Have you ever thought about how you learned to do your job? While there are new challenges every day, of course, there is also so much that you seem to just “know.” That proficiency not only inspires your clients and team to trust you, but it creates a self-confidence that boosts you to perform even better, day after day.
But when you think back, it’s hard to remember how you figured out the ins and outs of your particular position. In most professions, even if you learned the educational aspects in school — say, how markets work if you’re in finance or how to source a brief if you’re an attorney — class can only offer so much. Most of us didn’t learn how to write a persuasive email, make a captivating presentation or navigate a tricky client call until we watched someone more experienced doing it.
Junior employees learn a lot of valuable skills from watching others who are more senior. Unfortunately, given today’s era of tight budgets, thin staffs and virtual workers, it can be hard to devote as much time to training your more junior employees as you might like. But the time you invest in helping your employees learn from you directly will pay dividends down the road in a more engaged, competent and productive workforce.
Apprenticeship might be the oldest model of learning there is, but it is far from old-fashioned. I would argue that it’s more important today than ever.
Here are three ways to apprentice your employees, even if you don’t think you have the time.
Model what you expect
I frequently hear from managers that their employees think their own work is excellent — but in reality, it’s not. You might have a picture in your mind of what excellence looks like, but your employees can’t possibly fulfill it unless you show them concrete examples.
That’s why it’s important to take the time to find samples of what you consider to be an “excellent” presentation, sales pitch or financial model and walk less-experienced workers through the exact factors that set excellent work apart.
I know the argument against this: “But I had to figure things out the hard way, through trial and error!” It’s easy to expect today’s younger generation to pay the same dues you did, but you’re really only creating more work for yourself if it takes them longer to grasp the nuances of great work. If you have a solution, sometimes it’s best to offer it.
Let them watch and learn
Make yourself available so junior employees can watch you in action, whether they sit in on a presentation or join a sales call.
In my first job at a non-profit organization, I had a boss who would invite me to sit in her office and listen to her make fundraising calls. I was able to hear firsthand how she started the call, created rapport, refuted objections politely and closed on a positive note, no matter what the outcome had been.
When I set off with my own round of calls, I felt so much more confident than I would have otherwise. Fundraising calls tended to follow a rhythm and I largely knew what to expect after having listened to my boss. Sure, I stumbled a bit on my own, but overall I was able to handle a dialogue that otherwise would have left me tongue tied. And, not insignificantly, I was a little less afraid.
The idea of “watch and learn” has precedent, especially in the courtroom. There’s a growing movement among judges to return to an old custom of having junior lawyers sit in on trials to learn the ropes. Many judges are now insisting that trial lawyers bring a junior associate with them to court to pass that legacy on.
Get creative if you need to
A hedge fund manager recently told me he wanted to foster apprenticeship, but he was just too busy to do so. He came up with a simple solution, though: He decided to CC or BCC his junior employees on more of his email correspondence, so they could understand how he works, how he phrases conversations and how he handles various situations. (Of course he gave the junior employees clear instructions not jump into those conversations, but just to observe.)
In this way, he was able to let them learn without spending a huge chunk of his time. Where there’s a will, there’s a way for most things, and apprenticeship is no exception.
Note: Next week I’ll turn the tables and offer advice on how millennial employees can seek apprenticeships, even if their current manager is not willing or able to teach them.
Looking back on your career, what were some skills you learned through apprenticeship — or wish you had? I’d love to hear about your experience in the comments below.
Lindsey Pollak is the leading voice on millennials in the workplace, trusted by global companies, universities, the world’s top media outlets — and, most importantly, by millennials themselves. A New York Times bestselling author, Lindsey began her career as a dorm RA in college and has been mentoring millennials — and explaining them to other generations — ever since. Her keynote speeches have audiences so engaged that, in the words of one attendee, “I didn’t check my phone once!” Contact Lindsey to discuss a speaking engagement for your organization.