Advice for Young Training and Development Professionals


Learning and Development is a vital part of any organization, large or small. It helps to increase efficiency, generate performance improvement and support workplace competitiveness. As practitioners, we have a profound responsibility in guiding the futures of our participants and setting them up to be capable and confident learners as well as productive workers. The influence of a bad trainer can have a long-term negative effect, so we owe to our learners and our organizations to create engaging experiences that help participants to build the confidence to take the kinds of risks required to be effective learners.

I have been enormously privileged to work in such a vibrant and dynamic profession. It has allowed me to do something I am truly passionate about and enabled me to meet some incredibly talented people along the way. It has taken me all over the world and provided a base to build a wonderful lifestyle for myself and my family. However, it hasn’t come without its challenges. In this article, I will share my beginnings in this industry and provide some advice for young professionals starting out in the Learning and Development field.

The Beginning

I delivered my very first training session as a pony-tailed 19 year old more than 20 years ago. It was an “introduction to marketing” and I drew upon the vast body of knowledge I had gained from the two units I took at college on the subject and every book I could find in the local library.  As Larry Page and Sergey Brin were still undergrads at time, there was no Google to save me! I remember being up until 3am completing the session plan, activities and handouts and running on adrenalin later the same day putting into practice. I lacked experience, both as a trainer and in the subject matter, but spurred on by self-belief and the commitment to delivering a great outcome for the participants, I somehow pulled it all off. By day’s end I was hooked. There was something about being in front of a group and guiding their performance that was motivating. Having the opportunity to shape their future in positive ways and being part of their “aha” moments was intoxicating.

I learned early that engagement was important to my success. I reflected upon my own education and experience as a learner and shook up the traditional ways of doing things and continued to look for new and interesting ways to involve the audience. Training is not an event, it is a process and the quicker we involve the participants in their learning, the quicker they will connect with the content. Ever since those formative days as a beginning trainer, I have stayed resolute in my commitment to creating a superior learner experience. This simple premise has helped me build a successful international training business, become a keynote speaker and author, and a multi-award winning trainer.

The new face of Learning and Development

A few years ago I spoke to a conference of HR directors and explained that they were the custodians of the future success of their organizations and they had to take their learning and development roles seriously. Rather than simply being a support function, their role was the engine room for growth. More importantly, I said, when we stop investing in our people, both personally and professionally, we stop investing in long term viability and competitiveness.

The race for talent is back on and the organizations that consider learning and development as the centrepiece of their people management will prevail. The challenge will be in wrestling the steering wheel from management teams that seem satisfied in using 19th century practices to solve 21st century problems. Let’s face it, the rules have changed, the game has changed, and if we don’t change our approach to business, we will be on the endangered list. Put simply, as learning and development professionals we can’t do what we’ve always done. Like natural resources, we should see human resources as non-renewable. Moreover, they have to be developed, refined and valued before we reap the rewards. It is critical that we move past the traditional mindset of throwing our hands into an “endless bucket” of personnel and do more to enrich the skills and the lives of those presently in our employ.

This is not rocket science. If we improve the quality of the worker, we improve the quality of the work. But it has to more than this. The role of a modern learning and development team should be to support the growth of the worker, help them to build a lifestyle and show them a future in what they are doing. In this way, you not only improve the work, but you have workers who want to improve.

Key Lessons Learned

As a trainer, I have always looked to explore new techniques, activities and approaches. This has helped me to stay fresh. It has to be said that it is important to take risks, because this is where the learning happens. I didn’t always get it right, but I had the courage to try those new things and stretch myself professionally. Sometimes you just have to throw out “tried and true” techniques, as this ultimately leads to better results. We can’t be cookie-cutter versions of the ideal trainer, because every group is different and requires a unique approach to bring about success. Pushing the boundaries of our comfort zone is an incredibly liberating thing and I recommend that all trainers try something new or different every time they walk into a classroom, to keep themselves engaged. You have to be yourself and back yourself. This will help you to create your own authentic style. Participants want to connect with real people, who have had real experiences and they want to know that the trainer is on their side.

Further to this, the expectations of learners are so much higher today than when I started in the industry and they are more connected (i.e. through smart devices) than at any other time in history. Trainers need to recognise that they are competing for the attention of their audience.  Like it or not, training is now part education and part entertainment. There are some simple things that we can all do with our performance that can assist in attracting and maintaining the attention of the audience and transform our training into edutainment. For instance, music could be used effectively in a variety of ways:

  • As an introduction to signpost the beginning of the session;
  • As sound effects (e.g. drum roll or cheering) used when participants share responses;
  • During get-to-know-you activities to promote positive networking; and
  • During small group discussions to signal the duration of the activity (i.e. we come back when the music stops).

Further to this, the use of chimes or other musical instruments can be a fun way to identify the conclusion of a discussion activity.

Finally, the best piece of advice I can offer young training professionals, is to invest in themselves. With the ever-changing face of learning and development, on-going Continuous Professional Development (CPD) is essential to support practitioners in their current roles and assist them in maintaining a pathway of career progression. Put simply, if you don’t take your own development seriously, how can you expect anyone else to? Good luck in the next phase of your learning and development journey!

(An edited version of this appeared in the ATD Blog:

Marc Ratcliffe