“Training: Chicken or Egg?”

As featured in Casino Executive magazine            

It’s kind of a chicken-or-egg question: does a corporate culture shape training, or does training shape the culture?

The role of training in the building of a corporate culture is often a mystery to casino executives, who sometimes see no connection at all between the two.  “So many companies treat it like a band-aid,” says Ann Brunkhorst.  “Like, ‘Oh, I see our service scores went down.  We’d better bring someone in and do a round of training.’  It gets better for a very short period of time and then, because nobody is really reinforcing it, everybody slips back into the old pattern.”  She adds, “The biggest challenge is having people who don’t think of training as being valuable.  If nobody buys into it, it’s not going to be any different.”

For nearly seven years, Ann Brunkhorst was Vice President of Education and Associate Development for Grand Casinos.  She was instrumental in helping integrate training functions with corporate culture development.  She left the organization recently to form her own consulting firm, Practical Leadership, in Minneapolis.

According to Brunkhorst, the answer to the riddle of which comes comes first –  culture or training – is, it depends.      “If the culture includes support for training – in other words, if part of the culture is to place value on training –  then I do think the training will be more effective within that organization.  If the culture is such that the CEO and top executives don’t place a value on it, training is going to have a very hard time,” Brunkhorst says.

On the other hand, Brunkhorst believes it’s possible for training to help form a culture.  “Training can actually be part of promoting the culture.  If training includes language and prescribed behaviors that reflect the values of the predominant culture, it will build on itself.”

She places great emphasis on these two basic elements –  having a vocabulary, a lexicon used in the culture that constantly communicates the desired cultural meanings, and having behavioral norms that define expectations.  “If the corporate culture is focused on providing the best guest service, training should be built around that concept to affect people’s language and  behavior.  You need to describe it to everyone who comes in – the housekeeper, the porter, the slot person, the dealer…everyone.  The other basic is fixing a model for what behavior provides the best guest service.  And constantly reinforce those things with the staff.”

The top priority for training and corporate culture development, however, is getting the middle management layers onboard.  “Whether you are starting a new business or want to reinforce or modify an existing culture, I would start with the managers.  If you get them to buy in and understand the behaviors you want to see, understand the level of service you desire in the culture, you’ll be more likely to get it all the way to the front line if the managers are reinforcing it,” she says.

She considers it an absolute essential that middle mangers be included in training.  “Everyone’s watching the boss, and they measure the company by what they see managers doing – how they treat employees, how they treat customers, how they treat company property.  Even though many companies treat manager training as sort of an afterthought, I think it’s really a basic requirement for culture building.”

 In laying out the syllabus for manager training, Brunkhorst recommends constant repetition of the common thread – the corporate vision/mission.  If guest service is the primary focus, talk to managers involved with hiring about how to look for people who are willing to provide good service, willing to take the steps to ensure they will get the job done.  Another component might be how to come up with topics for staff meetings, including guest service on the agenda to get employee ideas on how to do it better.  Talk about performance evaluations and how to measure employees on their service delivery, how to get them to think about it, how to help them improve their service delivery and recovery.  Discuss with managers how to weave guest service into disciplinary situations.  Constantly tell the managers, “This is the way we’d like you to act with customers and employees, because it will provide the best opportunity to give good guest service.”

Sometimes there are veteran managers who bring bias and resistance to such training, their attitudes shaped by their own experiences.  Brunkhorst’s approach to dealing with them is to be a good listener and observer to identify those who aren’t buying in, then deal with them forthrightly.

“When you see managers doing things that don’t fit the culture, be very direct.  Ask them, ‘Why did you embarrass that employee in front of her co-workers?’  Require an answer.  Find out what it is.  Maybe they don’t realize they’re coming off the way they do.  Or in some cases, they just don’t care.  In which case, you have to let upper management know about it.”  Such managers can seriously impede cultural development and even sabotage it.

 The positive approach to getting managers to be champions of the cultural cause is to show them what’s in it for them.  “If people can see a benefit, like a department manager getting more productivity out of employees and producing better customer service, they will more likely do it.  They’re not going to do it just because the trainer says so.  They’re going to do it because they see a benefit to it,” Brunkhorst says.

For CEOs who tend only to see training in the expense column, an item to chop or cut back when times get tight, Brunkhorst has an eye-opening argument.  “Training can actually be an investment.  You spend advertising dollars day after day to get people to visit your business.  You could take some of those dollars and invest them in training your staff so that they will be the reason your customer comes back the second and third time.  Getting repeat visits is a lot cheaper than constantly marketing to get new customers.  It goes right to the bottom line.”

The real answer to the chicken-or-egg riddle here seems to be that corporate culture and training are symbiotically linked.  They are interdependent and develop in parallel.  Each shapes the other at the same time.

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