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Jonathan Males

Performance1 Ltd


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Could training cuts be good for us?


What happens when your company cuts its training budget? Performance 1's Jonathan Males thinks that training can still be effective even when the purse strings are tightened, provided you focus on the right things.

As we see more and more cuts to training budgets, it's easy to be pessimistic and assume that less money means worse results. Look outside business to sport, though, and you might see a different picture.
Take the Olympics: the recession led to a £50m shortfall for Team GB’s hopefuls. And how has UK Sport reacted? By taking a long, hard look at which sports stand the best chance of success and diverting the resources to them.
Is this the best route to medal success? UK Sport's Peter Keen, who I worked with to set up Mission 2012, the process Olympic sports use to keep on track, thinks it is: "My ultimate loyalty is to elite sport," he says. "I learnt early on that if you compromise, if you don't look the monster in the eye, you invariably fail. If you distribute money to the point where you’re spreading it so thinly, then you're not recognising a key point: to do it properly does cost."
"You've got to be ruthlessly clear about separating what really adds value from the rest, and then use that basis to make sound decisions."
What can we learn from this in business? I think there are three big lessons to remember when the bottom falls out of your budget:

Make the hard choices

You've got to be ruthlessly clear about separating what really adds value from the rest, and then use that basis to make sound decisions.
For example, we’ve worked with a house-building firm who booked all of their 800 staff onto an expensive customer service training programme – even if they didn’t have any direct contact with the public.
From an HR point of view, this was a 'good thing'. It missed the reality, though, that their handful of land-buyers were the ones who really added the value. Successful projects depended on their decisions on what land to buy, or not, and at what price. The buyers’ training needs were very simple – and they weren’t customer service workshops.
Once this realisation dawned, the management team was brave enough to acknowledge that customer service training for everyone was a luxury they couldn't afford.
Bill Gates summed it up well: "If 20 key people left Microsoft, we'd face bankruptcy." These were the company’s 'core competents': the people with the expertise and skill that really add value. You need to know who they are and how they work, and then give them the development and training they need – even if it’s not the easy choice.

Make sure you're doing the basics better than anyone else

There's no point searching for a silver bullet if you don't get the basics right. Recently, we've worked with a Health Service management team which was spread across the country, under-resourced, and not performing too well. Quite rightly, people started asking questions...
All sorts of suggestions surfaced, from sending everyone off en masse for an expensive fortnight’s management training course, to giving each person an individual coach, to re-designing their jobs. Could these ideas have worked? Maybe – if there was enough budget. 
But everyone missed the most obvious point of all. The team, like the organisation, was dispersed. They only met face-to-face for fortnightly business meetings, where the agenda was packed, dialogue was limited, and decisions were rushed.  So no-one had good working relationships.
"There's no point searching for a silver bullet if you don't get the basics right."
The solution? An agreement to an experiment. For three months they agreed to go out for a meal the evening before their team meeting. They wouldn't necessarily talk shop, but they could get to know one another and start building trust, relationships and understanding.
The result? Meetings were transformed as people got to know each other’s perspectives. The quality of decision making went up – as did the whole organisation’s performance. And the cost? Minimal.

Make sure staff are engaged with their purpose

This is especially important for people who take a technical pride in their work – engineers, designers, scientists and so on. In those roles, it's easy to get distracted by 'doing things right', regardless of the impact.
I've seen traffic engineers become immensely frustrated – and frustrating – because a curb height wasn’t correct to the nearest millimetre, when the real issue was school children ignoring a pedestrian crossing because it made the walk to school longer.  
Paradoxically, the closer someone is to the technical detail, the harder it can be for them to step back and look at why they're doing things. Rob McCarthy, the Environment Agency's project manager for the Olympic Park, has been using this approach to speed work up for 2012. His team of environmental experts is there to assess the risks during construction, but he insists they always consider the 'big picture', and the ultimate goal. This hasn't meant breaking rules, but it has meant a more collaborative approach – a policy of 'yes, if', rather than 'no'. And that has meant faster approvals.
Of course delivering the Olympics is a pretty big and compelling purpose, but the same principle applies elsewhere. So when the traffic engineers I mentioned earlier saw their job as 'helping people travel safely', rather than 'ensuring compliance with regulations', something quite profound started to change.

Jonathan Males is founder of Performance 1 – a business leadership consultancy which specialises in leadership coaching, team coaching and facilitation. As a sports psychologist, he brings insights from Olympic sport to his work with business leaders in organisations including the British Olympic Association, UK Sport, the National School for Government, and Friends Provident.

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Jonathan Males


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