Wednesday, January 22, 2014

How to Train Reluctant First Level Supervisors

I recently asked readers to submit their burning leadership development questions. Those that get picked for a post will receive a free copy of my eBook.
This question from a Talent Management Vice President, who chose to remain anonymous:

“Our org is committed to providing development activities to a first level supervisor population that has limited cognitive ability, little formal education, and generally lacks motivation to learn in the workplace.  What recommendations do you have around design, delivery, and the transfer environment?
Where I am at Now:
As I think through the situation, I keep on landing around strong change management (to get learners committed to the program, and not compliant) and effective accountability/performance management associated with the results the leadership development is expected to support.  I'm hoping the larger audience can offer additional ideas and perspectives.”

Hmmm…, this is one of those questions that just begs for more information in order to answer it.
I’m also trying my best to not judge the reader – but I have to admit, when I first read the question, phrases like “limited cognitive ability” and “lacks motivation to learn in the workplace” kind off turned me off - it came across as a bit snobby, and stereotypes an entire workforce. Or maybe I’m just being defensive, because it sounds like he’s describing me on a bad Monday. (-:

However, let’s give the reader the benefit of the doubt – I’m quite sure he has good intentions, knows his stuff (I peeked at his LinkedIn profile, he indeed does), and let’s assume his assessment is factual. Actually, I think I really do know where he’s coming from.

I’ve had some tough training audiences over the years, from all kinds of industries and professions, including the kind of target audience I believe the reader is describing. They all come with potential challenges – from the highest ranking executives who lack motivation to learn due to their own success and egos, to the front line foreman who works outside all day and would rather get a root canal than sit in a classroom all day being reminded of bad memories from school.
So what’s the key? I think it comes down to the following basic training principles would apply across the spectrum of learners:

1. Needs assessment.

I truly believe that everyone will be motivated to learn if the content is going to make their lives better in some way. If the target audience is, for example, cable installer supervisors, then I’d suggest that whoever is designing the training to remove the tie and go out and spend 2-3 days riding along, doing interviews and observations with a few cable installer supervisors. Talk to their employees, their bosses, and find out everything you can about their world of work. What are their challenges? What are the pain points? What are they grumbling about the most? What are their hopes?

2. Design.
Design training (knowledge and skills) that is highly relevant to the needs of your target audience. Test it – go back to the same people you learned from and test what you’ve come up with. “Hey, Larry, would it help you meet those installation targets if we could show you how to deal with that slacker installer you told me about and gave you some short-cuts for filling out all of that damn paperwork that the office requires? It would? Well here, take a look at this. What do you think? Would it work? Would it help you and other supervisors?” Talk to some of the top performing supervisors too, some of the informal leaders, to validate what you’ve come up. The key is that it has to be real.
3. Development.

Develop training that is not only relevant, but engaging, highly interactive, fun, with opportunity to practice. I wouldn’t recommend online, job aids, etc… the group described by the reader learns best in an informal social setting. Limit the pre-reading and in-class reading – make it verbal, visual, with lots of discussion, exercises, application, and more discussion. This group will have zero patience for “nice to know”- they will want to know how they can use it back on the job tomorrow.

I would throw a personality assessment, like MBTI or DISC, in there somewhere too. It’s an engaging way for people to understand themselves and the behavior of others.
I think a half day is perfect – no more than that, delivered in weekly sessions, in a familiar environment. The weekly format allows time for practice, follow-up discussion, and continuous reinforcement. It’s also lessons the impact on schedules, productivity, etc…

Bosses should ideally get the same training so that they can reinforce and model whatever their employees are learning. If that’s not doable, then at least provide an overview of the training with coaching and reinforcement tips.

4. The right instructor.
All of the above are important – but the real key to success is selecting the right instructor. It needs to be an instructor that can relate well to this audience – with humility, humor, relevant examples and stories, genuine respect, and authenticity. Someone that understands how to take a new concept and apply it back in the world the participants come from.

The instructor could be a respected peer – or a professional instructor – or a combination of both. There’s trade-offs with all options.
Make sure you carefully interview any potential instructors, and ask to see them in action with a similar group if you can. Pilot the program, and talk to the participants afterwards. Find the instructor that’s the right fit for your audience.

BTW, I hate to say this, but the last person I would allow to design (and deliver) training like this would be my HR person. What you’ll get is a textbook program on how to fix their problems (how to write performance reviews, how to document performance problems, how not to discriminate, etc…). Yes, that stuff is important too, but it should only be a part of the training, not the trail wagging the dog.
Please forgive me if that all sounds like training 101 – and in fact, it is pretty meat and potatoes. The reader has some other good ideas too, i.e., “strong change management, effective accountability/performance management associated with the results”.

Readers, how about you – what would you recommend?


Rod J said...

Dan, I read your list focused on a specific challenge your reader shared. As I was reading the list I'm thinking, "Isn't this the way most training should be developed, offered and delivered?"

Anonymous said...

Interesting article, and good advice for those of us trying to train appropriately and well.

The one concern I have is that the article first slams on the person who wrote-honestly, about a bad situation. This type of response tells me I can't respond honestly because I will be judged on whether my intentions are good.

The question is a good one, and while we can't overly generalize, I see the same things as I work with organizations.

Dan McCarthy said...

Rod -

Kathy -
Good point, and I was hoping it did not come across as too harsh, but it sounds like it may have. You are right, the question was a good one.

Unknown said...

This is just the tip of the iceberg- as the juggernaut of minimum wage legislation navigates toward $10/hour we must be reminded that many workers earning minimum wages are managed by first line supervisors making $10/hour. So the perceived problem of raising the minimum wage is nowhere near the intrinsic problem of what to pay first line supervisors in this scenario. The solution is simple but complex. The methodology described in this article is what employers should use to empower front line workers in a true cross-functional team effort to DE-emphasize conventional business processes where a realistic approach to team work relinquishes supervisors to babysitters. Empowering the front line with the tools they need to do their job facilitates 2-way feedback all the way to the executive level- diminishing the smoke screen of middle management, and allows true leaders from the front line to bubble up into a front line supervisory role, and upward. Continuous investment in the front line to invest in emerging leaders creates a career path for loyal employees. This concept removes the idea that human resources are a commodity like the cost of money. The Fed says where minimum wage goes up some businesses exit the market- while newcomers fill in the gap balancing any economic loss. Enterprising explanation is that new entrants apply empowered business processes that adhere to a conventional scope of influence while rewarding creativity and innovative feedback.