How many times do I have to tell you? Employee training requires repetition to get real results

My company recently wrapped up a year of detailed research into best practices of more than 450 high-performing multiunit managers, or MUMs, across various industry segments. I’ve compiled those key learnings into a new book on multiunit leadership that will be published in April.

One of my favorite book title suggestions came from Tom Rector, a principal in Atlanta-based Foodservice University, a company that provides channel manufacturers with the tools and technology to improve the productivity of its sales partners. His suggestion: “How Many Times Do I Have to Tell You?”

I spent a lot of time shadowing those high performing MUMs on the job, working alongside them as they reviewed reports, compiled quarterly business plans, visited stores, led meetings, and met and coached their management team. A phrase I heard often from exasperated MUMs was identical to Tom’s proposed title: “How many times do I have to tell you?”

Recently I heard a restaurant manager at a casual dinnerhouse say the same thing to her bartender, and the next morning—I am not making this up—my wife said the same thing to one of our boys.

Although I didn’t use that phrase for the book title, I realized that Tom was definitely on to something.

Why do managers have to teach their teams the same things over and over again? Part of it is the nature of training: Repetition is critical to learning new things. Part of it is that the trainee sometimes isn’t paying attention, listening or caring.

I think the biggest reason that time-stressed and over-worked managers have to repeat themselves to their crew is because we’re simply impatient when it comes to teaching or coaching. Training is not a vending machine discipline; you don’t put money in and get a trained employee out. It takes time, discipline and commitment.

Most unit managers and multiunit managers mistakenly think of training as a project. They presume the trainee goes from naivete to knowledge along a linear path infused with information defined by clear beginning and ending points. But training is in fact a process, a cyclical pattern of collaboration that is repeated daily, framed with relevant content, guided practice and blended learning that never ends.

When does somebody finally “get it”? It all depends on how self-motivated they are to learn whatever it is you want them to get. Despite what you may have heard in your last leadership seminar, no one can be motivated, but everyone is self-motivated. Some people are self-motivated to listen or be on time, others are self-motivated to ignore you or be late.

Knowing this, a smart way to begin planning any formal or informal training session is to first consider the five key words of self-motivated learning: “So what? And who cares?” Be the devil’s advocate for your own content and you’ll train better every time.

To honestly address these two unspoken questions moves the enlightened manager-trainer to explain “why” before telling “how.” If you explain why something has to be done with enough conviction, rationale and passion that the trainee responds by asking you how to do it, you have just set a mind afire, and leapt a major training obstacle by creating a self-motivated learner.

Now back to the question of how many times do I have to tell you. Studies indicate that it takes about 28 days in a row of different behavior to change a habit in an individual. By my count, then, a manager has to patiently repeat themselves for nearly a month in a row, and those 28 days had best be full of the new 3R’s: repetition, reinforcement, and recognition and not a combination of telling, yelling and whining. Little victories, every day, framed with habitual consistency and progress is the goal.

I’ve said it a hundred times before and will probably say it a hundred times more: The secret to success in 2007 can be summed up in four small words: No train, no gain.

How many times do I have to tell you?