Tactics for the New Guerrilla Trainer
by Phil Mershon
This is about going into the jungle, staging the foray, and being victorious. Let's use the example of call centers. Say that you've been brought in as the corporate trainer for a call center in a metropolitan area where such centers proliferate. Typically employing 50 to 500 people, call centers share a certain ambience: Decade-old coffee stains meld into abstract floral decorations on low-pile carpet, the original color of which was probably some mish-mash of pink and gray. The desks are old, wobbly, and shoved together. Each holds a phone and a computer, with the connecting wires dangling in a hopeless jumble.
The scent of perfume and cologne worn by the recruits of the call center army hovers (and smells) like napalm in the morning. The platoons--collections, customer service, technical support, tele-marketing--have distinct uniforms just a few seasons out of date but, nevertheless, worn in the service of their company.
As you scout the terrain, the impact of your new surroundings hits you like a mortar shell. How will you survive, much less thrive, in a place such as this? Certainly not all call centers look like the one I just described. But many do, and some are even bleaker.
The employees in those underdeveloped empires often believe they are viewed by management as equivalent to fulltime employees. In fact, management tends to view those troops more as hired mercenaries, ready to sell out to the highest bidder and as dispensable as a busted headset. Though there is some small validity to both viewpoints, on the whole they are each only an interpretation of one side by the other and as easy to accept as they are wrongheaded.
Both viewpoints are the direct result of an ideology held by the commanders-in-chief that their enterprises are somehow unique. Solutions, processes, and even simple rules that seem commonplace in a real business don't apply here. Or so believe the company architects, who came of age in the industries they now champion.
The CEOs of multinational corporations (through any combination of education, experience, and social heredity) may validate their effectiveness from one industry to the next, but the president of a company whose primary source of revenue comes from call center operations has spent most of his or her working life in that specific industry and would operate about as comfortably elsewhere as a tiger cub in a pool of piranhas. Given the economic volatility of their call center camps, the corporate officers quite naturally take solace in regarding their domains as impenetrable from the forces of progress. Conditions, therefore, almost never improve in any substantive way (other than by unplanned luck), and so employee desertion is the order of the day.
Make no mistake: These corporate leaders aren't stupid. After all, they hired you, didn't they? Besides that, they understand the impact of market forces, have a keen knowledge of what their clients want, and are as cognizant of the impact of employee attrition as the heads of, say, international technology concerns. Their handicap isn't one of intelligence but rather of vision. And the myopia predominates in the struggle to progress beyond the perimeters of things they've tried before. To that end, they would rather repeat a familiar method they know to be a mistake than take a chance on succeeding with something that is unfamiliar.
So, when a bright-eyed trainer like you approaches those leaders with such urgent concepts as return-on-investment, Six Sigma, and e-learning, you are as likely as not met with a patronizing smirk.
"That's all very nice," comes the response. "But at the moment, we have 20 people waiting for you to deliver new hire orientation."
Some trainers learn to accept restricted vision as a condition of continued employment. Others resist. That resistance may be motivated by company loyalty, personal integrity, or a fondness for goodhearted muckraking. Whatever the impetus for their actions, trainers who revolt at finding themselves stagnating in the quagmire of the status quo are in positions somewhat analogous to rebel insurgents in small, beleaguered third-world countries. In fact, those trainers are in the enviable position of being able to liberate the masses of call center employees and managers alike from the bloodless tyranny of boredom and frustration--surely two of the deadliest diseases endemic to an otherwise viable workplace. Though no single training department in and of itself can penetrate the walls of mediocrity, guerrilla training--using calculated, provocative attack-and-withdrawal techniques--can open minds to unimagined possibilities.
Here then (with perhaps fewer battlefield metaphors) are the requirements of a successful guerrilla training campaign in almost any industry:
Recognize that you are one of the best things that ever happened to your company. Your predecessor in all likelihood became a trainer based on experience in the specific industry rather than on experience in the training arena. That person no doubt spent the better part of the work day (except every other Wednesday, invariably missed due to court appearances for wrongful dismissals and similar claims) mindlessly reciting unrelated job skills and came to life only when sharing personal experiences that had nothing to do with work.
