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Searching for the Holy Grail: Can you ever be the perfect trainer?


AngelNobody's perfect and the same is true of trainers. But should they be striving for perfection in the industry and, if so, what exactly should they be looking to achieve? Louise Druce investigates.

If there were a 'Stepford Wives' of trainers, what would your model look like? The perfect raconteur that can enrapture an audience and still deliver the subject matter? A rigid organiser who is a whiz with PowerPoint but can still get trainees to engage? Or maybe a jack of all trades who can teach everything there is to know about business in five minutes?

We all have different goals when it comes to training but there are no professional standards set down to define exactly what makes the trainer de facto.

Photo of Simon Callow"The fact there are myriad learning styles means the holy grail of the perfect trainer to deliver to the needs of everybody is probably not obtainable."

Simon Callow, Personnel Decisions International

Most experts agree there are, of course, certain musts when it comes to having the traits to deliver a top training programme. Core skills include good communication, the ability to build rapport and trust with clients, coping with any situation or personalities thrown at them during the course, good knowledge of what they're teaching, and being able to deliver the programme in a credible and engaging way, without over-reliance on the laptop.

But can anyone ever truly call themselves the perfect trainer? "There isn't such a thing as a perfect trainer because none of us are perfect," says Nick Mitchell, CEO of The Training Foundation.

"Ultimately, what works well with one audience may not hit the mark with another," agrees Simon Callow, managing director of leadership consultants Personnel Decisions International. "The fact there are myriad learning styles means the holy grail of the perfect trainer to deliver to the needs of everybody is probably not obtainable."

Nobody's perfect

Can trainers even get close? Perhaps the problem isn't so much how to create the perfect trainer but how to weed out the ones who shouldn't be there in the first place. "About 30% of all trainers today probably shouldn't be trainers," says Mitchell. "Most stumble into it because they happen to have good knowledge of the subject matter but they don't necessarily have the right personality."

The latter is an area Mitchell believes has been too long neglected – using personality profiling to see if the trainer has the right character attributes for the role in the first place. It's not an unusual practice for tests to be carried out on senior executives looking to get a role with a major corporate so, he argues, why shouldn't trainers have to go through the same process? "You can be a trainer and not care for people," he adds. "Sometimes they get into the job for different reasons."

The Training Foundation is seeking to redress this by using profiling to identify what people skills as well as training skills candidates have. But if just about anybody can become a trainer as long as they can stand up in front of a room and entertain people, it begs the question: should the training industry be setting tougher standards to stop any old Tom, Dick or Harry setting foot in the room? After all, you wouldn't want to see a doctor who had no qualifications but had read a medical dictionary 20 years ago and could show you your ailments on an overhead projector without diagnosing and curing your illness.

Photo of Nick Mitchell"About 30% of all trainers today probably shouldn't be trainers."

Nick Mitchell, The Training Foundation

"Trainers run management competence programmes and NVQs, all of which are meant to say these people are competent to do the job. Yet we don't have a qualification to say trainers can competently do the job," says consultant and trainer Paul Kearns, a long-standing and outspoken champion of standards within the industry. "It's ironic. We impose standards on other people that we don't impose upon ourselves."

However, on the other side of the coin are the trainers that have actually gained a qualification – but over a decade ago and still are using the same practices in the training room. "I've seen trainers that have trained with major organisations for 10-15 years and have not done anything since their original qualification," says Mitchell. "They're completely out of touch with elearning, blended learning, accelerated learning and other developments. You can have 20 years' experience but have one experience 20 times."

TAP dancing

The difficulty setting definitive, professional qualifications and standards is that the training community is divided on what they should be and who should be in charge of them.

"Training isn't a profession, so it is a kind of contradiction in terms to talk about training professionals. It doesn't need a licence to trade," says Mitchell."In any profession, like teaching, law or accountancy, you have to be qualified to practice. To make training into a profession you need a lead body. It could be that there should be a new institute for training or learning and development in the UK."

Mitchell suggests the British Institute of Learning and Development (BILD) could become an increasing powerful force to be reckoned with, given its previous pedigree and government support. The Training Foundation already has ties with the organisation through the TAP qualification system.

He also believes clients will dictate to a certain extent what qualifications they will look for in trainers, stating that many big firms are now ditching the traditional but 'inconsistent' Certificate in Training Practice (CTP) - offered by the CIPD - in favour of TAP. "CTP tends to be seen as a theoretical introduction to training as opposed to a skills programme," Mitchell argues. "There is no guarantee or reliability of skills attached to the people who hold it."

Kearns admits he too isn't much of a fan of the CIPD but he also points out that you can't always trust other, so-called respected organisations either. He cites the example of one who invited him to join: "Part of me was flattered but another part of me thought 'you don't know me from Adam so why are you offering it to me?' Either that tells me they give things away too freely or the standards aren't that high." He hasn't ruled it out completely without further inspection but makes the point that: "I don't want to join an organisation I don't respect."

Photo of Paul Kearns"It's ironic. We impose standards on other people that we don't impose upon ourselves."

Paul Kearns, consultant and trainer

He also believes the training industry is too fragmented, making it difficult to know what qualification to choose, which is why he started the oath. "If you want to be a professional, do you join the BILD, get a TAP qualification, join ITOL (the Institute of Training and Occupational Learning) or become CIPD qualified? At least if people subscribe to a common set of values as a base to their professionalism it's a step in the right direction."

There is "absolutely no reason," he says, why standards shouldn't be set in training.

Mitchell says the so-called fragmentation shouldn't pose a problem. Instead, he suggests there should be generic, horizontal skills and standards that could be applied across any training, such as health and safety, food hygiene or management and development. The subject matter would then be determined by sector skills councils and employers, depending on what is required. "In the fullness of time it will be difficult for anybody to practice as a trainer without a qualification that shows they have the skills required," he predicts.

Qualified or quantified

What the experts do agree on is that training the trainer is vital to keep up to date with the latest skills and developments in the training arena, so they don't become rusty or trail behind when it comes to delivery. Kearns even suggests trainers should be assessed every two years.

However, Callow believes buyers should also be educated to make them more discerning about who undertakes training, requiring trainers to prove themselves before being employed. "Sending people on training courses can be seen as a quick fix," he says. "Companies should be thinking about the whole learning system and the conditions of learning in the firm: do the people being trained have insight into what they need to develop? Are they motivated? Who is going to give them the skills and capabilities they need? Does the trainer have the right expertise and experience? Do they have the chemistry and fit? What conditions are in place for people to have real-world practice of their new skills after the event? Who is being held accountable? It's like learning a language; if you don't then go out and practice it you soon forget the skills you have learnt."

Kearns also believes it is important to find out what value and impact the training will have on the business, rather than plugging a temporary gap or teaching people skills they don't really need. "Some trainers don't ask questions and some companies don't want to be asked. Trainers don't want to be seen as being awkward," he adds.

Ultimately, though, Kearns thinks the training industry should be aiming for perfection. "Training is either good or bad," he says. "Things get in the way of being a perfect trainer but the perfect trainer should never lose sight of what they are trying to achieve."


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