When I was about to finish this post, I discovered Why Startups Should Train Their People by Ben Horowitz, which was written in 2010 and covers most of what I am writing below, plus some additional points. If you have time only for one of the two, I advise you to go and read that.
If you are still here, thank you. Let’s go:
If you are a manager in a knowledge intensive industry, you should strive to teach regularly. Not just in ad-hoc, five-minute, let-me-quickly-explain-this-to-you kind of sessions, but in real classes. Have you ever considered doing a series of three or four lessons that is offered multiple times throughout the year?
Why should you, you may wonder. First of all, your people want to learn and develop. Good people will find opportunities to learn, even without any encouragement or guidance from their organization. However, it can be inefficient to let each employee figure out the best sources to learn from. People will be on different levels of knowledge and skills, which can lead to different standards of work quality, or different practices, which can in turn lead to friction. Therefore, having a common set of lectures or trainings that everybody goes through can greatly increase the efficiency of your team.
In the extreme case, if people realize that there is nothing left that they can learn in your organization, they will draw their conclusions. Some of them might look for learning opportunities elsewhere, and these are typically the ones you will miss most.
Benefits for the manager
Teaching does not only benefit employee retention, however. Teaching greatly benefits the manager, as well. The preparation of the classes is a great opportunity for her to consolidate and expand her own knowledge, validate her beliefs about how things work, and generally challenge her to stay up to date.
As a manager, you usually have to move away from the day-to-day of your people. This can have its good sides, because it might help you see the bigger picture. However, it can also mean that you are not aware of certain changes in everyday processes (“Do we still do it that way?”). Teaching is a great way of getting up to speed again, or of keeping in touch with front-line processes and problems.
In addition to the knowledge aspect of teaching, there is also an important relationship aspect to it. Putting in the time and effort to prepare lecture content and transfer knowledge can build a lot of trust. Most people greatly appreciate somebody teaching them. They feel valued and invested in. It allows you to build rapport with them.
So, maybe you believe by now that training has quite a few benefits. However, so do a lot of things, and, as a busy person, saying “yes” to one thing always means saying “no” to something else. So why should you say “yes” to training?
Several very productive people advise us to prioritize our activities according to leverage, meaning: How can you maximize your impact or output, given the time that you have? As former Intel president Andy Grove tells us in High Output Management, teaching is one of the most high-leverage activities at a manager’s disposal. Teach ten people, and you act as a powerful multiplier. If your training increases the output of these ten people by only 1%, the time you invested into preparing the class quickly pays off.
Ben Horowitz, in the foreword of High Output Management, gives an even more drastic reason why you should engage in training:
“There are only two ways in which a manager can impact an employee’s output: Motivation and training. If you are not training, then you are basically neglecting half of the job.”
In fact, Horowitz, in the post mentioned at the beginning, provides a surprising anecdote how he, with a simple two-page document outlining the expectations he had for product managers, improved their performance drastically and sustainably.
Live or videotaped?
This shows: You can also teach people by creating a document or producing a screencast, and have your employees read or watch it, respectively. The question is, then: Is it really efficient to have somebody teach every lesson in person, or should employees also - or even exclusively - work through material on their own? Maybe some of them work remotely, so it would be very expensive to fly them in every time there is a class.
However, I think in-person training in small groups has several advantages over the isolated consumption of documents and screencasts:
- There is direct interaction between “teacher” and “students”, so there can be questions, discussions, etc.
- A human telling you something face to face will most likely make a greater impression on you than reading a document or watching a screencast will. Therefore, the teaching is likely to have a more lasting effect.
- As a teacher, you can instantly see the reception and the reactions of your audience, and use the experience to improve the lesson next time. If you create a screencast, you will probably not re-create it each time somebody points out a weakness in it.
Finally, in-person teaching has the huge advantage that there is immediate visibility and that there are no excuses for avoiding the learning. If somebody skips a class, you will know, and you can ask them what happened. Maybe they had a very good reason for not showing up, like an issue in the production system that needed fixing, but then they should be expected to go next time. If you confine them to reading documents and watching screencasts, you cannot know if they really did that.
Let me make this very clear: It is not about controlling people and forcing something on them. If you force people to take part in training they do not even want or appreciate, this will be a huge waste of time and effort. It will lead to boredom, frustration, and little learning.
However, sometimes, you need to protect people from the pressure they put on themselves. A lot of engineers want to make everyone around them happy, and work like crazy to get “everything” done. To them, taking part in training feels like “stealing time” from the organization, their stakeholders, or from whomever. They feel like they always have to produce something visible (unfortunately, a lot of organizations are not entirely innocent in promoting this feeling). By scheduling classes, you, the manager, can make sure they take the time to learn. This is their protected time, and it will not be negotiated away. Make them show up, and defend this time against all forces that would like to see them do something else instead.
Andy Grove gives us some more valuable advice, this time on the frequency of training:
“For training to be effective, it also has to maintain a reliable, consistent presence. Employees should be able to count on something systematic and scheduled, not a rescue effort summoned to solve the problem of the moment. In other words, training should be a process, not an event.”
The reasoning behind this is pretty straightforward: Under time pressure and in emergencies, you will only learn exactly what you need to resolve the current situation. If the situation is a little different next time, you will again be unprepared.
If you take the time to learn proactively, in a more comprehensive and systematic way (while staying pragmatic, of course), you get the chance to practice new skills in a safe environment, where failure is without consequences, so that you can be truly prepared for more critical situations.
Who should teach what?
Finally, what kinds of lectures should be given, and who should give them? While Andy Grove says that “Training is always the boss’s job”, that does not mean that the manager should teach each and every class herself. She should, however, ensure that there is enough training. This means encouraging and, if necessary, empowering others to teach as well. Getting involved in mentoring and teaching is a great opportunity for growth for many people.
Generally, the teacher should be perceived as an authority in the subject of the class. Since, as a manager, you will probably have to reduce your technical involvement at some point, you might not be able to teach many technical classes. Still, there are certainly things you can teach others:
- Even if you are not the star developer you used to be, you could still teach fundamentals of programming to your colleagues. There might be technically interested people in neighbouring departments who want to pick up some coding skills.
- If you are a long-term employee, teach others about the history of your organization. Why are certain things the way they are now? What were major turning points and decisive periods? Telling a captivating story about your work environment can strengthen the team’s identity.
- If you are a manager, then give some management classes. Teach people how to give feedback, how to delegate, how to do one-on-ones, how to manage your time wisely, etc.
In general, consider teaching on anything you feel you have something to say about. This might be more than you think. Start small. Create the first lecture, and hold it before preparing the second one. For anything that you feel you are not the right person to teach, find an expert in your organization who will do it.
If you want to have a learning organization, you will have to invest into teaching. Teaching is a high-leverage activity that will pay off tenfold. Do not just rely on external trainers. Instead, identify people within your organization who are willing and able to teach. Do not allow people to be “too busy” to learn, but establish some protected time slots that are reserved for learning and teaching. Your people will grow, and appreciate this.
P.S.: If you are looking for tips on the organization of a workshop or class, check this out.
This post took about 3 hours to write.