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The Components of an Effective Staff Development System

Paul Nicolazzo
Article Date:  January 2, 2009


An organization’s leadership is responsible for all administrative and operational decisions within a company—including the decisions made by their instructors or guides during a trip. An effective outdoor organization, be it recreational or educational in nature, has five major structural components in place to ensure alignment course quality, and safety:

  1. principle centered leadership
  2. shared mission, vision, and structural strategies at all levels
  3. individual and organizational feedback loops at all levels
  4. competency-based hiring and promotional standards that support the mission, vision, and structural strategies
  5. an effective staff development system

Principle centered leadership helps ensure that the school’s mission provides a strong foundation for the organization’s core structuring strategies. While missions tend to remain the same over time visions and their structuring strategies often change as social mores, economic conditions, student populations, program areas, etc. change. Revisiting the mission and how it relates to the organization’s current vision, structuring strategies, and its hiring and promotion standards on a regular basis helps ensure that everyone remains in alignment over time. This understanding also helps reduce unnecessary conflict and promotes trust between administration, logistical, an program staff (common areas of dis-ease). The development of a shared course mission is a prerequisite to course planning and should be addressed during the early part of the pre-course preparation. It is usually facilitated by the instructors’ field supervisor using activities designed to assist the instructors in identifying the people that they are likely to professionally synergize with during a course.

Feedback loops at all levels of the organization are necessary if the organization is to be successful. Ongoing and documented assessment and evaluation of all components of the organization need to occur on a regular basis. In most organizations feedback is a course by course, season by season, department by department process du naturally occurring breaks. To be effective, hiring and promotion standards must also be in aligment with the organization’s mission, vision, and structuring strategies.

Competency-based hiring and promotional standards together with an effective staff development system help ensure that help ensure consistent program quality and safety. The focus of this article is understanding the structure of a successful staff development system

Components of a Staff Development System


The goal of a staff development system is to train staff to meet the organization’s minimum standards for hiring and promotion. The standards must be in alignment with and support the organization’s mission, vision, and strategies; and they must be competency-based in order to be effective. Staff training can not stand alone. In order to meet the needs of both the organization and the instructor, training needs to be ongoing and part of a staff development system that includes mentoring, supportive written material, and accurate assessment, evaluation, & feedback.

A staff development system should ensure that all staff:

  1. know the size and scope of their authority and responsibility,
  2. know who they report to for guidance and support, and
  3. have the tools to effectively do their jobs.

A complete system will include supportive written material that:

  1. establishes competency-based hiring and performance standards,
  2. details realistic course area operating procedures and safety policies, and
  3. describes the high risk sites within the program area and their corresponding site management options

A comprehensive system would also ensure ongoing staff training, assessment, evaluation, and feedback via:

  1. staff training(s),
  2. staff expedition(s),
  3. staff orientation(s), and
  4. active field supervision and mentoring, especially at high risk sites.

Staff Training, Staff Expeditions, & Staff Orientations

Understanding the distinctions between staff trainings, staff expeditions, and staff orientations is critical to structuring an effective staff development system. Each serves a specific purpose within the organization and their corresponding structure is very different.

Staff training should focus on developing the specific outdoor, educational, and human skills required to meet the school’s hiring and promotional standards. Trainings should be designed to introduce new skills. While they should provide reinforcing and developmental feedback to the participants, a staff training is NOT an exam. That being said, staff should be able to perform to the minimum standards required by their position in the school.

Training should be ongoing throughout the instructor’s tenure with the school. Outdoor skills training should culminate with the ability to manage specific activity sites safely, educational skills training should culminate with the ability to consciously design and manage activities that lead to character development, and human skills train ing should culminate with the ability to develop a conscious awareness of inconsistencies in another’s way-of-being through the design and management of specific program activities.

Although led by a trainer, staff expeditions are NOT staff trainings. Staff expeditions are designed so that staff can make site management decisions with the trainer acting as a safety net. Unlike staff trainings, staff expeditions may be used for evaluation (hiring & promotion).

