To Improve the Leadership Training Experience, Think Like a Marketer

Marketers’ timeless obsession is “getting the right message to the right person, at the right time, through the right channel.” As a consumer who is bombarded by marketing messages on nearly every visible surface during every waking hour, you know intuitively that some messages resonate strongly and most are just background noise. Research backs this up: referrals consistently generate the highest conversion rates, while direct mail, email, phone, and display ads can be hundreds or thousands of times less effective (see Marketo, Marketingcharts, MarketingSherpa for details). When Carla (the happy customer) recommends a widget to Sam (the shopper), Sam is much more likely to make a purchase than if the same brand shows up in Sam’s mailbox or browser.

Why do referrals perform so strongly? Two main reasons:

  • The message is timely and relevant. Sam and Carla know enough about each other for Carla to understand what Sam’s needs are, why her experience with the widget would be meaningful to Sam, and when to bring it up so that Sam will listen and take action. This is the classic “why me, why now” message that sales and marketing experts like Jeb Blount and Mark Roberge reinforce. Perhaps even more importantly, Carla knows what Sam doesn’t need right now and doesn’t waste both of their time pushing irrelevant widgets.
  • The source is trusted and credible. Again this relies on a minimum strength of relationship between Sam and Carla such that Sam is more likely to act on Carla’s advice than another person’s. Right now, we won’t explore the psychological dynamic and value exchange going on between these two, but it’s fascinating stuff that Daniel Pink, Robert Cialdini, and the Heath brothers (among others) have written about in detail.

What does this have to do with leadership training? Let’s assume that the organization’s objective is to accelerate the leadership capabilities of their mid- and senior-level staff. This starts with the necessary and insufficient step of achieving high participation in training activities. So here’s how to map the two marketing principles above to your leadership training challenge.

Segment your leaders based on prior experience

Some training content is about compliance; this is mandatory for everyone. For the rest, each of your staff will have either high or low experience along these dimensions:

  • leadership skills: providing direction, inspiration, coaching/mentoring, etc. to a build a great team
  • management skills: prioritization and “load balancing” to enable a group of resources to complete their work on time, at high quality, and efficiently
  • navigating your company’s HR systems: understanding the processes and tools for talent planning, recruiting, performance management, compensation, etc.

By segmenting your leaders based on these attributes, you will find a better match between audience and content, which makes the message more relevant. Then, by scheduling the training events based on the events in the leaders’ lives (e.g., around hiring, performance review or promotion cycles, etc.) the message will be more timely.

Send the message from a respected, successful leader

Personal trainers who are less fit than their clients won’t stay in business for long. Yet many organizations tolerate leadership training to be run by employees who are not successful leaders, not effective training facilitators, or both. Ensure that the people in your organization who send the call to action for leadership training, and the people who deliver the training events, can “walk the talk.” These might be the senior leaders within your organization’s business lines, or from external non-competitive organizations. This ensures the message comes from a credible, trusted source.

The best marketers and the best leadership trainers have a common motivation: they are passionate about their widgets and believe their customers will be better off with the widget than without. So try thinking like a marketer to improve the outcomes of your company’s leadership training experience.

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Use these metrics to Rev your talent engine: Development

In this third post in a series on maximizing the talent in your organization, we’ll highlight five metrics focusing on the development of your team members. Last time we looked at talent intake: from the first touch in recruiting through day 90 of employment.


Now that your new employees know where to find the coffee machine, the emphasis shifts to building competency in role quickly so that the organization can maximize the contribution each employee makes in role. By my rough math based on surveys from OECD, BusinessInsider, and US Department of Labor, companies should expect about 2 years of contribution from each employee. So getting each person up to speed quickly and delivering in role is essential.

The essential component of the Development stage is competence in role. Reaching full competency in role doesn’t mean never making a mistake, like a fat-finger trade, it just means being able to do a job effectively and independently. Being able to measure competency in role means that your organization:

  • has a competency model in place for each role
  • assesses competency during hiring/selection
  • uses on-the-job training and assessment to close any remaining gaps
  • actually verifies that the written capability requirements for roles match reality over time

This can seem like a lot of paperwork to manage, but the alternative is an ad hoc system where new employees get thrown in over their heads, ask the people that sit nearby “do you remember how [person who had my job before] used to …,” and then just make it up. So the effort to document tribal knowledge into a current competency database supporting hiring and training can pay off quickly. especially when the cost of low productivity can easily outpace an average cost per hire of $5,100.

Now that we’ve covered a high level introduction to competency in role, here are the essential metrics for the Development stage of your organization’s Talent Engine:

  • Engagement: go beyond satisfaction to measure engagement, especially if you use Gallup’s method which has been validated to correlate to productivity
  • Percent at fully competent in role: this snapshot can be summarized by functional group, business segment, level, or geographical location across an organization
  • Time to reach fully competent in role: show this as a histogram over a certain time period with lines demarcating the current period and previous period averages
  • Percent attrition: total exits divided by approved headcount during a time period (can be summarized as in percent fully competent above)
  • Percent regrettable exits: same calculation as above, but in the numerator only include voluntary exits for which the hiring manager would re-hire the individual into the role

Accelerating the development period of your talent cycle is the “tide that lifts all boats” in the organization, because both your above- and below-average employees will benefit from learning their jobs faster. While we all hope to avoid suffering from the Peter Principle, reaching competency faster is something every employee will welcome.