When Jerry Canada took over Indiana Farm Bureau Insurance in 2002, he found the company’s training program in disarray.
“We certainly had training, and we had trainers, but they were all disbursed throughout each department and throughout the company,” says Canada, Indiana Farm Bureau’s CEO. “We didn’t have a focal point to go to when we needed training.
“Some people had their own agendas. There were times when we may be training in one area, but we were missing a big part of what needed to be done for another division. ... It was hard from one department to another just to grasp the importance of communicating with everybody in other areas.”
Canada saw the dysfunctional training program as a hurdle to growth for the 1,200-employee company, the state’s largest provider of farm insurance. He needed a plan that would prepare his employees to deal with the technological advances of the 21st century while maintaining the neighborly culture that the company is known for.
So he gathered his executive team together to lay out the parameters for a reconstituted training department and the type of leadership it would need. The parameters they came up with were strong leadership of the program, strong trainers and making the training exciting for everyone.
The benefits of the revamped training infrastructure at Indiana Farm Bureau Insurance have already been recognized. Revenue has grown from $646.7 million in 2002 to $741.4 million in 2006 and Canada says there is a much clearer sense of what needs to be done to keep the company growing.
“We feel like we’ve been able to take it to another level with the training we’ve offered people,” Canada says.
Here’s how Canada conquered some of the challenges of installing a training program that would help his company grow.
Leadership is key
When Canada first became a manager, there were times when he should have sought out more information before acting but didn’t.
“Early in my career, I made the mistake of taking everything that people were telling me at the first word they gave me and not really probing much to understand what they were telling me,” he says. “There was often a lack of communication. I just didn’t understand enough to continue to move forward.”
Establishing an effective training program meant he needed someone who was willing to push back against other managers and even the CEO to make sure the right programs were being put in place and would, in turn, teach all his employees to get all the facts before making a decision.
“It’s easy, particularly in organizations that have had training programs for quite a while, for the training area to fall into the habit of filling orders,” Canada says. “For example, someone comes to the area and asks for two hours on customer service. A strong leader pushes back and knows not just to fill orders, but to determine the needs.”
Canada needed someone who would respond to a questionable request for training by analyzing it to get at the heart of what was really needed. Strong leaders take a holistic approach to their job and focus on getting others in the company involved in the decision.
“That can sometimes be perceived as stepping on others’ toes, but a strong leader does it anyway,” Canada says. “Training has a key role in talent management. A strong leader also knows the importance of being a business partner and of getting involved in projects early that ultimately will require the training of somebody.”
Establishing an effective training program doesn’t stop with the hiring of a good manager to run it. Canada says the CEO needs to know what every employee is learning, when they learn it and what they still need to be taught. A company that holds a bunch of training courses but does not track the results of the classes will accomplish very little.
These results need to be shared with employees on a regular basis so that each individual is aware of where he or she stands.
“It should be lined out in a performance appraisal what they need to do that year or what they have done,” Canada says. “Have employee appraisals that are meaningful to the employee where they can sit down and talk about their future and do their own self-appraisals and get feedback from their manager.
“That’s extremely important. The performance appraisal is really the opportunity for the manager and the employee to sit down face to face on a busy workday and talk about their goals and how they are doing with those and whether they are on track or not.”
Employees are asked for feedback on recent training sessions in both the performance appraisals and in surveys to make sure the training is providing the skills they need to meet their goals.
Find solid trainers
Canada remembers a moment from years ago when he was trying to decide whether to become a manager or a sales agent, and he received a piece of advice that sticks with him today.
“If you like selling and you like the recognition you receive being a salesperson, then stay where you are,” Canada says. “But if you enjoy watching other people succeed and watching them grow in their business and their careers or bringing people into the business that will succeed, then you need to be a manager. I always used that throughout the years to help determine whether somebody should be in managing or training.”
