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Passion, People and Principles

Are You Dispensing Useless Pills?

post # 144 — July 28, 2006 — a Careers, Client Relations post

Brendan Gaynor, a trainer based in Ireland, wrote in to agree with my article Why (Most) Training is Useless . He said:

I totally agree with the content of this article. However if we as trainers insisted on only proceeding with courses where the appropriate senior commitment was given we would find ourselves a lot poorer and very shortly out of a job.

I was genuinely impressed by the candid comments. It’s refreshing to know that someone in the business does have the courage of his convictions and insists on delivering only effective training. Well done and keep up the good work. It’s good to hear that somebody out there is baulking at the wastage.

And I am. If a client comes to me asking for a pill, I’m going to ask to discuss the symptoms, the ailment and the best means of recovery before I agree to dispense the pill. And, yes, that often means that (some) clients walk away and go to the person who’ll provide the pill.

I have a hard time selling colored water and patent medicines, even if my clients have faith in the efficacy of those things. I may not know completely how to cure them, but I don’t want to treat them with things that we know don’t work. When you’re younger and less established, it’s tempting to just do what the client asks for. I’ve reached the stage of my life when I want to help my clients more than that.

Many of us need to address this issue in our work lives. Brendan is telling nothing but the truth (and he speaks for a lot of people) when he points out that if we refuse to participate in meaninglessness things (or fight to make them otherwise) we would likely be poorer or out of a job.

But how cynical can we allow ourselves to get? How much are we continuing to participate in things that we (ourselves) believe have no impact, that (in our own estimation) contribute no value and accomplish little?

I do have more of a shot at having the “courage of my convictions” than most people do. I’m 59, I have an established business and reputation, and I’m not at the “have to put kids through school and pay off the mortgage” stage of life.

But I hope I’m not alone in struggling to engage in meaningful things, even if it means I lose work (and I do.) I just want my work life to have meaning.

How about you?


Charles H. Green said:


Now that Brendan Gaynor has weighed in on Why (Most) Training is Useless, I’m moved to add my own thoughts. Your title implies the possibility that some small part of training is effective—let me speak to that.

Your main point seems to be that management generally either buys the wrong (useless) training, or refuses to put any muscle behind training that might be useful. Either way, it is a cynical waste of resources and time.

True enough. And true as well that we all ought to be very mindful of participating in the cynicism.

But I believe that my training—and yours too, because I’ve seen it—does more than just succeed or fail at the stated corporate goals of changing behavior. We are doing what Bill Gregor used to call “social work among the rich.” At our best, we are presenting radical ideas about personal development that sneak in under the guise of corporate training.

The explicit goals of most training in the corporate world are extraordinarily narrow. They are defined almost entirely in behavioral terms. It is as if B.F. Skinner and Sigmund Freud held a battle and Skinner beat the crap out of him. While you can say that on some level change is worthless unless it results in changed behavior, I would argue that is trivially true.

The other thing that happens in good training is that people are shocked. Shocked in a light and socially acceptable manner, to be sure, but shocked nonetheless when we do our job right.

When I get someone to recognize that they need to take responsibility rather than whine—I just gave someone a powerful taste of a radical transformation. When you, David, get people to recognize the importance of results by personalizing a powerful metaphor—e.g. “the fat smoker”—you give them a glimpse of integrity. When either of us talks about the role of truth-telling in the corporate world not as ethics but as practical effectiveness—we shock people into seeing that the business world is part of the people world. When any trainer gets a participant to recognize that someone else actually has another viewpoint, and that viewpoint might actually be valid, we have shocked that person outside of himself, if only for a moment.

Training—done well—goes way beyond the pathetically narrow goals that clients set for it. Done well, it’s the corporate equivalent of church-going; it’s secular food for the soul.

While it’s fiendishly difficult to measure return on investment for training, the calculus shouldn’t be limited to direct behavioral responses. Only the most clinically boring of organizations show interest only in extrinsically measurable behaviors that link directly to bottom lines. Most have some vague tolerance for the personal enrichment of their employees, some willingness to admit that what’s good for their people might be good for the firm.

