request…stealth mode…covert consulting. He gave me less than two weeks to “fix” his marketing curriculum. I knew a solution included a modified curriculum, but I had no clue under what performance criteria – work context – the curriculum had to co-exist. The SVP denied my request to accomplish critical discovery because “he didn’t have that kind of time”. There was no way I could pull this off without front-end discovery efforts to define attributes of the work context. A “lite” version of discovery ensued in a relatively covert manner. I had no choice, nor time to dig deeper.

Time rapidly approached for another bold presentation by yours truly. I offer the primary slide used in that presentation to you in Figure 1 below. There is a lot more to the recommendation presentation than this single slide, but this was the only slide I showed the SVP to make my initial point in our pre-presentation meeting – and he bought it without a struggle…and I laid nary a finger on him.

Human Performance Enablers

Figure 1

This slide represents a summarization of a dozen or so interviews with key marketing personnel where I asked a limited number of open-ended questions – recorded the interviews – and then listened to their answers – and then listened again to bucket each nugget they shared into one or more of the six categories of human performance enablers that I choose to use. I am not sure I would ever describe this effort as scientific, as no algorithms were used or incurred harm in the course of this study, nor were any of the responses weighted in any way. If a response nugget sounded like a “compensation” issue, that bucket got a stroke count. If it smelled like “knowledge”, that bucket got a stroke. Remember, I did not have the luxury of enough time to get exotic. Even so, I discovered some amazing insights in a very short time, and some of them…a very few some of them…had anything to do with training and/or marketing curriculum selection. Listed below are the six buckets I use to categorize human performance enablers that can contribute to the existence of performance gaps:

Leadership – Clarity of Vision, Mission, Direction, Business Strategy & Goals, Effective Communication & Direction, Coaching & Feedback, Leadership & Management Effectiveness, Appropriate Dashboard Metrics, Effective Change Management, etc.
Capability – Knowledge, Skills & Abilities, Competencies & Attributes, Selection & Staffing, Performance Management, Training Programs, Curriculum Alignment/Maps/Tracks, etc
Motivation – Personal Needs, Team Dynamics, Compensation & Incentive Plans, Rewards & Recognition, Career Development, Inclusion, Wellness, etc.
Process – Business Policies, Business Process Definition & Documentation, Task & Sub-Task (Methods & Procedures), Workflow Efficiency, Operational & Job Design, Operational Roles & Responsibilities, Process Improvement, etc.
Resources – Technology Infrastructure, Connectivity, Access to Content, Access to People, Software, Performer Support, Tools, etc.
Environment – Organizational Design, Ergonomics, Measurement Criteria, Metrics, Internal/External Influences, Diversity, Culture, etc.

Every performance consultant has pet labels and favorite gurus that influenced their own learning and approach. Each of us then develops our own style. I have mine, and the six categories you see above come from several influencers including Joe Harliss, Dana Gaines Robinson, Geary Rummler, and Gloria Geary. My six categories are a hybrid of what the gurus blessed and, more importantly, what seems to work best for me. Your mileage may vary, but regardless of what you label your buckets, the categories share one key fact – they all have the potential to affect human performance.

As training organizations go, the most important fact is this – Capability (where we find training – knowledge and skills – tucked away) represents only one source that may or may not contribute to causing or resolving a performance gap. Therein lays our trap – client expectation. My client, the SVP of Sales & Marketing, asked for a training solution because he had himself convinced that a new training curriculum was THE solution. How many of our clients think this way? I expect the aggregate of our answers to that question fall somewhere between “some” and “most”. We have to break the paradigm that a performance gap serves as a logical trigger to order some training.

Had I played the role of order-taker, I could have easily made a judgment call and slammed a new curriculum together after a few interviews with key Marketing stakeholders, and the result would have rendered a small measure of success. That success would contribute to improving performance to a meager 18% of their total challenges. The trap I faced was manifest in his expectation that my “training solution” was going to grant his wish of building a world-class marketing organization. I don’t think so, bud!

