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A Safe Place to Dry

As you hire and train your seasonal staff this fall, there is one thing I want you to contemplate…

When do you throw your new staff to the wolves?

I was in Office Depot yesterday and the name tag of the guy at checkout said “trainee”. I looked around and he was all alone. No support, no one to lean on if he had a question. And he had a question.

One of the items did not have a barcode on it. He looked around with a sense of panic in his eyes. No other staff was within range. What should he do? He decided to take measures into his own hands and go find the number himself. Left his register all alone and ran – no not a fast walk, an actual sprint – over to the area to find the number for that product. He was huffing and puffing when he returned and a little unnerved that he left his register unattended for a short bit (hence the sprint).

He solved the problem and he is definitely a go-getter, but it wasn’t training that helped him, it was instinct. He probably wasn’t ready to be alone yet. But how many times do we do that? How often do we give our new staff just enough skills to do the job and then leave them alone and hope they learn the rest on the job?

You cannot leave that kind of training to chance.

Here is how this lesson gets learned in my book Hiring and the Potter’s Wheel. (2 chapters – enjoy!)

Chapter 12 Lessons 4, 5 and 6 Centering, Gentleness & Protection
“Kind words can be short and easy to speak but their echoes are truly endless.” – Mother Teresa

“So, how did the conference go?” Mary began.

“Quite ordinary, a bunch of theories using fifty cent words, but nothing that hasn’t already been explored or learned,” Dr. Scott explained. “I’d have rather been in your pottery class. How about you? How was class? Having fun? Learn anything new?”

Mary almost didn’t know where to begin. “The pottery is great. I love it. I think I may have found a new hobby. I can’t thank you enough. And as for business, since we last met, I have learned three distinct lessons.” Mary pulled out some notes she had been taking.

“First, before I can start throwing, I mean training, I have to make sure everyone is centered, that they are starting from the same point. Everyone has to be on the same page. That pretty much goes hand in hand with the earlier lesson of getting out the impurities, the air bubbles. I’ve already developed a clear set of guidelines and expectations, and also a list of bad habits to watch for and weed out, if necessary. But no matter what their previous experience, everyone will start from the same point in their training. That way I’ll be sure not leave anything out.

“Second, once the throwing, oops, I mean training, begins, I have to remember to use a gentle hand, lots of positive encouragement. There’s the old saying, “you get more flies with honey than with vinegar.” The same is true in teaching. The more positive gentle words, the more likely the student will listen and learn.

“That was tough for me, I mean in the pottery. I kept pushing too hard and watching my bowl flop over like it was sick. It reminded me of how I feel when someone yells at me or pushes too hard. Patience and gentleness are definitely the keys. I wrote myself a sticky note on top of my computer to remind me to praise every thing done right during the training to help encourage that behavior.

“But wait, as I think about it, you were never gentle with me, Dr. Scott. You always pushed me hard. You and your, ‘you can do better,’ mantra,” Mary added with a slight sarcastic twinge.

“But did I ever push you too hard?”

“No, I guess not,” Mary replied wistfully.

“You’re absolutely right on this, Mary,” Dr. Scott continued. “Pushing too hard never works. But you have to find the right pressure to get the most out of your clay, and your trainee. If you don’t push at all, nothing gets formed.

“I think you’re getting it. Now what about that third lesson?”

“Well, last night it dawned on me as I placed my bowl in the rack to safely dry, how often do we put newly trained employees into safe positions? Usually, once training is done we throw them to the wolves, so to speak. But wouldn’t it be better if we put them in a safe environment to try out their new skills? If they were in limited roles or carefully supervised, they could safely practice their skills and grow stronger. We know, no matter how well they train, they are going to make mistakes. But this way they can make mistakes under a watchful eye and learn from those mistakes before the errors become costly. That way they’ll be even better when they finally take on their new roles.”

“Kind of how your clay is growing stronger as it hardens?” Dr. Scott asked.

“Exactly!” Mary exclaimed. “Once the training is complete, I’m going to come up with a safe way for my new sales reps to use their skills. But Peter said something curious just as we left. He mentioned that our bowls, although hard, would be quite fragile once dried. I think I’ve got a little more to learn about this step and the steps following.

Mary looked at her watch, “Well, I’ve got to run. Oh, and I’ve got interviews scheduled all next week. Can we meet the following Tuesday?”

“Sure. You know I don’t like to miss any meals,” Dr. Scott said with a chuckle. “See you then.”

Chapter 13 Class #7 Smoothing the Rough Spots
“The soul is placed in the body like a rough diamond, and must be polished, or the luster of it will never appear.” – Daniel Defoe

After a long day of interviews, Mary was exhausted. Only the excitement of seeing her bowl gave her the strength to make it down to the YMCA. All weekend long, when not thinking about work, Mary was decorating her bowl in her head, how she would paint it, what colors to use, etc. But to Mary’s surprise, as she entered the classroom, there were no paints or paintbrushes, only sponges and sandpaper.

Peter sensed Mary’s disappointment. “What’s wrong, Mary?”

“Where are the paints? I thought we’d be decorating our bowls tonight,” Mary inquired.

“Not yet, not yet. Your bowls aren’t ready. Okay everyone, take a seat.

“Before I bring out the rack where your bowls have safely dried and hardened over the weekend, I want to review a few terms. First, since we are making bowls and the shapes are finished, I’ve allowed your clay bodies to dry completely. We call that bone-dry. But in some cases, such as making a water pitcher or any piece of pottery that might have an attachment, we would only allow them to dry about 75 to 80 percent. Does anyone remember what we called that last week?”

“Leather-hard!” shouted out one of the students.

“Very good!” Peter remarked. “The clay is firm enough that it won’t change shape, but wet enough that attachments can be made and will stick. There are different levels of leather-hard, such as soft leather-hard when we trimmed the foot, medium leather-hard, and stiff leather-hard. But since we aren’t doing any advanced designs, now we want it bone-dry.

“But this gives me a chance to plug my advanced pottery class that starts two weeks after this one ends. In that class we will be making more advanced shapes such as a water pitcher and using more advanced techniques including working with leather-hard clays. If you’re having fun and want to continue creating works of art – and believe me, these bowls are well done – you can sign up tonight right after class.

“Okay, tonight we need to prep these bowls for decorating. Before you go to the rack, understand that your bowls are dry and hard, but also fragile. This is one of the dangerous stages in pottery. You will need to handle your bowl gently as it is easy to chip them or even break them in this stage. Everyone pick up your bowl. Now, feel them. Run your hands all over them. Do you feel how rough they are?”

Mary was surprised. The clay had felt so smooth last Wednesday as she shaped it. But now there were rough spots both inside and outside the bowl.

“Not to worry, folks. This is quite normal. Our task today is to smooth out the rough spots. Up here on the table I have masks, sandpaper and sponges to do this job. The masks are for safety. The dust you kick up as you sand your bowl is silica dust and can be harmful. Please wear the masks. Use the sandpaper to gently scrape away any lumps, seams, or other extra pieces of clay. Especially work on the rim of your bowl. As you scrape away the excess, lightly dampen the sponge and wash away any dust that might accumulate.

“If you have any spots that won’t come smooth with the sandpaper, you can use this scraper. I recommend you start with the sandpaper and sponge first. Only use the scraper as a last resort, and be sure to wipe away any and all dust.”

Before you hire your next employee, buy the book. It will make a difference.

-Phil Wrzesinski

PS If you already have the book, download the Hiring & Training Worksheets. They’re free!

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