Dealing with training

Nov 04, 1996

I just got back from the annual principals’ retreat of a real successful firm, which was held at The Woodlands outside of Houston. One of the goals for the retreat, established by the firm’s board of directors, was to “do what’s necessary versus what sounds good.” But when you start talking about training, which all employees want and every firm seems to be trying to do more of these days, it’s easy to fall into the trap of “doing what sounds good.” We simply don’t spend a lot on training in the typical A/E/P or environmental consulting firm, and one of the reasons is we can’t afford to. Our margins aren’t great, and when we take people out of production for some sort of formalized training, we not only have to pay for the training, but we get a double whammy from the lost revenue! On the other hand, no one seems to be 100% satisfied with their staff’s capabilities, and it’s tough to recruit good people these days. On top of it, employees want continuing education, and they expect a certain amount of it from their employees. That’s why some company-sponsored training is just about inevitable. If you find that training is on your mind lately, here are some things you may want to consider: Don’t “paint” it on. One of the smart people I was with last weekend coined this term and I think it really communicates what’s wrong with so much of the training that A/E/P and environmental firms are trying to do these days. The trainee has to want to learn. You can’t just force people through a seminar, then think they have the skills they are supposed to have. The employee should make some sacrifice to get the training or it’s probably not going to be effective. Start-up requirements are different from ongoing maintenance of the program. Some large firms are considering adding full-time training directors. The mega-firms may be able to cost-justify having full-time help with coordination and administration of the company-wide training program. But most firms are probably better off getting some outside help with the initial program design and set-up, then figuring out some easy, low-cost ways to maintain and administer the program. Let’s face it, the major effort is in determining what the real needs are and how the training should be conducted. And the training director may not be the best person to do all training once the program is set up. Although there are exceptions, certainly, most firms don’t want to have a full-time training director who is looking to create unnecessary training programs or bureaucracy just to perpetuate his or her job. Top management better be committed to it. No training will be effective or successful if top management thinks it’s a waste of time. I suggest that whatever type of training program you come up with, you run it past the top people in the firm for a “smell test.” If they seem put off by what the firm is about to do, reconsider it! Remember why you are training. You are training not because it sounds good, but because it’s necessary, right? Now repeat that statement over and over. Repeat it again— because that message needs to be tattooed on your brain. The only reason to do any kind of training is that it is in the company’s best interests. That means there should be some measurable change in skills or aptitudes that result in the firm being more successful. Most companies whose principals subscribe to The Zweig Letter, with a few exceptions, are in business to provide A/E/P or environmental consulting services— not to provide training! Build up an arsenal of low-cost resources. I’m talking about vouchers for outside computer training, CD-ROM/interactive computerized programs, videos, brown bag lunches with inside staff or free speakers, audio tapes, and so forth. There’s no rule that the only kind of training you can provide to your employees is a seminar that costs big bucks and takes people out of production all day or longer— I have seen many effective, low-cost programs and tools that were easily paid for 10 times over. Be creative and seek out some of these lower cost options. Don’t feel compelled to do everything— concentrate on quick and easy training options. Most companies, when considering doing any kind of training, end up with something that tries to accomplish too much, too fast, and are ineffective as a result. Instead of a 4-day seminar on project management, perhaps a 1.5 hour lunch seminar on project communications would be better. Or instead of an all-day course on business writing, maybe a 45-minute look at some of the crazy letters that went out of your firm in the past month, discussed in a group setting with 20 or so managers, could be much more effective. Usually, a single-focus, shorter session is better than days-long, do-it-all sessions. Don’t fall into the traps everyone else seems to get stuck in. Training doesn’t have to be a black hole that you pour money into and get nothing back from, if you take the proper approach with it. Originally published November 4, 1996

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