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Training Leaders at the Speed of Business
by Janet Oliver and Joe DiSabatino


Scenario #1: Seventeen executives were brought together for a two-day training session on strategic planning and problem solving. At the lunch break, eight of them informed the regional group president that they wanted to be excused.

"I have urgent, pressing business piling up on my desk," one of them explained.

"All we've been doing all morning is introducing ourselves and making lists on flipcharts." "I really don't have time for this," echoed another.

"While we sit here making lists, the revenue clock is ticking."

Scenario # 2: I was sitting in a vice-president's office at a major defense contracting company. He took a call from one of his key directors who was away at a two-day leadership training session.

"How's it going?" the vice-president asked.

He listened intently and hung up a few minutes later.

"He says it's a total waste of time," he relayed to me.

"All they've done so far for five hours is set the agenda and some touchy-feely exercises. I think he'll find some value in it tomorrow when they get down to the real stuff. He really needs to improve his leadership skills…"

These situations actually happened. Sound familiar? Is there a training and development professional who hasn't heard these familiar laments?

"They must make the time," we rationalize. "Leadership and interpersonal skills are just as important in running their business as are technical skills."

True. But have we ever considered that maybe our treasured training design models really don't meet the needs of our clients?

Here are several pointers for training professionals that we have compiled over the years by talking with countless managers and executives. They go a long way towards building credibility for training programs. In our experience, they work wonders.

1. Trash the outdated training design methods

We all have learned to do the same things in the training field. Start the class with an ice-breaker, spend time on introductions, climate setting, and expectations, and then transition into the agenda and objectives. Translation: two to three hours of wasted, fidget time for a busy manager/executive. Touch-feely trainer stuff. The business world is moving and changing much too rapidly for us to stick to this model.

The new model should quickly address these questions:

  • Why are we here today?
  • What value will you get out of this session and how will you be able to use it immediately in your environment?
  • What specifically will you learn and what will we do in this session to help you apply it?

This is the approach that busy managers relate to. It's time to ditch the prolonged climate setting and get to the point. Whose "comfort" are we really looking out for here? Most managers are, in fact, uncomfortable with too many time-consuming climate-setting activities.

2. Enough with the flipcharts and "pair up with a partner" already

Why do trainers write everything anyone says on a flip chart? I know, I know -- it's so we can refer to it later. But it's annoying. And slow. And half the time people don't really care if we refer to it later or not. Most managers are quick. They get it. We don't have to spoon feed them with obvious answers to make a point. Flip charts certainly have their place in training for a few things, but ask your customers what they think. They'll tell you that the trainer's use of flipcharts is overkill. Just discuss the topic with the group. Don't write down everything everyone says.

And then there's the "pair up with a partner and discuss … fill in the blank". Most managers don't want to pair up with a partner and discuss concepts and theory. They want to move on. They don't need spoon-feeding. But the traditional training world-view tells us to add "experiential activities" whenever we introduce new ideas to make our training active. The more exercises the better. "Balance the lecture with an activity," we're told.

"Pair up with a partner and come up with a list of 10 qualities of good leaders for 15 minutes," we tell the group. Then each pair shares its list with the whole group. Then the trainer writes everything down on a flipchart. Then the group agrees on one master list. Time: 1 hour. Advice: bad idea. Ditch this model entirely. If an activity doesn't add absolute value to the session, don't do it. Period. I'm not suggesting that a training session should consist of just lecture. Not at all. But an activity, and a long one for that matter, just for the sake of "adding variety" is not effective. Nine times out of ten people really don't want to "share with their partners" to discuss new concepts. Really. And if it's application you're after, (and you should be) then have the group work on a real case study. They'll be willing and eager to discuss and trade real-world experiences with each other.

3. Know your subject-- you are NOT there to "just facilitate"

This one is not going to sit well with most training and development professionals. We are all taught that the cardinal sin a training professional can commit is to consider him/herself an "expert". "We're just here to facilitate learning, you're the experts," we tell our leadership groups at the start of a training session. But as a manager and executive, I don't want to sit and just have you "facilitate". I want you to know your stuff. If you're here to lead a class on leadership skills, coaching skills, problem-solving, or whatever, then you should know a lot about the topic. I want to learn something new, too. I want you to answer my questions and know how to handle my objections. It's okay if you don't have all the answers, but you better have some of them. To be a credible professional, I have a great deal of technical expertise. You should too. It doesn't mean that I want you to act like an academic and lecture to me, of course. That would be bad too. But I do want you to be practical and knowledgeable. And it's okay to have an opinion and tell me what that is rather than take a totally "neutral" stance.

4. Keep it moving

The business world is moving at a daunting pace. Vast amounts of information are exchanged every minute. Deals are made quickly. Time is revenue for most companies. Everyone is learning to operate at a much faster pace than ever thought possible. Every minute counts. So when I come into a training session, I expect to find value quickly. And I expect it to be a good use of time. So don't spend two hours making the same point. Keep the class moving at a crisp pace. If an activity is not absolutely necessary, don't use it. Design the session so that I understand your point quickly, and can learn how to hone my skills in the future. Apply it to my world often. Don't allow discussions to drift into a myriad of other topics. Understand that all of our time is valuable.

5. Understand business

If your audience is a group of business people, then you should understand business. Read business magazines. Peruse the Wall Street Journal daily or at least weekly. What are the common trends all businesses are facing? What are companies doing that is unique, interesting, or applicable to other companies? Who are some outstanding business leaders? What is their leadership style like? Bring real examples into your sessions. If the only business leader you can discuss is Lee Iacocca, you're behind the eight ball. Understanding the business climate your audience is in strengthens your session and goes a long way in establishing your credibility.

6. Assume that the business is top priority

Most managers have demanding jobs. They are trying to juggle a million and one priorities, and the training session you are conducting is merely one of the things on the list. So don't become defensive and cynical when managers express their frustration about being in a training session. Quickly make it worth their time. Relate it to real business demands. Connect the dots for your audience. How will this make me more effective in the long run? Help them see the relationships rather than scold them about not being "committed" to training. I heard one training and development professional refer to managers in her training sessions as "neanderthals" who need her help in learning how to manage. (Talk about the power of expectations). If you reinforce the notion that training is required punishment, you will experience resistance. Assume the best. Assume that most managers are genuinely committed but overworked and trying to juggle priorities like we all are.

Training and development professionals can have a powerful influence on the leadership of a business. By helping build and develop crucial leadership and management skills, we can help transform the business. This is done by a variety of methods, formal classroom methods being merely one of them. But when we do have the privilege of assembling a group of leaders together, it is our responsibility to make it a business experience worth the time and money it costs for highly paid professionals to be sitting in the room.


The Authors


Joe DiSabatino has twenty years international experience as an executive coach, top-level manager, family therapist, and trainer.  He has a Master's degree in Counseling and has published articles in professional journals.  As an expert in the practical application of systems theory, he designs innovative approaches to leadership development.

Janet Oliver has over fifteen years of organizational and human resource development experience in the United States and Europe. She has served as an executive and internal consultant for Fortune 200 companies and consulted with organizations in a wide variety of industries. Janet's proven corporate track record and Master's degree in Business ensure an approach to organizational development that is realistic and practical.

Joe and Janet are currently senior partners of Phoenix Consulting Associates, a leadership development and management coaching business in the Washington, D.C. area.

Many more articles in Training & Development in The CEO Refresher Archives
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