The Story of Sam

The Story of Sam

I have a friend that suffers from a few health problems – overweight, high cholesterol, elevated blood pressure – status quo for a lot of people when they have advanced into what I call the robust period of middle age.


For the purposes of our story I’ll call my friend Sam.


We were at a backyard cookout in the neighborhood. Sam was downing French Fries like they were lemon drops – sipping on a Long Island Iced Tea – and moving in the direction of the dessert table when I bumped into him.


It jostled his plate of fries and one fell to the lawn. He picked it up and popped it into his mouth without missing a beat.


Now when you encounter Sam you automatically assume that you’ll have to hear about his health.


Some people talk about politics…or their golf scores….or perhaps the neighbor no one really likes.


Sam talks about Sam.


He’s an expert on the subject.


He quickly informed me he had just had his latest physical examination. And he had gained some weight.


I feigned shock.


“Twelve pounds,” Sam announced proudly as he slurped down the last of his drink.  “It’s genetics.”


He gazed longingly again at the dessert table.


“Genetics…can be tough.” I answered.




Then he ran down the list of meds he was on.


I listened with rapt attention.


Somewhere after his explanation of cholesterol lowering agents I interrupted to ask him if his doctor had recommended any adjustments to his diet or maybe his lifestyle. (I have it on good authority that Sam last encountered a treadmill when Reagan was in his first term.)


He looked at me as if I had inquired about a U.F.O. that had landed in his driveway.


“I’m not one of those types,” he huffed. “Besides, it’s not a problem…if I eat too much of this stuff…”


He paused and ran his finger over the remaining remnants of salt on his Fries platter, “I’ll just take another pill or two tonight.”


My Story of Sam has a lot of relevance in the corporate world – and I guess in our lives in general.


The quick fix will solve everything.


I’ve run into Sam – with a different name and different face of course – more than a few times in the corporate world.


Where the pill that’s most often prescribed for maladies can be grouped into one large category – training.


Your company isn’t selling well – roll out a new sales model.


The organization isn’t well organized – teach them time management.


No one has a strategic bone in their body – introduce strategy and planning training modules.


The Training Pill is designed to fix any problem – anytime – anywhere.


Except usually it doesn’t.


Right about now a lot of people are crying, “Heresy!”  Training is a multi-billion dollar industry.


Entire companies – and quite a few consultants like yours truly – invest considerable resources in this space.


No, I’m not preaching sedition…but I am pointing out the quick fix is no fix at all…most of the time.


A few facts to consider:


  • As cited by the Harvard Business Review, 200 billion is spent in the United States each year for training – the same analysis suggests approximately 10% renders concrete return.
  • The focus on “We have a skill gap…we’ll just train people” is short sided – and it’s killing some companies’ profitability.
  • Training alone is too often a placebo pill —- except even placebos have higher efficacy rates.


Now here’s the irony – the pills can be made to work – and sometimes with stunning results – but seldom when administered alone.  The rest of the therapeutic armamentarium must include 3 things:

  • Senior leadership support – and commitment to making the new skills visible, relevant, and topical for all. That includes:
    • Removing and/or improving systems’ barriers
    • Awareness of the training’s intent – and accountability for fully supporting it
    • Creating a culture focused on coaching and follow up
  • Middle to first line leader follow up
    • Continuous feedback – coaching – and pull through
  • Training department coordination and oversight
    • Incorporating progress checks
    • Validating uptake across the organization
    • Identifying barriers to implementation
    • Ownership in the full value proposition


But to accomplish this full organizational approach to training requires what is arguably the greatest obstacle of all 


                                                                            Speaking Truth to Power


Harvard professor Michael Beer’s work offers us incredible insight on the subject. His The Great Training Robbery article of 2016 in the Harvard Business Review represented the culmination of decades of research.


Condense the findings and it reads this way – we tend to look at companies as aggregates of individuals and when we see a skill gap we train individuals. The reality, companies are a unique collection of processes, systems, and interactions – overseen by a senior leadership team that often is oblivious to the larger whole.


What’s more, when the signal goes out to administer another “training pill” those senior leaders are apt to sit on high and wait to see results.


Said another way, “Sam Thinking.”  


“Get me to the dessert table.”


Just administer the pill – don’t bother me with long-term behavioral changes my company must make to make the darn thing work.


A few years back Dr. Edward Miller, then dean of the medical school and CEO of Johns Hopkins delivered a compelling speech to colleagues on the subject of heart disease and intervention – namely bypass surgery.


It’s a complicated and severe procedure – sometimes costing hundreds of thousands of dollars when complications arise. Between by-pass and angioplasties, over 2 million patients per year in the United States alone – billions of dollars spent.


Now, here’s the kicker (and I often think of Sam when I cite these numbers) – Dr. Miller reported that when Hopkins examined the life styles of patients 2 years removed from their life saving surgeries 90% had not changed their life styles.


I believe the same percentages applies to organizations who “go under the knife” with their latest ground breaking training event.


“Don’t bother with me with the trivial behavioral changes that will make the pill (or in this case, the surgery) work.  I don’t have time.”


Which carries me back to Sam Thinking.


I’ve finally learned that when I meet with a client to talk about a training opportunity the most relevant question is always the same.


How will we make sure any of this actually WORKS?


That question is spawned by an insight that’s commonly overlooked.


The Sustainability Component is infinitely more important than the actual intervention.


If we can’t agree there we’re better off parting ways.


After all, there’s a new pill coming out almost every day.


And that dessert table has never looked better.







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