May 1, 2001

7 Min Read


We don't need no stinking training!

By Gregory P. Hawkins and Claude T. Hawkins

Ever notice that "deer caught in the headlights of a fast-approachingtruck" look on the faces of the new employees at your self-storagebusiness? Sure, they were excellent employees at their last position, but thisis their first day with your organization.

Manager, handyman or office worker, they may possess marvelous skills andyears of experience. But it's all just promises and potential until youintegrate them as productive members of your team. Your new employees mustbecome comfortable with the mechanics of your specific operation before theywill produce the results you expect.

Sink or Swim--and Good Luck

There are two basic methods for training new personnel. The first and mostpopular is the "sink or swim" school of training. It consists of asupervisor leading the new employee to a large swimming pool. "We are veryimpressed with your credentials," the supervisor says. "Ask anyone ifyou have questions." Then the supervisor pushes the new employee into thedeep end of the pool. The new employee--who doesn't want to look foolish--makesa valiant effort to hold any frantic splashing to a minimum.

This method of training is effective--eventually. Taking the plunge andmaking mistakes is a good teacher. Most of your new people will ultimately learntheir jobs and settle into the company rhythm. However, can your business affordfor each new employee to make an average of three mistakes during every step ofthe learning process?

Large companies employ a dedicated training staff, allowing new employees tomake their "three mistakes" in a classroom setting. This isimpractical for self-storage operations. Chances are good that you offer somesort of orientation and maybe a handbook. Still, the day-to-day reality for mostself-storage businesses is lean and mean. The need is now, and resources do notallow the time or money for elaborate training programs.

Consider a marriage of the two strategies. This merge of training tactics isless likely to soak up limited resources. Also, it will provide personalflotation devices when a multitude of new processes and procedures threaten toengulf your new employees.

Basic Building Blocks

Reference material is the foundation of proper training. Self-storageoperators face challenges in this regard that many other businesses rarelyconsider. When your new employees are confused and need help, they are often toofar away to ask someone face to face. Good reference material can make thedifference between success and frustration.

Nothing is more fundamental than names and phone numbers. Assign anexperienced employee to compile a list of names and phone numbers of the peopleand organizations important to the smooth operation of your business. Thisshould be a short list, no more than three printed pages. This abridged contactlist is not a customer list, per se. Include suppliers, the people who fixequipment beyond the skills of your crew, emergency numbers, even the people whostock your vending machines. Include company personnel in a separate section.

Especially during the first few weeks, your new employee will discover a needto contact someone and not know who to call or how. They will waste a fewminutes considering the problem, a few more minutes deciding who to call, a fewmore minutes ... you see where this is heading. You can short-circuit the entirescenario with a simple list of frequent contacts.

Include a short paragraph explaining why each person on the list is valuableto your company. Note the services and/or products this person provides, as wellas what expectations they might have of your company. This transforms what beganas a phone book into a superb resource and reference tool, not only for your newemployees, but your entire staff. This project probably requires less than twohours.

Paper Training Your New Employee

Are there other areas where you can provide written training material foryour new hires? Consider training sheets to summarize important procedures andprocesses. Most of your business procedures are fairly simple, at least to you.Still, your new employees must learn dozens of procedures and hundreds of simplesteps. In congregate, this is intimidating. The things they learn today willbegin to crowd what they learned yesterday. A good training sheet allows forefficient instruction and quick review.

Be warned that there exists a hard truth about training sheets: Many arepoorly constructed and confusing. Others are nearly worthless. These things onlywork if you are serious about developing training sheets that are functional andeffective. A good training sheet--with emphasis on the word"good"--must clearly explain a specific process in such a way thatyour new employees can successfully complete the process by themselves. Vagueexplanations, partial explanations and outdated information spawn frustrationrather than resolve it.

In addition, a good training sheet must be short and to the point. It shouldconsist of one page and one page only. Human nature is human nature. Your newemployees will not take the time to understand anything longer. An elaborateexplanation of some basic process that rambles in detail for several pages willprove more detrimental than beneficial. Break down complicated processes intocomponent parts that fit onto a single sheet.

Now for the good news. Most training sheets take less than 15 minutes toprepare. And the format is simple. Describe step one of the process, then steptwo, then step three. Add a few bulleted explanations under each step and youare finished. Notwithstanding the previous warning about poorly written trainingsheets, keep in mind that a training sheet is nothing more than a basic outlinewith brief descriptions, not a master's thesis.

The Employee Handbook

Worksheets are dynamic because they train your new employees on specificprocesses. They help them to move forward. The company handbook is more staticbecause it is essentially a rule book, and rules seldom change. From yourperspective, rules have a positive impact on your business. Unfortunately, someemployees will always see rules as something to avoid or work around. Your newemployees will be eager to follow the rules until a more experienced employeepoints to the handbook and says, "Don't worry too much about all thatstuff."

Consider splitting your handbook into two books. The first should containgeneral information such as what to do in an emergency, a list of paid holidays,how your payroll system works, etc. The second book should contain the companyrules.

No one will attack the information in the first book, which you should call"The Handbook." While it contains information essential to the smoothoperation of your business, it is not threatening to your employees. But someemployees will always test the rules. By isolating the rules into a separate"Rule Book," you essentially draw a line in the sand. In effect, youare saying, "Cross this line at your own peril."

The Human Touch

Reference material is great, as far as it goes. But sometimes the hand of amore experienced employee on the shoulder of a new employee makes all thedifference. In all likelihood, you generally appoint someone to shepherd newemployees for the first few days and then function as an advisor until theybecome familiar with their job assignments. This is excellent. The combinationof personal instruction coupled with a training sheet for review is powerful. Inthis way, you secure many benefits of a training staff without the expense.

The Metaphysics of Good Training

In truth, proper training produces immediate and discernible results. Yettraining is also a soft science with results best measured by the behavior ofyour new people. When a new employee clearly understands you will support histransition to your team with proper training, he broadcasts an almost telepathicmessage that says, "Yes, I am new. But I am supported by professionals. Sowe can both relax and enjoy the experience."

The Treasure of Sierra Madre

This article takes its inspiration from the words of Alonso Bedoya toHumphrey Bogart in the 1948 classic movie The Treasure of Sierra Madre. Thebandits, masquerading as law-enforcement officers, demonstrate contempt for thepotential consequences of their actions when they declare, "Badges? Weain't got no badges. We don't need no [stinking] badges." You cannot affordto ignore the negative consequences of shoot-from-the-hip training. Propertraining will help to integrate your new employees into your self-storageoperation with efficiency and effectiveness.

Gregory P. Hawkins is a practicing attorney with more than 15 years oflitigation and general-practice experience, as well as an adjunct professor atGeorge Wythe College. Mr. Hawkins recently ran for the U.S. Senate in Utah,missing the opportunity for a primary runoff by 54 votes. He remains politicallyactive.

Claude T. Hawkins has more than 25 years experience working at variouslevels of management for organizations in the private and public sector. He iscurrently a contract consultant for small businesses and organizations inFlorida and the Western United States.

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