In 2006, David Maister argued that “the majority of business training is a waste of money and time, because only a microscopic fraction of training is ever put into practice and the hoped-for benefits obtained.” Over a decade later and research suggests his assertion still remains worryingly pertinent.
While it might be hard to admit, the ineffectiveness of training in many professional services firms is often a direct result of the perceived attitudes and behaviours of the firm’s leaders towards training.
In this four part special report, we begin by examining participants’ continuing scepticism of training based on their overriding perceptions of leaders’ attitudes towards the training programmes they attend and the perceived value – or lack of it – often placed on what they have learned once they return to the office.
The second half of the report will suggest how leaders can turn the situation around in their firms, by adopting a ‘Broken Windows’ strategy as famously used in New York in the early 1990s.
In the final part of the series below, we examine how professional services leaders can adopt a ‘Broken Windows’ strategy in their firm to alter their employees’ antipathy towards training initiatives.
We suggest leaders can do this by making it clear what will and will not be tolerated, by sending out clear signals to employees that the firm is one of cohesion, social responsibility and strong values and closely monitoring behaviour.
Ultimately, “the way things are done around here” can and will change but leaders need to start fixing some broken windows…
Part 4 – What leaders can do about it: Applying a Broken Windows Strategy in your Firm
Here’s how we believe professional services leaders can adopt a ‘Broken Windows’ strategy in their firm, similar to the New York case, to alter their employees’ antipathy towards training initiatives and to prove that “the way things are done around here” can change.
For clarity, we have grouped our suggestions by three key components of the ‘Broken Windows’ strategy: ‘Social Norms’, ‘Social Signalling’ and ‘Monitoring’.
Make it very clear what will and will not be tolerated in your firm – undesirable behaviours that may have become ‘the norm’ will no longer be acceptable:
1. Zero-tolerance: There should be clear, non-negotiable standards for behaviour with consequences for non-compliance. Adopt a zero-tolerance approach for those who refuse to change the way they work after a training programme.
2. Set the example: After a training programme, everyone – especially leaders – needs to adopt, embody and exemplify the new approach. If a Partner in a firm continues to use an old approach – why should anyone change theirs? As Maister said:
“What behaviours by top management need to change to convince people that the new behaviours are really required, not just encouraged?”
3. Leaders attend the same training: As Maister surmised:
“If the behavior is going to be optional, then so should the training be.”
We have often found that when someone reaches Partner level, they no longer attend training programmes. It is obvious the perception this sends to the rest of the firm: “Do what I say, not what I do”
Send out clear signals to your employees that we are a firm of cohesion, social responsibility and strong values, with high expectations for behaviour. To be blunt: “If you don’t like it, you can leave” …
4. Operational Values: Your values need to be functional – not aspirational. There is no point stating how much you value training if everyone perceives in their day to day activities that this is not the case.
It’s worth repeating: standards and values are not defined by neat mission or value statements (aspirations) but by what the firm is prepared to enforce.
5. Clear and agreed behaviours firm-wide: There is little point training people in new ways of working if there is a perception that these haven’t been defined, agreed and shared firm wide.
We are not suggesting that all ‘rules’, ‘standards’, ‘approaches’ and ‘behaviours’ must be codified or written down – they can be informal.
However, in top performing firms where values are agreed, shared and exemplified, there is rarely disagreement about what is and isn’t acceptable “around here” and non-compliant behaviours are dealt with quickly and transparently at every level.
For this to be enabled ‘feedback’ needs to become a cornerstone of the culture and not just ‘top down’.
6. Align training with metrics: New skills, behaviours and frameworks must be aligned with your firm’s performance metrics. It is very difficult to signal to employees that you want them to adopt new ways of working if they perceive conflicting messages around what is and is not expected of them.
By fixing ‘broken windows’ as soon as they are found, you send the signal that the firm is closely monitoring behaviour. Consequently, employees are less likely to return to the way they have always worked after a training programme.
