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Breaking it all down
March 28, 2016
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by Ivan Raconteur

One of the things I enjoy most about my job is training and coaching new employees.

Some people hate that kind of thing, but I have always looked at it as an investment.

I’ve had many different jobs over the years, and I have experienced a lot of different philosophies about training.

One common training technique is to push people off the dock with almost no preparation. If the employee swims, he gets to keep the job. If he sinks, the company looks for the next candidate.

That seems a very haphazard approach.

To me, it makes more sense to not only tell a new employee what we do, but share some insight into why we do it.

The odds of success are dramatically better if expectations are clear and employees understand what they are doing.

That may sound simple, but it is important.

Anyone who has ever done any training knows there are many components to most jobs. We may take them for granted, but if any of the steps are missed, or if they aren’t completed in the correct order, bad things can happen.

I have even created flow charts in the past to help people visualize the pieces of different tasks.

I have also found it is valuable to listen to the employee, and not make any assumptions.

I learned the importance of this the hard way. I once told a new employee how to complete what I thought was a simple task. I was confident I had covered all the details. I asked the employee if she understood what was needed, and she said she did, so I sent her off to her work station to complete the task.

About 15 minutes later, she appeared in my office doorway.

I asked if she had finished the job. She said she hadn’t. Then she asked me how to turn on the computer. It hadn’t occurred to me I needed to start with that level of detail.

Now, I try to step back and see if I can accomplish a task by following my own instructions. This can be an enlightening experience.

Think about what it is like to assemble a product using instructions written by someone who clearly never assembled the item himself, and for whom English is not the primary language.

At the very least this is frustrating, and may cause us to want to hurl the item out the nearest window. At worst, it is impossible. That’s what a new employee is likely to feel if we assign him a task without providing clear, accurate instructions.

I have also found that rather than asking an employee if he understands my instructions, it is sometimes better to ask him to repeat what he thinks I just asked him to do. It’s amazing how things that may seem so obvious to us can be interpreted so differently by someone who does not share our experience. Again, we cannot assume anything.

I’ve been fortunate over the years to have some excellent teachers. Quite often, these weren’t my direct supervisors, but co-workers who took the time to share their experience and help me understand the job.

It has also been my misfortune to work with some bad supervisors in the past, people who were not especially talented, and who tried to cover up their ineptitude by bullying their staff and constantly blaming others when things went wrong.

A bad manager takes all the credit when things go right (often despite his involvement), and places blame when they don’t.

A good manager accepts responsibility, and shares the credit for successes with those who deserve it.

The fact is, many managers are poor teachers. Just because someone is good at something does not make her a good teacher.

I place a high importance on people knowing not only what to do, but why we do it. There’s no way we can train people to handle every possible scenario they will encounter on the job. But, if they understand the objective, they’re much more likely to be able to make good decisions and solve problems on their own.

As with any form of learning, success requires not only a willing teacher, but a receptive student. When those two elements come together, good things happen.

The best way to make sure we understand something is to try to teach it to someone else. If we can’t explain it clearly and concisely, odds are we don’t understand it as well as we thought we did.

Taking the time to train people from the beginning is an investment that brings dividends in the future, and it is a lot less frustrating to get people started on the right path than to try to fix bad habits later.

I am grateful for the people who have generously shared their time and experience to help me along the way. I suspect some of them thought I was a hopeless case at the time, but they persevered and helped me to succeed at whatever job we were doing.

When I think of those kind individuals, it’s easy for me to be patient with the new people I encounter, because it reminds me none of us know it all when we are just starting out.

In fact, some of us are still learning, many decades later.


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