Guest Blog: Getting the Training Wheels Turning

Don Vance, CCM, CPC Chief Operating Officer General Manager Hound Ears Club

Don Vance, CCM, CPC Chief Operating Officer General Manager Hound Ears Club

A recent Gallup survey reported that less than one-third of U.S. employees are “actively and genuinely engaged” in their jobs, while 17% are “actively disengaged.”  That means that the remainder—over 50%—are just going through the motions of their jobs and flying under the radar, basically trying not to get noticed.

As front-line managers, it’s up to us to create and maintain the relationships that stimulate employee engagement, while reducing physical and psychological turnover.  The worst employee is the one who quits mentally, but stays in your employ and has no inclination to leave.

One of the primary goals of all training programs, then, should be as much to generate enthusiasm and staff involvement— and ignite commitment—as to impart the needed knowledge and skills required for the specific duties of particular job responsibilities.  Making sure that our training programs include components for these critical motivational purposes will prove to be just as important factors in how successfully we can improve employee retention and service consistency, create customer loyalty, and drive business results.

Ready for the Call

This all becomes especially critical in industries like hospitality, where there has always been a traditional emphasis on promoting from within.  If you’re going to first look to fill positions by advancing people who are already on your staff, you certainly want to have confidence that those who are sitting “on the bench” and waiting for their chance are eager and motivated, not disgruntled and disengaged.  If we only have people on board who are not only not ready, but also not willing (or even just one of the two), we are only setting them up to fail.  As one of my favorite sayings holds, “You can’t send a Duck to Eagle School.”  And if our training programs fail to recognize this, we will be forever trying to fit square pegs into round holes.

A friend and colleague of mine and I recently had a conversation about this very subject.  He recently accepted the position of General Manager at a very fine city club in Florida.  Prior to his appointment to this position, the member-owned club’s Board of Directors had to terminate the previous General Manager, who had been promoted from within, simply because he was not capable of fulfilling the responsibilities of this role.  To get the opportunity, this manager must have done a good job in his former position.  But it sounds like this may have been another case of someone failing largely because they hadn’t been trained effectively for the next step in their career.

Yes, it could certainly have also been a case of the old “Peter Principle,” which held that many people will eventually be promoted beyond their capabilities.  But I think that’s a principle that has largely gone by the wayside, especially in the hospitality business.  In this day and age, we’ve become much better about identifying the people who “have what it takes” to move up in the managerial ranks, versus those who are also valuable contributors, but clearly have limits.  But that doesn’t mean we have also become much better about making sure those people who “have it” will be properly prepared when we do move them up.

Firing Up the Floaters

Effective training programs can only occur when we have gained the trust, loyalty and commitment of our employees—and a big part of gaining this trust and commitment is making sure they don’t see, or know about, examples like the one at the Florida city club.

Our employees aren’t stupid.  If they sense situations where they, or others, are being set up to fail, or feel that training programs are largely self-serving and designed only for the organization to feel good about itself or show that it has met an “obligation,” they will understandably do all they can to settle in as part of that 50-plus percent segment of the workforce identified by the Gallup study: People who just try to keep their heads low, get through the day, and float through their careers.

If we are to energize and excite our employees and maximize the talents and strengths of our entire workforce, we must do more to align all employees with their own individual needs along with our organization’s strategic plans.  The first key step to accomplishing this is to recognize that we shouldn’t “force feed” everyone into the same standard training programs.  Rather, we should do more to shape and customize our training efforts around three key initiatives;

  1. identify special training needs for individuals or groups through “skills assessments” of our employees;
  2. focus on continuous employee development, rather than ramming everyone through upfront training and then assuming that will be enough to carry them through forever, no matter how long they stay with us or what roles they advance to;
  3. create an overall “learning culture” within our organizations that requires more of a partnership with our employees.

Coaching ‘Em Up

In my experience (both as an employer/trainer and employee/ trainee), a key to pursuing these initiatives is to shift from the Boss to the Coach mentality.  As managers, we need to find ways to interact and identify with each individual employee in a way that give us better insights into their desires and aspirations.  Through a conversational process, we need to probe into not only their strengths but their weaknesses, so we can help to coach them beyond where many of them may ever see themselves going.

This is a real transformational process that requires time and patience—but the results can speak for themselves.  We have to base our approaches as managers in the belief that if an employee has a learning attitude, desire, passion, and the willingness to commit to something greater than themselves, we can teach them to achieve levels of success that they have never imagined on their own.

This notion of unearthing and nurturing hidden abilities, as a coach or talent scout would do, is especially apt in the hospitality business.  In fact, I have always believed that we are entertainers in this business, and that our workplace is the stage.  There is nothing more beautiful to me then to see a server on the dining room floor executing what they know how to do flawlessly (and instinctively) in the heat of the action on a busy night.  It is like watching and listening to a ballet of the highest caliber.

But if our training programs don’t touch the inside of our employees individually, they will not change on the outside, and then instead only go through the motions.  And when that happens, they will be depriving us (as managers), themselves (as employees) and most importantly and sadly, our members and guests (as customers) of their best performances.

Employees must also know, and believe, that they can benefit from whatever training we require of them.  We must have strong recognition and benefit systems in place that reward growth and performance.  In addition, we must continually reexamine the effectiveness of our current training programs, to monitor their success.

Group Dynamics

We must also not forget the importance of group training.  At The Club at Longview, we recently developed a program we call our Employee Member Experience Team.  Using an individual employee from every department of our club, this group learning experience is designed to identify and develop “Moment of Truth” opportunities that can define and enhance our members’ experiences, every time they come to the club.

We make sure that this group training program is interactive and engaging for the employees who participate in it, and it has led to significant contributions to our programs for members.  We have also found that this type of training encourages a spirit of team-building that is critical to our organization’s success.  Too many properties have disconnects among their employee groups, because they just don’t have enough chances to get to know or work with each other.  When you work out on the golf course, it is difficult to get to know the cook in the kitchen.  But with this type of group training program, we are also building effective interrelationships among our various employee groups.  It’s true: Working together works!

You should also encourage your employees to take full advantage of the amazing array of valuable free or low-cost training resources that are now available to them on the Internet or through local or national organizations.  And, if your club or resort hasn’t yet considered “Webinars” (Web-based training programs), you’re missing out on an approach that can be very cost-effective for supervisors, as well as more time-effective for entry-level management employees.

Rather than discourage or restrict computer use among your staff during “work hours,” in fact, you will find that one of the most productive aspects of your training regimen these days can be to encourage everyone to take a specified amount of time each day or week to research specific topics that you’ve assigned to them, and then report back to your group on what they’ve found.

Article written by: Don E. Vance, CCM, CPC, Chief Operating Officer/General Manager, Hound Ears Club

Thanks and have a great day!

Ed Rehkopf

This weekly blog comments on and discusses the hospitality industry and its challenges. From time to time, we will feature guest bloggers – those managers and industry experts who have something of interest to say to all of us. We also welcome feedback and comment upon the blog, hoping that it will become a useful sounding board for what’s on the minds of hardworking hospitality managers throughout the country and around the world.

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