What do you do when a trainee won’t learn?

Photo of stressed-out woman in an office settingYou’ve been training a new employee. And they’re stuck.

They can’t seem to pick up the details, they can’t absorb the next step, they can’t “get it right,” they’re clearly stressed and unhappy – and so are you!

You’ve tried everything you know how to do. Speaking privately with them. Role-playing. Asking questions to find out what they do understand – and why they don’t get it. Coaching from co-workers. And so on…and on.

What can you do to get them back on track? Or is it hopeless and they’re just the wrong person for the job?

Sometimes it’s true…

Sometimes they are the wrong person for the job.

Maybe they’re not a fit for the company culture. Or they might be uncomfortable with a particular aspect of the work.

One client hired someone who seemed ideal for a technical sales job – until he realized this person was deeply uncomfortable with selling.

(Oops. That was an error in the hiring process, in which, I’m embarrassed to say, I participated and missed asking a key question. Lesson learned: never ever skip key interview questions!)

But if there’s no obvious reason for their struggle, here’s a counter-intuitive tactic you might try.

Counter-intuitively …

Offer generous praise for what they’re doing right.

You’re both so focused on all that’s going wrong that you’re overlooking the things being done well. And there’s always something.

Even the non-sales-oriented employee I mentioned did a lot of things right, though in the end they couldn’t get past the “must sell stuff” aspect of the job. (They’ve moved on to an office manager role at another company where their superpower-level organizational skills are prized and rewarded – no sales required!)

What are they doing right? Notice it in the moment – and/or after the fact. Be explicit. It’s not just “good job!”, it’s “Hey, you really did x, y, and z very well! thank you!” (For more on this, see my article “Why Thank You Isn’t Enough.”)

Better yet, find multiple things they’re doing right.

Why does this work?

A rising tide floats all boats

You’ve heard that saying: “a rising tide floats all boats.”

It works for confidence as well as water.

When someone’s struggling to learn key job requirements, their anxiety and stress go through the roof and their confidence sinks into the sub-sub-basement.

Stress and lack of confidence create uncertainty and brain freeze, making the struggle to learn – and retain what’s learned – even more difficult.

Boost their confidence in areas where they’re legitimately doing well, and the stress eases, the uncertainty diminishes, and they almost miraculously begin doing better in all areas.

Not always, but mostly

It doesn’t always work. If, as in the example of the “selling-is-bad” employee, there’s a deeply-held personal belief system or value that conflicts with the job requirement, it won’t help. In that situation, confidence isn’t the issue; the value structure is the issue, and we’re all entitled to honor our own values.

But when the employee genuinely wants to learn and is sincerely trying (meaning, there are no value or belief structures in the way), then boosting confidence in one area will almost certainly boost performance across the board.

Try it. See what happens. And let me know!

gljudson Management & Leadership

The dangers of over-delivering

Photo of exhausted woman from behind, showing desk cluttered with papers, computer, phone, eyeglasses“Under-promise and over-deliver.” It’s a common principle, especially in consulting and other service businesses.

But – as we discussed in last week’s Empowered Leadership group meeting – sometimes over-delivering isn’t such a great idea. As a prime example, I recently had a conversation with a woman who routinely got middle-of-the-night phone calls because she had become the go-to person for anything that came up – regardless of whether it was actually her responsibility.

We want to do a good job. We want to be seen as helpful, reliable, and resourceful. A team player. All those good career buzzwords.

But what happens when over-delivering goes overboard?

Got a life?

This is the obvious question, of course. As with the woman who got middle-of-the-night calls from work, it’s all too easy to let over-delivering creep into every part of your supposedly-not-at-work time.

In fact, she confided to me that she’d “ruined” her relationships and “hardly sees” her kids. Yikes.

She also said, “I’ve got to figure out this balance thing I keep reading about.”

But in my opinion and experience, personally and with clients, “balance” isn’t real.

It tends to push us into trying to make everything come out even.  Which, since this is life, isn’t going to happen. And I’d argue that actual “balance” isn’t even what we really want.

Boundaries, on the other hand, are essential if we’re going to survive without doing Very Bad Things to our personal lives.

It’s not helpful, dedicated, or a good work ethic if we always come to the rescue of the people around us.

Which leads me to …

Are you a leader?


