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Troubleshooting for Trainers: Q&A With Sophie Oberstein

Tuesday, October 6, 2020
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If you’re stuck when designing or facilitating training, what resource can you turn to for solutions to your problem? In Troubleshooting for Trainers (ATD Press, October 2020), training and coaching expert Sophie Oberstein offers a first-of-its-kind guide to help all trainers—new or seasoned—tackle common training challenges.

1. Why a troubleshooting book?

Adults are willing to devote energy to learning things that will help them solve a problem, and I think that many new trainers, or trainers who never received some background information in the field, have a number of problems they need to solve. That adult learning principle was the genesis of the troubleshooting idea. While I don’t think the work of a trainer is all problems, I enjoyed leveraging my many years of experience in the field and writing a book that was about solutions.

2. What do you recommend for new trainers to study or do to get up to speed?

I highly recommend that all trainers network and engage with other trainers. As a great place to network, I recommend that new and seasoned trainers find their local ATD chapter and get involved. When I started out, I joined the Greater Philadelphia ATD (then ASTD) chapter and got involved. I did pro bono projects with chapter special interest groups (SIGs) to build up my experience and portfolio. I networked and ended up joining other members on paid consulting projects. I became a chapter leader and was on the board, which helped me with leadership skills. Flash-forward 20-some years and I’m still turning to ATD, but more on the national level, for the annual State of the Industry Report, for research and webinars, and for resources on almost any question I have. There just is no better outlet than ATD for trainers regardless of where they are in their careers.

I also suggest that new trainers get literate about our field, whether by taking classes or by reading books and articles. My NYU students read The Art and Science of Training by Elaine Biech. I also recommend they read Evidence-Based Training Methods: A Guide for Training Professionals by Ruth Colvin-Clark and Telling Ain’t Training by Harold Stolovich and Erica Keeps. I hope my book will also become a resource that new trainers can rely on to avoid and solve some of the problems that they could face.

Another recommendation I have is to attend formal training events and conferences—regardless of the content—because every program you sit through is showing you how training should or shouldn’t be done.

Finally, find a mentor or sponsor. Trainers are all about helping people to develop and be successful in their roles. If the role you’re in—or want to be in—is in talent development, trainers can be generous about sharing ideas, materials, activities, and feedback.

3. What would you tell a new trainer just starting out?

I put together a nonscientific list of the top 10 mistakes new trainers make based on the thoughts of several colleagues, some articles and blog posts, and my own experience. I would tell a new trainer to avoid two of these mistakes that I think are most common or most critical.

The first is not doing a thorough assessment of training requests or, as someone just starting out in the field, not having the experience or confidence to say no to a request. One of the best ways that training professionals add value is doing a careful analysis and respectfully pushing back against requests that will lead to ineffective and costly training.

The other mistake is especially problematic in these times: leaving on-the-job learning to chance. Trainers spend a lot of time focusing on their formal learning offerings, often at the expense the learning that happens on the job. In our information-rich world, we can’t afford to limit ourselves to providing stellar classroom and online training but must also incorporate experiential learning as well as learning that comes from coaching, feedback, or digital resources. Live training events are just one facet of learning and development. Anyone focusing on that sole facet will fall short and so will their learners. Similarly, if design of live trainings stops when participants leave the sessions and you haven’t paid attention to the majority of learning that takes place after trainings, the knowledge, skills, and attitudes you’ve imparted go directly into the forgetting curve. Design for the work environment learners will return to following those events.

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4. What would you tell an experienced trainer who doesn’t have the vocabulary of the field?

I would tell them that, “You’re not alone. Don’t be embarrassed. Many people became trainers because they were good at their jobs and were asked to train others.” So long as they have the mindset to learn and get better at their craft, growth in this area can always occur. I love seeing people in the Learning Design: Fundamentals class I teach at NYU who have been in the field one, two, six, even 13 years, who are willing to say, “I never learned this. I feel comfortable with what I’m doing, but I want validation.” When you do that, you’re modeling what a growth mindset is all about. I would also tell them that building a training vocabulary—learning about the science behind the training you do—is important because then you won’t be one of the people out there who are creating some less-than-stellar products that put L&D in a bad light. Your commitment to learning the basics is going to enhance the field of learning and development.

5. How did you learn when you were a new trainer?

I didn’t have expertise in a particular field or as a leader before I came to L&D. I’d been a high school English teacher and decided I wanted to work with adults on nonacademic subjects. I wanted to help people be successful at work, where they spend the bulk of their adult lives. I knew I wanted to be a “corporate trainer,” which was the term back then. I enrolled in graduate school for that purpose (an HR master’s at The New School) and got my first L&D job through an instructor there. That job wasn’t in an industry I was familiar with: retail banking. As with any new job, there was a lot of trial and error, but I was fortunate to be on a supportive training team in an instructional design environment. In that job, I learned so much about working with subject matter experts, asking the right questions, and doing stand-up facilitation. In retrospect, I realize how lucky I was to “come up” that way.

6. What can trainers do with limited funds and limited resources?

A lack of resources is often the reality of a trainer’s life. But, as the adage goes, “Constraint fosters creativity.” And I have experienced and witnessed this countless times. I always asked myself how I could do more and better even though resources were limited. I was amazed at what I could come up with and accomplish. Here is an example.

