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Training & Business Systems

Taking a Look at Zingerman’s Training Compact—25 Years Later

The creative ideas of a German Lit major from Oberlin and an early 19th-century Catalan anarchist could change your organization

black and white photo of hand holding the Zingerman's Training Compact

Poet Naomi Shihab Nye says, “Questions are very helpful. Begin with a few you’re carrying right now.” So, in the spirit of Ms. Shihab Nye’s suggestion, here are a few questions with which to start this conversation: What if I told you I had a tool that you could put to work in your organization that would increase the use of free choice, honor complexity, and distribute power (carbon) more effectively in the metaphorical cultural soil of your ecosystem? What if the same tool would also increase the odds of making dignity a daily reality, and drive everyone in your organization towards a healthy practice of positive humbleness? Not only that, but it could improve the practical application of equity and increase inclusion in meaningful ways. What if that very same tool, if you stick with it, might likely have the potential to gently encourage the people you work with to learn to think like leaders, and also in less hierarchical ways? And what if that same tool could even possibly start to shift society in a positive direction at the same time without harming anyone or requiring controversial public conflict? What if that tool costs you essentially nothing to implement? It might sound like a fantasy, but it’s actually for real. And, although it’s never to my knowledge been written about in any of the national business articles about us, almost everyone who works here will have seen it and talked about it many times. It’s one of the essential elements of what makes Zingerman’s, as you know it, Zingerman’s. We call it our Training Compact.

We’ve been using the Training Compact here, imperfectly, for over 25 years now. It was developed by Maggie Bayless of ZingTrain back in 1995. Maggie wrote much more about it, along with pieces about many of her other quietly revolutionary training practices, in the Bottom-Line Training® Trainer’s Toolkit. It’s one of the many pieces of our organization that gets little attention in the press, but I would suggest that the Training Compact is one of the most radical, maybe downright revolutionary, things we’ve done in all our 39 and a half years of doing business. The Training Compact has consistently made many of our ideas about freedom and accountability come alive in incredibly impactful ways. While few folks realize it, nearly every product you purchase from us, every service interaction you have, every word you read, or drawing your eyes devour, has been made, baked, brewed, or edited by someone whose work and worldview have been informed by it.

Where did the Training Compact come from? Let me take you back to the mid-90s, shortly after Maggie, Paul, and I had started ZingTrain. One of Maggie’s first projects was to do a “needs assessment” at the Deli for us about training. In the spirit of Natural Law #10—To get to greatness you need to keep getting better all the time—we wanted to see what was working and where the big holes were in the training work we were already doing. Over the course of a couple months Maggie learned many things, and from those learnings she later developed the core of what we now regularly refer to as Bottom-Line Training. There are a couple key components—one is the Training Compact (the other is what we call the “Four Training Plan Questions” which you can read more about in Maggie’s marvelous e-book).

Backing up a bit, Maggie grew up in southern Ohio. She went to Oberlin College where she majored in German Literature. After graduating, she moved to Chicago where she worked in a bank. Eventually she made her way to Ann Arbor where she got a job waiting tables at a local restaurant. In the great coincidental connections of our world, it happened to be the same place that Paul and I were working. Later Maggie would go back to school to get her MBA at U of M. After graduating she worked for a few years at General Motors, then shifted to a small consulting firm here in town where she grew very passionate about professional training design. Shortly after she started that job, Paul and I shared our Vision for Zingerman’s 2009. In it we wrote about creating a Community of Businesses here in the Ann Arbor area, each a unique Zingerman’s business with its own specialty, and each with a managing partner who had a passion for what that business did. It inspired and intrigued Maggie so much that she proposed the idea for ZingTrain. Six months or so later, it was a reality. We started small, as I’ve heard her say so many times now, Maggie working in her attic with “a computer, a fax modem, and a tri-fold marketing brochure.”