Because a training program is only going to be as good as the people doing the training, Canada says you need to find trainers who take a personal interest and satisfaction in helping others to progress and advance in their careers.
“That’s where some managers fail,” Canada says. “They’re not in it for the purpose of making someone a better employee. The key to managing is having someone that really wants to do that. Some people like to have the title of manager, but it’s because they want the title and not necessarily the work of the job that’s related to that.”
Finding people to fill training roles can be as simple as tapping into talent you already have on the payroll.
“Some people have had that training in school and college, and that’s picked up on a resume,” Canada says. “Some of it’s just through observing your employees and seeing how they interact with other employees to see if they have the personality set to want to be in front of a group talking.”
Keep the sessions lively
One of the toughest parts of getting up in front of a group and teaching a skill is often finding a way to keep the group’s attention.
“You’ve got several different types that go to training,” Canada says. “Some really want to be there, and others don’t so much. You have to be able to communicate with them and have them talk back to you. You have to be able to get their input. A lot of them have the answers, but they don’t necessarily know they do. You have to be able to show them what’s in it for them and how it relates to the job they are doing now.”
Making the sessions fun through a game or a quiz show related to the topic at hand can help generate interest and get everyone engaged in the discussion. This is particularly useful at training sessions conducted to get new employees acclimated to the company.
“Our trainers there work hard to bring them all together because they don’t know each other,” Canada says. “They managed to put those people around tables where they are split up into different divisions. They give them some facts about the company and later on, they have them spit those facts back to them in trivia questions.”
A trainer also benefits by being able to draw on real-life experiences in his or her teaching and not just relying on what’s written in a textbook.
“I try to go into some of the training sessions to welcome people into the training session and maybe draw on an experience that I have had through the years that has helped me grow in my professionalism,” Canada says. “Try to offer that to them just to show them the importance of it and where the training fits into their everyday work.”
Canada says it’s easy to dismiss the importance of training when an urgent matter presents itself on the day of a session, but you can’t let that happen if you want training to be taken seriously by everyone.
“At times, I’ve had to go into training sessions and I’m thinking, ‘This is the last thing I need today. I’ve got other things to do,’” Canada says. “In the end, I think you are always appreciative of it and realize that it was important. That’s the key. It’s important the trainer make it interesting and make it worthwhile of your time.”
Sometimes, timing itself can make a big difference in determining the effectiveness of the training session. Canada says he has found that the best time to conduct training in the office is from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
“Generally, it’s best to have it in one day, and it’s best to have it from mid-morning to mid-afternoon,” Canada says. “They can come in and get their work done, whatever they need to get done that morning before the class starts, and then they feel like they’ve got time to go back to their desks and maybe catch up on a few items before the end of the day.”
Canada says it is also better if employees do not return to their desks during the lunch break.
“When they get a 10-minute break, we don’t want them running back and checking their e-mails and making phone calls because invariably, that’s going to lead to a half an hour, and then you’ve got people in and out of your meetings.”
One of the best cures for workplace distractions is moving the training session away from the office.
“It’s a little more expensive that way, but we feel it’s better for our people, and it gets their minds away from work for a little bit,” Canada says.
Wherever the session is held, an agenda is always helpful in bringing focus to the meeting, especially when it is made available before the session takes place.
“They have an idea on the time frame that you’ll be following and, of course, what we’ll be discussing,” Canada says.
This requires the trainers to do their homework in advance and coordinate with the leadership of the training department to ensure that everyone is on the same page with what is being taught.
“They don’t just take for granted that they’ll know what to talk about,” Canada says.
An environment of learning has a way of generating the same kind of excitement that employees typically have when they first start a new job.
“New employees are always excited,” Canada says. “They are ready to go to work, and they’re not necessarily thinking about what’s going to happen to them in a year or two. The key for the company is for those people to keep that excitement.”
HOW TO REACH: Indiana Farm Bureau Insurance, (317) 692-7200 or www.infarmbureau.com