Tuesday, May 22, 2012

What makes a good trainer?

Technical training (for skills like engineering software, machine repair, electrical maintanence, troubleshooting, or any technical skills transfer) requires a different breed of trainer. Having worked for nearly 18 years as/with/around technical training and education I have had the pleasure to work with some of the best, as well as some of the worst.

What are the traits to look for when searching for the effective trainer for your technical products? It may be stuff that you can't find in their CV or resume unless you read between the lines.

The best trainers I met were almost maddeningly curious--about everything. My first mentor in technical training wanted to figure out how everything worked, broadly and deeply. That things worked was never enough, he had to get into it. He was curous about all thing, all people, all points of view. If we differed in view on anything he would want to know more. Not prove the other wrong.

Effective trainers like to make others shine. Inneffective trainers use the training platform as a way to demonstrate their smarts.  Really painful trainers teach by showing others what they know, & glow when their students stare slackjawed at them as they elucidate on the nuggets of their esoteric and private knowledge store.

We never hired anybody to be a trainer without forcing them to do multiple presentations to multiple people. Any trainer worth their while would never shy from this. Nor would they worry about now knowing what to present on, everybody has mastery of some skill worth presenting on. A good trainer can make a training class of anything.

What educational requirements should we look for? Most important is an educational background that demonstrates an ability to learn and apply knowledge. As an engineer I am biased toward the field of engineering as a good source for trainers. But I have worked with excellent trainers who came from the military, mechanical and electrical engineering, i have worked with some with PhD's and other with no degree at all. The ability to be effective at training was not evident on the resume (though experience in training on the resume is good to see) but most important was the drive to learn new things and share with others.

When I took a job with one company they took it on faith that I would be good at training. I was a little surprised that they never asked me to make a presentation and as luck has it I think I did well for that company. But to leave such an important thing to luck, or worse to take the word of the applicant as the only measure of training fit would be highly unwise.

It doesn't matter what the topic is that they present and teach for the interview. In fact if it is "off topic" even better. The good trainer should be able to take anything that they know and measurably transfer knowledge and skill. They should leave the participants in the presentation wanting more.

If this person is not expert at the topic you want taught already that is not a roadblock. They needn't be the "best" at (insert training goal here); They only need to be the best at learning and transfering what they learned.  Diverse resumes with broader curricula and experiences as opposed to "deep" knowledge in just one area. Diverse hobbies and tastes are also helpful, and a cultural and social flexibility as the trainer will undoubtedly need to deal with all sorts in the course of thei job.

As a parting word I will paraphrase one of my favorite instructors Gerald Pool of GM "in the valley of the blind, the one eyed man is king." You can teach a new hire to be that one eyed man, but the ability and drive to lead will be up to them. That is what you need to seek out.

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