Performance reviews are often a source of dread for both trainers and their managers. However, clear, constructive feedback can help make a good IT trainer into a great IT trainer. Here, several training managers offer suggestions on how to create a successful performance appraisal process that includes student evaluations, goal setting, and two-way communication.
Regular performance reviews
Don’t wait for the formal yearly review to tell trainers how they are doing. Managers should take advantage of the opportunities for feedback in each class a trainer teaches, according to several of the managers surveyed.
Wendy Finger, a team leader and associate consultant in the Data and Systems group of William M. Mercer, has students fill out training evaluations each time a trainer presents a topic. She then has a monthly meeting with the trainer to review those evaluations and go over goals and objectives.
Brenda Shutz, marketing database administrator/trainer for Hanson Engineers, Inc., based in Springfield, IL, says classroom evaluations are “one of the most important appraisal tools you can have.” For each class they teach, she provides trainers with a typed summary of the trainee evaluations, complete with overall average scores and comments.
Mark Tucker, training manager at Egghead.com, an Internet retailer of technology products for the office and home, looks at class evaluations and occasionally sits in on a class. “Class evaluations give me a good idea of how the trainer is doing from the students' point of view. (Do they manage the class well, present the information clearly, provide practice opportunities, etc.?) Sitting in on a class allows me to evaluate more technical aspects of their teaching style, how they accommodate different learning styles, the variety of exercises and activities they use, and one of the biggest ones for me, how well they do when they have to go ‘off script,’” Tucker said.
What makes a good IT trainer
Establishing clear criteria for performance evaluations and communicating them to employees is the first step toward optimal performance.
Finger said performance evaluations should look at the trainer’s command of required subject matter, ability to function within a team and meet business goals, and desire for and success at meeting personal goals and objectives. In addition, the evaluation should measure the trainer’s ability to improve trainee performance.
Tucker also focuses on student improvement as a criterion for performance evaluations.
“The bottom line is results: Did the students learn and retain the information, and did it improve their performance on the job?” Tucker said.
As for desired behaviors and skills, Finger said that the “number one and number two behavioral traits required of any trainer are flexibility and leadership. There are skill sets which are specific to technical trainers, which include analytical and critical thinking, command of specific technical subject matter, ability to learn new technologies very quickly, and the ability to communicate complex technical concepts in the simplest possible terms (relative to the audience) and then add the complexity as the class progresses.”
Jerry Cappel, a senior IT educator for health-insurance company Humana Inc., believes IT trainers need to go a step beyond other trainers by being skilled in areas such as project management, emerging IT technologies, and the current roles and responsibilities of employees in the IT shop.
“Trainers must have good negotiation skills to understand the various and competing demands of the many players in an IT shop. The IT trainer often negotiates between the business unit and the IT project manager or programmers,” Cappel said.
A two-way street
Many managers prefer to get trainers actively involved in the evaluation process so that it becomes an exchange of ideas and not a one-sided assessment.
Finger asks the following questions of trainers during an evaluation:
- How do you think things are going?
- What accomplishments are you most proud of?
- Where do you want to focus your development?
- How can I improve support to you as a manager?
- In what direction would you like to see the company/department move?
Cappel’s questions include:
- What would have improved your performance on these things this year?
- Where would you like to see yourself by this time next year?
- What do you need to get there?
- What barriers do you see to your progress?
Before conducting a review, Tucker has trainers complete the same evaluation form that he uses.
“Any differences in the evaluations are obvious topics of discussion. I also ask for goals for the coming year, challenges of the past year, what they learned, what they would like to learn more about,” he said.
Finger believes performance reviews should reinforce messages that the trainer has been given all year.
“If a manager does his/her job during the year, the performance review should serve as an opportunity to formalize prior feedback sessions and set goals/objectives for the coming year,” she said. “There should be no surprises in these sessions. Also, the sessions should be a two-way street.”
Dealing with problems
Discussing areas that need improvement can be tricky.
“When doing a review, always start with positives to put the trainer at ease and establish some rapport,” Tucker suggests.
He also focuses on specifics.
“Don't say, ‘That was bad,’“ he said. "Say what exactly could be better and how it could be better.”
Tucker also offers trainers professional development resources such as books, magazine articles, and classes.
Shutz draws on personal experience when addressing performance concerns.
“It helps if you can give them a scenario similar to their problem and discuss how you handled or would have handled it, instead of accusing or blaming them right off the bat,” Shutz said.
Finger said that it is important that a manager welcome constructive feedback from his or her staff.
“This type of ‘leadership by example’ is not easy but it is essential to building a strong team,” Finger said.
Is your evaluation process a two-way street or do you do all the talking? How do you make your employees comfortable enough to offer constructive criticism of your department or of your management? Send us an e-mail with tips on how you build good relationships with your trainers.
To reinforce the evaluation process, managers must work with trainers to establish goals and develop a follow-up system.
“Goal-setting means nothing without follow-up. If the goal was reached, I discuss what they did well to reach the goal, and what they might have done differently. If they didn't meet the goal, I focus on the things they did right as well as the things that prevented them from reaching the goal,” Tucker said.
Cappel takes his trainers through a formal process of making mutually agreed upon plans and goals for the year, which becomes part of the annual review the following year. The trainer is then evaluated on how well those objectives were met.
“Those objectives are renegotiated from time to time throughout the year in order to adjust them to changing circumstances,” said Cappel.