A few weeks back, I was invited to speak to some students and post-docs at The University of California, Berkeley about transitioning from academia to business and working in the field of training and development (a.k.a. T&D, talent development, learning and development (L&D), instructional design, performance consulting, etc.).
Speaking at events of this nature is always an honor for me and in preparation for it, on a whim, I shot a note out to some of my colleagues in the field asking “What should I talk about? What advice would YOU give to recent graduates considering entering our field?”
My colleagues were generous and sent back a wealth of great ideas. It was far more than I could include in my remarks to the UCB audience, but thought it might make for a compelling article for anyone interested in our field, but especially for new graduates.
So, without further ado, some advice, thoughts to consider, words of wisdom and encouragement—from me and some of my colleagues—for people considering entering the field of training and development.
Great Things about Working in This Field
I got into this field many years ago for three reasons: I wanted to help people learn, I liked the idea of having opportunities to immerse myself in other people’s worlds and learn from them, and I thought it would be fun. Many years later, I find that these are still true and strong motivators for me. Perhaps they will be for you too.
You Get to Help People Learn
I am energized by this work. Which is simply another way of saying I love helping others learn to perform tasks—especially tasks that are critical to their jobs—better and faster. It’s not uncommon for workers to find themselves in unfamiliar situations in which they’re asked to perform tasks with little or no guidance. It’s a big problem and can be a huge waste.
I’ve found great personal satisfaction in being a part of organizational efforts that help ease workers’ transitions from not-knowing to knowing and from knowing to doing.
You Get to Dabble in Other People’s Worlds
Over the course of my career, I’ve worked as an internal and external consultant to organizations in aerospace, pharmaceuticals, hospitality, biotech, military, solar, entertainment, geothermal energy, telecommunications, high-tech, health care and academia. There aren’t many careers that give you the opportunity to immerse yourself in so many different fields and industries. If that sounds appealing to you, training and development may be a great field for you.
You Get to Draw Upon and Hone a Wide Variety of Skills
Val Luekens, a performance analyst for the United States Coast Guard (an organization with some of the best training in the world), emphasizes the wide variety of skills great training professionals bring to their jobs:
“One of my favorite things about working in this field is the wealth of opportunities to use both sides of the brain: there’s a need for careful analysis and study of data—this in order to create links between training and job performance—mixed with the use of creative games and training activities to help it all sink in.”
– Val Luekens (Performance Analyst, Harkcon, Inc. for the U.S. Coast Guard)
And Jeanne Farrington, expert performance consultant and past president of the International Society for Performance Improvement (ISPI), reminds us that we must constantly hone these skills:
“A great thing about being in this field is that your job involves learning all the time from different projects and contexts. And, also, you have to make time to keep learning and growing in our field. Forever. The best, most knowledgeable T&D/performance consultants never stop learning how to do what they do even better.”
– Jeanne Farrington (Adjunct Professor, California State University, Monterey Bay; President, J. Farrington Consulting)
Not many people come right out and say this, but working in this field can be a lot of fun. How can it not be fun when your job involves helping work teams and individuals find faster, better and cheaper ways to do what they do?
Advice Specific to the Field of Training and Development
As training and development (T&D) professionals, we play many different roles. We are consultants, designers, developers, coaches, technicians, advocates, project managers… and this sometimes all in one day.
The following advice is applicable to many of these roles:
Learn the Language of Business
We have many former teachers in our field. I’m a former teacher (early in my career I taught at the university level for several years). Whether you’re an academic or not, if you’re going to work in the world of business, you must have a solid understanding of the language of business. Even if just the basics.
- What to look for on a balance sheet and a P&L summary.
- What someone really means when they talk about “the bottom line.” What goes into that?
- How to translate what you’re doing (e.g., planning, analyzing, designing, presenting, etc.) into the language of business leaders – into hard business results such as lower costs, faster time-to-productivity, increased safety, fewer errors, lower turnover, greater profits.
This is a valuable skill. You don’t have to be an expert, but having basic mastery over the language and concepts of business is essential. You’ll see this echoed in the remarks of many of my colleagues.
Focus More on Business Results and Less on Tools
Roger Chevalier, an internationally-recognized expert in performance improvement and author of The Manager’s Guide to Improving Workplace Performance, reminds us:
“Remember that training and development are means to ends. They are of value only when they contribute to the desired ends – more sales, greater profitability, better customer service, greater market share, etc.”