You do this yourself, David. Your passion, as demonstrated in your teaching as well as your writing, serves as a personal role-example for your students. You show them it is possible to be principled while profitable—honest while socially acceptable—truthful while effective. Those are not worthless lessons. You do yourself a disservice to dismiss them that way. The fact that you have personally inspired a lot of people is itself a valid contribution.

Or so it seems to me.

Best wishes,


posted on July 28, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Disclosure: For those who don’t recognize Charlie’s name immediately, he was my coauthor on THE TRUSTED ADVISOR book, and is the author of TRUST-BASED SELLING.

Thanks for joining in Charlie, and for the stimulating (incredibly stimulating) insights (as well as the compliments.)

Other people’s reactions?

posted on July 28, 2006

Leo Bottary said:

David, I think full disclosure may be the key here. You can’t help people who won’t help themselves; nobody can. However, I ‘m always encouraged at some level, when companies proactively seek help (as opposed to waiting until the roof is about to fall in). That being said, if you clearly communicate to them what their responsibility is in the training process, do you then take measure of whether you believe they’ll follow-through, and decide from there, or is full disclosure enough?

posted on July 28, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Leo, persosnally I think it goes W-A-Y beyond full disclosure. I couldn’t say it better than Michelle Golden does in her trackback (goldenmarketing) below.

As she notes, I wasn’t really talking about training alone. If someone wanted to pay a famous PR firm a lot of money to do a campaign that the PR firm knew from experience would be a waste of money, would that PR firm take the job?

posted on July 28, 2006

Leo Bottary said:

I agree completely with Michelle. I draw a distinction however between a day or week-long training session and taking on a client for a PR campaign or long term assignment. At the end of the day, I suppose we’re all left with trusting our gut and wanting to work with good people, with good intentions, who want to achieve great things.

posted on July 28, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Leo, it’s even worse than that. Yes, we all want the client you describe (good people, good intentions, want to achieve great things.)

But that’s not my question. My question is, when you don’t have that type of client in front of you, how many of us actually do tell the client that what s/he wants won’t work, and thereby risk losing revenue to ourselves? How many firms (or individuals) REALLY walk away even when they know they are wasting the clients’ money?

Do we have the guts to do that as individuals? Do firms run that way? And what happens to us if we don’t operate that way?

posted on July 28, 2006

Leo Bottary said:

Yes. I had my own agency for nearly five years, before selling it. During the first year or two, I walked away from business (arguably when it was the toughest to do so from a revenue standpoint) – both new business opportunities as well as existing clients. We’re known by the company we keep. My post called New Business – A Two Way Street – addresses this very point. http://blogs.hillandknowlton.com/blogs/leobottary/archive/2006/07/18/3705.aspx As always – great conversation!

posted on July 28, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Leo, this is NOT a shot at your current firm, but it MAY be telling that both here and in the post on your own site, you give illustrations about what you did when you had your OWN firm.

Having the “courage of your convictions” (Brendan’s original comment) – which could also be described as integrity – is incredibly hard even when your making decisions only for yourself. Making them in a corporate setting is an order of magnitude higher.

I’m still asking questions here: how many LARGE companies have the guts to do what YOU did, leo (fired a client a year, it says on your blog.)

And what’s it like to work in a large company where everyone knows we don’t walk away, and hence spend a significant portion of our working lives doing stuff that isn’t going to work, just for the money? What happens in places like that?

posted on July 28, 2006

Leo Bottary said:

I work at H&K because it’s a place where I share senior management’s priorities. It’s why I enjoy it here. People often ask me about the biggest difference between owning my own firm and being an employee. The employee has to live with the priorities of the employer. Owning my own company, I could set my priorities. After that experience, I knew if I were to last as an employee, I had to go someplace where I shared the priorities of the senior management team. I found that at H&K. I think we’re headed in the right direction, and I want to be a part of steering the ship. That being said, (and I can’t speak for everyone at H&K) it’s not been my personal experience that we accept or keep clients strictly for revenue reasons. We’ll walk away. Also, if H&K represents a client that I or any other employee object to working with for any reason, we are not required to do so.

posted on July 28, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Which raise two more questions for everybody else out there:

a) Is the H&K Leo describes the norm or the exception?

b) “The employee has to live with the priorities of the employer” – right on, Leo, but how many employees walk when the priorities are not aligned? Instead of just blaming the institution and carrying on a before?

posted on July 28, 2006

Dennis Howlett said:

When I kicked off as a self employed accountant I knew one thing. Clients tend to listen to external people more than their employees. Not sure of the reasons why but that was my experience.

