• Colin Duff

How to find great trainers and screen out the charlatans

In World War II, the U.S. Air Force took their very best pilots from the front lines and sent them home to train new pilots. Over time this strategy dramatically improved the quality and effectiveness of the U.S. Air Force. The Germans lost their air superiority because they flew all their aces until they were shot down; none of them trained new recruits. By 1944 new German pilots had clocked only about half of the three hundred hours an Allied pilot would have flown in training.

Those who can’t do, train

The US Air Force's approach is equally applicable to enterprise training. Accomplished practitioners are the best teachers. (With the exception of basic/standardised areas such as software skills and compliance).

Yet most companies hire trainers who they would never hire to do the actual job. This kind of blind-leading-the-blind practice means most training is ineffective; this reflected by the dismal stats in countless studies. For example, 75% of managers are dissatisfied with their company’s L&D function; only 12% apply new skills learned in L&D programs to their jobs; and only 25% believe that training measurably improves performance.

Five fool-proof ways to find the stars and to screen out the charlatans

  • Thought leadership: ask for examples of articles and blogs they’ve published and talks they’ve delivered on the subject they're training on. Seasoned practitioners are passionate about sharing their views with the world and that passion is contagious. If they don’t have any examples it suggests they either don’t have any interesting points of view or they’re not passionate about the subject.

  • War stories: ask them to provide first-hand examples of where they’ve applied their teaching to solve analogous business challenges to yours. Seasoned practitioners should be able to regale you with multiple stories and the learnings from each experience. Charlatans, however, will rely on hackneyed (lazy) examples from the likes of Apple, Google, Nike, etc.

  • Alternative approaches: ask them to talk you through the pros and cons of different methodologies for your needs. There’s rarely a single best way to teach a subject or one size fits all approach. This both demonstrates that they have broad and deep subject matter expertise and they’ve tailored content to your needs and context. From experience, charlatans generally learn the most popular methods from books but can rarely elaborate on others.

  • Problem-solving: ask them to describe how they would apply their teachings to solve business challenges (live or historical). Ideally, bring a colleague along who is knowledgeable about the challenge so that they can parry with them and test their mettle.

  • References: always ask for references from clients who have applied the learnings. For clarity, you're looking for concrete examples of where training has directly led to business impact. Charlatans are often good at Edutainment and will pass you to previous clients who will talk about what a ‘fun’ or ‘engaging’ experience they had.


HBR, Why Leadership Training Fails—and What to Do About It, Oct 2016

Shift Learning Study, Sept 2020

McKinsey, Getting more from your training programs, Oct 2010

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