Being comfortable with your surroundings is safe. You know how things operate, understand the lay of the land, and you feel a sense of normalcy. However comfortable you may be, you may also be becoming complacent. You begin to atrophy mentally – there is no longer the rush of accomplishment in doing new things, and while results may be consistent, you are only achieving the status quo, nothing above and beyond. When your career has reached this impasse, it can be very frustrating. There is a reason why children look at life with wonder and amazement, and there is an even bigger reason why adults no longer look at things quite the same way. They have come to expect that fascination often fades, and that the disappointment of certain realities may dull the anticipation of whatever follows. Looking back, I am certain that I was starting to show that dull sheen to the sales training classes I conducted.
As a pharmaceutical sales trainer, I was in that comfortable place. Leading classes, managing vendors to create training, coordinating training plans, partnering with marketing and sales leadership on tight timelines and small budgets – I could do it all in my sleep. But the industry was becoming volatile, and my role was at risk. Fewer companies were hiring actual training teams, and many were instead migrating to a model where skilled project managers were hired to manage large training projects. The skills of a project manager differed from that of a traditional sales training manager. And while I struggled to bridge gaps in a changing environment, I was feeling less comfort and more anxiety about my job. How was I valuable to an industry that found my expertise obsolete? What could I bring to the table that made me diverse and unique? For those answers, I turned to my mentors for guidance and support.
Let me preface by saying, be careful what you wish for when you ask for 360° feedback. You really have to be open to suggestions and confident about what you bring to the table. Inadvertently, you may be cut pretty close to the core of your talent, and without a strong backbone for criticism, it can hurt. But I was open and looking for honest advice, which included a total assessment of my performance, focusing on where I lacked experience. Medical sales is not a process-based environment, and more and more companies were moving towards a structured approach to training, so I wasn’t entirely surprised when many of my colleagues recommended I find an opportunity on the training vendor side to increase my knowledge of instructional design as well as more innovative ways to deliver training. I had managed many partnerships with vendors over the years, but the truth was that I knew very little about the way they operated. The beauty of it was, the vendors had managed many industry partnerships on their side, but knew very little about the way we operated – so it was an ideal way to position my strengths and knowledge, and receive reciprocity in the experience.
In any other vocation that involves teaching, there is an expectation that teachers should be consistently learning. There are requirements for continuing education that don’t apply to our industry, and it is tragic. We rely on our experiences in sales to educate us on what the customer needs, and what the learner requires to be effective, but we don’t invest enough in ourselves to provide the best possible solutions for their needs. Working with those I had hired in the past to help me develop training, opened my eyes to a completely different side of the business. I felt as if I were walking onto the set of one of my favorite reality shows, Undercover Boss – where I was merely impersonating someone who knew about training in the workplace, in order to see what really goes on at a training development company. In twenty years of working with these people, I never knew the volume of work that went on with multiple clients simultaneously. I grossly underestimated the sheer scope and magnitude of the behind-the-scenes processes that brought training to life. In truth, I began to believe that the value of project managers was infinite in the big picture of training, and that organizations moving to that design might be on to something. As a trainer, I took for granted that my projects were the only ones that mattered, but now I watched as project managers masterfully commanded competing schedules to arrange teams of writers and editors based on their areas of expertise. And the expertise was impressive – Ph.Ds., M.Ds., workshop strategists, instructional designers, medical illustrators. The amount of hands that touched each project were plenty. This by far was the worst of my underestimation of the vendor-client relationship; how much I always thought the client did on their end was in gross disproportion to the incredible amount that the vendor side was doing. It took a level of orchestration that I had never quite experienced, and I was humbled by its precision. Suddenly, I wasn’t so comfortable. I was the child again – watching with wonder and amazement.
If you have ever watched Wicked Tuna on the History channel, or hooked a fish yourself, you know the less stress on the fish, the better the catch. Knowing this, I went in to the opportunity as a Program Designer completely flexible - willing and wanting to be taught the ropes. If they gave me a writing assignment, I took it willingly. I poured my passion into helping them understand what the client meant when they asked for certain deliverables, and was a veritable sponge when it came to learning new ways to deliver training. If they wanted me at a brainstorming, I would listen, watch, and contribute, but the funny part is, I came in hoping to teach them. Little did I know, they would end up teaching me more than I ever could have expected. The processes were foreign to me, the level of quality control was more intense than I had been used to, and I stumbled many times. In those early days, I realized the true value of being new to something, and of being part of something greater than yourself. I worked harder than I ever had to learn and grow professionally, and as a result, took much more pride in the finished product.
Eventually, I did return to the training platform, but with a renewed sense of direction, purpose, and with a fresh perspective. And to every trainer out there, I highly recommend the experience of working within the walls of a training design organization. It brought me to the realization that if you change your viewpoint, and get down to the grassroots level, you may reignite a fire that had been doused in you professionally for some time. You might find a deeper passion, or find a new meaning to things you once thought you knew so well.