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How Did I Get Here? Martin Schmalenbach

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Martin Schmalenbach was frustrated that seemingly ‘intelligent and experienced CEOs could manage to completely screw-up organisations’ so he joined the training profession to right some wrongs- review his career to date.


1. How did you come to work in training?

By accident! I got my first degree in electrical and electronic engineering and spent the better part of six years as a design engineer, first in power systems and then in semiconductors and software.

One day I just decided to change careers and joined the Royal Air Force as a Training Officer – I had 12 months of full-time leadership, officer and professional training – a real eye opener, and whilst physically very demanding, it was certainly not engineering! I spent my time training first technicians before moving on to manage ground-based training for Chinook and Puma helicopter crews.

I left after spending the latter part of my RAF career with the helicopter world, looking after ground-based aircrew training and also getting involved in the early work the RAF did in human factors flight safety.

This really piqued my interest in people, especially the killer question “why, in perfectly good flying conditions, with a very serviceable aircraft, does a highly trained and experienced pilot bury him or herself in a hillside?” The answers are many, and when I left the RAF I worked to try and answer a similar question in civilian organisations – why intelligent, experienced CEOs manage to completely screw-up an organisation?

I had a number of roles as training manager, consultant, working for many different kinds of organisations, big, small, public, private, manufacturing and service industry, including some international work – always interesting to work with other cultures.

I got myself a Masters degree in management training and development and I also got myself made redundant from a telecoms company for whom I was training manager. Profits didn’t hit their forecast. I got the chop because I couldn’t demonstrate that I was making a net contribution to the bottom line.

2. Describe your role.

I work to make sure that whatever people do in organisations, it makes a valued difference.

3. What activities do you spend most of your time on?

Researching – in as many different fields as possible – you’d be amazed at how everything is interconnected – a lesson learned in turbulent fluid dynamics or politics can save time and money in teambuilding (seriously – I wrote a paper on this for my first masters assignment!)

I try and share as much as I can with others, though I sometimes have to stop myself getting too emotional about something – it doesn’t always work!

I love things like sister site TrainingZONE and I’m really looking forward to my first big speaking engagement at the 2005 conference of the American Society for Training & Development – and the questions and challenges this will spark in others.

4. What are the best and worst aspects of your role?

The great thing about working for yourself is you get to decide to some extent who you work with and for, and to be in more control of the very topical work-life balance – that’s very important to the family.

The downside is having to go out and sell yourself and your wears – though that is becoming more enjoyable now as people are coming to me more than I to them.

The financial security that a monthly pay cheque brings is all in the mind – as anybody who’s lost their job will testify. But it does take the edge off the worry!

5. What’s your most over-used phrase?

D’Oh! Usually shouted by me when I realise I’ve broken one of the lessons I try to live by and pass on to others.

6. What is the best lesson you can pass on?

Question everything, assume nothing. Be ruthless in this regard, but be gracious with people always. But above all, be true to yourself.

7. What has been your worst training moment?

In the early days with the helicopter fraternity I was slated when I delivered a lecture on some of the less complex technical systems of the Chinook helicopter. Not being aircrew, nor fully prepared for the experience, I died on my behind quite badly and publicly. After about five minutes it was clear I was not helping the students, a mix of new and old aircrew, and they deserved the best. So I stopped the lecture, and rearranged it with a highly experienced crewman doing the delivery.

The lessons learned?

  • 1 – have credibility in the eyes of the audience

  • 2 – have confidence in your own abilities

  • 3 – you achieve the first two by knowing your subject, preparing well, and not bull sh*tting the audience – they’ll find you out so quickly it’s not true

  • 4 – be true to yourself and values – and follow your instincts. I didn’t press a bad situation but called it off and fixed the problem. I was surprised later when a couple of the crew said they respected my efforts in trying, and particularly for stopping it and putting it right. I’ve never forgotten that.

8. What influences do you think have had the greatest impact on the training sector in recent years?

Fads – as always!

The list is probably endless, but some that spring to mind are: e-learning, coaching, personal development, national standards, qualifications, the internet & IT, distance learning, national or government targets, the ever-changing education landscape, leadership and management development (boy, that’s made some people very rich!) and psychometric testing and assessment centres.

There have been good and bad results from all of this, but at least the awareness levels generally about development, training, and why we should do it, are in my opinion greater.

9. Do you think that training professionals should have a greater say in planning national training policy?

What is a national training policy? Why have one, what are the benefits and costs? If we were to have one, what would it look like?

For now, my unconsidered opinion is “no” – I’ve met some great individuals in the training and HR world, but frankly I’ve been embarrassed on more than one occasion to be linked to HR and training – and I’ve been doing it for more than 10 years! Little will change I feel until the profession gets some clarity and focus and wakes up to the fact that the world exists inspite of the profession, not because of it.

Still, it’s this perspective that is driving me to do what I do – helping the profession to find some clarity, focus and meaning.

10. How do you see your work changing or developing in the next few years?

As the economy goes through another lean time – you only have to see how many shops and smaller factories are empty around the country – I think people will start to ask more searching questions about how to perform better, how to safeguard their jobs and ultimately, their communities. I am working towards helping them answer those questions. So, I see work getting busier, more challenging and more interesting. In a way, I can’t wait!

All the previous career profiles can also be seen on the How Did I Get Here? page.


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