ATD Blog

I Don’t Want to Hear Any of That Stuff You Learned at Harvard!

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

A participant in a workshop we were teaching in Canada told us an amazing story. His company had sponsored him to complete an executive MBA program at Harvard. Over the course of a year, they paid to fly him back and forth between Alberta and Boston, plus his salary, lodging, tuition, and other expenses. The day he returned to work after completing the program, his boss called him into the office and said, “Welcome back. I don’t want to hear any of the crap you learned at Harvard.

We were dumbfounded. What a terrible waste of time and money! A hundred thousand dollars down the drain because the manager was not on board. And then we realized that while this was a single, dramatic example, the same kind of thing happens all the time.

Employees attend training and come back enthused about using what they learned, only to have their managers throw cold water on it. It may be overt (“that may be what they taught you, but that is not how we do it in my department”), or it may be through simple neglect. Regardless, the total cost of the learning scrap generated runs into the millions of dollars, not just hundreds of thousands.

Why does this happen and what can we, as learning professionals, do to prevent it?

Root Causes

The vital role that managers play in making sure training pays off has long been recognized. Rob Brinkerhoff, in Telling Training’s Story (2006), put it succinctly: “When managers support training and learners, it works. When they do not, it does not.”

So why don’t managers do more to support learning and learners? We think there are three root causes:

  1. insufficient buy-in to the goals and process
  1. ignorance of the impact (positive and negative) that they have on training’s return on investment
  1. uncertainty about what they can do to be sure the company gets its money’s worth.

Pre-Emptive Action

So what can we do to avoid having managers intentionally or unintentionally undermine the benefits of training? We need to take pre-emptive action to be sure that all the time and effort invested in learning and development (L&D) opportunities pay a return by:

  • ensuring managerial buy-in
  • making sure that managers understand their impact on training outcomes
  • providing managers with short, simple, effective things they can do to maximize the value.

Ensure Buy-In. If managers don’t understand the business value and rationale for the training, they won’t actively support it. Ensure buy-in by including managers in the targeting and design of the training—not just senior managers, but also those who supervise the attendees; they are critical for implementation. Also, be sure that when you describe L&D initiatives, you always stress the business outcomes, not just the learning objectives. 

Explain the Impact. Most managers have no idea how large an impact their action—or inaction—has on whether their department benefits from training. A study at American Express concluded that managers “can make or break the success of any training initiative.” It isn’t enough for managers to just not be negative; they need to be visibly and actively supportive. When managers say nothing one way or another about training, employees interpret that to mean that it is not important. Educate managers about the impact they have. For instance, when Pfizer shared the results of a study on the impact of managers with their line leaders, coaching went up. 

Provide Suggestions. One reason managers don’t do more coaching post-training is that they are not exactly sure what they are supposed to so. We have found that if you provide managers with specific, short, and effective things they can do to maximize training, many of them will, and to good effect. 


Bottom Line 

The best training in the world will have limited impact unless its use is actively supported by participants’ managers back on the job. A manager can undo months of effort in a single conversation, as in the story we started with. Conversely, managers can amplify, extend, and multiply the beneficial effects of training. In other words, the success of L&D depends to a great extent on participants’ managers, and smart organizations have learned how to encourage and support managers.

Want to Learn More?

This article is based on the third edition of The Six Disciplines of Breakthrough Learning: How to Turn Training and Development Into Business Results, which will be available from ATD Press in April 2015. Every participant in the preconference Learning Transfer Certificate program will receive a copy. Sign up now and learn how to make your training and development efforts even more effective.


About the Author

Roy V. H. Pollock, DVM, PhD, is Chief Learning Officer of The 6Ds Company and co-author of The Six Disciplines of Breakthrough Learning and Getting Your Money’s Worth from Training and Development. Roy has a passion for helping individuals and teams succeed. He is a popular speaker and frequent consultant on improving the value created by training and development.

Roy has a unique blend of experience in both business and education. He has served as Chief Learning Officer for the Fort Hill Company; Vice President, Global Strategic Product Development for SmithKline Beecham Animal Health; Vice President, Companion Animal Division for Pfizer; and Assistant Dean for Curriculum at Cornell’s Veterinary College.

Roy received his BA from Williams College cum laude and his Doctor of Veterinary Medicine and PhD degrees from Cornell University. He studied medical education at the University of Illinois Center for Educational Development. Roy served as a member of the faculty at Cornell for eight years, where he received numerous awards including the Ralston-Purina Research Award and Veterinarian of the Year.  He is a Fellow of the Kellogg Foundation National Leadership Program.

About the Author

Andy Jefferson, JD, is President and Chief Executive Officer for The 6Ds Company.  He is co-author of The Six Disciplines of Breakthrough Learning and Getting Your Money’s Worth from Training and Development. Andy is a frequent and popular global presenter who excels in helping companies maximize the value they realize from their investments in learning and development. He is an accomplished executive with deep line-management expertise as well as experience in strategic planning, sales and marketing, productivity, and technology development. Andy views learning as a critical source of competitive advantage in an increasingly knowledge-based economy. He knows the challenges of running a company and making every investment count. Prior to joining The 6Ds Company, Andy served as the Chief Executive Officer of The Fort Hill Company, CEO of Vital Home Services, and Chief Operating Officer and General Counsel of AmeriStar Technologies, Inc. Andy is a graduate of the University of Delaware and graduated Phi Kappa Phi with honors from the Widener University School of Law, where he served on the school’s Board of Overseers.

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