Top of the class: Tips for hiring the best trainer

Training is a demanding job, and finding the right person for it can be a challenge. Wendy Finger explains what to look for in job candidates and how to assess the skills that make for a good IT trainer.

There are numerous train-the-trainer publications available in the marketplace. They offer tips on everything from classroom management to adding pizzazz to PowerPoint presentations. There are not as many options available, however, that share the secrets of training those who train the trainers.

I have developed a formula that works for me. This formula holds true for developing all kinds of trainers. I adjust the specifics based on my needs for a technical trainer or a sales trainer. But in the end, I expect my trainers to be able to train on any subject and for any audience. This four-part series spells out that formula.
After explaining how to make a good hiring choice, Wendy will describe what skills it takes to manage a classroom successfully. Next, she will explain why she has new trainers create training materials, and finally she will cover how to build a training program around a course outline.
Part one: Hire the right people
When looking for a trainer, I tend to avoid seeking out subject matter experts (SMEs). This may be construed as blasphemy in the world of technology, and I do want a person with some technical background. But, I would rather find someone with strong interpersonal skills and the desire to learn.

I am also concerned about trainers who possess too much content knowledge. While those individuals know their topics backwards and forwards, I wonder about an SME’s ability to empathize with and relate to the students. I strongly believe that trainers can be developed. I also believe there are certain traits that speed the development along. Here’s what I look for in a trainer:
  1. Strong grammatical and analytical skills
  2. Inquisitive mind, desire to learn (with some foundation in technology), and flexibility
  3. Respect for coworkers and a sense that trainers have a responsibility to their students and the company
  4. Outgoing personality
  5. Demonstrated ability to instruct (at the basic level)

Measuring potential
To assess these skills, I require that all training applicants go through a set screening process. The process is the same for internal and external candidates and includes:
  • A project
  • An interview
  • An audition

First, to assess grammatical and analytical skills, the desire to learn, and flexibility, I assign each candidate a project. The project is generally on a topic related to a real-life issue that needs to be addressed. I get great solutions from these projects (a nice side benefit).

Talking the talk
Second, behavior-based interviews work well to assess personality, responsibility, and respect for others. Behavior-based interviewing is a technique that stresses historical evidence of a certain behavior. A traditional interview question might be, ‘’How do you manage your time?” A behavior-based equivalent might be ‘’Tell me about a time you had to meet a tight timeline. Tell me what you did to accomplish your goal.”

When conducting a behavior-based interview, I look for several things:
  • Prior knowledge of the position
  • Questions asked
  • Attitude and body language

While the exact wording of my questions varies from interview to interview, each meeting contains questions that are variations on these themes:
  • Tell me about a time when you had to work hard to overcome an obstacle (measures ability to learn and flexibility).
  • Tell me about a time when you were responsible for a team project and the team was letting you down (measures respect toward others, ability to manage others, and ability to motivate). I am always wary of an applicant who says, “I just did all the work myself.”
  • Tell me about a time you had to communicate a corporate decision that was going to be unpopular (measures professionalism, attitude toward management, and ability to drive change).

When conducting seminars on interviewing, I have been criticized about the negative nature of these questions. Keep in mind that these are not the only questions to ask. Also ask about accomplishments, time management, motivational needs, and so on.

Walking the walk
Finally, I ask all finalists to audition. The audition is a 10-minute instructional presentation. I have observed instruction on everything from how to make a Christmas ornament to how to write a macro. The topic doesn’t matter. All that matters is the method each person uses. Does the candidate:
  • Begin by providing an objective and overview?
  • Attempt to engage all people in the room?
  • Utilize a “hands-on” approach?

I am not expecting slick, formal presentations. I do expect a brief opening statement, such as: “We are going to learn how to make a Christmas ornament.” As a "student," I also expect to do something during the presentation. PowerPoint slides are nice, but I want someone who understands that training is not lecturing.

To date, this formula has not failed. But, this is just the beginning. Finding folks with these skills means finding folks with raw talent. That talent must be tapped and developed. This is where the fun begins!
What hiring tips do you have? What was your strangest interview? What are the best questions to ask? Share your experiences with us so we can use them in a future article.

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