I was thinking about an upcoming webinar and for some reason felt compelled to re-read an article, ‘The Great Training Robbery’ but I wasn’t sure why. Funny how our unconscious does that, serving up things that are relevant even though we’re not consciously aware why. The webinar is going to be about virtual Team Coaching. For anybody not familiar with it, Team Coaching is working closely with a team over time to enable high performance. It’s not the team facilitation at off-sites we might be familiar with. 

Training and leadership coaching

So what has training got to do with leadership team coaching? The ‘Great Training Robbery’ is an article first published in the Harvard Business Review in April 2016. It was basically saying that much of the $164.2 billion spent on training in the US in 2012 was wasted. Specifically when it came to transferring employee learning into changes in individual and organisational behaviour. Or improved financial performance for that matter. At that time, a meta-analysis of training studies found only 10% of training programs were effective in this way. I highly recommend that any leader that has an L&D budget read the article.

One of the key things the authors found was that while survey results suggest participants do change their attitudes and behaviour, they only do so during the program. Those changes don’t last and after Covid-19, funds will be even more scarce. Ensuring a return on investment in development will be even more important than it already was. 

The researchers advocate an alternative to the more traditional approaches to L&D. Development should not be separate from any organisation change and development strategy. Importantly, senior executives and their HR professionals should embed learning and development within that change and be visibly believed in and led by the senior team. The change must already be underway so learning and development initiatives have a favourable context, i.e. there’s fertile ground for new behaviours to take root. In this way, by leading with the top team we can better guarantee real change and a better return on any investment.

The critical argument that the authors make is that the system must be changed before individual behaviour can be altered through training programs, and that is where team coaching comes in. I’d say that change in any system is a direct result of the behaviour of the leadership team that is accountable for that system. Team coaching is how you best get change in the leadership team to occur rapidly and sustainably.

Organisational barriers

The article identifies six organisational barriers that undermine the execution of senior management’s strategy. The authors call them “silent killers” and these barriers must begin to change before training and education programs can be effective. 

The six silent killers are:

  1. Unclear strategy, values and conflicting priorities
  2. An ineffective senior team
  3. Leadership style – top-down or laissez-faire
  4. Poor coordination across functions, businesses and/or geographic regions
  5. Inadequate leadership/management skills and development in the organisation
  6. Closed vertical communication – truth cannot be spoken to power

All of these elements are directly affected by team coaching and reinforce the arguments that it is a better investment than leadership training in the traditional sense. The first and second are clearly obviously impacted by team coaching. Its core function is to enable effective teams, and clarity on strategy/values/priorities is a key element of that. But the others are positively affected too.

The Leadership Style of the team leader and the team as a whole is something addressed through a feedback process, an important part of any team coaching engagement. Immediate personalised feedback for the team lead, and more systematic tool-based feedback for the whole team.

Poor coordination across functions etc is something that is regularly addressed and progress in this area is further enhanced if we also introduce group coaching tools into the mix (Group coaching is a process by which team members actively help their colleagues with practical everyday issues).

Team coaches are not there to teach, but one thing we do alongside the team is to identify any skills gaps that exist within the team and help them formulate plans to resolve them. I’m a firm believer that learning together is the engine of performance and this joint learning should be built into any effective operating rhythm.

Number 5 is interesting. Time and again, I’ve found that the limit to growth in the organisations I’m dealing with, is the effectiveness of the management layer reporting to the team I’m coaching. Not because they’re poor managers but because the very team I’m coaching hasn’t been modeling the behaviour they want! By getting these elements right, we identify skills gaps and development requirements that are in service of the change mission. Fixing them cascades the right capabilities through the organisation enabling the change we want. We’re not working not from a competency framework that may longer be relevant to the change we need.

And lastly, truth has to be able to speak to power. That starts with the top team and core to any team coaching program. Amy Edmondson and her colleagues at the Harvard Business School found the quality of dialogue and actual changes in effectiveness were greater in those units that had developed a “psychologically safe” climate, one in which subordinates felt free to speak up. This has been backed up by countless other research. Ensuring psychological safety is at the core of leadership team coaching. Team members should not only feel safe to do this in the team but the true test is when they speak with the front line and listen in ways that gives safety to others and ensures effective information flow.

The damage of failed training

Another thing to mention is the damage failed training can do aside from wasting resources. Education that advocates leadership behaviour and values at odds with what is actually seen and experienced, does nothing but trigger cynicism. And that leads to reduced engagement, the very opposite of what is desired.

My hope is that when leaders, particularly those in HR and L&D, consider Team Coaching they also see how it plays a valuable role in ensuring organisations don’t fall foul to a great training robbery.

p.s. the webinar mentioned asks the question “Virtual Team Coaching can’t be as good as face to face can it?’, June 23rd, 10.00 – 11:15 BST (UTC+1) and you can register https://bit.ly/3eHu3Hl