Before You Say You Need Training

Marketing email in my inbox:

email marketing

Oh my, I’m probably the wrong person for them to send this to; I don’t believe in quick training solutions for the problems the ad is describing. What can training really do?

The team is failing…are they missing skills? That can generally be taught. But why all of a sudden? This manager has an urgent issue, so why now? It is more likely that there is something else going on with the failing team and I would wager that the problem is due to a system issue, rather than a skills issue.

What do I mean by systems issue?  I’m talking about the processes and practices, the available resources, and the effectiveness of the leadership that is creating some problem that has now become an emergency.

Training won’t fix a disgruntled team that can’t make their sales goals because the products are not sellable. Training won’t fix a cautious team that won’t communicate because they fear retribution. Training won’t help a team that doesn’t really like the change that is happening and has dug in.

But yet it happens all the time….managers turn to training for a quick fix.  According to the 2016 Research report from the Association of Talent Development, since 2008, the average direct expenditure per employee on training and development has risen from $1,068 to $1,252, or 4.25% of payroll and 8.3% of profit. Total 2015 U.S. training expenditures—including payroll and spending on external products and services – were $70.6 billion in 2015.

I’ve been a Chief Learning Officer for two large organizations, and I can tell you first hand that much of the “training” we delivered did not provide a return on the investment. It isn’t because the training wasn’t good, but because the issue we were engaged to fix was not properly identified.

It isn’t that we didn’t try to help our internal clients realize that training might not be the right answer because we did, and we got pretty darned good at it. But we could only do so much when a leader has no clue about changing human behavior, doesn’t really want to have to bother with the “people stuff,” and wants something to happen right away.

Internal and external human resource development consultants face the same possible hurdle – being “fired” if we don’t provide what is asked for. At some point, and with some leaders, it just isn’t worth the hassle.

So what is the answer?

There is a reasonably trustworthy process that anyone in a leadership capacity should invoke, the moment that they begin to think “I need training.” It goes like this…Stop, Ask, Apply a Solution, Test.


Don’t look for an answer; you aren’t ready. Look for the problem. Sales are down. Use both quantitative and qualitative data. Quantitative data (revenue trends, turnover statistics, employee engagement reports, budgets, employee relations statistics) gives you a starting point; qualitative data allows you to drill into the numbers and figure out what they actually mean. More data points provide a glimpse into how the data interact….sales went down, there’s been an exodus of good sales people. Business data and people data combined is powerful.


Is there possible a cause-effect relationship between the loss of talent and the drop in sales? Maybe. You now have an opportunity to look for the whys. The simple exercise called The Five Whys takes you beyond assumptions.

Sales are down. Why? The data says that two top producers have left in the past two months. Why? Discussion with the sales team offers some options: the competitor is offering a more lucrative deal, or the product has a flaw that is causing returns, or they have been telling their manager about the product flaw, but she won’t take action. Any of these can cause a disgruntled workforce.

“Do you think that product knowledge training would help you?” you ask. They quickly respond, “We know the product and we know how to sell it; that’s not the problem.”

So now you have options that can be investigate further, continuing to ask “why.” At some point you arrive at what appears to be the root cause (or causes) for the slowdown in sales.

Apply a Solution

Now it’s time to apply a fix, or fixes, depending on what your questions have uncovered. Some might be quick, others might be more long range. But you have a clear business problem that ultimately impacts on business performance and must be fixed. It might mean sitting down with Operations to identify and fix the flaw. It may mean checking out the pay plans of the competitors and if there is a discrepancy, figuring out how best to address.

Applying the solution is the easy part of this process. Business people know how to fix problems; they often aren’t so good at identifying the real problem. But once you have empirical data that points to a reasonable cause, you’re good to apply the solution.


But you’re not done yet. What if the solution didn’t fix the problem? You evaluated possible causes on the front end, now it’s time to evaluate the solutions. There are a couple of reasons why this is crucial.  First, you may not have solved the problem and if it is still a viable problem you need to fix it.

But most important, this is where organizational learning happens. Every participant in every dialogue about the discovery process, the application of the solution and the testing learns, not just about the problem but about how all of the pieces of an organization work together.

That technical flaw in the product? Product management and sales learn about each others’ priorities, and begin to work together. The exodus of good people? This is a chance for operations and HR to work together on a real business problem.

This isn’t about the quality of the training solution

My commentary on the marketing email isn’t intended to say their solutions aren’t excellent; I’ve used them and they are good. My commentary is for those who think a quick fix will work. Tell me you have a problem that needs training and let me show you what I mean.


Carol Anderson
Carol Anderson
CAROL is the founder and Principal of Anderson Performance Partners, LLC, a business consultancy focused on bringing together organizational leaders to unite all aspects of the business – CEO, CFO, HR – to build, implement and evaluate a workforce alignment strategy. With over 35 years of executive leadership, she brings a unique lens and proven methodologies to help CEOs demand performance from HR and to develop the capability of HR to deliver business results by aligning the workforce to the strategy. She is the author of Leading an HR Transformation, published by the Society for Human Resource Management in 2018, which provides a practical RoadMap for human resource professionals to lead the process of aligning the workforce to the business strategy, and deliver results, and writes regularly for several business publications.

DO YOU HAVE THE "WRITE" STUFF? If you’re ready to share your wisdom of experience, we’re ready to share it with our massive global audience – by giving you the opportunity to become a published Contributor on our award-winning Site with (your own byline). And who knows? – it may be your first step in discovering your “hidden Hemmingway”. LEARN MORE HERE


  1. I agree with you wholeheartedly, Carol. Your article is a feast for thought. Quick fix training is on par with add more people to the project if it’s failing. Failing is often a sign of identity crisis. The right answers have not been found because the right questions have not been asked. I wasn’t an instructional designer but I was a technical writer who documented a lot of issues from the root cause to the solution. Rarely was lack of training the culprit.

  2. What an amazing article Carol! Two great big thumbs up to you for sharing this with the world. As I ‘assess the trainer’ (as part of my line of work), I can attest to the key points delivered here in your article.

    Yes, all leaders should be in a mode of continuous development and our workforce fares much better when they are provided opportunities for growth, too. Your story hit home for me as I discovered this early on in my career — and 25 years later, the same applies: if leadership isn’t willing or interested to take heed of 1) the human-behavior factor and/or 2) they aren’t willing to take a look in the mirror, it simply isn’t going to work.

    The steps you’ve shared are monumental in making sure we’re not trying to put a band-aid on a symptom, but getting to the root cause. Furthermore, there are a lot of ‘professionals’ out there willing to offer training and some programs are far better than others. It’s worth it to invest, but we must do our homework first~

    • Thank you for your kind words, Jennifer. Are you familiar with Edwin Friedman’s work, particularly “A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the age of the quick fix?” I ask because I’m almost through and it is one of the most thought-provoking books I’ve read on why we ten to go for the quick fix. I saw it all my years in corporate America…I knew it was there…but this explains a lot.

    • Thank you for your reply Carol! 🙂 I’m not familiar with ‘A Failure of Nerve’, by Friedman. However, I just did a quick search and discovered that part of his message includes “to focus on the intellect outside of an emotional context is actually anti-intellectual” (Friedman, 2007). I love his message and I’m going to order a copy now, too!

      Even in searching the description (aka on Amazon) he reminds us that organization’s have personalities – just like families, social groups, etc.

      I can’t wait to read this! Thank you dearly for this recommendation Carol 🙂