Now this is training

Nov 24, 1997

A few of us just got back from “Racing to the Future ‘97,” a CEO get-together we sponsored in West Palm Beach, Florida. Let me tell you, it was a great experience. Having a dozen CEOs from completely different A/E/P and environmental companies go through a shared experience of learning how to drive formula racing cars worked out great— thanks in no small part to the people at the Skip Barber Racing School. In fact, it really was a model of how to properly do training of any kind. In only two days, these people had us doing all kinds of things in racing cars that we never would have thought possible on our first morning, when it was hard enough to just get into those cars and get strapped in! The progress we made was tremendous, and the speed in which they taught us was really incredible. I kept thinking: “If only we could train project managers in A/E/P and environmental firms like this— then we’d have something!” It got me thinking that maybe there are lessons we could benefit from. Here’s some of what the Skip Barber people used that could help anyone involved with training: They had well-seasoned instructors. Instead of using cast-offs or professional trainers, the Skip Barber people selected former and current racing car drivers as instructors. Our crew— Pete, Vic, and Davina— were respected drivers with significant racing experience. They ranged in age from mid-30s to 63, and each one of them was a calm, mature, excellent communicator. They explained the theory to us first. We didn’t just get in a formula car and start driving. They spent a good deal of time with us to help us understand things such as selection of the proper line through the racing course, how traction works and what causes understeer and oversteer, and many other things that were immensely helpful once we did get behind the wheel. There were lots of questions (we didn’t have a stupid group of folks there!) and the way the instructors handled them was just great. They allowed us to get a progressive experience. We started out slow. They kept our revs to a certain limit. Each time we got out there they let us go a little faster. They did the same thing with our braking instruction. One thing they taught us is that racing car drivers are either accelerating or braking. They never coast. But it’s not easy going 100 miles per hour into a corner and slamming your brakes on— it just doesn’t come naturally. So each time we went through a particular exercise we had to hit the brakes later and harder. Then, in addition to shortening our stopping distance requirements, they started making us go around a corner with a foot still on the brake. Finally, we had to accelerate right up to the curve, slam on our brakes, avoiding a complete lock-up, and drive around the corner under power. The progressive learning experience is what made it possible. They put us through a lot of exercises. Whether it was going through pylons at speed, slamming brakes on and locking up the wheels, or having to downshift a non-synchro gearbox by double clutching and heel and toeing, we had many, many chances to learn how to do it. They demonstrated proper technique themselves. Instead of just telling us how to do it, and letting us, they demonstrated many times how we were supposed to do it. One of the scariest parts (yet beneficial) of our racing school was when we took some high speed laps in a 15-person Dodge Maxivan. Pete showed us the proper line through the course as he demonstrated steering technique and throttle induced oversteer at the same time. After that ride, we knew that he knew what he was talking about! They bolstered our confidence. Each of the instructors kept telling us what a great job we were doing, even if we weren’t doing it perfectly. They kept our confidence high by making us believe they thought we could do it. The result was that even after one of our group launched his car off the track into the wall, he got right back in it and did some fast laps. They kept their enthusiasm. These instructors were upbeat all day. They never slowed down. They acted as if they were really interested in seeing us succeed, and didn’t get distracted talking among themselves or doing other things during the time we were with them. They gave us their full attention. They gave very specific feedback. It’s not easy telling a bunch of intimidating CEO-types how to do something, but this group of instructors was relentless in pushing us to be better, to work harder. They didn’t hold back telling us what we needed to hear to improve our skills. At the same time, they never lashed out or acted as if they were fed up with teaching us if we didn’t catch on immediately. Take a look at the training efforts your firm is making right now. How do they stack up compared to the way the Skip Barber Racing School is doing it? Maybe there’s room for improvement. Originally published November 24, 1997

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Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.