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Stephen Walker

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The role of the trainer as team leader


Considering the trainer both as trainer and team leader of the learning team gives useful insights into delivering real learning that has genuine value, says Stephen Walker.

Have you ever thought about what happens at a training event? Clearly it is a work event. People come together to go through a process to achieve a result and usually there is someone in charge – the trainer.

The trainees may or may not be from the same organization. For the duration of the event they become the team members whose task it is to understand, assimilate and become skilled at what the trainer is trying to impart.

The trainer has to lead the trainees through a process to achieve this end. It is a collaborative team task. The trainer/leader has to direct the team to experience the learning.

As in any team activity the unexpected should be expected. Things go wrong. Television presenters say never work with children and animals. Most experienced trainers would add a third superstition – if the IT can go wrong it will. It will work during your three rehearsals, of course, but when you do it for real that 100MB Microsoft upgrade has just grabbed your laptop. 

"The trainer must adapt the process to take account of the team and the events to achieve the best outcome under the circumstances."

The bigger problem is usually the team, the trainees. Some of the team may not be wholly aligned with the task. They came on the training because it meant a day’s work missed, because their boss told them to or because your snappy course title, “Climbing the ladder in business”, was misconstrued as a course on safe working at heights. Whatever the source of the unexpected the trainer, the team leader, has to react instantly on her feet.

The trainer must adapt the process to take account of the team and the events to achieve the best outcome under the circumstances. She needs to adapt the course content to the circumstances.

The team leader needs the skills of a teacher. She must understand how people learn, know the alternative pathways to insight and possess the skill to build best fit learning experiences on that day for that team. The other requirement of the team leader is a good technical understanding of the subject. The leader needs to understand the subject and how to create alternative learning pathways to be successful in the face of those unpredictable, but expected, events.

Alternative pathways

Sometimes you do need to go through some detail for understanding: what I would call 'chalk and talk' but in this I include all the cornucopia of whiteboards, PowerPoint, Webinars and so on.

Question and answer discussions can be an effective method with team members who have useful experience to share and explore. This also tends to involve people more if you keep the contributions short and focussed. This can be ideal for that dead spot straight after lunch as the carbohydrates kick in!

Individual exercises have a clear place in learning. Often this takes the form of 'before and after' questions to show the new insight that has been learnt.

Similarly group exercises can invoke a degree of competition to liven up participation and break through blocks to learning.

Plenary exercises are great for team building and can often be found at the beginning and end of the training event. They are a good way to break the ice and get people sharing their insights.

Experiential learning gives the team members the opportunity to discover things for themselves. Whether you are crossing a river using a bridge made from matchsticks or doing a table top exercise, the team are attempting a task with clearly delineated learning points. That learning comes from their experience. This is a powerful method of getting people to accept difficult to understand points.

Team roles

 Here the trainer needs the usual skills of a team leader. These include the ability:

  • To communicate
  • To plan for achievement of the team objective
  • To identify and use resources
  • To maintain working relationships
  • To perform the task being trained
  • To impart knowledge
  • To manage the team.

Managing the team may be an onerous task. The variety of people the trainer is faced with means they will not always gel into a functioning team. She will need to manage them to behave in a way that supports the team objective.

To make a team effective the members need to fill the necessary functions. The learning task is no exception.

Besides the team leader necessary functions include:

  • Having ideas
  • Developing the ideas
  • Testing the ideas
  • Evaluating the ideas
  • Criticising the ideas
  • Supporting the team in the process
  • Introducing specialist knowledge
  • Looking at alternatives.

If these functions don’t exist in the team our trainer will have to create them or deliver that role herself. To get maximum engagement of the team they need to fill these functions themselves.

The view of trainer as team leader puts the trainer squarely in the team, among the trainees. Too many training sessions happen where the trainer does not connect with the trainees. She goes through her process with little regard for the realities of the audience’s understanding. We have all been to training sessions where we are counting down the minutes to the next break.

The trainer needs to engage with her team and work through them to deliver the learning objectives.

This is very demanding needing teaching skills as well as competence in the subject matter. It shouldn’t be a surprise that pressure to cut costs from training organizations has led to trainers with fewer skills attempting to deliver courses. The inevitable outcome is a reduction in learning achievement. Cheaper training means less learning. Perhaps this is why training is so undervalued by so many – everyone knows it is a 'good thing' and even better if the government pays for it.

So I ask you, when you run your next training session, think of yourself as team leader. Use all the resources at your disposal including the team members to deliver the task, the learning.

Let’s start showing the benefits that expert trainers can deliver then our Clients will value what we do even more!

Stephen Walker is a co-founder of Motivation Matters, set up in 2004 to develop the management of motivation to inspire greater performance. He has worked for notable organizations such as Corning, De La Rue and Buhler and has been hired to help Philips, Lloyds TSB and a raft of others. Follow Stephen on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and on his blog.



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