Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Why be a trainer?

Why any of us get into this profession has always intrigued me. It’s certainly not for the money, or the glory. Trainers are appallingly underpaid for the contribution they make, the hours they put in, and the diligence with which they work. And it is not the most obvious route to take if you want to build an empire or change the world. When was the last time you saw a trainer on the cover of Fortune magazine? Yet a career in training has an enduring appeal to some of the best and brightest, an appeal which, bizarrely, seems to have increased with the emergence of e-learning.

I have recruited dozens of people into training roles, and trained and mentored them as their careers evolved. For the most part, they were perfectly innocent people who would have had dramatically different careers had I not pulled them out of a line job into a life of learning. For the most part, years later, they don’t hold it against me. Over the years, I have encountered more training managers, training officers, trainers, VPs of learning and development, and other more exotically titled training people than I care to count. Wherever they are in the world, whatever culture they inhabit, and whatever industry or organisation they call home, they have much in common.

They all started out wanting to make a difference at a very human level. They cared about individual people and their ability to perform in their chosen roles. And they cared about the performance of their organisation, not as some capitalistic engine, but as a family. For all their initial common ground, though, they end up in very different places.

Many trainers walk a long, hard, bitter path that begins in idealism, winds down through pragmatism, and terminates in cynicism. I am not a trainer by choice or by design. I fell into the role out of a combination of an annoyingly enquiring mind, intolerance for underperformance in my colleagues, and natural teaching aptitude. While there were idealistic underpinnings to most of my earlier activities, they were never my driving force. My buzz came from tuning the performance of an organisation, not from seeing light-bulbs go off over heads in a classroom. So I guess I started out cynical, and am gradually making my way up that hill toward the idealism summit, passing an awful lot of traffic coming the other way.

True, many trainers stay optimistic throughout their careers, but just as many become negative, if not about their role then certainly about the organizations they serve. Some trainers have retreated from reality, existing inside a kind of professorial fog and being sustained by the inherent quality of their work rather than its contribution to organisational goals. In similar vein are those for whom busyness is the business, a frantic life packed with impossible deadlines and superhuman schedules preventing them from having the time to see how futile their lives have become. They gave up trying to “make a difference” to their organizations, but at least they can still make a difference to individual learners.

Others continue to strive to get “management” to subscribe to an organizational vision in which learning is central and leading, not peripheral and reactive. They never stop trying to get strategy defined ahead of operational planning, and resist having training used as a poor substitute for good management. These quiet revolutionaries patiently work at transforming organizations through helping people to transcend themselves. They demonstrate daily the value of learning, and inspire innovative thinking beyond the departmental walls. And they love their work.

In my experience some of the most effective trainers (in terms of impact on learners and impact on organisations) are those with “real-world” experience outside of their training expertise. Seasoned practitioners, subject matter experts, or those who have recently completed their own training, are often very astute, learner-aware, and acutely attuned to the context of their teaching.

Are there inherent personal characteristics that determine whether a trainer will thrive or merely survive? What do you look for when recruiting? I usually look for people who are passionate about their field, have high energy levels, are more interested in learning than in teaching, ask a lot of questions and listen to the answers, and have unusually thick skin. A formal background in learning theory or in instructional design has always been secondary – you can teach people those principles, but if they don’t have “the right stuff” to begin with they will soon be on the slippery slope to cynicism.

TrainingZONE Parkin Space column of 12/3/04