Train or Hire? Both.

During my career in forestry, I learned that managing trees is about managing people. Forest resource managers and timberland investors are also human resource professionals. The work gets done through building productive relationships and teams.

As with a baseball coach, a manager “off the field” continually seeks opportunities to upgrade the skills of the team and develop younger talent for future roles within the organization. This requires a clear understanding of your objectives (“begin the end in mind”) and an assessment of whether or not the needed skills and abilities already exist on your team. Once we identify the gaps, then we can decide how to fill them.

To Train or Not to Train

Robert Mager, in What Every Manager Should Know About Training, specifies training for situations where, one, we identify things that people cannot do and, two, they need to be able to do these things to perform in their role. This framework, while obvious, acknowledges the existence of other ways to improve performance. Examples include coaching and feedback, and performance aids.

Coaching and feedback help us reinforce and enable wanted behaviors. If a member of your team does something well or poorly, tell them. They want, and deserve, to know, and it tells them that you’re paying attention. Sometimes they simply need a little guidance, a sympathetic ear or a resource.

Performance aids, to quote Dr. Mager, “cue people to do their jobs right.” Like a vetted checklist, a good aid reminds people to do the things they already know how to do. As a benefit, simple tools or aids can also reduce the need for excess training.

Train or Hire?

At Forisk, our forest industry research firm, we hire AND train OR outsource once confirming the need for additional capacity. When hiring, the person must, first and foremost, share the values of our team and then have the aptitude and interest to build skills that align with the needs of the business. In our experience with human beings, it simply does not work the other way around. 

When you hire a good person that fits the values of your team, it becomes a worthwhile no-brainer to invest in training. Internal training has, at times, important advantages. When people on the team develop and deliver the training to colleagues for firm-specific skills, it grows them as managers and leaders. In those situations, the entire team gets better.

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Note: in addition to the cited and linked sources, this post includes ideas from the article “Here’s How to Assess an Organization’s Education and Training Needs” by Brooks Mendell and Amanda Hamsley Lang.

Checklists Improve Results, Reduce Errors and Save Lives

Four years ago, in September 2017, spacesuit technician Joseph Schmitt passed away at 101. The Economist magazine reported how, at NASA, Schmitt helped design and fit spacesuits during the years when Alan Shepard made America’s first manned space flight (1961), John Glenn circled the Earth (1962) and Apollo 11 landed a module on the moon (1969). Before retiring in 1983, Schmitt also supported Space Shuttle launches and the first Skylab flight.

Astronauts trusted their lives to the work of people like Mr. Schmitt, and he relied heavily on the use of checklists to focus resources, manage quality and minimize risk. As with any pilot working a pre-flight list and surgeons such as Atul Gawande (who wrote the bestseller The Checklist Manifesto), checklists saved lives. In the case of Schmitt, his list included items such as air-leaks, communication lines and the security of over-gloves, helmets and boots. 

Checklists also support high performance for less life-dependent activities. Consider real estate closings, malt loaf recipes, investing decisions, and the analysis of timber markets. In the end, simple tools such as checklists help us avoid “boiling the ocean” and fuzzy thinking in order to prioritize effort on the task at hand.

Brooks on Books: What are You Reading?

When visiting family or eating with friends (or interviewing job candidates), I often ask “what are you reading?” I find books or other long form writing a better source of conversational kindling than discussing the weather, recent doctor visits or the op-ed pages. A discussion starting with books and authors can lead anywhere. 

For example, my Aunt and I regularly exchange book ideas. A lover of horses and Native American culture, she introduced me to Tony Hillerman’s Navajo Tribal Police mysteries featuring police Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn and Sgt. Jim Chee. (So far, I’ve read Dance Hall for the Dead and The Ghostway.) This led to discussions about Navajo artists and my Aunt’s earrings, which helped me discover the Native American artist Frances Jones and a lovely bracelet for my wife for our anniversary. This series of links, connected by books, occurred over a ten-year period.

