Staff Training

Editor’s Note : This column, LBWA (Leadership By Wandering Around), is based on the premise that, in order to find out what’s going on in the field, a parks and rec leader has to leave his or her desk and “wander around” the area of operations, talk to people, ask questions and kick around ideas with the individuals in the thick of delivering services to the public. So the author will bring up issues that may be common to many PRB readers and ask the leaders who are the readers to weigh in and share their knowledge and experiences.

Training is one of those areas that should be at the forefront of every aspect of the parks and recreation operation. But how can we expect people to perform to expectations if we don’t show them what the expectations are?

In the rush of day-to-day activity, when time is of the essence and there are more priorities than there are hours in the day, training is one of the first “priorities” to be pushed back.

This first started to be an issue for me when I started in the parks and rec business about 11 years ago. I initially noticed it with the maintenance crews. We were blessed (and cursed?) with 44 youth and adult sports fields for soccer, baseball, softball, football and lacrosse. Each type of field required a unique type of care.

New to the industry, I was learning as I went. I learned there was a right way and a wrong way to drag an infield or mow a soccer field. There were issues involved that I’d never dreamed of. As the director, I could learn these things as I had to in order to get the tools and resources my staff needed to get the job done.

But I started noticing how different crew members did the various tasks to varying levels of quality. This would generally manifest itself when I had to respond to complaints from users.

So I began finding out how our crews trained for this duty. I discovered it was mostly OJT (on-the-job training), very informal, and very in-house. I was told there was not “time” or money to send people to training. I took steps to immediately change that.

My premise is that we don’t have time NOT to send people to training. In-house OJT is fine, but eventually you could be training bad habits along with the good. Not only does quality, external training bring in fresh perspectives on accomplishing tasks, it also gives staff members a feeling of professionalism, and it will show in their work.

I guess this isn’t a phenomenon that is unique only to the parks and rec business. I found that it even happened in the military, which I did for 20 years before this business. Sometimes the operational mission was considered so critical that there was not time for extraneous training. I suppose that is valid to a point, but there comes a time when the mission begins to fail because time isn’t given to training.

Taking The Lead

In any environment, training is one of those areas that must be driven from the top. If the person in charge doesn’t consider training important or worth spending a little time or money on, then that attitude is going to roll right down the hill. The parks and recreation leader has to become the “Training Director” and guide the path of training in the organization.

This doesn’t mean he or she has to do all the work. The first thing to do is appoint a “Training Manager,” a lieutenant who will execute the training philosophy you establish. Let the lieutenant know they too can delegate. The more people you can involve in the planning and selection of training programs the more buy-in you’ll have.

Next is to find out exactly what kind of training to focus on. This is where you can get input from every member of your staff, from the most senior to the most junior. Do a short training survey. Better yet, try to get everyone together, or section by section, and do a “brainstorming session” to get ideas. This will bring out better ideas and is more stimulating for everyone.

Once you’ve isolated training needs, find training sources. Many times you have in-house resources in your own department, or even in other departments, that you don’t even know about until you start asking.

Bringing in qualified outside trainers can often be more effective. Staff has to listen to you and your managers all day long. Sometimes it’s best to have them hear the message from a qualified third party. Local, regional or national municipal associations (such as the International City/County Management Association, or in Georgia, the Georgia Municipal Association) often offer free or low-cost professional training sessions at your site. There are also companies that do this and if you shop around and budget for it, you can outsource.

Setting The Mood

Sending staff to outside training is great too. It gets them out of their workspace and among others who are in the same line of work. They often rejuvenate their creative juices and come back motivated. This will generally cost a little more, but the payback in higher motivation and better performance is well worth it.

And, generally speaking, if all other aspects of your organization are in good shape, better-trained people are happier and tend to stay with you; it’s always better and ultimately less expensive to have a motivated staff of seasoned, well-trained people rather than losing them and having to re-train.

Training Day

One additional thing I’ve insisted on is an annual “all-hands” training day. I have more than 60 staff who work in various sections of the parks, recreation and library operations. We have different shifts because some of our facilities are open before or after normal working hours. Even with a relatively small staff as this, some people don’t even know others let alone what they do.

I normally plan this at the first of the year. The annual training day (or it can be a half day, or two days…) is a time for me to let everyone know what’s coming up in the year, and what part they’ll play in it. I give a Parks, Rec and Library 101 session and tell them about the organization. This especially helps new staff and makes them feel part of the team.

I invite the city manager and mayor to speak to them about big picture issues. Staff can ask questions and get answers. If I’ve done my job and kept people informed, there are no surprises.

The annual training also lets everyone see what others in their organization do. It makes them realize they’re part of something larger than just their section. They begin to see how they fit into the big picture.

So how about it? What are some of the training ideas you all have in the field? What’s the best training experience you’ve had? What’s the worst? Got some good suggestions for training scenarios? I’m wide open to suggestions…contact the PRB staff or me and we’ll get them in here.

Randy Gaddo is the director of Parks, Recreation and Library Services in Peachtree City, Ga. He can be reached via e-mail at or call (770) 631-2542.