Jackie Rybka knows how to get employees excited about training: cookies.
“That used to be the standard fare at every training session,” jokes the human resources performance and development manager at 2,400-employee Westfield Group. “But it’s only good for so long.”
The initial lure of free sweets will quickly disappear, so build a training program that’s ingrained into your company’s culture.
“What I think helps support learning in our organization is the fact you’ll hear our leadership talk about their own developmental needs,” Rybka says. “So it kind of creates an environment where people know that there’s an expectation that we’re trying to better ourselves and that it’s OK to admit that you’re not perfect.”
Emphasize how training can contribute to your company’s growth, as the means to an end rather than training for the sake of training.
“If you look at it as a training department and an investment in a training department, [that’s the] wrong way to look at it,” says Bob Joyce, chairman and CEO of the insurance, banking and financial services firm that posted 2008 revenue of $1.64 billion. “The training department has to be a business partner with the businesspeople. And it has to be the business process that drives the training process — and not vice versa.”
So take your training beyond a plate of cookies by developing solutions around your corporate goals, packing each session with interaction and reinforcing the material with follow-up information.
(See related story: Teaching leaders)
Find a focus
It sounds simple, but begin with your business needs and develop a training solution to fit them. Then instead of aligning the two, you’re just finding the most effective answer to an existing problem.
“Select your training priorities based on your business plan,” Rybka says. “Because if you just go out with a general needs assessment, people are going to tell you everything they want, everything they heard was cool but not really everything they need.”
You can’t afford to pull employees away from their daily tasks and pay for their training if you’re not teaching skills that will improve the company overall. So Rybka and her team pick through Westfield’s corporate goals, looking for behavioral or knowledge gaps that could be bridged with training.
“So if we say, ‘We want to increase our risk appetite,’ we think, ‘I wonder what we have to help reinforce how to assess risk and risk appetite in our courseware,’” she says.
Once you pinpoint areas for improvement, take the suggestions back to the executive team — not only to get approval for your ideas but also to better understand their training vision for the company.
“That partnership that you have with the business — so that you understand where they’re going — is even better than a business plan,” she says.
Departments may then request additional training beyond the companywide goals you address. Rather than giving each manager what he or she wants, dig in to what the managers really need.
All you have to do is ask. A sales executive asked Rybka to create a team development plan, but his employees had already been through team-building exercises. So she investigated beyond the initial request.
“It was the probing question, ‘Well, OK. But why?’” she says. “And then he got to the, ‘For seeing if we’ve got the right people.’”
By simply asking him to explain what his team actually needed, she was able to target the selection of salespeople rather than just developing the existing team. So instead of the traditional get-to-know-you-better icebreakers, she developed competency assessments to identify qualified candidates.
But the solution never stops there. Always look for opportunities to make training cross-functional by tying it into other areas of the business — in Rybka’s words, “an end-to-end solution.”
In this case, Rybka also transferred the results of the sales team’s personality assessments to the hiring process, crafting interview questions that would indicate competencies the team already displayed.
Offer something for everyone
Maybe you were a visual learner in school. Or maybe you needed hands-on practice. You can’t cater to each individual learning style, so make your training sessions as multifaceted as possible.
“We try to appeal to all learning types,” Rybka says. “There’s some people that need to read it to get it. Some people that need to hear it. Some people that need to do it. And some people that need to think about it.”
Start by brainstorming all the possible ways to present a topic, covering visual and oral presentations and individual and interactive techniques. Once you lay out all the possibilities, you can see where your best resources lie.
“When we’re deciding whether or not to purchase or build something and then whether or not it should it be instructor-led or computer-based, whether it should be a simulation or case study, we’re working backward from what the objective of the training is,” Rybka says.
So for example, an introductory course in the insurance industry would require less customization and interaction than a leadership development class, which is specific to Westfield.
Also consider the size of your audience and, frankly, whether you have the resources and experts available in-house.
“Our motto really has been, whenever possible, to have the expert up in front of them,” Rybka says. “Then you can ask questions that go far beyond what’s available on the PowerPoint slide.”
Look within your company first for recognizable experts that fit the role. If they’re not there, then expand the search to your industry or your region. Go see potential presenters lead a session somewhere else before you confirm or at least seek references from other companies that have used them.
But you don’t necessarily need to find someone who can woo a crowd. If the expert is more adept at his or her specialty than at entertaining, add some interactive games as accompaniment or pair the speaker with a passionate, recognizable figure from your company.
“Sometimes people will come because they really want to know more about that subject,” Rybka says. “And quite honestly, some people come just because they want to see what Scott or Steve has to say about the topic. So it really gives a credibility boost to the material.”
That can also weave a solid security blanket when the subject matter itself is a little dull.
Just don’t let the speaker dominate the session. Even an impassioned speaker will struggle to secure everyone’s attention for an eight-hour lecture. Rybka recommends breaking the presentations into 20-minute segments separated by activities.
“Whenever you can get people from new knowledge to application of new knowledge in a training class, that’s powerful,” she says.
The activity can be as simple as a skill assessment. But a simulation can increase the interaction and allow employees to actually practice the skills you’re teaching.
“We have to get them to demonstrate the skills and knowledge that they have,” she says. “So the way to do that is to draw them out. Make them interact with each other.”
Westfield’s leadership development course includes the creation of a mock business where participants pretend to run various departments for several days, interacting with one another as an executive team would.
“It’s like role-play on steroids,” Rybka says. “We create an atmosphere where people are in a role; they’ve got a business that they’re running. So there’s the computer simulation that they have to react to as well as ‘actors’ that are doing role-play that provide even more challenge: Here are the results, but how do I explain it to my investors that I haven’t met my business plan?”
Along the way, provide plenty of feedback to applaud what participants did well and point out areas for improvement.
“Say, ‘These are the behaviors you exhibited. This is what we thought was effective about that, and this is what we thought was less effective,’” Rybka says.
Reinforce the teaching
Even the best training will fall flat if there’s no follow-up to reinforce it.
The first step is gathering immediate feedback with a reaction survey, what Rybka refers to as “level-one metrics.” Your basic evaluation should include questions like: Were the materials useful? Was the facilitator informative? How did you feel about the length and the pace of the session?
“And we do get some good feedback there, if the room was too hot or cold,” Rybka jokes. “But it’s really that post-session follow-up where you’re asking the manager if they have demonstrated any new skills or if you’ve driven it to a level-four assessment, and you can see it in their business results.”
But it’s tricky to calculate a single session’s impact on the results of the whole company or even a specific department. So your best bet may be to bring the program’s effectiveness down to an individual level by following up with each participant.
Have all the employees who participated in the training set one or two goals based on the session. By doing that, you are empowering them to adapt the session to their needs, getting their buy-in on what is most important to them and building a way to check their progress afterward.
“Ask for the learner to decide what they’re going to do to further that [material you presented],” she says. “So in other words, I’m not going to say, ‘Everybody take this action plan and go revamp your performance goals,’ but, ‘OK, here’s the expectation. Here are the tools. Here’s an example of what it looks like. Now, you tell me: What would you like to do to improve this skill?’ Then it’s their plan.”
The biggest key to measuring the success of your program is knowing what you’re measuring before you begin. And that can often be half the battle.
“Getting [executives] to say what success looks like is a painful exercise. They’ll usually defer to, ‘Oh, I’ll know it when I’ll see it,’” Rybka says. “You’ve really got to say, ‘Hold up. What do we expect people to be able to do when they walk out?’”
How to reach: Westfield Group, (800) 243-0210 or