– Roger Chevalier (Consultant, Author; President, Improving Workplace Performance)
Dawn Papaila, a performance improvement expert with extensive experience consulting with Fortune 500 companies, echoes similar advice:
“If you choose to work in the corporate space, you will benefit from understanding the current organizational business goals as well as political, competitive and financial pressures. Be aware that complex projects that take months to complete are at risk due to shifting priorities. Understanding the nuances of managing budgets and people is helpful.
“Remember training is a means to a business end. And in order to succeed, you must not only understand what is important to the business, you must also work efficiently, collaborate, and devise risk and mitigation strategies.”
– Dawn Papaila (Learning Consultant; President WLP Consultants)
And while still focusing on business needs, Shweta Rawal, veteran consultant with expertise in change management and instructional design, expands it a bit:
“Focus on facilitating growth and filling gaps in performance, and KSAs, for businesses and individuals. In order to do this you must understand three things: organizations, people, and how technology can be used to create learning experiences in an organization.”
– Shweta Rawal (Manager, Organizational Transformation, Deloitte)
And Faraaz Fashori, veteran training consultant with expertise in learning solution architecture and product design, says:
“It’s important to master the ability learn, unlearn and relearn. You also have to be able to speak the language of business. To succeed today you must be ready for a constant state of adaptation – continually unlearning old ‘rules’ and relearning new ones. Examples include unlearning the designs you use, the methodology you use and the technology you use.”
– Faraaz Farshori (Solutions Architect, SumTotal Systems)
Learn to Sell
My first big training job was with a telecommunications company. I had been hired to re-design and develop training for new salespeople coming into the organization and they said that before I could do this I had to spend several months on the sales floor learning how to sell.
During this time, I learned how to find decision makers, how to translate features into benefits, how to ask for the sale (this might also be read as how to ask for what you want) and how to hear “No” a thousand times and not take it personally.
This turned out to be a valuable detour for me, because those sales skills—which at their heart are just good relationship-building skills—have come in very handy over the course of my career. So much so, that I often find myself encouraging others to learn to sell.
And this is not just good for selling products and services, but for selling yourself—your interests, your skills, your ideas. Learning to build relationships and be able to come back around one more time, even when it’s scary or difficult, is hugely important for being successful.
Working as a consultant (internal or external) has it’s ups and downs. Here’s some good advice from a couple of my Bay Area colleagues:
Lynn Kearny, veteran performance consultant and expert instructional designer, offers this advice on the consulting roles we play:
“When you’re new to the field, it’s important to realize that no fix is forever, and your best work will often be plowed under (sometimes even before it bears fruit) due to corporate changes—from senior leaders, policy shifts, market and technology shifts, etc.
“While it’s important to do good change management, keep your ear to the ground, ride the political fences, and anticipate obstacles, you will on occasion be caught by a steamroller and see your work obliterated through no fault or negligence of your own.
“It’s important to decide whether you want to be the consultant who gets to figure things out and design solutions, or the line manager who gets to choose which things do and don’t get done. It’s hard sometimes for any expert, especially a newly minted one, to accept that we don’t always get to make the decisions, and sometimes the decisions don’t make sense to us.
“You may not have all the relevant info. I recommend reading Peter Block’s Flawless Consulting as a hedge against depression and rash acts.”
–Lynn Kearny (Instructional Designer/Developer at Graphic Tools for Thinking and Learning, Co-author of Performance Architecture: The Art and Science of Improving Organizations)
Leah Young, expert training consultant and wine educator, offers some thoughts on the importance of understanding the needs of your project sponsor (this is usually the person funding your project):
“Know who is sponsoring your training program. Explore and understand their expectations and how they link to corporate goals.
“There are times when I disagree with the project sponsor and as a training expert find myself having to do things that may be less than optimal, but the project sponsor insisted. At times, you have to make trade-offs. Remain flexible and lean on project sponsors to help you keep the bigger picture in mind.”
– Leah Young (Training Consultant, Project Manager)
It’s a Big World Out There, There’s Room for You and Your Interests
Enzo Silva, multi-talented expert in learning strategy and eLearning, reminds us to be ourselves, ask our managers for help, and build strong networks:
“Bring your interests to what you do. Take advantage of existing development programs for yourself. And get your manager involved – make your desires known and work with your manager to plan your development with courses, tools, events, etc., especially when there’s little or no formal support for development.
“Join local interest groups. Share your experiences with others in the field, own your career, share what you know, network. Remember networking is a mindset you must have to have to grow in any field, but especially the field of learning.”
