Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Quick Fix? Not So Fast!

I was not surprised to read today that Secret Service agents will be sent to two days of ethics training as a result of the Columbian prostitution scandal.

It sounds very interesting although as many people who have tried to break habits can testify, it takes more than two days of effort to undo a lifetime of mental programming.

It reminds me of a former employer of mine who makes all employees take 15 minutes of diversity training every three months to make them more culturally accepting.

My philosophy is that if the 30 to 50-something-year-olds haven’t learned how to embrace our cultural differences by that point in their lives, 15 minutes every three months is not going to make much difference.

The existence of such programs makes for great press – the kind of press that says “We are doing something wonderful” when in fact, very little has actually changed.

Change occurs when you influence fundamental belief structures – something that cannot be accomplished cavalierly or in MUCH less time than was necessary to create an undesirable behaviour in the first place.

I am also reminded of the time when I was pulled out of a significant client for a mandatory, all-hands, national meeting on leadership.  We ticked off a lot of clients when we were ordered by our employer to tell our clients that we could not miss this conference no matter how important the client’s respective projects were.

When we arrived from all over the country, the event was a 4-hour evening meeting that had two things on the agenda:

1. Pin the tail on the donkey

2. Building a Lego helicopter

I kid you not.  A lot of $2000 to $5000 per day consultants were brought back to NYC to play these two games to help us learn about leadership.

The guys at my table didn’t want to play – they were too angry.  Having assembled many a Lego creation, I dutifully assembled the helicopter and won the contest.

When asked what lesson I learned as a result, I replied, “I have learned that when a team is forced to assemble against their wishes, without any obvious point to their assembly and without a vision, nothing gets done unless someone sucks it up and does it just to get it over with and stop the grumbling.”.

That wasn’t the message they were hoping I would learn.

But the next message was even more telling.

One of my colleagues in the back of the room spoke up and said “Here’s what I have learned.  Any leader who would bring all these people here, sacrifice more than $1.5 million in billing, incur unnecessary travel costs and the wrath of a lot of important clients is not someone I will follow.”

He got up and walked out.  Ed resigned later that evening.

Feel-good, rah-rah stuff feels good to some organizers and looks great when playing the PR game.

But unless it produces positive, measurable results in the desired areas, it may produce more cynicism than accolades.  It may also produce a less than desirable image as perceived by the “outside” world.

A lot of groups that provide “transformational training” often survey the attendees immediately after the end of such events, sampling opinions when the attendees are still experiencing the euphoric, “my life is changed forever”, post-event high. 

Surveying people at this euphoric point almost always provides very positive feedback and causes the organizers to feel like they have made a difference when the truth is that oftentimes they have avoided the really complicated (but necessary) action that is required to make a difference.

My thought is that it is more accurate to sample opinions and measurable results 6 to 12 months later.

That’s when you’ll know if you are really making a difference ….

…. or merely playing pin the tail on the donkey.

In service and servanthood,



  1. Nathan J. LaufferMay 1, 2012 at 10:01 AM

    I'm surprised an adult, let alone a designated leader, would pull all their high-priced consultants away from their clients to play pin the tail on the donkey and Lego helicopter.

  2. I'm not - there appears to be a correlation between how much money an organization makes and how much it is willing to spend in activities that produce little or no measurable result. :-)