Laying the Foundation for Success
December 5, 2007
By Ted Topping
Ted Topping takes us along the path to long-term success with older workers.
As we explained in the May issue, building a team that includes “older workers” will require most small-business owners to change the way they run the people side of their operations.
In particular, it will require them to re-think the concept of entry-level positions. For many years, these have typically been filled by people in their teens and early 20s, but the potential employees that we are discussing are about 30 years older than that.
Born somewhere near the middle of Canada’s baby boom – around 1956 – an older worker will probably have had a first career outside of baking. This means that he or she may not have the specific job skills that an employer in our industry would normally want to see.
But it also means that an employer who hires that person will have a great opportunity to train a mature, responsible worker who can ultimately mesh well with the employer’s vision of the business. This long-term success starts from extensive initial training.
The labour laws in every province define what is known as a probationary period. Usually three months long, it acknowledges that an employer and an employee can make a mistake and enter into a bad employment relationship.
During the probationary period, either side can walk away from such a relationship without notice or cause for dismissal as defined in law. After the probationary period, different rules apply.
This is why smart employers use the full 13 weeks to train and evaluate a new employee. They then administer some sort of a test to measure the employee’s progress before “confirming” permanent employment. The same basic process applies to full-time and part-time employees.
The best way to create a new-employee training program is to build on the job description for that particular position. The knowledge and skills that an employee must have in order to do the job now become the core of an “Initial Training Checklist” – a written training plan that the business owner will lead the new employee through, step by step.
Either the employee knows or can perform a given task on the checklist, or the employer will need to provide some training in that area. The checklist format works well because it helps both the employer and employee keep track of their progress.
Depending on the complexity of the job, a training checklist may contain 100 or more things that an employee needs to know or do in order to perform the job successfully. In many cases, teaching these will take 45 minutes a day, five days a week for 13 weeks.
By the end, a new employee will have received the equivalent of a full week of structured training – and both the employer and the employee will be certain they really want to work together.
This is different from the way most small businesses operate. More typically, an owner’s heavy workload prevents him
or her from spending time with new employees – the very people who most require direction, mentorship and reward.
Working through an initial training checklist with every new employee will help a business owner communicate not just the importance of various day-to-day activities, but also the company’s founding purpose. It is a one-time opportunity to build an inspired employment relationship that will last.
Developing an initial training checklist will take time and effort – and probably several tries. The trick is to really understand the things an employee doing that particular job needs to know and do.
An important part of this is to understand that most activities in the baking industry require more skill than knowledge. In other words, doing something is more important than knowing something.
You may connect with this fundamental truth of staff training more easily if you consider the game of golf. Standing on the tee box and hitting a drive 300 yards straight down the fairway is more important than simply understanding the rules of the game.
This is why a new-employee training program must provide more than information. It must also provide the skills that will let someone use that information in a practical way. And it should provide them in a way that lets the learner first watch and then do.
The apprenticeship method of staff training works especially well with older workers because it incorporates both the watching and the doing that are so crucial to mastering a new job. This is especially appropriate in the baking industry, where many senior people went through a similar learning process early in their careers.
Under the apprenticeship method, a new employee – or a current employee who is learning a new skill – is considered to be an apprentice. That person’s job is not to do a given task initially, but to watch and learn from someone with more experience.
Only after watching and learning for a time will the employee finally try some of the basic components of the complete task. And only after mastering every one of the basic tasks will the employee attempt the complete task – always under the watchful eye of a master craftsperson that can provide guidance and additional training.
When teaching anyone who is older rather than younger, it is important to explain the justification and logic behind what you are saying. Explaining why you are doing things the way you are doing them really helps older workers understand and connect with the ideas.
One of the nice things about building a team that includes older workers is that these people typically understand the need for continuous learning. They tend to grasp concepts pretty quickly because of the life experience they bring to the job – and a savvy business owner can help them progress even faster by allowing for self-paced learning and providing lots of opportunities for practice.
When working with employees of any age, business owners need to conduct the 13 weeks of initial training with care and professionalism. This includes being clear about their expectations before communicating them because, in a very real way, the owner’s attitudes and actions will set the tone for the entire process.
It is much like parenting. And one thing that parents soon learn is that it is difficult to lead by example. Children are expert mimics who learn by watching and listening to others, and then imitating their behaviour. Invariably, children will do as you do, not as you say.
Anyone who owns a small business will find this familiar, because adults also try to imitate the behaviour or actions of others. Often unconsciously, they too will try out new behaviours and – if rewarded – will continue to use those behaviours and apply them to other situations.
To face the challenges of the baking industry today, business owners really have to like what they do. In the context of training new employees, they also need to show it. If the owner conveys a sense of pride and enthusiasm about the business, the chances are pretty good that employees will pick up on it and bring the same attitude to their work.
Owners who constantly demand excellence – of themselves and their employees – will reap the benefits. Those who are willing to accept second-rate will get just that.
We will look at some of the other factors that affect job performance in the August issue.
Ted Topping, president of Creative Insights Inc., is a keynote speaker, trainer and consultant based in Vancouver. He works with clients across North America, helping companies with planning, strategy, marketing, staff development and management training.
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