How to stop C-suite yawn over training

HR must think strategically, economically and confidently to get senior management on board and ready to help
By Brenda Fair
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 11/30/2010

When times are tough, training and marketing are usually the first to be put on the chopping block. The rationale is no one will suffer if they are not trained this quarter and the lights need to stay on.

That’s compounded by the fact training is notoriously difficult to quantify when it comes to return on investment.

So how does an HR professional convince senior management training and development has real value? Largely through the skill of an HR department that thinks creatively about training and development programs and builds a compelling business case for the investment.

Here are four tactics to get the message across:

Think economically: An HR team’s ability to develop cost-effective, efficient and measureable training shows they are in tune with economic realities CEOs face every day. HR should spend time researching free, subsidized or shared opportunities for the training requirements to illustrate the intent to contribute to the bottom line. Industry associations, post-secondary institutions and company vendors are all sources of cost-effective training. On-the-job training, lunch-and-learn sessions and mentoring programs not only provide cost-effective learning opportunities but build capacity and help in succession identification. When HR takes ownership as a business unit, the senior team takes notice.

Be strategic: The most effective training and development initiatives are in response to strategic initiatives developed to move an organization forward — as determined by the senior executive team. HR professionals should be familiar with the business functions and objectives of the organization. A senior team will appreciate the benefits of training if HR can demonstrate how the training initiatives will help them achieve strategic objectives.

Sell: HR professionals should sell the benefits of training and development by illustrating the link between the training and the outcome. Executives do not want to hear what it costs, they want to hear about the return on investment. HR needs to be able to say to the CEO: “If you want to achieve a 23-per-cent increase in revenue, we need to provide sales training to five of our newer sales staff. Their managers have indicated they have the raw talent but lack an understanding of the sales process. We believe training in this area will enable each of these sales professionals to increase their personal sales by at least 15 per cent, which will contribute to the overall objective.”

Be confident: Many HR professionals lack the confidence to address a senior team — they may believe HR does not belong in the boardroom. But CEOs and senior managers appreciate the input of a confident, assertive and persuasive HR professional.

CEOs not seeing training ROI

What may be glaringly obvious to an HR professional may not be that evident to the decision-makers at a company, according to metrics guru Jack Phillips, chairman of Birmingham, Ala.-based ROI Institute, in an article he wrote in the January 2010 issue of T&D Magazine, published by the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD). There is an expectation for HR to provide CEOs with the appropriate evidence of learning success and gains — 96 per cent of CEOs want to see learning, training and development connected to business results but only eight per cent say they see this now. And 74 per cent want to see ROI data, yet only four per cent do, according to an ASTD survey.

HR professionals must incorporate compelling, influential and persuasive language that creates a more comfortable decision-making process for senior managers. The words must communicate powerful messages that translate training and development into improved output, profitability, productivity, work processes and employee relations.

Tap into motivations

HR must paint a clear picture of the beneficial outcomes of training and development, carefully choosing words to tap into what people in advertising call the dominant “buying” motivations for most top executives: improved results; recognition and approval; regimentation; process and better systems; and improved relations.

In addition to identifying bottom-line results, HR must take the time to understand the CEO’s unique motivations — the head of an 80-year-old, family-run enterprise might see more training and development value in preserving the loyalty of long-term employees than increasing productivity.

To convince a senior team training and development has real value for an organization, HR should determine what would motivate senior executives to get behind training and development, illustrate a real understanding of the business, build the case and persuade them through compelling stories.

Brenda Fair is a principal at Fairwinds Training and Development in Halifax, a full-service training and HR consulting firm specializing in leadership and organizational development. She can be reached at (902) 860-3165 or

Tips for HR

Learn what’s keeping CEOs up at night, know their priorities

To align HR’s work with the needs of C-level executives or a board, HR practitioners must think like them by focusing on a strategy that will help eliminate pressing business issues. Training professionals can best align their work with the needs of C-level executives or a board with five essentials:

Organizational priorities: Learn what’s keeping them up at night. Understand their business goals and objectives, their key priorities (such as organizational growth, improved profits, customer loyalty or improved efficiencies).

Strategize: Create a strategy or plan that is linked to the achievement of the organizational priorities and goals. This will build credibility among C-level executives and show you are interested in partnering with them to close organizational gaps that are limiting the achievement of these goals. The strategy should include what you plan to do, who will be involved, when it will be accomplished and which key priorities it will impact.

Communication and involvement: Share the strategy and gain their feedback and input. Be careful not to go into unnecessary detail, but have details ready in case you are asked to expound further. Most executives aren’t interested in how the plan will be executed but, rather, what it will improve and when. This is also an excellent time to solicit their help as champions, advocates or active participants.

Pilot and refine: Pilot the program (incorporating the involvement of C-level champions) before implementing it system-wide. Then share key findings from the pilot, tweaking the program as needed based on comments from participating executives.

Measure and quantify: Consider how to quantify the return on investment of the learning and development programs and what to measure to determine success. With the launch of your strategy and initiatives, will the organization experience increased efficiencies, customer loyalty, cost savings or employee retention? When you can quantify success and back it up with a realistic plan of action, you will easily gain their ear and support.

Source: Theo Gilbert-Jamison, CEO of Performance Solutions by Design in Atlanta

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