“Where should we start?” asked Ilonna.
Recently appointed head of Human Resources for a large builder in NYC, Ilonna had been tasked with building a culture of awareness around safety and engagement across a very traditional, operations-focused firm.
Our answer? With training. This would help her teams understand where the company was headed and how it would get there.
She rolled her eyes.
“We don’t need a training for our team,” she said. “They know how to do their jobs. If it's not broke, don’t fix it. Creating and implementing training would be a waste of time—and we’re overwhelmed as it is. In fact, we have more work than we can handle.”
And there it was: the very reason to start training.
Ilonna’s teams had more work than it could possibly handle. She was trying her best to serve the company and was struggling to keep up.
Inevitably, work was falling through the cracks as her field teams tried to do everything for everyone. They were all running around trying to hit walk through and turn over deadlines.
By denying the need to make a strategic choice —about how her team allocated resources, what it prioritized, what it ignored—Ilonna was making a choice. She was choosing not to choose. And as a result, her teams were failing to achieve as much as they could.
It’s a dynamic I’ve seen again and again in our work training, engaging and studying dozens of firms across the construction industry in New York City.
Few companies accept the notion that their field teams need as much training, if not more, then their office counterparts.
Leaders might not be great at screening effective training or designing and executing them.
So they ignore them.
It’s a big mistake to stop there, especially given the growing attention and money involved with Safety, Certifications and oversight from DoB.
If firms don't adopt a training strategy consciously, they will almost inevitably end up defaulting to an unconscious organizational and cultural model, which is likely to result in their becoming a drag on performance rather than a driver of it.
Below are the most insidiously unconscious strategy I’ve observed in my years in the industry. Explaining why it is damaging to company performance and present a strategy-making process that will help the field align with operational strategies.
You Have a Training Strategy Whether You Like It or Not
There’s a secret about training that no one tells you: Every organization has a policy regarding training, whether or not it is written down and whether or not it is the product of an official strategic planning process.
The policy can be deduced from the actions the organization takes to develop staff from within or hire outside for leadership positions.
This strategy is the logic that determines what you choose to do and not do in service of a particular role that needs to be filled within the firm.
The policy may be implicit.
It may have evolved over time.
It may have emerged without discussion or exploration.
It may be ineffectual in developing a functioning thoughtful firm.
But the policy exists nonetheless.
When HR decides to hire field leadership from outside the firm, it is making a strategy choice.
It is betting that better skilled individuals exist outside the organization, and bringing them in at that level is a more effective way to create value than training internally.
And when standardized hiring practices for both field and office staff, it is making a strategy choice.
It is choosing to pursue scale advantages from a shared approach rather than benefits of customizing by trade and skillset.
Does it really matter if such choices are made without an explicit strategy? We believe it does, because it means a function has fallen prey to a common damaging strategy:
Do everything the office team wants.
This is called the servile strategy, and it is predicated on the belief that field staff serves at the pleasure of the office team. Or, as one CEO recently put it, “The office makes promises to the client; the field supports them.”
That view feels instinctively right to many managers. A company exists to create products and services for customers, so the office, which do the creating and serving, rightly drive corporate direction.
But we should not forget that field serves the client too: more immediately in fact.
Field teams that unconsciously adopt the servile strategy try to be all things to all people. As a result, they wind up overworked and overwhelmed. They become undifferentiated and reactive, losing their ability to influence the company and access resources. They struggle to recruit and retain talent, because no one wants to work for an ineffectual and overwhelmed crew.
The servile strategy produces some miserable outcomes for people working under it, so it’s no wonder that many functional and progressive leaders adopt a radically different approach that treats the office and field teams as equals in terms of power and importance.
How to Create Effective Functional Strategy
The first two questions a functional leader should explore when putting together a strategy related training:
What is the implicit current strategy for training, as reflected in the choices that it makes every day?
What are the strategic priorities of the rest of the corporation, and is training critical to reaching them?
Asking these questions guides leaders to confront what is working about their current strategy and what isn’t (whether implicit or explicit).
Perhaps there are disconnects between their strategy and that of the rest of the company, making the field’s choices poorly aligned with companies needs. In trying to serve all parts and parties, the field staff may be undeserving those that are key to its success. Or perhaps the field staff isn’t helping the firm develop the right organizational capabilities to deliver on the corporate strategy.
Important though the exercise is as a first step, do not dwell too much on these questions. There is often a temptation to do a great deal of research—documenting what your organization is doing in detail, what functions in competitors are doing, and so on.
Exploring ways to solve a problem is far more valuable than obsessing about it.
A reasonable expectation for a group of smart people, using their existing knowledge, is to answer the two questions to a good-enough level after a few hours of discussion.
For example, it wouldn’t take a lot of deep analysis for a mid sized building executive to determine whether safety and reliability or efficiency and value engineering were their company’s main challenge.
Creating a strategy around and allocating resources around the training and development of the field team is the first step to creating a functioning and effective team.
Field staff do not have to be servants to corporate overlords, nor should they be petty tyrants building their own empires.
Like their office counterparts, field staff can use strategy to guide and align their actions, to more effectively allocate resources, and to dramatically enhance the competitive value they provide.
Just like the rest of the company, they make choices every day, and by developing a coherent strategy to guide them, they can become vital engines of the business.
If you would like to connect with us regarding a training for your team, please contact us. We'd love to talk.