You, on the other hand, are a professional trainer. You have ideas. You have hopes and enthusiasm. You understand the solid as well as intangible values of your role. You have vision. You can see for miles. Once you understand those differences, make sure everyone else in your company understands them.
Become as knowledgeable about your industry as anyone alive. Being an outsider to this "unique" enterprise, you have zero credibility. The fact that you have this job is seen by many as proof that the company will hire anyone. People in your office are already placing bets on how long you'll last before something scares you off.
Don't let anything scare you off. Between classes, sneak out of the training room, walk out onto the call center (or shop) floor (or wherever) as if you own the place. Even take some calls. Interrupt people to ask about the differences between what you teach and what happens in the real world. Read books and magazine articles about your industry, and email your reactions to people in operations and HR. During training downtime, sit with managers and find out how they do their jobs.
Reach out to the best people in the company, and remember that best doesn't necessarily refer to those with the most visibility. Best in this sense means intelligent, creative, daring people who are also borderline malcontents. These folks will rarely if ever be in HR or on Executive Row. You're more likely to find them occupying positions of frontline managers, who are frustrated about how good things could be if only staff were more competent. You'll also find them in information services, where they really do know how much better things could be.
Both groups are unwitting allies. Their skills are essential, they aren't easily replaceable, and their good opinions of you are vital to your political acceptance, which means the acceptance of your ideas. Invest time with those people. Give them hope.
Train as if your life depended on it. If you're training new employees, they must emerge from your programs with more than combat readiness and an arsenal of job-related skills. They must attack their new jobs with an enthusiasm that shakes the comfort zones of the veterans.
The challenge for you will be that in a call center (or similar) environment, many new employees have been recycled from alike positions with competitors. Novices will cling to your every word for guidance and inspiration, but the job hoppers want only to know how the computer works and what day they get paid.
Guerrilla training requires you to inform and enlighten both groups with all of your might. Stand up. Move around. Use props. Learn to dance, juggle, skate, sing, act. Samuel Johnson said that the purpose of art is to elucidate and entertain. Done properly, training--especially the guerrilla variety--is an art form.
If you're training managers (or anyone else not new to the company), workshops are the only way to go. Even if someone in attendance claims to enjoy a good lecture, remember that while sermons might prepare people for enlightenment, actions allow for the real thing. No matter what the stated issue of your workshop is, one underlying agenda must be to get people to believe in their collective potential. That revolutionary awareness won't cause managers to seek the overthrow of the company, but it will lead them to demand more from themselves and each other. Those feelings will be new, refreshing, and addictive. They must be maintained or your mission will be viewed as heretical.
Plan spontaneity. Use to your advantage the fact that most employees want to do a good job, regardless of how they behave. Visit one of the departments unannounced and ask employees questions you covered weeks earlier in training. Show that you recognize their correct answers. Ask them about their performance statistics. Congratulate the winners and encourage the rest. Fade back and reappear at irregular intervals. The best managers--who, after all, have become your allies--will likely not only imitate your actions, but also improve on them. That's progress.
Be sincere. You are a force of radical change in the organization. You are in the messianic position of raising tired and trampled spirits from the slag heap of history. But if people see what you're doing as part of some sinister scheme, your hard efforts will come to naught. Therefore, you must understand your own motivation and hold it in view at all times. When someone asks what you're up to with all this training stuff, don't embark on a tirade about being dedicated to the ascension of an enlightened workforce. Just tell the truth; you don't have anything better to do.
Get the company to spend money on training. Make sure you have all of the supplies you need to do your job, and don't go out of pocket for anything. Chances are, there won't be a training budget, and you'll have to go to someone else (probably someone with short arms and low pockets) for everything you need. Who cares? The more the company invests in your department, the more it will expect in return. Make it expect a lot.
Perform as if your company were a real business. Shove ROI reports into people's hands. Propose computer-based training systems. Show managers the connection between quality assurance and employee empowerment. Rail against the "anyone with a pulse" approach to hiring.
Become the unofficial retention manager. Fight lethargy. Promote your aims with pride. Make a flag for your ragged army of soldiers to salute. Irritate the conformists. Soothe the restless. Never give up.