The lost art of business training

The Boston University Questrom School of Business recently held a local Venture Capital Investment Competition where 15 MBAs squared off to be named to the five-person regional team representing BU in February 2017. 


By GREG STOLLER
@LanguageofBiz

Business training is provided far less than it should be, often with excuses of constrained time, money and resources. But this means of “cost savings” isn’t recommended. Executives respond well when they receive ongoing, practical business assistance: colleagues or superiors challenging their thought processes, blocking off time for them to practice key presentations and the chance to receive an outside (and apolitical) analytical perspective.

Once business grads are conferred their MBA degrees, most companies assume they’re ready to produce and add value from the get-go, despite a lack of gray hair and minimal battle scars. Although some large corporations might offer rotational management training programs, smaller companies and start-ups are pretty much on their own. And well beyond skills training, no one provides guidance about career planning, supervising others and how to manage up.

Over the past two months, my academic role has been expanded to include mentorship, and I’ve been fortunate to work shoulder-to-shoulder, helping multiple teams of business students prepare for analytical case competitions on campus, across the United States and around the world. These have included the Venture Capital Investment Competition, at the global and local levels, and our Global Ethics Case Competition. Some of the students’ success, of course, relates to the old adage of practice makes perfect. But much of it is due to expanded viewpoints. People external to their peer circle bring with them fresh perspectives.

Outside of the business world, this is an institutionalized, standard operating procedure. In those industries, the conferred degree might be the admission ticket, but its value is obtained through learning at the foot of the master. Newly minted physicians go through residency and receive hours of on-the-job training from their attending brethren. Larger law firms pull from a bench of specialized skill sets depending on the cases involved. In both instances, although the younger members might get stuck doing most of the low-level work, they benefit from the ongoing guidance of more seasoned colleagues and senior associates. Depending on the state where they’re practicing, ongoing continuing educational credits (CEUs) are often required annually in both industries.

The corollary to the argument of “who cares about training” is due to the diverse viewpoints business naturally offers. Unlike medicine or law, we regularly employ cross-functional teams. Pundits will cite that viewpoints are more robust from inception, since everyone around the planning table hasn’t been trained in the same fashion. More simply, variety is the spice of business life.

Not necessarily, as there’s some irony here. Outside of business rotations, bona fide training was phased out in the ’90s, except in highly regulated fields where executives continue to take a battery of tests to demonstrate compliance and competence. If a business executive doesn’t understand the nuances of a task, they’re often expected to partner with an internal mentor, take additional classes, attend seminars, or buy their own resources. A cross- functional team might lead to better decision-making but not personal improvement or growth.

questrom-mba-group

Unless required as part of our job, we’re likely too busy to provide ongoing guidance to each other, anyway. Especially amongst peers or direct reports, many are also often fearful of sealing their own promotional fate, by giving away coveted tricks-of-the-trade to potential workplace rivals. The end result becomes a lack of productivity. Eventually, with enough experience (in the same industry) an executive will amass the requisite knowledge to succeed and learn how and when to make better decisions. But after how much lost time in the process?

The best companies employ ongoing training as a ‘must have’ in every job description and recognize the following:

Business success is a team sport

Spending time together sharing knowledge, exchanging viewpoints and challenging one another is a bonding experience, and positively exposes personality idiosyncrasies. Use these to your collective and individual advantage. The chemistry will be stronger and the team will be more productive. You’ll actually get to know one another. The uncomfortable edge when correcting someone becomes a lot less pronounced when you’re at ease with the people around you.

Training time shouldn’t be confined to the office

I have been working with two consulting clients for more than five years apiece. In addition to our brainstorming, strategic planning and white board sessions, we schedule golf outings, dinner with our spouses and time to hang out. Some of the best knowledge tidbits I learn are given and received well outside of the corporate boardroom. You also become attuned to what motivates everyone in the company—the senior executives, your direct reports and clients—and discuss strategies on how to best manage them.

Knowledge is power

My business students aren’t succeeding in the competitions they’re preparing for due to my superior mentorship. They’re instead channeling their preparation and making better conceptual connections. They’re also amassing more knowledge than most other teams, practicing how and when to analytically apply their findings, and better anticipating the Q&A. Some of those hard skills also require negotiating different time zones and dealing with language barriers. Neither the receipt of awards nor a guaranteed win can ever be taken for granted but the hard-nosed, recurring practice often improves their chances of doing well. They also hone their presentation skills and by watching everyone at different levels interact, learn some valuable management lessons.

In conclusion, manage the training process proactively instead of just reacting to the individual pieces that go awry. You’ll have left valuable knowledge acquisition and management potential on the table.

  • Invest in your team before a project commences, and when it’s complete give everyone specific feedback—even in the face of poor results.
  • Help people to do better the next time around and never take any prior knowledge for granted.
  • Don’t succumb to inaction, fearing you’ll insult your colleagues by ‘restating the obvious’ in advance, or when you debrief. Doing nothing will pale in comparison to receiving a vapid look (or shrugging shoulders) due to business ignorance, and then it’s too late.

Greg Stoller is a senior lecturer and is actively involved in building entrepreneurship, experiential learning and international business programs at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business. He is also the co-founder and host of the Language of Business ®, an independently produced weekly news magazine which mixes in-studio and on-location interviews with entrepreneurs. The Language of Business airs on Saturday and Sunday mornings on WBIN-TV, Verizon channel 506 and Comcast channel 811 (in Massachusetts). Always available online, too, at: www.languageofbusiness.biz.