Developing Training that Doesn’t Suck

Learning experiences are like journeys. The journey starts where the learning is now, and ends where the learner is more successful. The end of the journey isn’t knowing more, it’s doing more.

 –Julie Dirksen

developing training that doesn’t suckAs a facilitator myself, I love attending training as I love learning new skills (and honing what I’m already pretty good at). However, if you’re like me, I’ve attended more than my fair share of training that wasn’t worth the money or time away from my day-to-day responsibilities. Instead of coming back fired up and ready to implement something new, I’m angry at having to dig out of a hole. If you’re looking to develop your own programs or hire an external company, how can you ensure it’s a good return on the time and money invested? I’m walking through my process for ensuring you’re developing training that doesn’t suck! Try it out yourself or follow these steps to ensure the company you’re hiring knows what they’re doing!


Yes, training can be awesome!

It’s all to do with the training: you can do a lot if you’re properly trained.

—Queen Elizabeth II

developing training that doesn’t suckAny good trainer worth their salt is in it in large part because they want to make an impact. Training is an opportunity for an instructor to impart their knowledge to others and help them grow. At the same time, it’s also an opportunity for the attendees to acquire the tools and knowledge they need to expand their horizons.

When you describe it that way, who wouldn’t want to be participate in training? Personally, I find great satisfaction when I’m elevating attendees’ leadership skills, because every training session (or keynote) is an opportunity to make a difference in someone’s life. That is exciting! That is inspiring! And given that responsibility, I want to make the best of it that I can.

That said, a company isn’t going to pay me (or anyone else) to do training unless they think their employees will actually benefit from it. And that’s my goal too. I aim for transparency with the clients about what I deliver during my presentations, and I want to be sure I am meeting their expectations. That includes attendees walking out of my programs singing my praises. You can lead training to the same results! Here’s how I accomplish that.


Figuring out what you’re trying to accomplish

The only thing worse than training your employees and having them leave is not training them and having them stay.

—Henry Ford

developing training that doesn’t suckWhen a client hires me, I don’t ask, “What training would you like me to roll out?” That kind of question already limits their options (and mine, too!) by asking them to select a program before either of us knows what they actually need. Many trainers have a standard list of offerings arranged by title and brief description. This list can be a useful to get the conversation started (perhaps as a jumping-off point for a customized program) but is way too limiting when presented as a rigid shopping list. 

Instead, I ask, “What problem are you trying to solve?” and “What are your managers and leaders currently not doing (or not doing well)?” These types of questions are far more useful than the first because they are more open ended. Rather than ask people to tick off predetermined boxes, I ask them to produce just a rough outline to help me understand what they want and what I’m working with, so we can then figure out exactly how I can help them.

Step 1: Determine what problem or skill your employees are experiencing.

Once I understand the general problem, I start thinking about how to solve it. Yes, training is an option, but I ask the client if it’s a specific problem for one employee or is it more pervasive?  For individual employees, one-on-one coaching or mentoring may be the way to go. If the challenges are across the board, then a training program would probably be more appropriate.

Step 2: Is individual coaching or a larger training program the best approach?

When I was at Oxygen Media, I then asked if we had the internal expertise (and time!) to develop the training program ourselves or did we need to hire an external company to develop and/or deliver the training.  At Oxygen, I did both. I had an external company design the program and I delivered it (through a licensing arrangement)  and in other instances, I’ve had them develop and deliver the program. For one program, I started off in the latter arrangement, then brought the delivery portion in-house when I had more time on my plate.

Either approach can be great, especially if you hire the right external company who really gets your organization. It’s really about the amount of time you have on your plate. If it’s going to be six months before you can start to develop the training and the problem is pervasive, it may be best to hire help on a temporary basis. 

Step 3: Do we have the skills and time to develop internally or should you hire an external company to jump start the project?


Digging into the details

Effective training isn’t a one-size-fits-all endeavor: it must be tailored to each organization’s specific circumstances. So I ask questions—lots of questions—designed to unearth the details. Let me walk you through an example that hopefully you can tailor to your needs (whether you’re designing it internally or hiring external):


    • Our managers are not doing a good job of motivating and engaging their direct reports.

Possible questions

    • How does their lack of motivation and engagement manifest in everyday management practices?
    • Why do you think your managers are falling short in those areas?
    • How is this situation manifesting itself in the day-to-day? How is it affecting your customers? 
    • Following this training, how are your managers behaving differently? What end result are you looking to achieve? How will you know if you achieve it?

