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Post Leadership
Posted at 11:59 AM ET, 04/03/2012

May the GSA resignation serve as warning to all leaders considering lame training conferences

General Services Administration Administrator Martha Johnson resigned Monday after a report shed light on excessive spending at a training conference for her agency. (Brendan Smialowski - Getty Images)
The resignation of Martha N. Johnson, the General Services Administration chief who stepped down amid a withering report about excessive spending by her agency on a training conference, should bring a sigh of relief to employees everywhere. Maybe the embarrassment of hiring a mind reader and spending $31,000 on a networking reception will save a few more of us from the silly leadership development exercises and inane training games that make up that often miserable fact of office life: the team-building conference.

The figures from the GSA Inspector General’s report are probably not that out of line with what many companies spend on such events. Still, at a time of intense pressure to cut back on government spending, the optics aren’t good. For its Western Regions Conference, the agency spent $136,000 simply to plan the event, the purpose of which was to “celebrate, share, and showcase the diverse professional and personal talents of GSA associates.” A full $75,000 was spent on a team-building exercise that involved building bicycles that would then be donated to charity (the vendor initially asked for $125,000).

At the end of the conference, each attendee got a “yearbook” of everyone’s picture that ran the GSA $8,130. Other trinkets included canteens, T-shirts and carabiners that cost another $6,530; the GSA also spent $6,325 on commemorative coins that are sure to end up buried somewhere in participants’ desk drawers. The total event ran nearly $823,000 for roughly 300 people.

It would be one thing if spending that kind of money resulted in something that could actually save the agency a similar amount—either due to cost-savings ideas that were shared at the conference or lower hiring and training costs thanks to more satisfied employees. And who knows, maybe it can.

But anyone who’s ever climbed a ropes course or had to play a round of “Name Boogie” knows how ineffective these kinds of events often are. People fly out to Las Vegas or Orlando, attend a few sessions, stay out drinking way too late with their colleagues, and come home exhausted and far behind on work. Within a couple of weeks, any new ideas that were shared or new relationships that were built are usually buried by the pressing demands of the job back at home.

That’s not to say there aren’t benefits of bringing far-flung colleagues together for brainstorming, training and some socializing to help get the creative juices flowing. But if you’re going to pull people away from their families and the demands of their day-to-day work, keep it short and simple. Host it in a new company or agency facility (particularly if you’re the GSA, which manages thousands of federal properties) that showcases something exciting about your organization’s future without shelling out a ton of cash. Put people up in nice, professional, but not luxury hotels. Keep it to a day or two, and fill the agenda with lots of informal time for people to meet based on their interests and job needs.

In other words, make the event work for the people who attend—rather than the consultant-coach industrial complex that seems to thrive on coming up with ever more silly and sophomoric ways to “break the ice” or force us to discover far more about our professional colleagues than we’d like. Most of us would prefer not to know that the regional manager we meet with over the phone still plays Dungeons & Dragons on the weekend.

Forget the mind readers and the clowns. Rather, give attendees more access to senior leadership who can help solve their job frustrations and mentor them in their careers. Stop spending money on conference schwag—buy people a few rounds of drinks and new equipment or software to help them do their jobs faster or better. And if there’s an interest in promoting the organization’s commitment to service, donate the $75,000 to charity and give employees the day off to volunteer as a group building a local Habitat for Humanity house. Then, just let everyone get back to work.

More from On Leadership:

How to completely destroy an employee’s work life

A love note to the workaholic

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By  |  11:59 AM ET, 04/03/2012

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