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Avoiding Common Pitfalls in Managing a Small Training Department

By Carol P. McCoy

            Inevitably in a small training department there are common pitfalls, which can drain you of energy and undermine your effectiveness.  Learning to identify, avoid, or overcome the following dangerous traps helps to ensure your success:

? Trying To Do Too Much. First, don’t try to do too much or you will become overwhelmed.  When starting up a training department, you may be flooded with requests for all the training that people wished they had had when there was no training department.  With all the pressure, it is easy to get into a reactive mode.  Being in continuous crisis can exhaust and discourage you, and burden you with short-term requests so you neglect longer-term priorities.  Avoid a fire-fighting mentality by having a strategy and mission, by assessing needs in order to understand expectations and priorities, and by creating a business-focused plan. Having a longer-term focus not only helps the organization you serve, it also helps you stay true to your values and priorities.  Learn to make choices to respond to what’s really important versus what is merely most urgent.

You can become more focused, motivated, and organized by visualizing your goals and taking actions that make it easier for you to accomplish them.  For example, I learned to overcome writer’s block by visualizing my completed book and how pleased I would be once it was finished.  Then I bought more comfortable office equipment and took regular replenishing breaks.  By respecting my own natural working cycle, I was able to work for much longer periods.  This same principle helped me overcome obstacles in my business work as well.

Learning to say no to bad business enables you to avoid wasting money and to focus training where it will do some good.  While saying no can feel risky, proposing a better solution helps to build your credibility.  A previous employer asked me to provide telephone skills training for the entire company in order to solve some service problems.  After some research, I learned that the primary service problem was customers not being able to reach the right person and being stuck in an endless loop of phone mail.  This was caused by operators referring customers to wrong departments and by customers having no option to “pound out of phone mail” to reach an actual employee.  I recommended that management take a hard line on providing phone coverage rather than providing telephone skills training to everyone.  The company saved a lot of money and improved service when operators began directing customers to the right departments and senior management told employees that they needed to have a live person on call in case people needed to reach someone immediately.

? Doing Everything YourselfSome people who are new to training feel that they must design, develop, and teach everything themselves.  This pitfall is particularly tempting if you especially enjoy designing and teaching training.  Doing everything yourself not only leads to early burn-out, but it also limits your capacity and creativity to meet business needs. Avoid trying to do it all yourself by taking advantage of other resources inside and outside your organization. Once you’ve conducted some train-the-trainer programs with internal resources, you will have a ready network of trainers to help you in the future.  Consider implementing a learning discussion network to build skills of prospective trainers.  Building relationships with trusted external vendors will also save you time—eventually they will learn to know your business and how to work effectively with your company.

Be sure to garner administrative support to help you with program logistics.  Create simple to-do lists to help your administrative assistant accomplish important tasks in a timely manner without needing to bother you.  The lists will help you in managing yourself as well as any assistant.  Even if you cannot obtain a full-time administrative assistant, find ways to borrow support from a nearby department, or hire temporary help.  At one point when McCoy’s administrative assistant was laid off, she was able to find administrative support by dividing up the work between other administrative assistants in the human resources department.  Adding these responsibilities to other people’s roles enabled them to master program requirements, simplify program logistics and gain credit for doing the work.

? Choosing Overly Complicated SolutionsAs a training professional who may have been used to a large budget and more resources, you may be tempted to look for sophisticated training solutions when lower-cost, simpler solutions will do.  In some cases you may be able to teach straightforward skills through a fairly inexpensive job-aid that may take the place of a training workshop.  If you are introducing CBT, be sure to start simple and build the needed relationships with senior management and the technology department so that they will support your efforts in e-learning.  Remember, when you have a very long development time, your CBT may be outdated before it is even launched. 

Don’t assume that the company needs the latest and greatest technology in order for training to be effective.  Look to PowerPoint as an effective, simple, inexpensive CBT solution.  Also keep in mind that custom CBT solution may not be required.  There is an abundance of technology-related management and soft skill courses available in the e-learning market.  Be sure to preview the available courses for quality, and negotiate a pricing and licensing option with the e-learning vendor that provides the optimum solution for your organization.

Make sure that your solution matches the sophistication of your organization.  For organizations that have not been exposed to competency models and other development tools, it’s best to start out with a simple approach.

            ? Neglecting Your Well-BeingFourth, don’t ignore your own personal needs and health.  In a one-person department, when you are sick, the whole department is down.  Take care of yourself so that you have the energy to think and work long hours.  Keeping a sense of humor is key.  Follow sensible eating and exercise habits that help maintain your physical and emotional health.  If your job entails air travel, make sure you plan appropriately to allow for adequate rest and also be sure to drink plenty of fluids and avoid alcohol.  Being dehydrated, hung-over and jet-lagged do not help your credibility or your health. Participating in enjoyable activities helps to regenerate your spirit.  If you travel as part of your job, take advantage of local opportunities when you are on the road.  For example, I combine genealogical research with business whenever possible.

? Pessimism and CynicismGiven all your responsibilities, you may feel inconsequential and powerless especially if you are used to being in a large department.  Don’t get discouraged by obsessing about what you cannot do.  This can be incapacitating and lead to inertia. Cultivate a sense of optimism by looking for opportunities to improve things versus dwelling on losses and possible dangers.  Optimism enhances your ability to think of possibilities, to influence others, to build partnerships, and to overcome obstacles.  Learn to focus on what you want to accomplish and how you can make a difference instead of on your limitations.  My entire outlook changed when an executive told me that I would be much more effective if I focused on what I could do rather than what I could not do.  This attitude shift increased my effectiveness and buoyed my spirits and confidence as well. Don’t wait for change to happen, instead anticipate change and be part of making it happen.

? Postponing Your Own DevelopmentWith all the pressure it is easy to neglect your own learning.  Putting off your own development is costly--you miss opportunities to enhance training’s effectiveness, connect with useful resources, prepare yourself for the future, and maintain your motivation.  Participating in learning activities builds your skills and gives you a new perspective.  Listen to audiotapes, read books and articles, research the web, and attend workshops to refocus yourself and to restore needed balance in your life.  Learning a new skill unrelated to your job, such as playing the piano, painting or sky diving, keeps your mind sharp, builds your flexibility, and enhances your awareness of what’s involved in the learning process itself.

An excellent way to build relevant skills, increase your network, keep up with current trends, and refresh your enthusiasm is to share your expertise with others.  Seize opportunities to speak at training conferences, instruct courses at a local college, or write articles.  Publishing is a wonderful way to deepen your knowledge, hone your writing skills, and build your credibility inside and outside your organization.


About the Author

            Carol P. McCoy, Ph.D., is President of McCoy Training and Developmental Resources (MTDR), a one-person consulting firm based in Falmouth, Maine. She has over 25 years experience in HRD and teaching in secondary education.  At Chase Manhattan Bank, she created a one-person training department, which served managers in fifteen countries, and at UNUM in Portland, Maine, she managed a small training staff of 2.2 FTE’s.  Dr. McCoy is author of Managing a Small HRD Department and editor of In Action:  Managing the Small Training Staff.  She teaches Introduction to Training at the University of Southern Maine, and has served as contributing editor to IOMA’s Report on Training Programs newsletter. She received her A.B. in Psychology from Connecticut College, and her M.S. and Ph.D. in Psychology from Rutgers University.  She welcomes your comments and questions at or at .

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