Staff orientations are neither trainings or expeditions and or may may not be lead by a trainer. They are designed to introduce trained staff to new program areas and local operating procedures. There are no performance expectations, assessments, or evaluations.

Field Supervision & Mentoring

Mentoring supports training and MUST be in alignment with the school’s core principles & strategies. Effective mentoring MUST take place in the field in order for staff to develop. Mentors MUST be conscious of the course process and able to articulate its structure through demonstration, conversation, diagrams, etc. They MUST be able to use the Outcome Model to design parallel experiences for the people they mentor. Mentoring is different and more difficult than instructing (students); it is part of each staff person’s job at the level they are consciously competent. The ability to give accurate developmental & reinforcing feedback is essential to its success. Minimum professional mentoring expectations according to role are:

Assistant Instructor to students:

  • Focus on teaching technical, rescue, medical, & equipment skills
  • Establish & maintain a real connection with each student

Instructor to Assistant Instructor:

  • Use operational language with AI & staff. Use lay language with students.
  • Give written & oral feedback on AI’s technical, rescue, medical, & equipment and skills teaching.
  • Introduce the Site Management cycle; use the checklists. Focus on instructor/student positioning. Take notes and review the AI’s site management after each activity.
  • Discuss, demonstrate, & use the Outcome Model to design and manage your course. Focus on:
    1. accurate (Re)assessment,
    2. safety first then the educational outcomes,
    3. progressions & nesting, and
    4. Framing & Closure; review AI’s activity notes prior to closure.
  • Discuss & use the Basic Outdoor Education Strategies during the course.

Field Supervisor to Staff

  • Use operational language with staff. Use lay language with students.
  • Demonstrate parallel processing: use the Outcome Model to structure course prep and require staff to use it to structure their courses. Check-in and review their course structure on a regular basis. Help the instructor design & manage their AI’s experience using the Outcome Model.
  • Schedule formal check-ins between course blocks.
  • Schedule site management support & assessment at high risk sites.
  • Give ongoing written & oral feedback on the staff’s leadership & management decisions appropriate to their roles.

Supportive Written Material

All written material should reflect and support the organization’s principles, mission, vision, and strategies.

  • Course Area Guides that describe the site, its management options and transition zones. Each course area guide should include: a brief organizational history that provides institutional perspective, a menu of activities for a variety of student groups, the level of competence required of the instructors to ensure safety, all the site management options, and the placement of each activity within a course progression.
  • Staff Manuals should outline effective progressions, activity menus within the progression with an optimal site description, and a detailed standard for instructor competency.
  • Contextual SOPs & LOPs that are self evident, at minimum, to all lead instructors. If rules are self-evident only to the program administration they will be broken inappropriately.
  • Supportive administrative paperwork (accident incident forms, evaluations, instructor development plan, etc.)
  • Published maps and guide books that show and/or discuss routes and hazards.
  • Published hiring and promotion standards.

Accurate assessment, evaluation, & feedback (See Appendix A for more information)

  • Staff should be assessed during all staff trainings and as they are mentored. Specific exams may be held separate from staff trainings and prior to promotion. Formal assessment should take place in a “real” environment, e.g.: during a course and/or during a staff expedition.
  • Staff should be tested to standards and not to failure during an exam.
  • Feedback should be both reinforcing and developmental. A high level of trust must be present between all parties in order for feedback loops to be effective.

Summary & Conclusion

An effective staff development system has four components: training, mentoring, supportive written material, and staff assessment, evaluation & feedback. Each must be in alignment with the organizations core principles and strategies. Trainings can not stand alone. In order to meet the needs of both the organization and the instructor they need to be progressional through out the instructor’s tenure. Any training and development system requires organizational support in order to be implemented successfully. An effective staff development system will influence components of hiring, course design (both macro and micro), and general program management. In many organizations designing an effective staff development system will require significant structural changes. An effective staff development system will lead to:

