Hit the brew button on the coffee pot! Capt. Fletch manning the cockpit of my DC-8 (desk, chair and eight drawers, for those unfamiliar with that famous Air Force joke). Last month we took a pause to discuss mental health and the importance of truly knowing your people — and how to avert the worst day in any leader’s career. This month we turn to a favorite topic of mine: training!
As many of you know, I spent a good part of my time in the Air Force developing the training programs for well drilling teams, as well as other specialty engineering capabilities. What many people may not know is, I had never led or established a training program before taking that role. This made it par for the course. Many things I have done in my career started with the commander saying, “Figure it out!”
I have always drawn a great deal of leadership ideas and influence from books and movies. From a young age, I watched movies with my dad. Some, I admit, I probably had no business watching. That taught me things. For instance, watching Kevin Costner reprise the role of Robinhood taught me that leaders stand up for people even if it costs them (or, in his case, made him an outlaw). Fast-forwarding to another Kevin Costner film, his portrayal of Senior Chief Ben Randall in “The Guardian,” I learned a few things about establishing a good training program.
Unlike Randall, I was not a highly-decorated civil engineer when I took over the training program at RED HORSE. (For those catching up, that’s the Rapid Engineer Deployable Heavy Operational Repair Squadron Engineer, the Air Force’s civil engineering and logistics unit.) I did, however, have some comfort with myself as a person and a leader, and a readiness to get to work. Superiors tasked me with taking over training, particularly well drilling, based mainly on my educational background in water quality and resources. Being a civil engineering officer, they expected I had the knack for picking up knowledge of the other capabilities along the way.
Well drilling desperately needed reviving. The first logical step? Evaluate the current situation. I started by attending the two-week well drilling class. Like many other training courses I had taken, we generally breezed through classroom sessions to maximize hands-on training — and to keep people awake. I passed the test easily and left with an understanding of where the team stood.
When Randall takes over his training class in the movie, he instantly meets with the time-honored sentiment, “This is how we have always done things.” I found a similar situation. I decided the first thing I needed to do was to unite the team somehow and give them an objective to accomplish. This would show them I meant business. Immediately my attention turned to the main building where we kept all our equipment and supplies. The place was in complete disarray, and our supplies, tools and equipment were scattered between two buildings.
I just began acting. I set the team to work, giving them my vision of having anything not related to drilling removed and relocated, and to have our house in working order in one month. Much like Randall, I had outsiders constantly objecting to my actions, to which I replied, “This is my building. Deal with it.” Little by little, the building became usable once again. By the time we finished, the other instructors and team members would gather there for their 5:01 p.m. meetings Friday afternoons, which usually concluded with wiffle ball homerun derbies and adequate hydration for everyone.
How does this translate to building a training program? My story is not a play-by-play of “The Guardian.” (If only I were that cool.) But it does embody some things I will expand on. Sometimes when we enter a new environment as leaders, it pays to observe for a time before making changes. Other times, the current situation calls for action. In this case, I recognized the system needed a jolt. I knew the curriculums needed addressing and the hands-on training could improve, but first I had to get the attention of my team and gain their trust. I chose the well drilling team as my public example because everyone made fun of them. A neglected group in the bunch, I gave them a mission and I rolled up my sleeves and helped them accomplish it. As the other team members watched, they began to understand my vision and to trust that I was there to support them.
Having gained the trust of the team, I shifted focus to addressing their concerns and problems — and figuring out how we could improve all our courses. For some, it was a matter of getting new equipment. For others, it meant advanced training to bring the latest means and methods into our curriculum. In all cases, it meant reviewing course materials and updating them to the most current information available. For well drilling, this meant calling drill trainer and The Driller contributing writer Brock Yordy out to help integrate air drilling into our program. Whatever the teams needed, I ensured they had it or advocated for the funds to go get it. My vision ultimately matched Randall’s: to narrow the gap between training and what really happens in the field.
Perhaps your training program requires some observation before you flip the place over as Senior Chief Randall. Maybe your program has grown repetitive and needs a jolt. Maybe you do not have a training program (in which case you should start by visiting other training programs and learning from those who have a good one established). Whatever the status of your training program, if leadership tasks you with leading it, the best advice I can give is to be passionate about it.
I saw the training program as the opportunity to take something flagging and bring it back to life. I started with a simple task of cleaning up a warehouse and organizing some materials. This transitioned into a little bit of fun and the occasional libation. This translated into trust and willingness to buy in and spread the passion. Our hard work built the team into a well-oiled machine that had all the tools to offer world-class training. However, for me it all started with that comfort in and awareness of who I was as a person and leader, as well as a passion and readiness to work.
As you look to your own training programs, I encourage you to reach out to others around you. Contact me or fellow contributors Dave Bowers or Brock Yordy, or any number of other experts out there. Whatever you decide to do, the worst decision you can make is to do nothing. Training is one of the best opportunities a leader can have. Leading a training program allows you to effect positive, far-reaching changes in how we do things in our industry. A good, passionate training program leader could be the difference between our industry growing into the future, or us having the same conversations over a cold beverage every week about the things we wish we could change.Until next time, Fletch over and out!