Leaders don’t do All The Things. Leaders delegate, mentor, and coach so their teams learn and grow instead of becoming dependent on someone else to figure everything out for them.

If you pick up everyone’s dropped balls – or, worse, accept balls tossed in your direction even when they’re not yours to juggle – no one benefits.

You become exhausted, overwhelmed, and not focused on what YOU are supposed to be doing. Everyone else becomes complacent and blasé because they know you’re there to backstop any problems … even when those problems are things THEY are supposed to be handling.

No one’s career benefits.

Yours doesn’t, because your boss wants to see you leading your team, not doing their work for them.

Neither does your team members’, because they aren’t learning, stretching into new experiences, and developing their skills.

So when is over-delivering a good thing?

Over-delivering can be good if it’s intentional and situational.

For instance, there’s a specific project you’re working on, and you know that with a little extra effort you and your team can deliver it a few days early.

This is specific, intentional, and limited to this single instance.

When your team participates in this type of over-delivery, they’re learning and growing (instead of becoming complacent and stagnant).

And your life isn’t being swallowed up.

gljudson Management & Leadership

How much time does it take to grow a new leader?

Photo of businessman's hands nurturing a seedlingA follower asked a great question on an “Ask Me Anything (about leadership)” post on my Facebook business page.

“How do you balance the time devoted to leadership development versus running the business/department?”

There’s a sneaky assumption embedded in the question that training and development is separate from running the department.

But leadership development is part of running the business, not separate.

And leadership development belongs to both the person being developed and the person mentoring, coaching, or teaching.

The leadership trainee needs to be aware that every business interaction is an opportunity to “think like a leader” – to think about how they’d want the situation to play out if they were 100% responsible for the outcome.

There’s a difference between the employee who’s responsible for a particular task, and the leader who’s accountable for that task’s results. When the fledgling leader can make that shift – can see how the individual daily tasks fit into a bigger picture, and can understand how that impacts the business’s success (or failure) – then they’re learning to think like a leader.

Assuming you’re interacting with the trainee on a regular basis as part of your normal activities, you can ask questions that lead them into the leadership mindset. For instance…

How aware is this person of the impact of a particular task on the business?

Do they know all the ways the business makes money? (Most won’t. This is a big part of one of the modules in my Empowered Leadership program, and it’s eye-opening for participants.)

What would they change about how things are done, or where things are placed?

One of my clients in that Leadership program is working to rearrange the office’s physical space to be more efficient. Another has a new employee whose previous sales experience is helping improve results. Both these leaders are taking initiative to enhance the business they work for.

Sometimes new leaders will be reluctant to say that any changes are needed, either because they’re entrenched in “this is how it’s always been,” or because they don’t want to be seen as finding fault. They need to be encouraged to speak up; if necessary, you can ask them to come up with at least three things they’d change or do differently.

The key point here is that while you can always set time aside to specifically focus on training, overall it should be less of a “this is training time / this is work time” balance, and more of an integration throughout the day.

Training by itself is conceptual. Leadership is situational. No one can become a leader by sitting in a classroom or in one-on-one “training time.”

gljudson Management & Leadership

“Hi-Po Emerging Leader” – really?

Human-shaped figures filled with word cloud representing career developmentI’m not a fan of those terms – “hi-po” (or “high potential”) and “emerging leader.”

(Forgive me, please, if they’ve been applied to you. I’m sure you deserve them, and do read on to understand what I mean.)

Corporate America does a terrible job of supporting first-line managers, supervisors, and new leaders.

These are the people who have the biggest impact on the majority of any company’s employees. Which means they have a disproportionate impact on team productivity, employee engagement and retention, and, let’s face it, bottom-line results.

But most organizations, even well-meaning, employee-centric organizations, don’t do a good job of training and supporting newly-promoted fledgling leaders. (At least those well-meaning, employee-centric companies admit they’re not doing a very good job of it – but still, for some reason, they don’t work to change things.)

What does this have to do with the terms “high potential” and “emerging leader”?

Some organizations have programs in place to develop their “emerging leaders” – by which they mean those “hi-po” individuals considered worthy of extra attention. Usually, these employees are already partway along in their leadership journey, having managed to figure out at least some of this Leadership Thing on their own.

