The Evolution of a Corporate Trainer (Part 1 of 4)

A first-person account of starting as an entry-level trainer with little knowledge about being a company trainer to one who wanted to change things for the better.

I’ve been catching up on my reading recently, and something struck me: Who is writing for the average entry-level trainer? Most of the articles I read are for mid- to high-level Learning and Development (L&D) or HR professionals. I’ve decided to devote a few articles to those of you who are or who manage entry-level trainers.

This first in the series is a recollection of my start in the profession and how I grew from a novice with little knowledge about being a company trainer to one who wanted to change things for the better. It’s first person, personal. I hope you don’t mind.

The First Training Job

I remember when I was fresh out of college and new to the training profession. I was excited and eager to get started. My manager gave me assignments that I thought were important and I accepted them with gusto. While the projects were valuable, it was apparent that my boss was more interested in my hands than my brain. I did a lot of the grunt work associated with training sitting in my cubical cloistered from the rest of the organization. There, I would create handouts, prepare slide decks, track attendance, follow up on smile sheets, etc.

A change occurred when I was given the opportunity to be certified to deliver supervisory training content created by an external provider. That was followed by other certifications. Those of us in the classes were taught how to deliver the providers’ content with minimal variation from their scripts. While that was a bit stifling, at least I would be in front of a group of people doing what I thought training was.

It wasn’t until I started presenting the programs that I realized some modifications needed to be made. Participants challenged some of the content and processes saying things such as: “I don’t think that will work with my team.” Or “Have you been to our site? It’s not like that.”

It quickly occurred to me that these programs were generic, assuming one design and invariable content would meet the needs of all their clients, regardless of size, industry, culture, etc. Being a new trainer, it was uncomfortable trying to reconcile contrary participant feedback with what I was taught during the certification process.

Two Problems

Back in my cube, reflecting on smile sheet feedback and participant comments, it became apparent that I didn’t know two things:

  1. What life was like for supervisors and managers in various parts of the organization
  2. I didn’t know enough about leadership, management, and supervision to speak knowledgeably about the topics.

Company Knowledge: I went to my manager and explained what was happening in my training sessions. I asked if it would be OK to spend some time with supervisors and managers in various parts of the company. Like many organizations, our company was one with structured organization silos. If someone in the lower levels of one silo wanted to talk with someone in another silo, he or she had to get permission from the person at the top of his or her silo to see if it was OK. That senior person had to check with the senior person of the other silo to get permission. And then, if there were no objections, I could talk to a person in another silo.

That was a problem since organizational politics was a powerful force. I used participant feedback to convince my manager about the need to improve our supervisory training. He set up a meeting with his boss. Together, we were able to convince the HR director to talk with the other senior manager. Eventually, I was allowed to talk with participants throughout the organization and learn about their departments. Access to other departments made it possible to modify the programs to better fit reality in my company.

Leadership and Management Knowledge: The certification programs provided ideal models regarding leadership and management practices. But having never been a leader or manager within an organization, my knowledge of the topic was minimal. My formal education was in instructional design and media. One of my training colleagues and co-trainer, who started with me out of college, had an MBA. But she had never been a company manger either. It was like the blind leading the sighted through a forest they knew better than we did. We simply didn’t know enough.

The certification curriculum didn’t help in that regard. That’s probably why they had us memorize the scripts and not deviate from them. In hindsight, that was a good idea. However, it didn’t work. I knew I had to be better able to knowledgeably discuss these topics with people who did this every day and had done so for many years. I had to learn more. I took three actions.

  1. I continued to talk with workshop participants. The good news is that many liked me and most were willing to help. They helped me understand the realities of day-to-day leadership, politics, budget restrictions, and employee motivation at their levels. I learned so much from them.
  2. I started reading everything I could find on leadership, management, motivation, etc. Training magazine, TD magazine, Fortune, the Harvard Business Review, the Sloan Management Review, BusinessWeek, Forbes, and many others. I even went back to my college to gain access to the research journals on management, leadership, small groups, and more. While articles are informational, the ideas they present may or may not be applicable in one’s daily work. Still, the concepts are important to know.
  3. I spent time with leaders at higher levels in the organization. Most of what people do in organizations is a result of what they perceive their bosses expect from them. I thought it was important to talk with these leaders and ask for guidance. My sincerity and the efforts I took to better my courses, the company’s leaders, and myself impressed them. To my good fortune, three of these people became mentors. They helped me better understand politics, influence, and power. They helped me become a better trainer and eventually were influential in my rise through the organization.

As I continued my journey to gain knowledge of leadership and management, one thing became apparent. Most people want to do what’s right. They know what’s right. But, for some reasons, they don’t always do what’s right. The problem wasn’t what to do. It was why aren’t people doing it? That was a much bigger problem. I’ll write about that in my next installment in this series.

Final Thoughts for Now

There’s a lot written today about learning organizations, learning strategies, informal learning, etc. Authors, including myself, are offering ideas about how to make training and learning more engaging. The profession is ripe with new technology that is intended to do that. Like most of you, I embrace these new ideas and technology.

However, I still think that what drives people to excel comes from within. I know really smart people who are content to wait for opportunities to come their way or for others to help them. They may end up waiting forever. I believe that life is what you make it. Success is a proactive activity.

It’s my hope that some of what I write resonates with you. I’m trying to write in a personal, practical manner that isn’t esoteric or academic, but real. Hopefully, you gained some insights from my little story. Maybe it will help. Please feel free to contact me. My contact info is in my LinkedIn bio and on my Website (www.FirstStepODandTraining.com). I’d love to hear from you.

Alan Landers is CEO of FirstStep Communications, LLC, and BPO with operations in Islamabad, Pakistan. He is an executive-level organizational development (OD) consultant with more than 35 years of experience. He also serves as president of FirstStep OD & Training.

 

 

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