I’m a volunteer on a local mountain rescue team and for years, our process for prospective members has been, well, “loosey goosey” to say the least.  People show up at our Wednesday night meetings and I hand them a new member packet with various checklists inside, telling them that we have a “self-guided process” and that they are free to complete the requirements at their own pace.  Of course we offer them lots of training along the way, but it is a completely unstructured process in the sense that they are simply attending whatever training happens to be offered to our regular active members at that particular period of time.

Six months ago, we realized that our team was getting too big and that if we continued on this pace, missions would become cumbersome.  We decided to create a more structured training process for prospective members, with more stringent requirements, reasoning that this would screen out people who were not really serious about joining the group because of the increased time commitment.  We spent a couple of months putting the new program together, and it consisted of 24 hours of training including an orientation session, four skill-based sessions, and a final field practical structured as a mock rescue mission.  Prospective members would be required to attend every session in the program, or else be released from the program and left to try again next time.  We were confident that this would leave us with only the “serious” contenders, and cut down on the number of new members to actually become active on the team.

We ran our first class just recently, and to our surprise, we graduated 13 new members last week; the largest group of new members we have ever welcomed to the team in a similar time period. 

And then it dawned on me; how on earth could I, a training professional, have thought that creating a structured program would screen more people out?  On the contrary, a structured program was exactly what prospective members wanted and needed in order to feel like qualified, contributing entrants to the team.  In the old system, people felt ignored and uncertain as to what was expected of them.  In the new system, the increased time commitment was not a negative for most people; it was a positive, because they got the knowledge and skills they needed to feel like a real part of the team.  They also got to know us and one another, gained a better understanding of our culture, and resolved some of the anxiety that comes with being thrown into a new group of people who all generally ignore you and seem to think that you’ll figure it out on your own.

How often do you see small to mid-size companies doing just what we used to do?  There’s probably a formal orientation program most of the time, but after that, managers and supervisors figure that the new employee will learn “how we do things around here” by osmosis.  Maybe the new employee is loosely assigned a mentor or a fellow employee to follow around, but there is no real structure to the learning experience.  This can create tremendous anxiety as the newbie tries to figure out not only what is expected of him/her in terms of performance, but also what informal behaviors are acceptable and what behaviors are not.

I’ve had a valuable lesson reinforced by this experience.  Structured learning experiences are critical for anyone new to an organization.  As for how we’re going to limit the growth of our team, I guess we have to go back to the drawing board on that one…

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