Look at Figure 1 again – forty-two percent of their challenges dealt with process-related workflow issues. No amount of stellar training interventions will “fix” those problems. Time to get the Six Sigma dudes in here so we can collaborate on a holistic solution. And we did. Six Sigma’s engagement grew from the SVP understanding the implications illustrated on this slide. When I pointed to my little 18%, I stated my case. “This is the slice of the challenge pie I can fix with a modified training curriculum. What concerns me is painting the walls before we replace the studs and the wiring and, and, and.” The result of that conversation convinced him that he really did “have the time for this kind of thing”.

Changing Our Approach – Shifting the Paradigm – Survival

The battle we must fight, and win, involves overcoming the hammer/nail scenario that every performance gap represents a valid trigger to invoke a training solution. In reality, we have a battle of expectations – we must re-position our role from order-taker to consultant. Training will still happen, but we need that chance to identify and set expectations – in advance – that our best training efforts may only impact a miniscule slice of the performance challenge pie. Maybe the solution is classroom-based, or maybe on-line, maybe even blended. Granted, training is likely a candidate for contributing to a sustainable performance solution – it just does not represent that silver bullet our clients seem to think it is, and we are the only source of driving that change in their perceptions.

My SVP was right there with the masses. In his mind and in his heart, the goal of building a world-class marketing organization required “fixing” the curriculum. Ultimately, it did, but not before Six Sigma re-defined workflows and inter-departmental processes (wall studs and wiring). And guess what? Those changes had a direct influence on some of the training we ultimately selected. Had I responded to the request to “fix” the curriculum without addressing the ultimate work context it needed to serve, the curriculum would have indeed changed; however, I am not convinced the outcome would include proper alignment with the new changes in the work context.

My point in all of this? The need for training is never going away. What is at risk is the training department itself going away. The sad part of my warning is that leadership will not see it as “reducing or eliminating the training function – they will see it as reducing or eliminating an expense. Lop off a cost center.

Are you, or is your training organization, viewed as an expense or as a cost center? If so, your organization, by being responsive and focused on client satisfaction, may unknowingly play into the role of order-taker – and proof of your contribution to value is not financially based…it is activity-based:

• How many butts were in seats this month?
• How many e-learning courses completed this month?
• Level one evaluations averaged 4.75
• Level two evaluations confirmed knowledge transfer in the classroom.

In reality, this activity confirms training was indeed busy, but being “busy” does not protect jobs and/or budget. “Busy” does not automatically translate to value-added contribution. We must break that training activity paradigm and become a contributing, valued business partner.

Knowing how we impact work productivity becomes an essential reporting tool. We cannot accomplish this by ignoring the work context of our learners. Acquiring and applying good consulting practice is no longer a luxury if you provide training solutions. We cannot afford to render high-quality learning assets mis-aligned with work context and relegated to the status of scrap learning.

Without drilling down into the work context, there is little hope of extracting the attributes that affect a holistic learning environment. Without the benefit of those attributes, you are limited to transferring knowledge and skills. Your only proof of accomplishing that is level two evaluations – back to bragging rights on activity.

The ability to accomplish critical discovery is an expanded (in some cases brand new) skill set to most training organizations. I am not suggesting that every trainer become a certified performance consultant, but a healthy does of those competencies in the context of continuous learning and work context are critical to your future success. Instructional designers need to expand their ISD expertise to enable discovery that unlocks the environmental attributes around Space, Media, and Systems that enable holistic learning solutions. In short, the solution is bigger than training, though not excluding it.

I titled this “Covert Consulting” not because going ninja and operating in stealth mode are required skills. I chose the title because consulting to discover work context attributes is just that important – important enough to go covert. Who knows, the sooner you can break that traditional training paradigm, the sooner you may even get to do some consulting and discovery without the mask and the black pajamas.

Gary Wise
Learning & Performance Solutions Strategist
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Twitter: Gdogwise