I made a conscious decision to take on hard luck cases in the expectation that if I could help them I’d stand a chance of keeping them and maybe helping them to grow. If I couldn’t then OK – move on. That was a strategy that worked very well and proved very profitable.

Today at age 53 and, like you, without the shackles of a mortgage or at home children, I can afford to develop the thoughts I consider of most value to my readers.

I know that I will only ever truly appeal to that sliver of folk who want to make a difference and who genuinely believe that change and innovation drive results.

It doesn’t matter. Because what I’ve found over the years is that if you have something of value to say, it almost always disrupts. Few folk can handle that. Which is fine because those that can tell me it makes a difference in their lives. The latest person to say that is a business man who is already a multi-millionaire. (I’m not by the way and may never be so!) I don’t know about you but there is a certain gratification that comes from knowing that success isn’t necessarily the endgame.

Today through my blog efforts I’m finding some of the most interesting people I’ve ever ‘met’ in my life. They stimulate my thinking and provide terrific guidance.

Is that a good, rewarding life or what?

posted on July 28, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Right on, Dennis! (Is that from our era, or what?)

Seriously, you are one of MY role models as a blogger – I love the no-nonsense way you both have clear opinions and are willing to share them, taking a stand.

posted on July 28, 2006

Tim Burrows said:

a) I have worked in both engineering and IT and would have to say that this is unusual. More than unusual in fact; I don’t think I have ever worked for a company that is willing to fire a client under any circumstances, except when it becomes apparent that we are heading for a massive financial loss on the job.

b) Again, just my personal experience, but it is very unusual to see someone leave on the basis of “conflict of priorities”. Having said that, I think the cause often manifests itself in other ways. For example, if priorities don’t align, projects might become a chore, then people decide they don’t like their “work”, and so start looking around for something better. I think the core reason that people leave employers is probably the same, but the perception of the problem (i.e. the reason that they would give you) may be different.

One other comment that I thought I would make. In one of your books (I have leafed through them and can’t remember which one, but think it may have been Trusted Advisor) you relate an anecdote about an engineer who was pitching for a job with a shiek. The shiek wanted a bridge over a river, but the engineer told him that it would cheaper to build a tunnel (or something similar). Anyway the details are not important, the point was that the shiek didn’t hire him to do the job because he wasn’t giving him what he needed. The shiek wanted to build a shrine to himself, not solve the problem of how to get across the river.

My take on this at the time was that we should listen to what a client wants, then give them what they want, even if it isn’t what they need. (Are the Rolling Stones in your collection David?).

In other words, even if the client wants a suboptimal solution, you will not win the job if you try to sell him/her the “right” solution if that solution is different to the suboptimal solution.

I guess there are a few subtle differences between this situation and the one that you describe above.

1) Giving a client something that is useless vs something that is suboptimal

2) The objective of trying to win a job vs the objective of trying to help the client.

So I wonder now what you were trying to say in your book. Were you saying that we should give clients what they want rather than trying to sell them what we think they need, or were you saying that we should walk away from a client who doesn’t want what we think he/she needs?

I just re-read that question and my head is spinning a bit, but hopefully you understand it.



posted on July 28, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Yes, Tim I have the Stones in my collection (don’t play them that often, certainly absolutely nothing after “Start Me Up.”

The point of my story about the Arab sheik (in TRUE PROFESSIONALISM – chapter 18, ‘Finding Out What Clients Want) was NOT that we should always give the client what s/he wants.

What I said then, and believe now, (aand obviously wrte atrociously badly) is that you need to work to understand your clients’ true objectives in order to DECIDE WHETHER YOU WANT TO PARTICIPATE.

As a client, the Arab shiek had full rights to do whatever he wanted for his own purpose. But the engineer who told me this story concluded that it would aversely affect his company’s reputation to be involved in a ‘showcase’ project.