My Mom and Dad belong to book clubs (Mom and her friends drink tea when discussing their books; Dad’s crew drinks wine). Over the years, both sent me books they’ve read and enjoyed. Dad, a Vietnam Veteran, sent me a copy of Beyond Survival by former POW Gerald Coffee. The book recounts how Coffee and his fellow prisoners of war supported each other and communicated with a secret code tapped on walls between cells. (Sometime, after a difficult day, I flip through this book for perspective and appreciation.) The book strengthened an interest in reporting and fiction from Vietnam, including my favorite, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, a book of linked short stories related to the Vietnam War.

Books connect us. This goes beyond required high school reading and Bible study, both of which offer their own foundational literacy. When someone uses the word “tesseract” or “grok” in a sentence, I feel a flush of joy and follow-up later to ask when they read Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time or Richard Heinlein’s A Stranger in a Strange Land. The book-based connections help us share memories (and travel through space and time). 

So, what are you reading? I welcome your comments and recommendations.

This post is dedicated to my Dad. Happy Birthday, Captain!

Is This Meeting Necessary?

According to the late author and management expert Peter Drucker,[1] “one either meets or one works.”

While our sympathies agree with this, we’ve also experienced effective, well-run meetings that got things done. Meetings either leverage or waste company resources, time and productivity, so the skills required to lead and facilitate meetings have value and import

Diagnosing meeting quality does not require a PhD (few things do). As noted in a previous essay, meetings fail for specific, well-understood reasons

Alternately, meetings succeed if they adhere to a few basic practices. This starts with asking, “is this meeting necessary?” In Loving Trees is Not Enough, I wrote about primary roles served by meetings:

  • Rapid decision making;
  • Sharing information and education; and 
  • Generating ideas and feedback.

We should be able to state, in one simple sentence, the purpose of any given meeting. “We are deciding how to staff this project” or “we are reviewing the audit results to identify next steps.” If we cannot specify the purpose, then what happens if we cancel the meeting? Per Mr. Drucker, we work.

To keep meetings on track, start on time and with an agenda. Remind those assembled (in one sentence) what we plan to accomplish. The agenda serves to clarify expectations in advance. This helps participants prepare and contribute appropriately, in addition to confirming whether or not they should attend in the first place. Everyone should “need” to be there and have a specific role.

At the end of the meeting, ask “who else needs to know?” Then, you can get back to work.


[1] His books, including The Practice of Management and Managing in Turbulent Times, remain relevant and timely to this day.

How to Improve the Communication of Research: Lessons from Forestry and Wood Bioenergy

In 2012, the Forest History Society published Wood for Bioenergy: Forests as a Resource for Biomass and Biofuels,” a book I co-authored with Amanda Lang. It serves as a primer on the markets, policies and technologies associated with wood pellets, liquid fuels and wood-based electricity and power. In 2021, the Lynn W. Day Endowment sponsored my lecture that revisited our assumptions on wood bioenergy ten years ago – and other forestry-related topics – and how they played out over time (click here to view a replay of the lecture).

Over time, we learned lessons from (1) our own research and (2) the way reporters and the media covered research. We observed how researchers and reporters, while typically operating in good faith to do the best job they can, end up failing to communicate core finding or insights accessibly or accurately. For example, when the Forest History Society commissioned us to author Wood for Bioenergy, the copyeditors recommended, on multiple occasions, that we simplify concepts for the target audience. Generally speaking, we tended to be too “technical” and needed to boil down key findings with context.

Common Errors

Articles in newspapers, on the other hand, tended to suffer from different issues. In 2014, I published an article on this topic in BioResources (“Learning from mistakes in the media to improve the communication of wood bioenergy research”). The article focused on three common errors in reporting on wood bioenergy and forestry that offer guidance for the coverage of research and technical analysis:

  1. Failure to provide context, which rarely requires exhaustive research or supplementary analysis. Help readers and policymakers get a relative sense for the magnitude of a problem. 
  2. Improperly assigning “causal” relationships. For example, does it only rain when the Red Sox win, or are other factors involved?
  3. Errors of fact. Double check the basic facts. One faulty assertion casts doubt on the broader work and body of research, which can undermine the careers and efforts of entire research teams.

Conclusion

Being effective in our fields requires skills beyond the technical. Technical skills divorced from the ability to communicate that we have these skills, and the insights we generate from applying these skills, limit our influence. Success and relevance to decisionmakers depends on our ability to communicate what we know to others.