Teaching Old Dogs New Tricks Is Like Pushing A Rope Up A Hill, Part Ii


Last week I mentioned that my job in the Air Force for the last seven years was teaching NCOs how to take their hard-earned skills and pass them on to the young men and women who were going to take their place.

Sounds like an easy job, but it wasn’t. Some of those moss-backed old NCOs would have loved nothing better than spending their entire careers with a wrench in their hands. Trouble is, in the military when you do your job, and do it well, you get a raise just as you do in civilian life. But with a difference.

In the military a raise means more stripes. And as you rise through the ranks you run head-on into a nasty truth. You’re not just expected to be able to do the job. After a while you have this arm full of stripes which says you can run the whole show.

Rotten deal, isn’t it?

Here some poor guy joins up because he loves nothing better than being up to his hips in engine parts. He does his job and he does it well. People keep sticking stripes on his shoulder. Then someone comes along and says, “Hey, Sarge. You know what? You know that job you love? Can’t do it anymore. Now that you’ve proved you’re the best mechanic we have, we’re going to stick you in back of a desk and let someone else do the work.”


Tell you what, Johnny. Try this: Go out to a construction site. Find the best framer they’ve got. Tell him you want him to go inside the trailer and spend the rest of his life answering the phone, listening to complaints, working on the payroll, ordering the lumber, and taking the flack for everything that goes wrong. And he has to do it whether he likes it or not.

But don’t forget to duck when you say it.

There was a book published a while back called “The Peter Principle.” It pointed out that people are often promoted to the point where they reach their “level of incompetence.”

Think about that for a minute. How are people usually judged when they are being considered for promotion? Isn’t it true that when a board meets to see who would make the best — say — warehouse manager, it looks at how well each candidate is doing the job he’s doing at the moment?

So Louie is out there in the warehouse screwing everything up, banging into walls with the forklift, dropping things, pulling the wrong stock, and grumbling all day. He’s out sick twice a month and hates the job. But Joe is out there running the forklift around with never an accident. Getting stock in and out in a jiffy. Never a mistake. At work every day. Happy as a lark.

Who are you going to promote?

Joe, of course.

And since the manager gets more than a forklift jockey, Joe is probably going to take the job, even though he may hate paperwork or anything that even resembles paperwork.

The result?

Tell me you haven’t seen people like Joe who ended up in a job they just could not handle. Tell me you haven’t seen some office that was a shambles because the poor guy running it didn’t know salsa from balsa.

OK. Now picture my job.

There I was, stuck with the task of taking men and women who by and large wanted nothing more than to keep on doing what they were doing, and convincing all those round pegs that they were now going to have to fill square holes.

And no leaks allowed.

Poor little old me. The local training weenie.

Or worse. The guy headquarters sent to your base to teach courses for nine weeks on how to do what you don’t want to do.

You know the only reason I managed to stay alive? I love working with my hands, and knew exactly how those folks felt.

In fact, had I not been color-blind I’d have been right out there in one of those shops with them. But the Air Force took a dim view of taking a guy with lousy color vision and telling him, “Hey, Tom, hook up that red wire, but leave the green one alone because if that one gets connected it’ll launch the missile and start World War III.”

I could see where that might be a problem.

So, there I was. At the front of a class of 15 young NCOs, most of them new staff sergeants or tech sergeants. They had reached a point where they had a lot of expertise, and they now had others working for them, younger folks, folks who needed that expertise to do the job. They weren’t being pulled off the job and stuck behind a desk yet, but that day wasn’t long off.

How did I get them on my side? Get them feeling that the things they were about to learn were important? Get them wanting to know?

Simplest thing in the world, but not obvious. Took me a long time to get a handle on a tough teaching job. What I did was ask them how you go about teaching a trainee how to do something. How do you tell him what he’s supposed to learn? How can you tell when he’s learned it? When can you let him go out there on his own?

The answer? Teach him what he’s supposed to be able to DO. Not what he should be familiar with, what he should know, or what he should understand, but exactly what he is expected to do.

We got into a long discussion of that kind of thing. I let the men and women in my classes talk among themselves about what was important in doing the things they did. I let them hammer it out. Let them see for themselves how important it was to wipe away all the fancy terms and get down to the nitty-gritty.

And it worked.

I might add it also worked when I came into civilian life and taught teaching-methods courses for teachers.

So simple. Figure out what the students are supposed to be able to do. Teach it. Test it. Have a brew. Enjoy the summer off.


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