The Necessity of Ongoing Training

Excerpt from “Seven Disciplines of a Leader” by Jeff Wolf (Wiley, 2014).

Training is crucial to your company’s future, as it creates a pipeline of talent that positions your company for success It motivates employees by sending a strong message about their worth to the organization. It creates enthusiasm and improves work quality and morale. Finally, it boosts productivity. Trained employees are always more productive.

When Jack Welch was CEO of GE, he regularly trained employees at the company’s training facilities in Crotonville, NY. He shared his knowledge and turned GE into a culture where learning is valued. Andy Grove, former CEO of Intel, also went into the classroom and taught. Before Roger Enrico took the reins at Pepsi, he personally trained many of his people.

Training enables employees to reach their optimum potential. If you fail to take it seriously, your employees won’t have any respect for it. Even in tough economic times, you must make training a priority and budget for it. Some managers may balk at your efforts to train staff. They’ll say, “We can’t take people away from their day-to-day work for training. We’ll lose productivity.” Nonsense! If managers believe their people cannot benefit from training, perhaps they should be replaced.

Ask people how they learn best. So many companies will hire a new employee and place him or her in front of a computer on his or her first day of work. They train this unlucky hire by saying, “You’re going to go through the slides, do this and then do that, and after the training we’ll put you to work.” This doesn’t qualify as training. Some people can’t learn in front of a computer. People have different facilities for learning: oral, visual, perhaps tactile. People learn best through one of these three approaches, but you can’t arbitrarily select one over another.

Make training an everyday affair, a day-to-day activity. This is a simple approach that doesn’t require a formal classroom setting. Often, all you need to do is ask, “How are things going today?” The employee may give you cues that indicate a training session is required, and it needn’t be formal. And keep in mind that in some training sessions, employees may not pick up something they can use immediately, but it’s a concept or skill that can help them down the road.

Highly effective leaders train, motivate, build, empower, and retain an optimal high-performing, creative and innovative team by investing wisely in people. Develop, recognize, reward, and promote from within. Keep on board a high-performing team. Great leaders create more leaders at all levels by nurturing their development. They don’t just delegate work, they delegate decision-making powers. When people have the authority to make certain decisions, they feel more responsible and loyal. So empower your people. Don’t micromanage them—turn them loose to perform their jobs. Explain the task, tell them what needs to be done and why, but don’t tell them how to do it. Then they’ll take ownership, accept accountability, think creatively and offer ideas. When they feel you value their ideas, they’ll find ways to boost performance.

Training: My Story: A Game That Came Down to One Play

As a basketball coach, I had a team of very short players one year, normally the kiss of death for a basketball team. For us to be competitive, we had to be the best-conditioned team in the league. This meant going back to basics, so we practiced fundamentals of the game and worked our butts off to become the fiercest team in the city. I wanted the players to react instinctively when they hit the floor, without thinking (or over-thinking) their moves. Effective training would help us get there.

Every night, we’d go through grueling three-hour practice sessions. The team would run conditioning drills before and after each training/practice session. And they hated it! They looked at me skeptically and questioned everything I told them to do.

I explained that I wanted them to be the best-conditioned team. “When you get tired physically, you get tired mentally,” I said. “I don’t want that to happen. . .and neither do you. We’re the smallest team in the league, and our only advantage is powerhouse conditioning. We also have to excel in the fundamentals of the game because there’s little margin for error. So, we’re going to work hard.”

At the end of every gut-busting practice, when the team was totally exhausted, we diligently trained for end-of-game situations. I’d set up various scenarios by having my managers put different times on the game clock and then run plays that fit the scenarios. For example, we would put five seconds on the clock, and I’d say to my team, “You have five seconds to go. We’re down one point. We have the ball at mid-court. What do we do?” Or: “We have the ball at the end line and have to go the length of the court, and we’re down two points, with one second to go. What do we do?”

We’d train for these end-of-game scenarios every day, and they hated it because they were mentally and physically fatigued. All they wanted to do was go home.

“No,” I’d say. “I want you to be able to execute when you’re tired. I want you to succeed at the end of the game, when the chips are on the line and the game is at stake.” So we worked on these scenarios every day at the end of practice.

One day, I happened to miss practice, and my assistant coach called me to say he had planned on letting the team go home early and not run end-of-game situations. Then he dropped the bombshell: The team had refused to leave until they ran the end-of-game situations, and they said that it was important to be prepared. At that moment, I realized they understood the value of our training.

Fortunately, we didn’t have to use this training until the end of the season, in one of our most critical games. We were playing a team whose members were, on average, four inches taller. My tallest player was about 6’3”, but we were fast. With all of those grueling practices under our belts, we were in great shape and fundamentally sound. I knew we could outplay the opposing team in terms of conditioning and thinking ability, but they were physically stronger, bigger, and so much more talented. Nobody gave us a chance. Nobody thought we could keep up with them, let alone win. Everyone said we were going to get blown out.

From the beginning tip-off, it was a close game, back and forth, back and forth. There wasn’t more than a three-point difference between us during the entire game. With 30 seconds to go, we were ahead by one point. Our opponents came storming down the court and made a shot with 10 seconds to go, and went up one point. We now had the ball, with only 10 seconds to go, and I called a timeout to set up a last-second shot.

As my players came to the bench, several of them were smiling. “What’s so funny?” I asked.

“Coach, we know what we’re going to do,” one of my players said. “We’re going to run 24 West. Tony is going to get the ball, and we’re going to win the game. We’ve been practicing this all year long.”

Being the brilliant coach that I was, I asked, “Are you sure?”

Everyone looked at me and said, “Yes,” in unison.

“Okay. Go do it.”

Now, we had the ball at the end of the court, with 94 feet to go. We were down one point, with 10 seconds to go.

The clock didn’t start until a player in bounds touched the ball. We took the ball out of bounds. The first past came in, and the clock started ticking as we dribbled the ball up court. The second pass was made, and Tony came off a double screen. He caught the ball, went up, and took the shot. As the ball went up in the air, I stood up from the bench, and it felt like it was in slow motion, just like in the movies. As the ball reached its apex and started its downward flight, I thought, “Six months worth of training, six months worth of hard work, and it all comes down to this.”

The ball continued to come down and down and finally down into the net, and we won the game. It was sheer pandemonium! We were mobbed by fans and carried off the floor. But it all came down to training; training your people so when it’s on the line, they come through. That’s what it’s all about in business and sports and life. Train your people for the tough times, and they’ll come through. Training brings out the best in them.

By Jeff Wolf