How to Assess the Talent of a Trainer

Lots of people under-estimate how difficult it is to be a really good trainer. Reviewing the ‘tick sheets’ after a programme doesn’t really tell you how good the trainer was. It tends to tell you more about how much the participants enjoyed the programme. Enjoyment is usually good – but not enough.

Why not invite the trainers to deliver a sample workshop, look out for a few things and ask them a few questions, as follows:

1. Getting Attendees to be Participants

There are thought to be four types of people who turn up to training workshops:

  • Prisoners –have been made to attend. They don’t want to be there and don’t play much of a role. They are saying to themselves ‘Get me out of here!’
  • Protesters – don’t want to be there and are closed-minded. They make this known by frequently checking their Blackberries and challenging with ‘But that doesn’t make sense’
  • Passengers – are going along for the journey, though are somewhat sceptical and don’t contribute much
  • Participants – are fully engaged

Effective trainers have a strategy for all these types. See below.

2. Getting Participants into the Learning Zone

Bearing in mind the likely mix in the room, effective trainers put a good deal of emphasis on getting maximum buy-in at the start of workshops. You can’t make anybody learn and it’s not easy for experienced participants to change the way they think and behave.

Trainers need participants to take a step or two outside their comfort zone to ensure they’re in the learning zone. Look for trainers who are good at encouraging and supporting participants to do that. Ask the trainers how they do this?

3. Importance of Credibility, Rapport and Trainers Being Trusted

To achieve this learning state trainers need to establish their credibility at the outset (‘we understand your world…have been there….got the tee-shirt’) and by building rapport with the group (‘we know what it’s like for you, and we’re with you and on your side’) and by being trusted (‘we’re not here to catch you out or make you feel foolish’).

It’s a positive sign if trainers build a learning contract with the participants to create workable ground-rules. They then need to enforce these rules.

4. Relevance of Training Material

Effective trainers need to put training into a practical context. It helps if the trainers have got appropriate industry experience. They should know how quickly participants ‘switch off’ if they do not perceive the practical relevance of what is being discussed. Trainers need to also be realistic about the constraints (time, risk and client) within which the participants operate.

Good trainers should start a session by getting the participants to engage with the topic, get them interested and see the relevance as quickly as possible. This can be done by posing some engaging questions and setting up buzz groups to discuss their answers.

Where possible trainers should ask participants what in particular they would like to be covered on the programme and write these up on a flipchart to make sure they are not forgotten. These should be cross-checked towards the end of the programme to ensure they have been covered adequately.

As progress is made through the programme, it is good practice to summarise the concepts, models or frameworks underpinning the behaviours and techniques that you are encouraging the participants to try out. Frameworks should be provided to help the participants to analyse their experience and to draw transferable lessons from it, as well as to enable them to talk to others about what they do and why it works.

5. Using a Variety of Learning Stimuli

Good trainers are aware of the different learning styles (Kolb, Honey & Mumford etc) and design programmes with elements that would appeal to each style (reflection, trying something out etc).

Typical formats to appeal to different learning styles and to provide a variety of learning stimuli are:

  • Discussions in pairs/buzz groups
  • Reacting to stimuli (quotes, pictures, video clips etc)
  • Using affinity diagrams to cluster thoughts, perhaps using post it notes
  • Group role-plays (with group members observing and giving feedback)
  • Case studies in groups
  • Forum theatre to demonstrate techniques
  • Quizzes
  • Extended simulations (dealing with a sequence of events over time)

Ask potential suppliers for sample designs to see if they contain a variety of stimuli.

6. Trainers Modelling Different Styles

Trainers should be expected to model different styles during the programme, such as teacher, coach, modeller, facilitator as developed by Champion, Keil and McLendon.

7. Check Out The Trainer’s Beliefs About Effective Training

The following is a list of widely held beliefs about effective training:

  • be clear at the outset as to what the participants should expect ( perhaps by asking participants to do some reading or thinking before they arrive)
  • encourage participants to describe what challenges they face in a certain field (eg giving feedback or dealing with more demanding clients etc)
  • provide short inputs on frameworks/models that others have found helpful
  • ask for reactions or perceived difficulties using the approach and discuss these
  • encourage the participants to give it a go – real live situations can work better than hypothetical situations, though this is not always possible
  • provide on-going support back in the workplace (either from us or from other lawyers or senior support staff)

During the practical exercises, emphasis should be given to providing constructive feedback so the participants are clear as to what they did well (and repeat) and what they could do differently. It can be useful to use professional role players to avoid the participants having to role-play (which some find uncomfortable).

Ask potential suppliers how they deal with any push-back (probably from the protesters). Best practice is to be respectful but challenging and allow the group to resolve such challenges. Good trainers should be able to win over most dissenters by the end of programmes (at least to some extent).

8. Being Passionate About Transferring the Learning to the Workplace

It isn’t easy for participants to transfer the learning from the workshop back to the workplace. Here are some ways of delivering this, which good trainers will know about:

  • encouraging the use of learning logs for participants to capture their reflections, feedback received or thoughts about using our material on future engagements
  • emphasising the importance of action planning at the end of a programme
  • emphasising the importance of developing an action learning mindset, so that participants can continue to develop their skills and knowledge after the formal training has ended
  • encouraging the provision of support from internal coaches (who can be trained as coaches)
  • encouraging  the continued support from the trainer team, perhaps through sending reminders about course content and about commitments
  • inviting appropriate members of your staff to be co-trainers with the external trainers
  • encouraging the use of ‘buddies’ to support each other and keep the participants honest in terms of implementing their action plans
  • emphasising the usefulness of participants having pre-meetings and post-meetings with ‘sponsors’ in their team so that the participants are ‘aligned’ with the strategy in their groups and any actions they take are coordinated
  • providing simulated real-life situations at the end of the programme to try out the learning, perhaps using actors and video playback.

9. Being Flexible About Programme Designs

In terms of designing programmes, you may appreciate some flexibility from your trainers. There is a trade-off between depth of learning and convenience or lack of disruption.

A series of short sessions can be effective for dealing with specific skills but they are often less effective for developing the deeper appreciation as to why it is important for participants to be effective leaders and how they can change their way of thinking and behaviour, especially when attendance is intermittent. On the other hand, there are indeed practical constraints if we need participants to give up longer periods of time to attend workshops.

Combining participants from different countries provides further logistical challenges. There are advantages in using neutral and cheaper venues for such programmes (rather than head office).

Tony Reiss, Founding Principal, Sherwood PSF Consulting

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