There is a parable about a sower, who plants seeds on different terrains. The sower planted one set of seeds in rocky soil. Those seeds sprouted quickly, producing small vibrant plants, because of the unprepared and shallow soil. But when the sun reached its apex, bearing down its scorching, unforgiving rays, the plants withered and died. They could not bear up to the heat because they had no roots.
The sower then planted another set of seeds in good soil , but surrounded by angry thorns. The plants sprouted and grew strong and beautiful until the thorns slowly entwined the tender shoots, choking out their life.
And finally, he found the good soil. Firmly rooted and tended, away from weeds and thorns, these plants grew and thrived, sharing their beautiful blooms with the world.
The thing I remember about this parable is that it wasnt about the seeds. The seeds that were planted were all the same. It was the environment that played the primary role in the viability of the plants.
How does this relate to us?
This past week, I met with 8 brand new workers, who had just started in the training unit. It wasn’t planned. As a matter of fact I was in my office, extremely busy, trying to complete a report that was due that day. My assistant buzzed in to inform me that the staff trainer was in the outer office with 8 new staff who wanted to meet the director. I must confess that initially I felt irritation at the unannounced visit and stress about the due date of my still pending report. In my ire, several questions flashed furiously in my mind in the seconds it took me to reply.
Why would she put me on the spot like that?
Why would the trainer bring the staff up to my office without even finding out if I was busy (which I was). I had made it a point to schedule a time to meet every new training class, so why now?
Finally, I sighed, and let her know I would be glad to meet with the new staff. Straightening my slacks and breathing in deeply to calm my face, I put on a welcoming smile and opened the door.
What happened after that changed my attitude for the rest of the day and replenished my own bucket. I introduced myself to the group, and began talking about the agency mission and vision. I discussed the importance of each staff member on the team and related it to the key roles they would play. We talked briefly about how the programs were different but complimented each other as we all worked towards the same goal. I then asked them if they had any questions about the agency that I could clarify for them.
One young lady tentatively asked me to describe what I loved most about my job. Taken aback, I paused briefly. No one asked me anymore what I liked about my job or if I even did like my job. After thinking for a minute, I talked about how I loved developing staff, equipping them with transferable skills and helping them in leadership development. Their faces were pleasant, but I could tell that I had missed the mark. So I asked them if they were more interested in what I liked about my job when I was a case worker like them. That was it. Again I was intrigued at the question.
I paused again, briefly. I didn’t have to think long because I realized that what drew me to the social work career 30 years earlier still held true. So I talked about the fascination of engaging families and helping them to develop a vision for their future. I described looking beneath the surface problems and learning that everyone has layers. Then I discussed how discovering the underlying needs could lead to partnering with the family on a plan for achieving their vision.
As I spoke, I watched their eyes widen and their heads nod. They were true believers. And I was amazed to realize, that when I was not caught up in the politics and administration of my job as director, that I was still one too. I became energized and animated while we talked about the families and that feeling you got when you able to really reach them. It wasn’t just a rehearsed speech, I believed every word coming out of my mouth. Emboldened, they began to ask more questions such as how to achieve work-life balance and still make a difference. We talked HONESTLY about the sometimes overwhelming demands of the job and why it was important to be prepared for the difficulties along with the satisfaction. I told them it was necessary to find their stress outlet and to develop a support group. The interaction did not take 15 minutes. However, as I returned to my office, I realized how much lighter I felt, being in the company of true believers.
Then I wondered how each of them would fare when the pressure mounted and the enormity of the job responsibility beat down upon their shoulders like the sun with its withering heat. I knew that if they did not receive the training, guidance and coaching they needed to develop deep roots, they would wither and fall away.
I wondered what would happen when they left the training unit to work among seasoned staff. By far, the majority of the agency staff were also strong, dedicated staff, firmly rooted and grounded in their understanding of the agency vision. But there were a few thorns. These thorny, negative staff would rather shame and blame than to grow. You know the ones I mean. Those who lost their drive and committment yet continue to hang on to a job from which they gain no happiness. They often scoffed at those who remained mission minded. I worried that if the new staff were not carefully tended, they would not develop the confidence needed to ward off the negative thorns and could have their hope strangled.
These issues are not unique to my agency. Every agency has these issues. The question remains: How do we take these true believers and make sure they find the good soil?
Although the parable does not elaborate , any gardener knows that good soil is not always enough. However, good soil can be created with nutrients and thorough tilling. As leaders you must ensure that the first exposure new staff have to your agencies begins with a comprehensive and interactive training curriculum. Excellent training takes time and planning, but the soil produced becomes a rich environment that stimulates learning of and investing in your mission. Believe me the time up front developing and implementing an excellent training environment will pay off by producing more competent and confident staff.
Practice takes practice.
Ensure that the new staff get to start slowly, practicing their newly learned skills. Having a mentor to coach and model allows the new staff to see the trainer’s words in action.
A great OJT model is
Incredibly simply, it is an effective tool for developing skills in New staff.
First the OJT mentor performs the skill (interviewing a child, conducting a treatment plan meeting). The staff observes, takes notes and discusses afterward. At the next opportunity, the mentor talks the staff through the situation prior to beginning and shares the responsibility of the skill. In the third step the mentor allows the staff to perform the skill with the mentor observing and offering feedback afterwards. Lastly, the mentor releases the staff to perform the skill alone, but makes themselves available to the staff when needed.
The job your staff perform is difficult as well as emotionally and physically draining. Many new social workers do not stay when the grueling heat comes. So, I say this to you. Value your staff. Help them to develop roots. Dont let their belief and their positive drive be strangled by negativity. By preparing the soil, and tending to the developing plants, you can help them to grow strong and to extend their own roots to join yours and those others that are tied together as a force of nature to achieve your agency’s vision.