Knowledge : When Training Undermines Corporate Success

Margot’s first degree at the University of Sydney was a Bachelor of Education. She moved to Darwin where she headed up Darwin Family Centers. This organization provided child care and family support for the families across the top end of Australia. It was while studying for her MBA that she started working as a business consultant, at the youthful age of 24. Margot works with some of the world’s top companies at executive level, helping organizations in times of crisis, such as after mergers and takeovers. She mentors numerous leading international business figures and conducts workshops and conferences.

She is the author of "Approaching the Corporate Heart", ISBN 0-7318-0655-7, Simon & Schuster.

Margot is Chairman of Zaffyre International, and can be reached at See also her websites at

Australia’s multibillion-dollar education and training industry stands in the way of real corporate development. We have defined "skills and competencies" based on how superior performers have acted in the past, and we use this knowledge to define jobs, performance, training needs and levels of remuneration. A vast international industry exists to ensure that schools and universities train the young, while businesses and bureaucracies train, control and reward everybody else for meeting the standard.

Unfortunately the standard is based on what worked yesterday. In fact, it is founded on a ( mostly unconscious ) theoretical model that underpinned the industrial era. In a time of rapid change this is both ludicrous and highly detrimental to individuals, businesses and Australia’s ability to differentiate itself and develop creative leadership.

I recently addressed a group of "high potential leaders" from a major IT company who had just finished a year-long leadership program. They were being trained to demonstrate 43 competencies. The possibility for subjective interpretation of each competency was immense but the message was that there were clearly expected ways of operating, thinking and even emotionally reacting.

These potential future leaders were expected, for example, to "convey positive energy that captures people’s commitment and stimulates creativity". I thought about the world-class computer nerd, the guy who just might come up with the next multibillion-dollar invention. He is likely to be highly introverted and technically obsessed. While highly creative himself, he might display his enthusiasm by disappearing with his laptop for months on end. But our computer boffin was expected to be present and accounted for, showing "enthusiasm, passion and energy, demonstrating cross-cultural awareness", "coaching others, including peers, to achieve their full potential" and "using externally focused measures to monitor performance".

"I’ve never seen anyone derailed from top leadership positions because of a lack of technical competence or conceptual skills," leader guru Warren Bennis has written. "It’s always because of lapses of judgment and questions of character. Judgment and character tend to be ignored by those responsible for educating others and are arguably difficult or even impossible to teach."

How often have I fought with clients who wanted me to teach them skills they had demonstrated admirably on certain occasions but had consistently failed to use on others? It wasn’t lack of skill that had been their problem but, rather, a pattern of psychological reaction preventing them from doing what they knew was right.

Managing conflict is a great example. You can teach conflict-resolution skills; but if people have an inbuilt terror of conflict ( developed in childhood ), they will avoid conflict until they have dealt with their unconscious programming – their "judgment" and "character".

Character and judgment are developed by combining life experience with an awareness of, and freedom from, limiting psychological patterns. They demand awareness of the forces of hegemony that form the unconscious framework of social and political interaction. We cannot be trained in this, so it is largely ignored.

Unfortunately the old guard supports this sorry state of affairs. Real leaders, having developed character and judgment, tend to be switched on, creative, self-determining and empowered. Real leaders are in touch with their own unique talents. Such people don’t fit comfortably into repressive corporate or government hierarchies; they ask questions, take off in new directions and rock the boat. Real leadership may hold the key to improved strategic performance, adaptation to the environment as it changes and technological breakthrough – but real leaders are very hard to control.

Most organizations still operate on machine-age principles, where people are cogs in the wheel of production, just one more input such as finance, equipment or supplies. The aim is to maximize return on investment ( R.O.I. ) in people while keeping them under control. When profit maximization conflicts with control, it is control that takes precedence. Hence organizations seek managers who can "plan, organize and control" rather than leaders who can find innovative ways forward, inspire people to new heights and create the kind of self-organizing systems that a rapidly changing environment demands.

Skills and competencies have a place, but when they become the main game they are killers. Training in skills and competencies focuses on externally defined and increasingly out-of-date standards. It robs energy and time from development of the innate gifts that people might bring to the task of finding new ways forward – in evolving and adapting to the world as it changes.

© Margot Cairnes

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