First-Class Coach: Developing new talent

Smart managers carry on with selective development, knowing that it helps the business.

by Miranda Kennett
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Q: Following recent redundancies, I'm left with a young team who are in urgent need of development. But the MD insists we can't afford to pay for any training. How can I convince him?

A: All over the western world, organisations are shedding older, more experienced employees in favour of younger, cheaper ones. And, given how hard many young people are finding it to get a job, in some ways this is a good thing: it creates headroom, allows for progression and brings fresh eyes to look at old problems.

Of course, while suddenly having a lot more responsibility can be exciting, for newer recruits it can also be daunting, especially if promotion comes without specific development for their new roles. Perhaps they have picked up the rudiments of the task by observing their previous boss and have learned some of the good and bad ways of handling things from the way he operated.

However, if they never had the chance to step back and identify the gaps in their knowledge, experience and skills, and to understand some of the tools and techniques available to increase their effectiveness, they are destined to under-perform and repeat their mistakes. This can turn what looked like a smart way of saving money into a counterproductive exercise.

Wrong-headed as it may be, your MD can feel justified because he is acting on the widely held belief that in hard times the first thing that should be cut is the training budget, followed swiftly by the marketing budget. I know from experience that the really smart managers carry on with selective development activity, recognising that it helps the business and acts as a powerful retention tool for the best staff.

There are two routes to change your MD's mind on the subject of a training budget. One is based on the threat of the consequences of failing to do any development work, which can include incompetence in doing essential tasks, poor decision-making caused by lack of knowledge and the disaffection of employees - especially as they may already be feeling the effects of pay and bonus freezes.

That's the stick. The second way is more of a carrot - stress the benefits of engaging in relevant development activity, which include improved performance and job satisfaction and a greater preparedness to go the extra mile, thus increasing customer loyalty. Which of these approaches you use will depend on your MD (and your FD, too, as she may well be in on the act). If they tend to pessimism, the negative consequences route is preferable. If they are more positive, the benefits argument may be the more successful.

To make either case convincingly you will need to amass some facts about the role of training within your organisation. The best way to do this is with a training audit, consulting managers and staff about training needs. Ask managers what skills and behaviour they want to see in employees at various levels. Ask employees, in person or by questionnaire according to the size of your organisation, what sort of development would help them work more effectively. Compare the two sets of answers and work out what the common themes are and what emerge as the core issues that training could address.

Next, move on to practical planning. Identify what in-house expertise is available. If the main gaps between current and ideal levels of performance are less about knowledge and more about lack of experience, consider whether a job swap or a temporary assignment to another department or a buddy system - pairing more and less experienced colleagues - could narrow the gap. Finally, isolate any area where external, expert input would be necessary. One example might be the leadership development of senior managers. Given it is a leader's job to create the conditions for high performance, this type of development is less an optional luxury and more an essential survival strategy.

Armed with the results of your audit and your low-cost plan for training using existing resources and more costly external services only where essential, present your case. It may help to use specific examples, for instance: 'If the sales manager was 20% more effective at motivating and retaining his sales force, the improvement to the bottom line would be pounds xx.'

When you are successful, don't forget to remind your MD that he is making an enlightened decision that will stand the business in good stead when economic conditions start improving.

- Miranda Kennett is an independent coach. If you have a problem you'd like her to tackle, email: miranda@firstclasscoach.co.uk

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