In many large companies, hefty sums are often directed disproportionately in training. Sponsoring MBAs or paying for coaching can take vast chunks out of the leadership training budget. This is common, but it is also foolish. The greatest priority for funds for management training are the first line supervisors. This is where the hardest challenges in dealing with other human beings are faced. It is where the customer usually meets the business and it is generally where people are more likely to be hurt while carrying out their duties. Managers further up the hierarchy may have direct reports with quirks and irritations, occasionally they may have someone who goes off on a tangent, but it’s also likely their direct reports have a reasonable understanding about what must be done. Specialists and professionals are likely to have completed studies and have already proven themselves for some years in the workplace. A supervisor, on the other hand, may be expected to take on people with attitudes and habits that executives find hard to believe.
For example, who will manage a boy like Simon? I can’t remember his real name, but I will never forget the interview with him about thirty years ago. He was a teenager who came to the company under a government scheme for unemployed youth. Simon had lost two earlier placements because he was late – every single day.
“Why are you late every day?”
“Because my Mum and Dad have to drop me off late.”
“Why do they have to drop you off late?”
“Because otherwise, right, they’d have to get to their work half an hour early.”
Simon looked at me when he explained this, with an impatient expression that said, ‘Don’t you understand? How can they possibly get to work a bit early?’
The interview didn’t get much better. At one point I did the unprofessional thing and just asked him, ‘Why are you here today, Simon? You clearly don’t want to be.’ He slumped and said that this was all a waste of time and the ‘fault’ of the guy who had made him come to our office. There was an older man waiting in reception from the government scheme. Simon told me that both he and his parents were annoyed because this bloke was just interfering and making him go to these stupid interviews.
I had, by this time, interviewed enough school leavers or starters under 21 to know that there was usually a parent or caring person sitting in a car outside. Usually someone had ironed a shirt or helped put a CV together. For most new starters there was probably an adult in their lives who would later be asking, ‘How did it go?’ with some level of interest. Not so for Simon. His chances of making a good start somewhere, and instinctively producing a passable work ethic, were not good.
The executive suite rarely need to depend on a boy like Simon, but supervisors will manage him, especially during labour shortages, and they may have to turn him into a cooperative, functioning employee. That will take wisdom, patience and energy. It’s a lot to ask and then suggest that the best money in leadership training is spent on senior managers, or worse, conducted cheaply through on-line software packages. If inane, on-line courses are forced on supervisors to miraculously equip them in dealing with difficult people, then I suggest nothing is better than something. They are better off with the expensive, slower school of hard knocks and experience.