The answers to these broad questions point me to more specific questions, which in turn yield even more refined data. Eventually, I’m able to pinpoint what problems need to be resolved and how. Armed with this information, I can then design and implement a training that addresses that particular client’s needs. The result is no “ready to wear” training but a “haute couture” deliverable that’s uniquely tailored for one client.


Step 4: Ultimately, you’ll measure the success of your program by the end results – so ask questions that can help you figure out what a win looks like (then design your training around that outcome).


Gathering feedback to ensure you’re developing training that doesn’t suck

Training helps teach the vision and mission, but employees must put the training into action to have meaning.

—Shep Hyk

developing training that doesn’t suckAs a trainer, my role isn’t just to deliver information but to do so in a way that sinks in and has a lasting impact on the participants. If what I teach goes in one ear and out the other, then the company has wasted its money—and everyone has wasted their time. I want people to be able to apply what they’ve learned. That’s the whole point of training: to help people acquire the knowledge and skills they need to change their behavior.

To get a sense of whether the training was effective, I usually use multiple tools to survey the participants. The first is a post-training survey with questions that are mostly open ended in order to give respondents space to express themselves fully. Here are some examples:

  • What relevance did the topic covered in the training have to your role as a manager?
  • Which part of the session did you find the most valuable?
  • Which part of the session did you find the most interesting?
  • Which part of the session did you find the least valuable?
  • Which part of the session did you find the least interesting?
  • What’s one thing you learned that you hope to incorporate into your work life right away?
  • What do you think was missing from this session?
  • What other topics would you like to see covered in a future training session?
  • Was the instructor effective at teaching this topic?

I also use a tool that asks respondents to indicate their agreement with each statement on a nonnumerical scale ranging from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree.” I love using this measure (called a Likert scale) because it gives me a quick, almost (but not quite) quantifiable overview of participants’ feedback while still giving them some room to “personalize” their responses. Here are examples of some of these types of statements:

  • The training gave me the tools to give feedback to a peer.
  • The training made me feel more confident about giving feedback to a peer.
  • The training gave me the tools to give feedback to my boss.
  • The training made me feel more confident about giving feedback to my boss.
  • The instructor was able to communicate clearly.
  • The instructor was an engaging teacdeveloping training that doesn’t suckher.

Feedback is an opportunity to strengthen the training, so don’t be afraid to make adjustments between training sessions. I do it all the time. It will ensure the topics are dialed in to the needs of your team.

In addition to soliciting feedback on what they thought of the training itself (e.g., content, presentation), it’s also important to ask participants about how they will use what they’ve learned. To get at this information, I asked specific questions: “What ideas from this training will you implement in your day-to-day practices?” and “How do you expect this training to shape what you do moving forward?”

Step 5: Gather feedback! It’s the only way to ensure you’re developing training that doesn’t suck! One idea if you’re a little uncertain is to run a pilot program before you go wide with the training (gathering feedback in between)!

Sometimes, though, people who are fresh out of a training don’t know right away how they’ll apply it or what they’ll do with it—and even those who do have a plan to implement something they’ve learned might find that things actually turn out very differently from how they expected. That’s why I also check back in with participants three months later. This follow up lets me see whether and how participants put into action what they learned with me—and what results they got.

Step 6: To ensure the lessons stick, follow up at three months to see if attendees are still having success (and implementing what they said they were going to). If not, evaluate what you need to do in between to make sure it does.


Final Thoughts

It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.

—Harry S. Truman

Perhaps I should have titled this post “How to Know If You’re Getting Your Money’s Worth with a Training Program” because honestly, that’s really what’s at stake. What I’ve presented here is part of my own process for planning and conducting training. Each instructor has their own approach, but ultimately we should all be working toward the same general goals: helping our employees (or clients in my case) reach their maximum potential. If your past training experiences haven’t yielded the results you’re looking for, perhaps it’s time to include the types of communication, information gathering, and analysis I’ve outlined here. 

Training isn’t cheap—but when it’s done right, it can pay for itself many times over. It has the power to transform individual career trajectories and organizational goals. I hope the information here gives you the tools (and inspiration) you need to ensure that you’re getting the most out of your training.

What features have distinguished the effective training experiences you’ve had? I’m sure lots of my readers will be interested in this (and as a trainer, I’m always eager to grow and improve my own training practice), so please share your experiences in the comments below.

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