Why You Should Train Your People

People at McDonald’s get trained for their positions, but people with far more complicated jobs don’t. It makes no sense. Would you want to stand on the line of the untrained person at McDonald’s? Would you want to use the software written by the engineer who was never told how the rest of the code worked? A lot of companies think their employees are so smart that they require no training. That’s silly.

In chapter 16 of his management classic, High Output Management, titled “Why Training is the Boss’s job,” Andy Grove wrote, “Most managers seem to feel that training employees is a job that should be left to others. I, on the other hand, strongly believe that the manager should do it himself.” Almost everyone who builds a technology company knows that people are the most important asset. Properly run startups place a great deal of emphasis on recruiting and the interview process in order to build their talent base. Too often the investment in people stops there. There are four core reasons why it shouldn’t:

  1. Productivity: Startups often keep careful statistics of how many candidates they’ve screened, how many have made it to the full interview process, and how many people they’ve hired. All of these statistics are interesting, but the most important statistic is missing: How many fully productive employees have they added? By failing to measure progress toward the actual goal, they lose sight of the value of training. If they measured productivity, they might be horrified to find that all those investments in recruiting, hiring, and integration were going to waste. Even if they were made aware of low productivity among new employees, most CEOs think that they don’t have time to invest in training. Andy Grove does the math and shows that the opposite is true: “Training is, quite simply, one of the highest-leverage activities a manager can perform. Consider for a moment the possibility of your putting on a series of four lectures for members of your department. Let’s count on three hours preparation for each hour of course time—twelve hours of work in total. Say that you have ten students in your class. Next year they will work a total of about twenty thousand hours for your organization. If your training efforts result in a 1 percent improvement in your subordinates’ performance, your company will gain the equivalent of two hundred hours of work as the result of the expenditure of your twelve hours.”
  2. Performance Management: When people interview managers, they often like to ask, Have you fired anyone? Or how many people have you fired? Or how would you go about firing someone? These are all fine questions, but often the right question is the one that isn’t asked: When you fired the person, how did you know with certainty that the employee both understood the expectations of the job and was still missing them? The best answer is that the manager clearly set expectations when she trained the employee for the job. If you don’t train your people, you establish no basis for performance management. As a result, performance management in your company will be sloppy and inconsistent.
  3. Product Quality: Often founders start companies with visions of elegant, beautiful product architectures that will solve so many of the nasty issues that they were forced to deal with in their previous jobs. Then, as their company becomes successful, they find that their beautiful product architecture has turned into a Frankenstein. How does this happen? As success drives the nee to hire new engineers at a rapid rate, companies neglect to train new engineers properly. As the engineers are assigned tasks, they figure out how to complete them as best they can. Often this means replicating existing facilities in the architecture, which leads to inconsistencies in the user experience, performance problems, and a general mess. And you thought training was expensive.
  4. Employee Retention: In general, there are two primary reasons why people quit: 1) They hated their manager; generally the employees were appalled by the lack of guidance, career development, and feedback they were receiving. 2) They weren’t learning anything: The company wasn’t investing resources in helping employees develop new skills. An outstanding training program can address both issues head-on.

So, once you’ve decided to train your people, what should you do first? The best place to start is with the topic that is most relevant to your employees: the knowledge and skill that they need to do their job. This is called functional training. Functional training can be as simple as training a new employee on your expectations for them and as complex as a multiweek engineering boot camp to bring new recruits completely up to speed on all of the historical architectural nuances of your product. The training courses should be tailored to the specific job. If you attempt the more complex-style course, be sure to enlist the best experts on the team as well as the manager. As a happy side effect, this type of effort will do more to build a powerful, positive company culture than a hundred culture-building strategic off-site meetings.

The other essential component of a company’s training program is management training. Management training is the best place to start setting expectations for your management team. Do you expect them to hold regular one-on-one meetings with their employees? Do you expect them to give performance feedback? Do you expect them to train their people? Do you expect them to agree on objectives with their team? If you do, then you’d better tell them, because the management state of the art in technology companies is extremely poor. Once you’ve set expectations, the next set of management courses has already been defined; they are the courses that teach your managers how to do the things you expect (i.e. how to write a performance review or how to conduct a one-on-one).

Once you have management training and functional training in place, there are other opportunities as well. One of the great things about building a tech company is the amazing people that you can hire. Take your best people and encourage them to share their most developed skills. Training in such topics as negotiating, interviewing, and finance will enhance your company’s competency in those areas as well as improve employee morale. Teaching can also become a badge of honor for employees who achieve an elite level of competence.

Now that we understand the value of training and what to train on, how do we get our organization to do what we want? The first thing to recognize is that no startup has time to do optional things. Therefore, training must be mandatory. The first two types of training (functional and management) can be easily enforced as follows:

  1. Enforce functional training by withholding new employee requisitions. As Andy Grove writes, there are only two ways for a manager to improve the output of an employee: motivation and training. Therefore, training should be the most basic requirement for all managers in your organization. An effective way to enforce this requirement is by withholding new employee requisitions from managers until they’ve developed a training program for the TBH, “To Be Hired.”
  2. Enforce management training by teaching it yourself. Managing the company is the CEO’s job. While you won’t have time to teach all of the management courses yourself, you should teach the course on management expectations, because they are, after all, your expectations. Make it an honor to participate in these sessions by selecting the best managers on your team to teach the other courses. And make that mandatory, too.

Ironically, the biggest obstacle to putting a training program in place is the perception that it will take too much time. Keep in mind that there is no investment that you can make that will do more to improve productivity in your company. Therefore, being too busy to train is the moral equivalent of being too hungry to eat. Furthermore, it’s not that hard to create basic training courses.