Why Succesful CEOs Place Talent at The Top of Their Agenda

Some years ago, I had an interaction with a CEO who attempted to cut my training budget, “What happens if we train staff and they leave?” he asked. I replied, “just wait and see what happens if you don’t train them and they stay”.

The CEOs response was not unusual. CEOs who focus on the balance sheet view training and development as a cost and not an investment in the future.

In this instance he believed that we should simply recruit the best skills we could afford and after their induction their skills development stopped.

Today we acknowledge that the difference between us and our competitors is the quality, talent, skill and experience of our staff.

In my experience the ability to train staff faster and more focussed than your competitors is your greatest sustainable competitive advantage.

Importantly, training and development are not a once off; your staff, your company, the market, your competitors are different to what they were a year ago, and vastly different to who and what they will be next year.

Training – learning for life; simply equips the company with the skills to manage the future and maintain a competitive advantage.

And no, it is not the HR Managers function; attracting, training and retaining talent should be the Number One priority on every CEOs to do list.

If as a CEO you’re not convinced that continuous improvement through the development of skills is important; ask yourself if you would be happy having open heart surgery using an anaesthetist who gave you a bottle of brandy to drink and a bullet to bite on? Of course not, so why would I do business with your company that’s firmly docked in the harbour while the AI, BI, ships have hoisted their sails? Progress is important. But not just progress, exponential progress. Whilst our minds are programmed to think linear, if I walk 30 linear steps, I end up 30 metres from where I started. If I walk 30 exponential steps where each one is double the previous one, I walk 26 times around the world.

Our approach to training must change to accommodate this. The annual training conference and the annual performance review have served us well but are useless now. You need to train continuously, test the knowledge for immediate feedback and train again, over and over.

In his book High Output Management Intel CEO Andy Gove wrote a chapter headed, “Why Training Is the Boss’s Job”. Gove commented, “most managers seem to feel that training employees is a job that should be left to others. I, on the other hand, strongly believe that the manager should do it himself”.

One of the most successful CEOs of Silicon Valley Ben Horwitz read Gove’s book. His experience was that external firms with little knowledge of the company provided little or no value to his firm as they were teaching cut and paste material that was irrelevant.

He applied Gove’s advice to his product managers at Netscape who were adding little value to the business. He wrote a short article called “Good Product Manager/Bad Product Manager” which he used to train the team on his basic expectations. Gove commented, “I was shocked by what happened next. The performance of my team instantly improved. Pretty soon I was managing the highest-performing team in the company”.

Horwitz immediately took on responsibility for training investing heavily in it. He would go on the say, “I credit that investment with much of our eventual success”.

So how does the CEO go about this? Here’s the advice I give to CEOs.

Just start.

Set aside time weekly in your diary. Choose a topic that is relevant to your staff, explain what it is you expect from them, why you expect it, how you expect they will achieve it and the impact on the organisation as a whole.  Don’t try and be perfect, the world doesn’t need you to be and remember “perfection is spelled paralysis”.

Send out your training article with a covering note that you want to discuss and get feedback at you Friday morning Exco meeting.

Add material that challenges, engages and encourages growth. Join an innovative training platform like Heavy Chef www.heavychef.com , and circulate links to podcasts to support your topic. Follow opinion leaders on LinkedIn. For example, check out Simon Sinek’s Why, give it context and relevance in relation to your company. Then discuss, get feedback and move on.

For more comprehensive skills development, online courses through Coursera and Udemy can be used specifically for developing a staff member’s skill set. They are short, inexpensive and can be done at their desk.

I took on a new client in the logistics industry. I did a Udemy course for R350 that provided me with great insight and brought me up to speed way faster than if I’d muddled my way around the cabbage patch.

Create pods where staff meet to discuss training interventions, share insights and do collaborative learning. This is great for teambuilding, innovation and for developing a symbiotic learning organisation. 

As CEO you are responsible for the productivity and the resultant performance of your company. Continuous, targeted, on the job training is the cheapest most effective resource to increase performance. The alternative is too ghastly to contemplate.

Gove’s explanation of the impact of CEO driven training at Intel should be the “wake-up and hear the canary” moment for CEOs;

“Training is, quite simply, one of the highest leverage activities a manager can perform. Consider for a moment the possibility of your putting on a series of four lectures for members of your department. Let’s count on three hours preparation, for each hour of course time – twelve hours of work in total. Say that you have ten students on your class. Next year they will work a total of about twenty thousand hours for your organisation. If your training efforts result in a 1 percent improvement in your subordinate’s performance, your company will gain the equivalent of two hundred hours of work as a result of the expenditure of your twelve hours.”

Another important aspect of training is to make your expectations absolutely clear to staff. Too often induction is left to HR and while new recruits know when they will be paid and where the toilets are, they rarely know what is expected of them.

If you don’t train your staff, you have no basis for managing their performance, none. As Horwitz says, “if you don’t train your staff, performance management in your company will be sloppy and inconsistent”. 

I have long held the view that performance reviews are a legal theft of company time. Imagine Ernie Else having a blow out in a tournament the week before the British Open and his coach telling he’ll review it at their quarterly review? No, nor can I. Why do we do it?

Give your staff instant feedback; address and improve shortcomings as and when they come to your attention, give recognition immediately. Saying thank you to a colleague for covering for an ill staff member loses its impact a month later.

Now filter your process of training your direct reports throughout the organisation.

Your Exco and their managers must provide monthly training updates to you; experts should share knowledge and information on specific tasks, this is called skills training.

