Imagine this conversation:
Doctor: “We’ve reviewed the tests; our findings are in line with all of the other opinions. You need this operation. Without it, your life is at risk.”
Patient: “This is exactly what I’ve been told; I did my research and know you’re the best. Just one question: How long will it take to perform the surgery?”
Doctor: “The operation will last 3 hours.”
Patient: “Sorry, I’m too busy. I can only give you 2.”
I’ve never heard of a conversation like this. But when it comes to suggesting learning experiences for physicians, executives, academicians and other leaders on topics such as ethics, professionalism, and legal behavior, I hear it all the time. When I do, the standard refrain is: Our top people are extremely busy; they can only spare an hour at most. We’re lucky to get in front of them briefly, if at all.
Short, intense, interactive presentations that cover key points work. However, I’ve often wondered why there’s such an aversion to participating in sessions in the first place, let alone more extensive presentations on topics such as ethics, lawful, professional behavior, and values when they are very clearly tied to organizational health. This is also puzzling because errors at the top, whether violations committed by leaders or a failure to correct those of others, are frequently the most catastrophic to organizational wellbeing.
Training worth their time
Here’s what I’ve learned: Those who avoid learning entirely – or demand shortened experiences – either don’t really see these topics as personally important, or they believe there isn’t a messenger who will deliver a presentation worthy of their time.
Some leaders assume others can handle resulting issues, that they already know enough, or that what happened to others won’t happen to them. They apparently believe: Why should I spend more than an hour a year, at most, covering these topics? That’s enough to check a compliance box. I need to spend my time making deals, conducting research, treating patients, or doing something really productive.
However, after disasters like BP or Toyota have hit, I am guessing such leaders may now wish they had not avoided or cut short their study and consideration of such “time-draining” topics.
To combat this lack of engagement and interest in compliance and ethics, senior leaders must communicate to their teams that: “These topics are important to me, you and all of us. I will be attending and participating; I expect you to do the same. We will keep talking about the issues among ourselves, not just in this session. ” When top leaders send this message, it is as if they are the physician saying to their patient that they must have this procedure.
The messenger matters
No matter how effective the message may be, the messenger must also be credible. The presenter must be able to provide examples that directly tie to the audience’s personal and business experiences.
The messenger must have professional stature and credibility that place them on the same level as their executive audiences. Most importantly, senior leaders don’t want to be lectured; otherwise, they will tune out or walk out. They need to be engaged with their colleagues. Forcing audiences to listen to information that they can absorb in other ways – books, iPods, iPads, Kindles, and so on – wastes everyone’s time.
When leaders know they will need and benefit from an operation, and find the right expert, they will agree to surgery. The same is true for learning on subjects tied to their own and their organization’s wellbeing.