In the new role of director of employee development for Redwood City years ago, I created a peer-coaching program to enhance the performance of those being coached while increasing the coaching skills of individuals across the organization. I looked within and outside my organization for qualified and available resources. I involved local graduate students to perform an organizational needs assessment, two pro bono consultants from the local ATD chapter, and an individual from another department who was interested in learning more about the field. I looked for resources from the external community—engaging community college professors to teach Spanish classes to our employees and, for a small fee, to community residents whose “tuition” took care of the professor’s fees. I partnered with members of the IT department to arrange for one-on-one computer training by appointment for employees at their desks. Even though I was a department of one, I did not accomplish everything alone. I involved and included my colleagues in the organization and engaged others outside of the organization to create a rich L&D program.

There is a section of the book dedicated to handling a lack of resources with other tips to succeed with limited funds and resources that I hope will help spark creativity.

7. What can trainers do to positively influence their reputations in the organization?

There are numerous reasons why your L&D team might not have a positive reputation in your organization, but whatever the reason, the effects can be devastating. There’s a chapter in the book called “Training Isn’t Well Regarded” that is chock-full of strategies for when the learning and development function in the organization isn’t positively regarded. If training isn’t well-regarded where you work, it could indicate that a broader focus is in order, that you need to find out what outcomes your stakeholders would find valuable, or that you’ll need to invest some additional effort on communication—not only to enroll learners but to involve employees at all organizational levels in broader development efforts.

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8. Why ADDIE?

When so many organizations are turning to project management approaches like Agile or SAM, it’s fair to ask why this book relies heavily on the tried-and-true ADDIE model. The specific answer is that ADDIE is time-tested and there is no way that any effective project plan could skip analysis, evaluation, and other aspects of the model even if they are called by different names, rolled out in a different order, or cycled through more quickly. On a broader level, I caution in a few places in the book against wedding yourself to any one model or technique. Take what makes sense from any and every model and use it rather than throw out what was good when you want to try out a new approach. I like the principle that Crystal Kadakia and Lisa M.D. Owens propose in their book Modern Learning—we do not need to start from scratch in this field but can reuse, repurpose, and modernize existing assets. We can take what works from the past and combine it with the newest and brightest ideas to produce the most effective training.

9. Your focus over the years has been training design. Why is that?

So many people think training is the live, face-to-face instruction given by a skilled facilitator. But what makes formal, synchronous instruction run smoothly isn’t just an enthusiastic and qualified instructor—it’s the design that happened before they ended up in front of a group of learners. You can’t throw something together to explain your content—whether live or asynchronous—and know for certain that learners are understanding, remembering, and applying it. That takes a good designer looking at the entire training experience—from the moment a participant enrolls in the program through their experience returning to the workplace and trying to apply what they learned. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not about design to the exclusion of the other facets of training. In fact, I don’t think you can remain an effective designer if you don’t get in front of learners regularly. But I am a strong proponent of good design first and foremost.

10. Who is this book most helpful for?

Someone new to a training role will find value in the book. If you’re new at stand-up facilitation, you’ll find some ways to approach challenging participants and challenging situations. If you’re new at running a training function, you’ll get some ideas about the policies you may wish to consider, the templates you’ll want to provide, or the spending decisions you’ll need to make. If you’re new at design, you’ll find some principles to guide you in creating interactive and instructionally sound learning opportunities. If you’re just a person who’s good at your job and occasionally asked to train others on how to do it, you’ll find tips to be more effective in those times. Even an experienced person may find themselves flipping to a particular challenge that’s just come up for the first time, like when one of my seasoned colleagues asked our team for ideas to help her engage a particularly quiet group. There are 45 challenges in the book, and I envision it being a resource that a trainer can pull off the shelf when you stuck on a training issue.

About the Author

Sophie Oberstein is an author, coach, adjunct professor, and L&OD consultant. She’s worked in the field of learning and organization development for years at public and private organizations, including Weight Watchers North America; Columbia University Irving Medical Center; the City of Redwood City, California; and Citibank, N.A. Oberstein holds a master’s degree in human resources management and postgraduate certification in training and development. Her certification as a professional co-active coach (CPCC) is from the Co-Active Training Institute (CTI). She is on the faculty of the NYU School of Professional Studies leadership and human capital management department where she developed and conducts both the fundamentals and the advanced courses in the learning design certificate program. Her previous books, 10 Steps to Successful Coaching, Second Edition (2020), and Beyond Free Coffee & Donuts: Marketing Training and Development (2003), are available from ATD Press.

About ATD and ATD Press

The Association for Talent Development (ATD) is the world’s largest association dedicated to those who develop talent in organizations. ATD’s members come from more than 120 countries and work in public and private organizations in every industry sector. ATD Press publications are written by industry thought leaders and offer anyone who works with adult learners the best practices, academic theory, and guidance necessary to move the profession forward. For more information, visit td.org/books.
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Troubleshooting for Trainers
ISBN: 9781952157165 | 360 Pages | Paperback
www.td.org/books/troubleshooting-for-trainers

To order books from ATD Press, call 800.628.2783.

To schedule an interview with Sophie Oberstein, please contact Kay Hechler, ATD Press senior marketing manager, at [email protected].

About the Author

The Association for Talent Development (ATD) is a professional membership organization supporting those who develop the knowledge and skills of employees in organizations around the world. The ATD Staff, along with a worldwide network of volunteers work to empower professionals to develop talent in the workplace.

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