IF (and this is real for my world) top management wants to turnover issues by offering more or better training courses, I’ll consider it a ‘showcase project’ and walk. Not because doing something ‘showcase’ is wrong, but beacuse often I have to report to them that the ‘morale-boosting’ benefits they seek from doing it won’t in fact be there.

So , when a client asks for something, use it as springoard for a good diagnostic phase, including what the causes are and what are their objectives. Once you understand their objectives, you can decide if you are preprared to provide the treatment they want.

If they’re asking for high-priced fancy “new age”vitamin mixes, and you know they’ve got a twisted colon, what you clearly SHOULD do is provide an education, helping them understand thee options, make a clear recommendation – and then (I believe) walk if they want to ignore the twisted colon and take the vitamin solution.

This is really not idealism. I think it was Seth Godin who, in a recent column, pointed out “The Customer is ALways Right – ot They’re Not a Customer.” In other words, you can only win, serve and keep clients if you are perpared to enlist wholoelheartedly in their cause – BUT THAT DOESN’T MEAN DO ANYTHING FOR ANYONE. It means, only working for clients you can believe in

posted on July 29, 2006

Eric Boehme said:

I love the comments that follow your straight shooting posts, David. It shows that there are more of us out there that are tired of accepting business practices that simply do not make sense.

All of us have worked for a company where we knew we should have fired a client. We saw that their business model was flawed or that they were asking for the impossible. We knew that the engagement would end up in a loss. Yet we played it “politically safe.”

One of my mentors, Jay, taught me a lesson that I will never forget. The company we worked for was about to sign a deal with the Korean government for a million dollars. He calculated the ROI and determined that we could lose almost as much on the deal. Sales needed to book the million. Slam dunk.

Jay said “no” to the way the deal was structured. He did not say “no” to doing business with Korea, however.

He restructured the deal. He knew what the Korean government really needed. It was not what they were asking for; however, he knew they would accept the deal if it met their true needs.

He ended up closing the deal, not sales. We all sat around the conference table with a Korean interpreter for a day. At the end of the day, we had a deal that eventually gave us a net profit of $750k the first year and healthy renewals each year after. I believe that company is still renewing ten years later.

It can happen. We have to be willing to stand up for what we believe. My kids are not in college yet and I have a mortgage. I am willing to fire a client. If the company is willing to fire me for doing what they pay me to do, then why do I want to continue to work for them?

Am I that desperate?

posted on July 29, 2006

Fred Wiersma said:

“I have a hard time selling colored water and patent medicines, even if my clients have faith in the efficacy of those things. I may not know completely how to cure them, but I don’t want to treat them with things that we know don’t work. ”

The question for me is, do we really know what works? If so, fine, I agree with what you write. But what if we don’t know for sure? Not everything unfortunately is so clear cut. Not even in medicine, alas.

A counter example: I work (also) as a coach, and when I coach a client, I can have all kind of judgements such is ‘this is not working’. However, it’s up to the client to reach their goals in the way they see fit. Often they do that in surprising ways that I never thought were possible. Since then I’m much more careful with saying or thinking “that’s not possible”. Coaching by the way is different from training in that it’s much more the client’s agenda. But similar to advising, it’s about trust and integrity. If that’s missing in either party, coaching will not work. And yes, I do sometimes refuse coaching clients. Mostly if I sense that they’re not really committed to be coached. And sometimes because I intuit I’m not the right coach for them. I’m never certain if that’s correct, but I’ve learned to trust my intuition on this.

posted on July 29, 2006

Fiona Torrance said:

David —

Leo Bottary introduced me to your blog and I find the entries highly stimulating to read!

Your discussion here is from a client/agency perspective but I want to pose a question to you from the perspective of those employees trained to work with the clients.

Say you have employees not optimizing available resources (the company is ‘overinvesting’ so to speak) and as a result the employees appear to be under performing / less motivated. Training and a mentoring system are provided, but certain employees don’t appear to be responding to the training/mentoring as expected. What would you do?

Dennis Howlett made an interesting comment about taking on hard luck cases. Two ingredients are still necessary to work with those cases: 1. A willingness to make a difference 2. A genuine belief that change and innovation drive results.

Certain people blame organizations and other people for their inability to function at work. How far do we go in our responsibility to help these people without the organizational unit/revenue being affected?