But what about the managers and supervisors who aren’t tapped as “hi-po” or “emerging”? Might they excel as leaders if they were just given some support? Could it be that at least some of the “emerging leaders” are simply working for managers who recognize that people need help crossing the gap between being an individual team member and becoming the leader of the team?

Not so incidentally, how do we suppose those non-hi-po, non-emerging employees feel about their ho-hum status? It’s not likely to motivate them to take the initiative to do better. In fact, it’s more likely to do the exact opposite – perhaps so far as to motivate them right out the door to another job.

There are two primary objections to training all first-line managers, supervisors, and new leaders.

  1. Most leadership training is expensive – sometimes insanely so.
  2. Taking a first-line leader away from their day-to-day duties for any length of time is close to impossible – as one manager commented to me in a meeting just this morning.

But thinking that these challenges mean we can’t train and support these people is wrong.

The gap between individual contribution and leadership is HUGE. Everything that makes someone successful as an individual no longer applies as a leader. And the cost of a failing leader is much higher than you might imagine.

And whether it’s you or your managers who need training, coaching, and support on the journey of leadership, there is training available that’s both cost-effective and time-balanced. Whether you follow that link to read about my version of that, or find it elsewhere … please find it somewhere.

We owe it to our companies, leaders, and teams to do better.

gljudson Career development

Got control?

A red book on a white background with the words MAKE YOUR OWN RULES in gold on the cover

This isn’t an article about the perils of being a control freak.

Quite the opposite, actually.

It’s an article in which I beg you to take control.

Take control of your career. Please.

Don’t let your career wander around according to the whims of your managers, your employers, and perhaps your family.

Let’s start here.

Got a plan?

Actually, let’s not start here.

Because before you can plan how you’re going to accomplish something – as I’ve said many times – you need to be really clear on what that “something” actually is. And asking “how” before you know “what” is the wrong way to go about it. (Read those articles I linked and you’ll see why that’s true.)

So let’s start here instead.

Got a clue?

I’m not a fan of the classic interview question, “Where do you see yourself in five years?”

Sheesh. If you’d told me five years ago that I’d be where I am today, I’d’ve called on the white-coat team to bring a straitjacket for you.

am a fan of two important questions:

  1. What does “success” look and feel like for you?
  2. What is the next step – maybe even the next smallest step – forward?

When you know the answer to those questions, THEN you can ask the “how” questions.

Now – got a plan?

Those two questions apply to anything in your life – family, relationships, education, community, and so on. But right now, we’re looking at your career.

And that means your career development plan.

How are you going to take that next step in your career?

What do you need?

Time? Resources? Mentoring? A coach?


Got help?

Obviously, I can’t guarantee that you’ll get help from your employer, even if you ask for it.

But unless you work for a company that’s in serious trouble, or for a boss who’s a serious… well, you can fill in the blank there… if you ask for what you want, taking care to explain the benefit to the organization, you just might get it.

If you never ask, you’ll never know.

Got control?

It’s your career.

Sure, your managers have input. They have a perspective you don’t – they can see your strengths, so they can tell where you’ll probably succeed and where you might struggle.

But they also have their own agenda, and it might not align with what you want and who you are.

And sure, your friends and family have things to say. They, too, have perspectives you don’t. And they can be terrific sources of encouragement.

But they can also be concerned about your job security or worried that changes might impact your relationship with them. Which means they might not support you in ways that will get you where you want to go.

It’s your career.

Got control? If not … what’s stopping you from taking it?

gljudson Career development

Go ahead. Take a break.

Photo of woman sitting on a bench by a tree looking out over a riverYesterday, I presented a breakout session at the annual Businesswomen’s Conference, created every year by the Bentonville Arkansas Chamber of Commerce.

This was its 21st year, and they do a fantastic job; it always sells out well in advance, and each year seems to get better (with the possible exception of the plain green salad they consider an adequate lunch for vegetarians!).

Conferences tend to have an unintentional undercurrent theme alongside the stated theme, and this was no exception. The stated theme was “The Power Of You” – and the undercurrent was, in essence, “don’t burn yourself out.”

Interesting contrast, no?

