How to develop your technical trainee brilliantly…and still have time for your day job.

Sue Willcock Food for Thought

As an experienced professional, often your role will involve sharing your knowledge with those less experienced than you. This may be to help someone formally with their Professional exams or supporting them via a structured programme (e.g. a via a Graduate or Apprentice scheme).   But, with the demands on your time from clients and projects, often helping them develop just has to be squeezed in as ‘on the job’ training.
Time is precious and often the pressure of client work can mean that explaining something new to someone can be frustrating, hurried or done in a way which does not support their learning or getting something done fast – we end up just ‘telling them the answer’ or, even worse, just doing something ourselves because it is quicker.
Having recently worked with some young people just starting on their journey into the profession, here we set out how to share your knowledge in an effective way which means both you and trainee or graduate get something really positive from the process.
It’s much more effective than just telling someone what to do and will result in a better outcome for you and them.

  1. Put yourself in their shoes. Simply take a few moments to think about what they know already that you can build on. Do they know about the project but not the task or do they understand the task, but need more information about the project? What is their emotional state? This is often overlooked by technical experts, but emotions play an important part in performance. How will they feel about the task – is it a welcome challenge? Will they be fearful of it? Is it an area they are interested in? How will you reassure them if you need to – will you need to check what they have done before it is sent to a client? How might they feel about that?
  2. Give context. Context is important as it empowers the other person to ask intelligent questions. This means they add more value to the process for you (they may well think of something you have not thought of too) and invites them to think about the overall outcome, which is far more motivating that just being given a task to do. This is also an important part of motivating juniors in the infancy of their career – “I had to check prices all day”, “I had to make sure stuff was filed properly on the system”, “I had to take notes in a meeting” are some of the woes we hear from those still developing.   Giving context and ‘starting with why’ is really easy and makes all the difference so start your briefing with lines like, “It’s really important we make sure this report is accurate before the bank sign off funding”  “The notes will go to the client as an accurate record of the meeting. Meeting notes can be used in a dispute, so a key skill is to take accurate notes that are clear years down the line.” (In the case of note taking, having a follow up conversation where any technical phrases or acronyms are explained can be much more helpful to you and the trainee than an email exchange where you just edit the final version before issue.  This may mean more preparation time for you, but will mean that you are more likely to get a “right first time” response once your briefing is done. You will need to prepare though. Key project facts, perhaps the overall scheme layout, some additional reports that just give context but are not essential will need forethought built on step 1 above.
  3. Don’t use acronyms.   If I was to ask you to write down all the acronyms your organisation uses on a day to day basis, I would wager that you could rattle off a fair few. From industry jargon to abbreviated client names, why complicate a briefing session when you don’t have to? By all means mention them, but use the proper words first. “Fred – we are working for ABC on Project Silver at their HQ in the UAE so please can you call the M&E guys over there and ask them about the BIM platform they are using as we need to brief the QS team in the UK” does not an empowering briefing make. I have overheard these types of conversations and seen the look on poor “Fred’s” face as he walks away not really knowing what he needs to do or why. Indeed, I have been Fred quite a few times in my career.
  4. Agree a deadline, mini-deadlines and support. You may well have a deadline that you need something done by this should be clear. However, it’s also powerful to discuss this and ask questions such as “what do you need from me to do this effectively?” “Do you want to do some of it and check in with me before you do it all?” “What other help do you need?” For very junior members of staff such as Apprentices “Have a think about what I have asked you to do and come back to me with your questions (say by when)” is powerful too.
  5. Encourage great questions. Good questioning is a powerful skill, so when you are checking in on what’s being done, encourage your mentee to prepare some questions that may be beyond the immediate task. For example, if you had a junior QS undertaking a simple measure, as well as doing this, ask them to think about questions they might ask that would influence the price. This makes the task much more interesting, gives context and develops their skills alongside the task in hand.

Construction professionals do seem to genuinely like to share their knowledge – perhaps it’s because someone else sat down with us and taught us something once and we feel a moral duty to pass it on? Or, as some of the management writers would suggest, we are motivated by ‘mastery’ so passing on our knowledge makes us feel good.
Watching someone else suddenly ‘get’ something is a great feeling – and, if you use the tips above, you are likely to get more from the process too.