The Accidental Trainer: Lessons From An Unplanned Career

In my 50-plus years of teaching and running a global training organization, I have learned from some of the smartest people in our field and built lifelong friendships with clients and colleagues from vastly different backgrounds.

I have spent most of my life teaching/training/ facilitating in front of thousands of groups, but I do not know why. Is it a craving for attention or an altruistic commitment to promote understanding through learning? I am not sure.

I can say the journey has been totally unplanned and has taken me to unimagined life-fulfilling experiences. My experience includes being a professor for 34 years and owning and operating a successful boutique training organization focusing on cultural competence, global mindset, and diversity and inclusion for 35 years.

Along the way, I’ve learned so many lessons— it was difficult to select just eight to focus on here. For those of you beginning your journey, you may discover some tips or danger zones to avoid or some guidance to help you on your journey. For those of you in the midst of your careers or who are veterans of our field, you may find this an opportunity to stop and reflect on where you are and why you are committed to your career in learning.

Lesson #1: Own What You Do. Treat every project as if you own it. Your enthusiasm, commitment, and authenticity will show through and bring you unanticipated rewards. Whether working as an internal or external trainer/ facilitator, the more you put into your work, the more you will get back. A good rule is to exceed your clients’ and participants’ expectations. Conducting interviews with key stakeholders and needs assessments of all participants helps to incorporate their concerns and will allow you to add real value.

Lesson #2: Be Open to New Ideas and Constructive Criticism. After more than 20 years of university work, I conducted my first paid corporate seminar at the AT&T School of Business. My most important takeaway from the VP of Learning was to make it more “fun” for the participants. My professorial style did not meet the expectations of the largest company in the world in 1986. Fortunately, I sought out master facilitators such as Sivasailam Thiagarajan, better known as Thiagi, whose guidance made me a much better facilitator. A few years later, I invited Thiagi to help me lead a high-visibility program at AT&T for 150 of its future leaders.

Lesson #3: Be Humble and Vulnerable. Go into every instructional opportunity with the expectation that you will meet one of the smartest people who will help you expand your horizons. These people are sitting in front of you, and your hidden agenda is to find them, nurture them, and have them share their wisdom and experience with you. Look for the potential in each person. This will result in unanticipated opportunities. If you are in the position of hiring trainers, always hire people who are smarter than you.

Lesson #4: You Don’t Know All the Answers. If you are an external consultant, or want to become one, never meet a client thinking you already know the solution to their problem— ask and listen deeply. Don’t be afraid to ask penetrating questions. One client, who over the years has asked me to deliver diversity training at three of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies, told an audience of diversity leaders that the reason she kept hiring me was because I “asked the right questions and gave her no BS.”

Lesson #5: Seek Out Those Different from You. One constant in this unplanned life is that I have learned the most from people who are not like me. That learning comes as a direct result of my curiosity about others. My mantra is to always “be interested, not interesting.” You cannot learn while you are speaking. Taking risks to expand your learning universe will result in unplanned learning and opportunities. This can be done by joining resource groups at work, meeting people at conferences who have different skills or backgrounds, or seeking out news and information from global sources. Seek out new experiences; maybe even pursue going on an international assignment—one of the best gifts you can give yourself. Always stay curious.

Lesson #6: You Are Only as Strong as Your Network. You should always look for opportunities to network. Attend as many conferences as you can, including local affiliates. Join professional associations for Learning and Talent Development professionals. Seek guidance from those you meet. Offer to speak or volunteer for other positions at professional meetings. You never know who in your network may come to you with an opportunity. I have even acquired clients by serendipitously sitting next to them on a flight. Try to avoid burning your bridges behind you.

Lesson #7. Treat Your Clients as Gold. Your clients are your salesforce. For 35 years, we had no one doing marketing or business development. Our salesforce is our clients. We are committed to our clients’ success, and they share our names with others or bring us in when they transfer to other companies. Be willing to share insights with your clients even if it does not directly benefit you, because your clients’ success is your success. Connect the dots for your clients. We were helping a client to work more successfully with a newly acquired Dutch company and learned they were having major disagreements regarding their exhibit at an international trade show. By digging deeper with the client (at no cost), we came up with a solution to objectively measure their trade show performance. This solution resulted in years of training opportunities for us with 41 new clients. Another strong recommendation is to partner with your clients whenever you can. Invite them to join you to co-facilitate a session at a professional meeting or offer to co-author articles with your clients. Become a trusted member of your clients’ inner circle and help them with their career goals and job opportunities. Ask them who they really admire as a trainer and why.

Lesson #8: Be Generous with Clients and Colleagues. Offer your ideas freely to your clients. Opportunities for training and requests for proposals will follow. We always provide free subscriptions to our Cultural Diversity Web-based learning tool, Culture Wise, with each training engagement. We might make more money by selling these subscriptions, but we know this offer demonstrates our good will and our commitment to our clients’ success. Likewise, be willing to share your ideas and best practices with your colleagues. This will result in many opportunities to share ideas and increase the likelihood for future collaboration.

These are a small sample of my lessons learned during an unplanned lifetime of teaching and running a global training organization. These lessons have helped me help others around the globe, have experiences I could never have imagined, learn from some of the smartest people in our field, and build lifelong friendships with clients and colleagues from vastly different backgrounds. If you have some lessons learned you would like to share, send them to me for possible inclusion in future columns at: ngoodman@global-dynamics.com.

Neal Goodman, Ph.D., is president of Global Dynamics, Inc., a training and development firm specializing in globalization, cultural intelligence, effective virtual workplaces, and diversity and inclusion. He can be reached at 305.682.7883 and at ngoodman@globaldynamics.com. For more information, visit http://www.global-dynamics.com.

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