All three of the keynotes – morning, lunchtime, and afternoon – had at least some element of this undercurrent, as well as the two breakout sessions I was able to attend. Looking at the other breakout topics, I suspect many of them were similarly aligned. Even my topic – “Managing your Inner Critic: how to stop the rotten-tomato fight in your head” – had some of those “don’t overload yourself” elements.

It wasn’t because we were all talking about that favorite (and in my opinion over-discussed) women’s personal and professional growth theme of “self care,” because we weren’t.

I think it’s because women today tend to drive themselves relentlessly in the pursuit of their careers and support of their families. As I said to one of the women who attended my session, it breaks my heart to see the ways in which we are still fighting equality battles that should have been resolved decades ago. And so much of what we do – and I know I’m not alone in this – is because we think we have to, or we know no one else will do it (and it legitimately does need to happen), or we need / want to live up to others’ expectations… and on, and on, and on.

And so many of the women I know are just plain tired.

If that sounds like you – whether you’re a woman or a man! – then go ahead. Take a break. Take what a colleague of mine calls a “hooky day,” like kids used to do (probably still do!) when they snuck out of school. Or what we called, when I was still in corporate (and I imagine corporate employees still call!) a “mental health day.”

A hooky day or mental health day is different from a vacation.

And it’s fun, in a different way than a vacation.

Try it out. Go ahead. Take a break!

gljudson Self-talk

Did you ASK?

Question mark surrounded by a rainbow of arrows extending into possibilitiesWhen was the last time you asked for something you really wanted?

Not something you kinda-sorta wanted.

Not your kid to take out the trash, or your partner to empty the dishwasher.

Not your co-worker to pick up a pumpkin-spice latte for you on their way in to the office.

Something you REALLY wanted.

That can be hard and it can feel vulnerable. And we might choose to believe that we already know the answer.

“I want a promotion – but I don’t think my boss likes me enough.”

“I want to go to that conference – but I can’t take time off.”

“I’d love to be working on the cool new project – do you think my boss will pick me?”

“My employer won’t pay for the training I want.”

Did you ask? Or are you assuming?

You don’t have to work for a big company to get financial support for conferences or training. Two students in my Empowered Leadership group program are there because their small-business employers are paying part of the fee. How did that happen? They asked.

If you don’t ask to be assigned to that cool project, how can your manager know you’re interested?

If you don’t ask for a promotion, how will you ever know what you need to do to get it?

If you don’t ask if you can attend a training program or conference, how will you know what support you might get?

The worst that can happen is that you’re told no.

And at least then you’ll know.

If you don’t ask, you’ll never know what might have been possible. So in essence, if you don’t ask, the answer is already, and always, no.

There are many options and opportunities available … if you ask.  And if you don’t ask, you’ll never know what opportunities you might be missing.

What do you want?

Why not ask?

(Check out Seth Godin’s blog post And Your Company will Pay For It.)

(And of course also check out the Empowered Leadership group program! After all – your company might pay for it!)

gljudson Career development

Where are you going?

Cartoon of business person choosing between three directions

Is what you’re doing aligned with what you want?

REALLY aligned?

Of course, first you must know what you want. REALLY know, in detail.

This isn’t about woo or the Law of Attraction.

It’s about the clarity you need in order to know – REALLY know – if what you’re doing is, in fact, aligned with where you want to go.

And if it’s not, then why are you doing it?

p.s.: want to figure this out? Come to the Leadership Launch Pad workshop – free, online, interactive, and NOT a webinar. Click: https://www.gracejudson.com/llp.

gljudson Career development

Stop flinging candidate spaghetti against the wall!

Graphic image of people as cogs on gearsAs a hiring manager, you know what I mean by that. Even if you don’t want to admit it.

But I’ll give you an example.

A client was convinced – as in, 100% certain, no question – that he couldn’t find great employees in his industry and geographic location.

He felt that the specialized requirements of the job just weren’t possible to fill in his relatively rural area.

So he’d hire people who were partially qualified – let’s say, the best he thought he could get – and hoped they’d work out, somehow.

(No disrespect intended to any of those people; they were good people and good workers, and went on to be good employees elsewhere. They just weren’t a fit for his business.)

I convinced him to stop doing what I call “flinging candidate spaghetti against the walls” – i.e., hiring randomly and hoping for the best – and instead start being more intentional and deliberate in his hiring process.

He now has a team of stellar employees.

Here’s how it’s done.

