one question

I recently met with a client who was preparing to conduct a training needs assessment with his company’s senior leaders. Here is the crux of what he was planning to ask: What do employees need to learn? 

I inwardly cringed. This is one question you should never ask senior leaders. You are asking a tactical question to people who function at a strategic level. Simply put, they don’t know the answer. Senior leaders live in the world of results. So, ask them about results. You can then drill down into what employees need to do—and learn—with tactical managers in the organization. 

Here is my interview guide for assessing “training” needs with senior leaders. 

Start by asking: What are the company’s goals for the coming year? Goals include both problems to solve and opportunities to exploit. For example, a problem might be to improve customer service scores and an opportunity might be to launch a new product.

Then, for each goal, you can dig deeper by asking the following questions: 

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  • Could you describe this goal in detail? This discussion helps ensure that you are completely clear on what senior leaders have in mind. 

  • What operational results will indicate you’ve successfully achieved the goal? Knowing what senior leaders are aiming for allows you to make sure that the learning you design supports achieving these results. When I say “learning,” I don’t just mean the actual course. I am also talking about what recommendations to make about changes to the work environment. For example: Should individual development plans be modified? Will work processes need to be changed? Will new tools need to be developed? 

  • What is the priority of this goal in relation to other goals? The answer to this question tells you how to allocate resources. Top priority goals, of course, get the lion’s share of limited resources. 

  • Who (divisions, departments, and so forth) will be involved in achieving the goal? Identifying who will likely be involved gives you an idea of who your target audience is for training. 

  • What do you plan to do to achieve this goal? Listen for answers that indicate employees might have to learn to do something new or different. Such answers could include implementing a new system, changing job responsibilities, purchasing new equipment, launching a new product or service, entering a new market, and changing work processes. 

  • When do you plan to make these changes? The “when” gives you a heads up on when any training will must be ready to roll out to employees.

At the conclusion of this conversation, you won’t have a fully developed training plan, but you will have a good idea of where you’ll need to follow up. For instance, you may learn that senior leaders plan to launch a new product in the third quarter. Surely, sales and customer service will need product knowledge training. Is it also possible that manufacturing will need training, as well? How about the purchasing department? 

In other words, who will be “touched” by this new product launch? Who needs to just be informed of any changes and who needs to actually learn to do something new or different? You’ll need to interview tactical managers in the areas that will be “touched” by the change to see what support they need to make the goal a reality. They are in the best position to identify what employees will need to learn to implement the measures senior leaders are planning to take. 

It is only after you talk to these tactical managers that you’ll have the answer to the question my client posed, “What do employees need to learn?” More importantly, the answer will be tied directly to the company’s strategic objectives.

What do you think? Share your ideas in the Comments below.