Some would say, let them be the other agencies problem.

My approach would be to try to get to the root of the problem and systematically help the individual develop an independent work ethic that is in line with company goals — mentoring.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Fiona Torrance


USC Marshall School of Business


posted on July 29, 2006

Fiona Torrance said:

David –

In my previous comment, I forgot to include the following question: Do you think that newly hired graduates are learning behaviors in colleges/universities that’s making it harder for companies to train/mentor them in dealing with clients?

Put a little differently: Do you think that newly hired graduates are not optimizing the use of company resources because it is a habit that they learn in college/university?

I look forward to hearing your response.

Fiona Torrance


USC Marshall School of Business


posted on July 29, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Fione, there’s more than one question there, but let me hit the highlights and direct you elsewhere on this blog (and my other writings.)

First, I have written extensively in this blog (and in books like THE TRUSTED ADVISOR) that most of us are incredibly poorly equipped to deal with the real world when we leave our education. (There’s a blogpost here under “Careers” called “Why Business Schools can Never develop Managers”. Take a look.

There are gazillion reasons, but two I have stressed (from my own life, I’m not picking on others here) are (a) education encourages us to focus on our own performance and does little to equip us to be practiced and oriented towards team play. You get ahead if YOU pas your exams, not base on how well you were able to work with those around you.

A related but distinct point is that most education streses things of the mind (logic, rationality, inteligence, analytics) whereas getting on in the world (with clients, co-workers, bosses, subordinates) is about learning how peopleacta nd react toyou, and how to earn trust, win the confidence of people who are not like you.

When I taught at Harvard Business School, the standrad joke was that an MBA was never confortable unless talking with (preferablyat) another MBA.

There was much truth in that.

Finally, to the other queestion you posed – if an employee is not reponding, what do you do? My brief answer is focus on helping, help again, and help again. Afte three or four times, if the performance (or the attitude) is still not there, then the person must leave. (See my article “A Great Coach in Action” on my website.

posted on July 29, 2006

David Tebbutt said:

I am a partner in a boutique training company with huge clients. We prepare in depth and have endless years of relevant IT industry knowledge to draw on.

Occasionally, we are asked by someone outside of the industry to provide ‘the same’ training.

This is actually impossible. If it’s a car maker or a fashion house, we couldn’t possibly conduct realistic ‘industry insider’ news-type interviews. If they said, “buttons are in”. How could we challenge that “zips are better”? Trivial perhaps, but I’m sure you see my point.

We always say “no” and try to help them find someone else. Sometimes the client insists on using us for the content and structure and is prepared to accept more generalist interviews.

We’ve still turned down most of these ‘opportunitites’. The decision is always based on a) whether we are able to achieve a sufficient grasp of the subject and b) whether the client is likely to face tough press.

If the answer to a) is “no” and b) is “yes” then we turn it down.

I think I’m agreeing with some of the points made earlier: if we foul up, we potentially sully the reputations of two companies, ours and the client’s.

posted on July 30, 2006

Fiona Torrance said:

David —

Thank you for your feedback. I’ve read your post about “Why (Most) Training is Useless” and understand what you mean when describing the difference between business as a subject and management as a skill. You can train those clients treating business as a subject as much as you like but they don’t have the skill to carry out the training. Or the operating groups they’re sent back to still function by old measures and management approaches that renders the application of their training ineffective. If you, as trainer, identify an either/or case scenario before taking on the client — should you, ethically, take the client on and profit knowing that the training will be ineffective? My answer to this question is that you should only take on a client if you know that your training suits their needs and will be effective. Here’s another question: Should business schools accept students at high costs to the students and their families knowing that they can absorb business as a subject but don’t really possess the management skills to be effective managers? Do you think they can learn the management skills in business school—depending on the school, program and combination of classes? I wasn’t clear on that from your “Why (Most) Training is Useless” post and look forward to hearing from you.

Fiona Torrance


USC Marshall School of Business

posted on July 30, 2006

David (Maister) said:

For my views on business schools, look at “Are Business Schools Ready For Romance?” on the INTERVIEWS WITH ME part of my website (http://about.davidmaister.com/articles/18/86/)

posted on July 31, 2006