Twenty employees sit in a classroom. They all receive the same information at the same time in the same way. The class ends. Does everyone understand what we discussed? Heads nod. Are we being clear on what is expected? Heads nod again.

Then off they go, taking on the day as several of them, if not most, put into place what they learned. At least for that day. Maybe a day or two goes by, but then the old behaviors return. The very thing you were trying to stop from occurring happens again. Time to retrain — get everyone back in class and repeat the cycle. Does everyone understand? Heads nod. Are we all clear on what is expected? “Yes.” Off we go again. Behavior changes for a few days before old habits creep back in, and you are right back to where you started.

Does any of this sound familiar?

As leaders, we spend our time talking to our teams about what is expected of them in terms of performance measurements — sales, gross margins, conversion rates, etc. With that clear, we then train them on the “how.” In other words, the behaviors we expect in order to get the “what” we want accomplished.

It all seems so simple. Tell them what is expected, train them on the how, and our work as leaders is done. Yet it seems that our high expectations are rarely met. There is such inconsistency. It works perfectly for some employees, like our high producers. Yet, for the rest, it does not seem to catch hold. What gives?


In 1992, Frank Blau was starting Nexstar (then called Contractors 2000). I had met him through his travels and developed a friendship that resulted in him ultimately asking me to come on board and get this new organization off the ground.

I remember the day I quit my old job working for the Minnesota Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors Association (PHCC) to start this new endeavor. It was the same day I took my wife home from the hospital after our second child, Brent, was born. I was 30 years old with a 2-year-old daughter and a newborn son. Blau offered me $45,000 a year, which was a big increase, allowing my wife, Barbara, to stay home with our two children and live in relative comfort.

I knew at that moment I was overpaid. There were no other $45,000-a-year jobs out there for a young, inexperienced 30-year-old in St. Paul, Minnesota. I had to keep this job. I would be letting my family down otherwise.

I also knew this was a very public job. The eyes of the industry were on us, and most of them were hoping we would fail. In my mind, failure for Contractors 2000 meant public failure for me. If the organization failed, it would mean my career would be over before it even started. The thought of public failure was terrifying.

There was something else, too. I wanted to be known as a successful executive. I wanted that as my identity. Up to that point, I was just kind of existing as a professional. Blau drew something out of me and made me long for a career of meaning and success.


So in 1992, at age 30, I found myself running a contractor best-practice organization. To this point, I had never hired anyone. I had never managed anyone. I had never run a business. Based on my background, I was uniquely unqualified to run this new organization. No way would I be successful if you looked at what I had done up to that point in my professional life.

I didn’t know what to do. We were a new organization still attempting to find its purpose. Even if I did know what to do, I would not have known how to do it. There were no classes on running a brand-new organization with a unique purpose.

But, although I did not know what to do or how to do it, I sure knew why I needed to!

For me, failure, or even being average, was not an option. If necessary, I would have worked 24 hours a day to be successful. My whys were my family and my future identity as a successful executive, with a healthy dose of fear of failure thrown in, too.

I had a compelling why. Believe me, if there was a class where I could have learned the what and the how, I would have been all ears.


Why is What Makes the Difference

What if we helped employees identify their personal why first? What if we helped draw out something deeply personal in our employees in the same way Blau did for me?

What if we started there when it comes to training? Then, with that in place, or at least emerging in the mind of employees, we could start to train on the what and the how. Don’t you think training is more effective with highly motivated employees?

Sometimes, we think training is motivational. I disagree. I think training can be enjoyable, but teaching someone how to answer the phone or dispatch a call is not motivational. A highly motivated employee will find that training enjoyable and engaging. An employee lacking a personal why will tolerate it and only enjoy it if it makes them laugh.


Ask your employees this simple question: “Why do you need to be extraordinary?” Ask it again and again, and help them come to grips on what is truly important in their life. For many people, they have never been asked a similar question. For many, it might take weeks to come up with an answer. That is OK. But keep asking it, and until they answer the question with conviction, your what and how training will always fall short.

Publication date: 4/23/2018