– Enzo Silva (Learning Strategist, SAP; Director of Social Media, Greater Atlanta ATD)
On Getting Started in eLearning
Joe Ganci, one of the best eLearning designers and developers I know, has this advice:
“To start off on the right foot, seek out the best, most effective examples, of eLearning you can find. Look for examples that help achieve business results and learn from them. The vast majority of eLearning is poorly done, linear, with either no media or too much media, and could be easily and better substituted with a book or a video, for all the interactivity it contains.
“Avoid the traps and you will advance much more quickly. Remember the best eLearning experiences are those that challenge learners to solve problems that are rooted in their real-life careers. Focus on these things and you’ll excel on the job faster and faster, better and better.”
–Joe Ganci (Owner, eLearning Joe; Speaker, eLearning Guild)
Additionally, on the field of eLearning, Farshori explains:
“To get into eLearning, you do not need an IT background. People with language, communication and content capabilities from Fine Arts and English Literature backgrounds form an important constituent of the workforce. Some of the hottest career profiles in eLearning include visualizers, instructional writers, instructional designers and learning solutions architects.”
–Faraaz Farshori (Solutions Architect, SumTotal Systems)
Advice for Making Career Transitions
In my conversations with the students and post-docs at UCB, we focused a lot on strategies for moving from the world of academia to the world of business. We came back around several times to planning and coping strategies. Here are a few of the pointers we discussed:
Find Six Good Friends
Someone once told me “you need six really good friends.” And I asked “why do you need six really good friends?” They replied, “Well, because at any given time, five of them might be busy.”
I laughed. But I’ve found this to be true. And important. Life can be really difficult sometimes, especially in times of transition. And having a solid support network around you is critical—perhaps more critical than you may realize—for coping with the ups and downs. So, if you don’t already have them, develop six good friendships.
Define What you Want
One of the most helpful things I did for myself many years ago was make a list of my goals—things, characteristics, qualities about my life that I really wanted. This list included items such as these:
- Live in California
- Be a consultant
- Do work that I enjoy
- Make a reasonably good living
- Teach and speak on occasion
- Contribute to my community
My items were more specific and personal than this, but you get the idea. And most of the goals on my original list I have achieved.
When creating your list, remember the more specific you can be the better. And there’s research to back me up on this. So, put your goals in writing. And be specific.
In response to my call for ideas, a college friend wrote to me with these four words: “Two ears, one mouth.” That was it. So I wrote back and asked WHAT are you talking about?
He reminded me that when we were both leaving academia we tended to talk a lot about who we were and what we knew—how smart we were, what courses we had taken, the authors we had read—and we would often forget to ask good questions and then listen carefully.
This was a simple reminder that we should listen twice as much as we talk.
I’m certain that if you’re reading this article, you are brilliant and remarkable, and whatever you choose to do, you’re going to be great – you’re going to do extraordinary things in the world – but in order to get there faster and more smoothly, and with more of your relationships intact (you want to keep those six good friends, right?) ask good questions and then listen carefully.
“Perhaps we have been given two ears and one tongue that we might listen twice as much as we talk.” – Diogenes, paraphrased
– Contributed by Greg Maurin (Teacher, Hillsborough County Public Schools)
Stay Flexible and Curious
As final words of advice, Jennifer Dulock, learning industry veteran and expert problem solver, reminds us:
“Be flexible and adaptable. You’ve learned a lot about the ‘right’ way to do things in school, but you’ll rarely be given as much time as you’d like to do it ‘right’. And the best thing you can do for your sanity is to be okay with that. Doing your best with what you have is the key to success in this industry.”
– Jennifer Dulock (Training Manager, InteliSecure)
And Farshori encourages proactivity:
“Take ownership for mapping out a path of your own. Network and meet progressive people. Be curious.”
– Faraaz Farshori (Solutions Architect, SumTotal Systems)
I hope these nuggets of wisdom are useful to you. If you’d like to discuss any of these and explore them further, contact us. And, of course, if you have some advice you’d like to offer, leave a comment below.
If you’re interested in more on this topic, check out these other useful resources:
- Association for Talent Development (ATD) (formerly American Society for Training and Development (ASTD))
- Develop Yourself by Sharing Your Expertise Training Magazine article by Enzo Silva
- Learning Together – Enzo Silva’s blog
- International Society for Performance Improvement (ISPI)
- Is Training & Development the Right Career for You? ATD article by Sue Kaiden
- O-Net Summary Report for T&D Specialists
- Telling Ain’t Training by Stolovitch and Keeps
- USDOL’s Occupational Outlook Handbook on T&D Specialists