  • the conscious integration of effective leadership and management principles within the organizational structure…top to bottom, administration to field.
  • well designed, flexible, programs that are always taught by competent instructors.
  • the integration and consistent use of a single principle based decision making process/model at all levels of program and provide consistency in both thought and action.
  • the development of written material that supports instructor and program development.
  • the development of standards, accurate assessment, & fair evaluation of the human and outdoor activity specific skill sets required to be an assistant instructor, instructor, field supervisor, associate program director, program director, staff trainer, etc.
  • institutional and individual feedback loops and skills where feedback, both reinforcing and developmental, is received openly and in a timely fashion.
  • the development of effective site management skills and trainings.
  • a systemic understanding of basic course macro/micro structure with respect to roles & spheres of influence progression & multidimensional activities, and training, mentoring, & scripture.
  • lower accident & incidents and safer, more effective, courses/trips.
  • increase staff retention.
  • increase trust between field staff and school leadership.
  • increase student/client satisfaction and enrollment/bookings via word of mouth advertising.

*This is part 5 of a five part risk management series by Paul Nicolazzo

  1. Instructor Skills & Competency verses Program Design — A Delicate Balance
  2. Site Management — the Missing Link
  3. Structuring a Learning Experience
  4. The Outcome Model — a Practical Decision Making Algorithm for Field Instructors
  5. The Components of an Effective Instructor Development Program

Paul Nicolazzo is the director of the Wilderness Medicine Training Center with twenty plus years as a successful outdoor adventure program designer and staff trainer. In addition to wilderness medicine he specializes it teaching Site Management® theory and practices. For information visit the WMTC web site at www.WildMedCenter.com

Appendix A


Feedback may be either individual or structural in nature. Individual feedback focuses on specific skills while structural feedback focuses on specific structuring strategies (including the actual structure of the organization). In order for feedback to be useful it MUST be consistent. Since an organization’s mission tends to remain stable over time, it provides an accurate touchstone for assessment, evaluation, and feedback. Individual feedback should also reference the organization’s published hiring and promotional standards. Assuming all are in alignment, feedback can be reduced to a few simple questions:

  • Do the skills of the individual being evaluated adhere to the organization’s published hiring and promotional standards?
  • Do the structuring strategies or standards being evaluated bring the organization closer to realizing it’s mission…or further away?

Individual skills, standards, and structuring strategies that move the organization closer to realizing its mission are desired and need to be encouraged; those that move it further away are damaging and need to be corrected. Both types of feedback, reinforcing and developmental, are important to the ultimate success of the organization Note that it is not a person that is being evaluated but their specific skills. Note that it is not the organization that is being evaluated but its structuring strategies and published standards. This is NOT semantics. It is difficult to accept feedback that does not allow for change; skills, structuring strategies, and standards are easier to change than individuals and organizations.

Feedback is the natural result of an assessment and evaluation process and takes one of two basic forms: formal or informal. Formal assessment and evaluation occurs when the primary goal is certification, hiring, or promotion. It is structured, planned, and therefore expected. Informal assessment and evaluation is usually unplanned, often occurs during leisure time, and rarely expected. Feedback generated from informal assessments a evaluations is often more difficult to deliver successfully. Feedback may be immediate, delayed, or withheld. Generally the closer to the event the feedback is offered, the easier it is received and assimilated. The following conditions may delay feedback:

  • site constraints make it physically impossible
  • the need to wait for a pattern or trend to evolve
  • a poor personal relationship makes it difficult or impossible for the feedback to be heard effectively
  • a lack of technical or human skill on the part of the receiver or giver makes it impossible for the feedback to be heard at the present time

The difficulties associated with giving and receiving feedback are contextual and associated with organizational right and wrong. Feedback can be threatening if it conflicts with an individuals self-image or advancement; written feedback is inherently more threatening than oral. The intent of the person offering the feedback must be seen by the receiver as beneficial and in the receiver’s best interest overall in order to be heard. Sensitivity, objectivity, accuracy, timing, a good personal relationship with the staff member, and willingness to help design an effective development plan from the receiver’s frame of reference are the keys to giving effective feedback.

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