7. Monitor: Non-compliant behaviours are dealt with quickly and transparently at every level. After a training programme, leaders must be proactive in checking whether new approaches are being adopted across the firm.
Strict ‘policing’ in a professional services firm is unrealistic and unnecessary but leaders need to be alert and to see for themselves the approaches people are using and gently feedback on unwanted behaviours.
For this to be enabled, ‘feedback’ needs to become a cornerstone of the culture and not just ‘top down’ – are your Partners ready for feedback on their behaviours too?
8. Consequences: There need to be consequences for not using newly acquired behaviours. We are not suggesting that consequences should be draconian or overly formal, instead leaders need to have a simple discussion regarding which ways of working are and are not acceptable.
There are two key considerations here:
i. Firms should ensure they have management teams who are able to undertake these types of potentially difficult coaching discussions.
ii. Firm leaders need to have a clear mandate to challenge anyone who is not following the new behaviours
9. Consistency: Crucial to the broken windows strategy is consistency. Leaders cannot overlook any deviation from the agreed behaviours as this could signal that you are willing to overlook a more serious departure in the future. There must be a ‘doctrine of consistency’.
This will be particularly difficult if the short-term benefit of deviating from the new behaviour is hard to resist. For example, could you insist that an employee uses a newly learned approach even if it meant on this occasion they would find it harder to meet the deadline?
10. Courage: It is not trite to say that leaders need to show courage and bravery to challenge those failing to demonstrate the required behaviours, particularly if it is a fellow Partner or Senior Manager. Consistency demands ‘one rule for all’.
It’s time for professional services leaders to fix their ‘broken windows’
Much like New York in the early 1990s, many employees in professional services firms continue to be resigned to the fact that whatever they learn on a training programme, they will not be able to apply their learning back in the office because “that’s just not the way things are done around here.”
The result is the overriding perception that training is meaningless, insignificant and inconsequential, with indifference and apathy the prevailing attitudes.
However hard it is to admit, predominant perceptions and attitudes held by employees towards training are a direct result of the attitudes and behaviours they perceive the firm’s leaders attach to training.
We believe a ‘broken windows’ approach provides an excellent framework to addressing the failure of training initiatives.
Leaders must send the signal to employees that unwanted behaviours will not be tolerated; they must exemplify the behaviours and standards they expect to see; and actively demonstrate that behaviour is being monitored, with consequences for non-compliance.
While it may initially be difficult for leaders to change their employees’ perception that they are indifferent towards training – but there is some good news.
Once employees do start to recognise the value placed on training, and desired behaviours start to be embedded and shared firm-wide, managers need do little to sustain the change because the employee group will enforce the standard.
In other words, employees will not ‘break a window’ in the first place because they know that this non-compliant behaviour won’t be tolerated by their colleagues in the firm.
Maister was right, (most) training in professional services firms is still not achieving the results stakeholders would want to see.
Professional services leaders need to prove to their teams they have the desire, influence, clout and motivation to ensure the adoption of newly learned behaviours, skills or frameworks.
Returning to the way we’ve always worked after a training programme will not be an option because, categorically, “that is not the way things are done around here any more”.
It’s time for the leaders in your firm to start fixing some broken windows.
Within professional services firms, it is easy to see how the ‘Broken Windows’ theory might be applied to other scenarios beyond training.
Below we have listed some ‘broken windows’ we have found in professional services firms which might seem inconsequential at the time but which send signals to employees about the way things are done around here and influence future behaviours.
Leaders should ask: By taking these actions, what signals do we send to the rest of the firm and our clients? If we continually condone and tolerate these behaviours, what will become acceptable next?
Examples of ‘Broken Windows’ in professional services firms:
- Going for a tender opportunity, even if it is a long shot, because “you just know you’ll get this one”
- Lowering the fee to sign up a client at whatever the cost – “just this once…”
- Sending emails to your team at 3am
- Checking or answering your phone during a meeting
- Using slides in presentations with hundreds of words and confusing diagrams
- Excusing yourself from a meeting at very short notice
- Partner’s timekeeping!