Make Time for Continuing Education

How many managers say his people "are the most important assets this company has" yet he treats every other asset in the company better than his people?

By John Stanton, Contributing Editor

I recently read a business book entitled "A New Brand World." The author made a small point about his personal life. He said he took some time off from his job to spend more time with his family and to read the important business books he couldn't read because he was too busy working.

This is exactly why so many practicing food marketing executives don't keep up with their professional reading and development because they are "too busy." I believe it is a huge error that as an industry (and a profession) we do not make it a priority to stay in touch with recent developments. The fault clearly lies with top management. They have to make time in the month or year to keep themselves current.

How many top managers would use a surgeon if they found out he or she really hadn't had any additional education since graduating from medical school? Actually, this is an unlikely scenario because the medical community values continual education and mandates it to stay certified (just like accountants, dietitians and almost any other professional group).

I have raised this issue before and the usual answer is, "We tell them to read more," or "They can take courses if they want." But this is only after your employees do everything else that must be done. These are the same people who don't even take all of their vacation time! I have asked the younger executives why they don't stay abreast of new things and the answer is always the same: "no time." To me, that translates into "no corporate priority."

I once worked with a large regulated industry. It had a rule that said all employees had to get a certain number of continuing education hours every year. Failure to do so meant their departmental budget was cut the following year. Do you think those managers encouraged their staff to get the required courses?

Food marketers have no professional association that certifies what constitutes being a professional food marketer. Over the years I have met many individuals who have had responsibility for millions of corporate marketing dollars and never studied the very field they were in. Now, I'm no advocate of getting traditional academic degrees such as MBAs in order to be good at what you do. I've made that clear in past columns here. But I do believe we should have a way to provide a modicum of knowledge on the profession that we are in.

I recommend that every food company establish a standard for the food marketing staff that specifies exactly what type of information they should be intimate with in order to be a practicing food marketer. They should be able to show this either via seminars, course work or evidence of individual reading. They should be required to take an exam or do something to show evidence that they actually understand the topics and issues. The last thing I am trying to do is put more pressure on the marketing people, but it would help everyone if all the people were on the same page as they go about marketing their products. Additionally, I recommend companies have a professional development plan that demonstrates the marketing professionals are staying up-to-date with the profession just like every other professional group requires.

Some companies have regular lunch seminars on pertinent topics, some have speakers come in to discuss issues, and a few use conventions to update people on the profession. I once saw a small company that had an Oprah-like book club for business books. They would all have to read the "book of the quarter" and then meet one afternoon to discuss it. One of the great tools that fell through the cracks of Quaker in the midst of the many changes was "buyer seminars." Quaker would bring in 30 or so retail buyers and a group of Quaker's own marketers and sales people and have a week-long seminar led by leading industry people, such as Brian Harris on category management. But budgets cuts and a lack of interest ended a very successful program that had been in existence for about 15 years.

The real commitment comes from top management, which must make time and money available for their marketing managers to stay trained. How many times have you heard a top manager say his or her people "are the most important assets this company has." Yet those same people treat virtually every other asset in the company better than they treat people.

I believe there is no substitute for experience, but I also think an experienced person who is not in tune with the current climate can be a drag on the decisions a company makes. Peter Drucker once said, "In a fast changing world, what worked yesterday probably doesn't work today." The dilemma we have is that most of what we have learned and most of what we have done may not be what will make us successful in the future. We have to stay current in our profession or fall behind. Walt Disney is alleged to have said, "In this volatile business of ours, we can ill afford to rest on our laurels, even to pause in retrospect. Times and conditions change so rapidly that we must keep our aim constantly on the future."

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