Get clear

I know you think you know what you want in an employee, but I’d be willing to bet you only know part of the picture. And I’ll also bet that you focus mostly on skills, not on the qualities that make someone a good fit for your company.

My clients are usually reluctant to write down these details, for two primary reasons.

  1. They don’t think they can actually get what they want, so why set themselves up for disappointment?
  2. They think they already know, so why bother writing it down?

But here’s the thing: if you don’t write it down, you don’t really know. Writing things down clears the mind and allows new ideas and insights to arise.

And writing it down doesn’t commit you to anything; it just creates clarity.

Because the next step is …


Now that you have your list, divide it into two: MUST have, and NICE to have.

Must Have is non-negotiable. (Really. Because then you’re just throwing candidate spaghetti at the wall again.)

Nice to Have is sparkles, chocolate frosting, and champagne.

And now you’re ready to …

Write a great ad

Your hiring advertisement – whether it’s a post on Facebook, a listing in online job boards, or a request sent to your recruiter – should be clear about your company culture as well as about the Must Have skills and qualities.

And it should specify how you want candidates to apply.

Do you want them to apply by email? phone? snail-mail? Write a cover letter? provide a resume? Is there anything you don’t want them to do (for instance, don’t phone, don’t come into the office)?

And then …

Be prepared to say No, thanks

First rule: do not consider, even for a moment, anyone who doesn’t follow the application instructions. If you ask for a cover letter, and they didn’t provide one, they’re out. If you said not to call and they picked up the phone, don’t engage.

If they can’t follow instructions in this important first-impressions moment, what makes you think they’ll follow instructions after you’ve hired them?

Second rule: do not bend, even a little, if any of your Must Have criteria aren’t met. The temptation may be huge, but that way lies heartache (and budget-ache; hiring is expensive).

The client I mentioned at the start of this article made that mistake – and I have to be honest: I participated in it. We had a candidate who seemed to be everything we wanted, but we skipped one crucial interview question. After a year of struggle on all sides, that employee moved on to a position elsewhere that she’s far better suited for. And my client (and I) learned a painful and unnecessary lesson.

Which leads me to…

Write great interview questions

Your interview questions should come directly from your Must Have and Nice to Have lists. Aside from the resume, how do you know if the candidate has the skills and qualities you want? By asking.

Define your interview questions ahead of time, in detail.

You don’t have to ask every one of them in the interview (but don’t skip the crucial ones!). And there will be follow-up questions you’ll ask that won’t be written down. But a prepared list will remove the ad-hoc quality of so many interviews, and you’ll come out of the interview with a clear sense of whether or not the candidate is your next employee.

It’s a lot of work

Yes, it’s a lot of up-front, careful, detailed work.

It’s worth it.

How much does it cost you to replace a failing employee? A lot more than you think, and I know you’re thinking, “Too much!” (For a detailed spreadsheet to calculate those costs, click here. Just be sure you’re sitting down when you see the final number.)

So, yes, it’s worth it.

Especially when you have the pleasure of working with a stellar team of employees instead of an ad-hoc group of partial-fits and mis-fits.

gljudson Management & Leadership

“How” is not the question

Upside-down photo of a sign with the word "answers" above the word "questions"“How will you do that?”

Since my time as a business systems analyst, designer, and software engineer, and now as a leadership geek, trainer, coach, and consultant … people constantly ask me, “How can we do that?”

But “how” is the wrong question. It’s almost always asked out of sequence.

Don’t ask how until you’re clear about what.

The instant you ask how something will or can be done, you’ve put a box around what you want to do.

Because you haven’t already fully defined what, you’ve imposed unnecessary constraints. You’ve limited your options, sometimes very painfully.

How is only to be tackled after you know what.

Selecting the tool before you select your objective is crazy.

“How can we do that?”

“Here’s a hammer – that’s how.”

“Okay, then our only options are nails, right?”

Resist all temptation – even if the tool you want to use is brand new, shiny, and something you really want to learn more about.

(If I’d listened to the people who asked me “how,” I would never have accomplished what they said was impossible. Because I refused to listen, I did it – and saved the company I worked for at the time millions in previously lost recoverables. That’s the potential magnitude of this error.)

Do not ask how until you know what.

gljudson Strategic thinking