BL&T No. 188: Training Is Not A Silver Bullet

Agency Leadership

This post originally appeared in my newsletter, Borrowed, Learned, & Thought. BL&T is sent weekly on Mondays. In every edition, I share lessons learned in agency leadership, life, and e-commerce. This post does not include all the details shared in the newsletter sent via email. Subscribe here.

Borrowed & Learned

I was going through my Readwise daily digest last Thursday and came across this excerpt from Work Rules! by Laszlo Bock, an inside look at Google in 2015:

"The presence of a huge training budget is not evidence that you’re investing in your people. It’s evidence that you failed to hire the right people to begin with."

Reflecting on our past, I remember plenty of time spent brainstorming and creating training materials to help level up as a team. While our intentions were good, we've learned that this effort is a telltale sign of deeper issues.

Acknowledging this has paved the way for some valuable takeaways that have shaped our path forward as an agency:

Documents and courses are not silver bullets: Most people learn by doing. You can read all the documentation and take all the courses in the world, but the key is having opportunities to apply that knowledge and learn. These days, we rely less on formal training for growth areas and more on finding opportunities to start small with internal projects or our clients, which often means offering courtesy or discounted work—a win-win.

It all starts with hiring: When hiring, I've learned to be upfront and transparent about what's expected in the role to be sure it's the right fit (on both sides). I'd rather bring someone on that I know can hit the ground running and be successful than rely on 'training' to fill gaps so they can be productive.

I'm in the process of hiring for our New Business/Sales Lead role and have already talked to a few folks who, during the call, we mutually agreed were not the right fit. They all had relevant experience but not the skillset for the job. I couldn't imagine the future challenges (or wasted time in subsequent interviews) if these conversations hadn't taken place.

Which brings me to the next point...

A manager's job is not to fill skill gaps: If you hire someone thinking you'll be able to train them to a point to be productive, that's a flag. It's important not to conflate training with onboarding. Onboarding is about getting folks up to speed with how things work. Streamlining this to help people get going is beneficial; the most effective materials we've created serve as sources of truth for common processes, rather than trying to fill skill gaps with training materials.

If a manager hires the right person, their primary responsibility should be to act as a sounding board for ideas and coach for team development, while continually sharing vision and setting and maintaining standards. Unfortunately, I can remember times when we've over-extended ourselves trying to "train" an employee and get them to baseline. It never works out.

At the same time, I believe folks from diverse backgrounds can thrive in new industries; however, this requires a proactive, eager employee who can use their existing skills as a foundation to learn more. One of our Account Managers is a perfect example. We hired them for their background in client management, knowing they didn't have experience in the Shopify ecosystem. When staffed on projects, they used each challenge as an opportunity to learn, ask questions, and do independent research. In a short time, they had all they needed to know to be productive.

Use subject matter experts to your advantage: Rather than investing in trying to get the team to flex in unfamiliar areas, we leverage the vast world of experts. We bring them in, integrate them with our team, and facilitate collaboration. Working together has helped us build processes, systems, and case studies to get to a place where we can either hire that person or someone like them to commit to that area in the future. We continuously invest time in expanding our network of experts, collaborating on projects that enhance our capabilities and provide value to our clients.

While there’s still a place for training within an agency, if it’s being deployed in hope of elevating the team, it may be a symptom of an issue worth addressing differently.


Where am I focused on developing training to fill gaps in my team vs. addressing the real issue at play?

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