Site Preparation for Leadership: What every manager needs to do to help leadership stick

By Tom Davidson

If you only got a 10 to 35 percent survival rate on your next reforestation project, would you be happy with the result? I don’t think so.

Unfortunately, that is the success rate of most training – including leadership training – not necessarily because of the quality of the training itself but because of what happens back on the job – what I call site preparation for leadership.

According to the Wisconsin DNR website, site preparation is “the creation of a favorable growing environment for tree seeds or seedlings.” As foresters everywhere know, this can be accomplished by various methods, including mechanical treatment, chemical application and prescribed burning. In many cases, if site preparation is not accomplished ahead of regeneration, the new stand of trees may not survive sufficiently or grow as fast as possible.

Much the same is true with training your people. As if finding the budget, finding the time, and finding the right vendor wasn’t hard enough, you also have to invest time with the trainees themselves before, during and after the training to make sure it sticks. If you don’t, then your investment could be largely wasted. You can’t afford this, and you don’ t have to.

Here are seven practical steps you can take to improve the transfer of training back to the job.

1. Role Model. As trainees attend my leadership programs, one of the litmus tests they are always running in their minds is this. “To what extent does my supervisor or upper management know and practice these skills?” Leaders don’t have to have taken the same program or use every model the same way, but they do have to have shown that they are familiar with the material the trainee is learning. Otherwise, the learner is likely to discount the program as checking the box or “Do as I say, not as I do.”

2. Answer the Why. The trainee needs to be informed about why the training is important. This might be a simple discussion about the need for new skills in their performance results and reviews, how the information they receive will make their jobs easier or safer, or how the subject matter will benefit them personally or professionally. This conversation must answer the question, “What’s in it for me?” – the learner. The more the trainees see the potential benefit to them, the more eager they will be to learn.

3. Share Expectations. The supervisor and the trainee should discuss what the trainee is expected to learn from the program and apply in his or her work. This simple conversation about expectations can improve the learning uptake by as much as 40 percent, because the learner is more likely to pay attention, participate and apply what they learned. As training coach Ron Chapman ( likes to put it, “What interests my boss, fascinates me.”

4. Check In. Communicate with the learners while they are in the program. Ask them what they are learning, what they are having trouble with, and how the training appears most relevant to them. First, this shows that you care about them and their experience. Second, it provides an opportunity for coaching and making the material more relevant than they have yet to realize. Third, it provides more insight about the content of what they are learning, so it can be supported back on the job.

5. Support Application. Like any new skill, the learning isn’t over when the class is dismissed. It’s really just beginning. So when the trainee gets back on the job, it is vital for them to get a chance to practice what they learned. Managers can support this by giving trainees more freedom to experiment, make mistakes, and take on new responsibilities. If the trainee comes back to an environment of peers, supervisors and subordinates who won’t tolerate new behaviors, then learners will quickly revert to old habits and norms that felt safer and more comfortable.

6. Let them Teach. Arrange a way for your returning students to organize and present what they learned to others. Just knowing that they will be expected to do this will increase their attention span, willingness to ask questions, and enthusiasm for class participation. Not only that, explaining what they learned helps deepen their own understanding of the material and increase their willingness apply it. Also, teaching others will have the tangential effect of holding the learner accountable to stepping up to the new behaviors.

7. Recognize Progress. As a manager of someone learning new skills, you have a significant impact on what behaviors they start, stop and continue, and your influence is even greater shortly after training. Here are the three most common practices that affect skill survival one way or another: (1) punish or chastise them for trying new things or making mistakes (see “Learning to Fail as Leaders” in the February edition of The Forestry Source), (2) ignore what they are attempting to do differently and/or better, or (3) recognize and reward them for making the effort and making progress. Obviously, the third choice will have the greatest chance of reinforcing the positive behaviors you sent them to training for in the first place.

As your veteran leaders continue to retire at an accelerated rate and your novice supervisors ascend rapidly to fill their roles, send them to the best leadership training you can find and afford, by all means. But improve the odds that your investment will pay back and that your new stand of ready leaders will be what you expect and need, not by applying the principles of site preparation for leadership.

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