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Best Training Practices
Will Kenny
3927 York Ave N
Robbinsdale, MN 55422

The View from the Mail Room

how does your CEO find out what's happening at the front lines?

(reprinted from The Training Tipsheet)

One of the cliches of the business world is the CEO who started in the mail room and worked up the corporate ladder to reach the top.

The notion is poppycock, of course, however romantic. But the question remains: what does the CEO, in your company, really know about the work that goes on at the front lines, far down the org chart? And, whatever the CEO knows, whether accurate or not, how does he or she know it?

I was stirred to muse on these issues by a recent article in The Economist (March 21, 2009), a feature article about Tony Fernandes, the CEO of AirAsia. He bought the bankrupt airline in 2001, since which time he has built it into a regularly profitable regional service hauling 18,000,000 passengers a year. And he has just launched AirAsia X, an ambitious attempt to build a budget long-haul service.

This is obviously one CEO who is strongly identified with his company, who must be something of a minor god to AirAsia employees.

So why does he spend one day a month working on the front lines? He handles baggage, works in the cabin crew, or as a check-in clerk. He strives to continue this practice, even though he could easily claim that he "doesn't have time anymore."

Why? In a CNN interview in 2007, he explained, " I think it's fundamental to running my company, because, unless you get down to the floor and see what's happening, you won't make effective decisions."

Now, I'm a realist. I know it's pretty unlikely that your CEO is going to do something like that. And what does all this have to do with training?

The connection is that in the absence of that kind of experience -- of either the "started in the mail room" myth (and the mail room has changed a lot in 20 years, anyway) or the Fernandes approach -- your training function can play a key role in opening top management's eyes to what really goes on farther down the food chain.

First of all, I have suggested in other articles (see links below) that part of "onboarding" new management should be participating in the same kinds of basic orientation training that the lowest pay levels get. Start with the same story, at least. And when possible, get executives involved in training targeted toward lower levels in the company, whether those top managers help deliver training, or participate as trainees.

But beyond that, your training function can service as an "intelligence gathering service" for the top floor. Talk to people who make their living in the corporate classroom, and you'll find out that they hear all about what is not working, about the policies that seem visionary to the executive committee, but are impractical and cumbersome where the real work is done. They learn about "workarounds", and about major statements and directives from top management that are quickly put aside when dealing with customers and suppliers.

They see what works, and what doesn't.

Feed that information back up your food chain. Lobby vigorously to open the door to a two-way flow of information, in the training department. As the director or chief learning officer passes down information about what the executive committee wants to see from the training function, he or she should also be sharing, with top management, what "intelligence" is coming back up the org chart.

Front line trainers really are in a unique position to gather information that can be incredibly valuable in helping company leadership make, as Tony Fernandes says, "effective decisions." It takes unusual leadership in the training department to be willing to leverage that value, to tap into that information, and to share it -- sometimes an act of considerable courage -- with the rest of the executive team.

It's funny, many CEOs would kill for a reliable "spy network" that could tell them exactly how a competitor does business. With your help, and a little pushing, your CEO can tap into an even more valuable network inside your own company.

© 2009 Best Training Practices -- Will Kenny

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