The other form of training is management development, helping your managers to be the most efficient and effective versions of themselves possible. This creates team synergy and camaraderie, but also a profile and esteem for the person doing the training. And the costs are minimal. As a mentor commented to me just before I did my first training session to staff years ago, “never underestimate how much you know”. Share it. The Feynman Technique indicates that our greatest learning happens when we teach others.

Now create a training and development routine. What Verne Harnish calls the “rhythm of meetings”. Make sure it becomes a ritual. I send out training updates on Mondays for Exco meetings on Friday morning. That’s right, every single Monday.

Remember, organisations don’t have time to do optional things, keeping the trains running is far more important than investing time and effort in the future. Make training compulsory, and drive it from the CEOs office.

Now remember excellence is a habit – you constantly need to practice it to perfect it. Read, write, teach, rinse, repeat. Get cracking. As James Clear says, “if you write, call yourself a writer”. Write. If you’re a leader, lead by example.

In 1990 Peter Senge wrote The Fifth Discipline subtitled The Art and Practice of The Learning Organisation. He highlighted five areas of discipline upon which organisations of the future [us] would distinguish themselves from their opposition. It outlines the very essence of what a CEO should be doing.


Also known as systems thinking. CEOs must view their organisation as more than just the sum of its parts. The success of an organisation is based on the successful functioning of every single part of the value chain. A conductor will focus on every individual in the orchestra; to strive for and produce excellence every brass, wind, and string instrument must function optimally, seamlessly and in perfect harmony.

A proper functioning whole is always greater than the sum of its parts. At its deepest level, being part of a great team is the meaningfulness of the experience. People talk about purpose and being part of something larger than themselves, described by Senge as metanoia. Metanoia means “above the self”, above the self’s mind -learning in the organisation creates this shift. As CEO our scope needs to broader, further, deeper and more holistic. Training gets the team singing off the same song sheet and working towards a combined purpose greater than themselves.

Personal Mastery

CEOs realise that their staff, like them, are by nature inquisitive and curious. They arrive enthusiastic and inspired constantly striving to be the best possible version of themselves possible. If we don’t train them, we simply rob them of this enthusiasm. One of the strongest sources of motivation for our staff is continuous learning, perfecting their craft and continually becoming more capable and competent.

The person they were this time last year, the workplace, and the world have changed significantly from what it was last year; to adapt, adopt and improve you must encourage, NO, force them to learn. If they learn, the organisation benefits from the increase in experience and skills, the classic win/win situation.

CEOs understand that there is a direct correlation between personal learning, organisational learning, personal competence, organisational effectiveness and excellence. They focus on individuals to improve the collective whole. When the tide rises, the super-tanker rises.

Mental models

CEOs create very clear “mental models” using values, mission, and training. Every day people from different classes, gender, culture, sexual orientation, race, religion and political persuasion merge together in your workplace. Training is the single most powerful way of creating a unified “mental model” a united vision of what is and what needs to be.

Training changes the shared mental models of all their stakeholders; staff, clients, customers, suppliers and. They do so by “turning the mirror inward”: unearthing our internal pictures of the world before bringing them to the surface and holding them rigorously to scrutiny. They form the basis of the combined mental model. But what does this mean? It simply means that the CEO is responsible for the inclusive, diverse, high-performance culture of the organisation. He does this by crafting and telling stories. You want to solve the hoary chestnut of diversity and inclusivity? Save the millions budgeted for consultants and develop your own mental models.

Shared vision

The single most critical job of the CEO is to create and hold a shared picture of the future we seek to create. Any organisation that has sustained a measure of greatness has a crystal clarity of goals, values and missions that are deeply shared by staff in the organisation and externally with stakeholders. Flying in formation is the sole responsibility of the CEO. You want to save millions on creating your values? Simply list what it is that your company values. Put it up in the foyer. Write about them in your training. Catch people living them give them public recognition. Insist at every board meeting that the Execs bring one employee they believe lived the values, recognise them with a cup of tea and a certificate. You’ll note I don’t say reward, you don’t reward people for doing what they’re meant to be doing. Pretty soon your organisation will be living the company’s values. The CEO is the custodian of the company values, not the foyer wall. Make it happen.

Team learning

CEOs need to be aware that the intelligence of teams exceeds the intelligence of individuals.  Functional teams develop extraordinary capacities for cohesion, unity of purpose and results.

It starts with training, thinking together, freedom to express oneself, to be heard, to contribute – dialogue – the Greek dia-logos which means a free flowing of meaning through a group.

Furthermore, the open candid nature of discussion means that teams focus on task conflict, meaning that whilst staff might not agree on the solution they are unified against the problem, as opposed to relationship principles which focuses on personal animosity and the organisation killer – office politics.

In conclusion, the message to CEOs is clear:

  • You are responsible for the performance of your organisation;
  • Your organisations performance is based on the hundreds of activities performed by your staff directed by your common vision;
  • Training them to improve by just 1 percent will lead to incremental improvement [read James Clear’s article “This coach Improved Every Tiny Thing by 1 Percent and Here’s What Happened] to see how a slight improvement along the value chain compounds productivity and performance;
  • You are the custodian of your company’s values, live them;
  • Mental modelling helps you create the culture whilst your strategic plan provides the combined vision – you’re training and communication allows you to control the narrative.
  • Do regular gap analyses to ensure staff are skilled to the requisite level to operate optimally.

Now, just start, just, just, just START. And remember Sheryl Sandberg’s advice, “done is better than perfect”. Quite.