One of the unexpected conclusions of Maggie’s study of our training was that seemingly strong new staff members were leaving. The problem, surprisingly, was that although the managers thought the new employee was making great progress, the trainees felt like they were failing. There was, Maggie saw, a mismatch of expectations. The trainees compared themselves to long time colleagues who had mastered the job; the managers were expecting much less of a new employee than someone who’d been there for two years, but the trainees didn’t know that. Feeling like they were falling short, the new hires would decide to gracefully exit in the best interest, they believed, of all involved. As she struggled to find a good solution for this not very good problem, Maggie was reading Stephen Gill’s book, The Learning Alliance: Systems Thinking in Human Resource Development. A long time, much loved member of the progressive learning community and a loyal Zingerman’s customer, Stephen died in December of 2019. His spirit and his creative teaching on training continues on apace all over the country, and here at Zingerman’s through Maggie’s meaningful adaptations of his work. Maggie definitely remembers that we taught the Training Compact in the very first Zingerman’s Experience Seminar on March 31 and April 1 of 1996.

So, what is the Training Compact? Visually, it looks like this:


Trainees agree to:

  • Take responsibility for the effectiveness of their own training.

Trainers agree to:

  • Document clear performance expectations.
  • Provide the training resources.
  • Recognize performance.
  • Reward performance.

As I often say, the stuff on the left side of the Training Compact was essentially what Paul and I had already been trying to do. It was helpful to have it written down, but it wasn’t a huge shift. The big change was what Maggie put on the right side of the Compact—it made the trainee responsible for their own training. Twenty-five years later, the statement sounds reasonable to those who read it (and to folks in the ZCoB, almost obvious), but it was one of the most radical moves we ever made. Here’s a bit of what Maggie wrote in her e-book, The ZingTrain Bottom-Line Trainer’s Toolkit:

In a nutshell, trainees own the fact that they will learn what they need to know to be successful on the job. The Training Compact is reviewed in every class and on every training shift. If we’re doing our jobs well, we’re talking about it during the interview process and encouraging candidates to demonstrate their willingness to take responsibility for the effectiveness of their training by asking lots of questions. At the end of the day, no one can make someone else learn. We each decide for ourselves if we will do what it takes to learn what is needed to be successful in our jobs. And if we’re not clear on what is expected or if we are not getting the training resources we need, it is our responsibility to ask for help.

What was so radical about this simple construct? It shifted the responsibility to be more equitable. The change was incredibly effective. When Maggie pointed out to me and Paul that you simply cannot make anyone learn, I immediately started to compare the old top-down training model we were still using to my experience of high school. “They” could make me show up at class, but whether or not anything actually entered my brain in a meaningful way was ultimately up to me. (It was only ten years or so later that I came to see that I’d short-circuited so much of my own learning with my stubbornness.) Since this is the same training model that’s typically applied in all sorts of hierarchical organizations (and societies), those who are lower in the hierarchy are taught to wait for direction; the boss has all the answers; the trainee/student/supplicant is essentially helpless. They have no real say, little power, and very little emotional buy-in to what happens in the classroom/business. Hardly anyone I know says that they like this model. But the reality is that the systems and structures nearly every organization uses still support it. In The Power of Giving Away Power, Matthew Barzun calls it the “Pyramid mindset.” And he says, “The problem is this: The Pyramid mindset will not leave politely.” I know many well-meaning organizations that are all about equity and yet still begin the staff member’s employment with an inequitable training experience.

So how does the Training Compact lead to positive benefits? By stating from the get-go that neither the trainer nor the trainee can do the work well without the other’s insight, the Training Compact quickly teaches humility, collaboration, and curiosity in super practical ways. It drives folks to ask questions from the time they start working here. It gets people’s voices in the room on the first day, and it includes even the newest person we’ve hired in the conversation. The Training Compact helps get new people thinking like leaders because from the time they start, we’re telling them that they’re responsible for the effectiveness of their own training. It teaches equity because both parties are, as we say it, 100-percent responsible for the work. As Maggie writes, almost everyone who works here will tell you, “The trainer remains 100-percent responsible for the effectiveness of the training, but the trainee is 100-percent responsible as well.”

The 100/100 thing came a few years after we’d rolled it out. For years when I taught the Training Compact I would think of the division of responsibility as 50/50. It was the commonly used, socially accepted construct, considered fair by everyone. The problem is that the 50/50 model doesn’t work. Which I would learn—and then relearn—every time something in the training would go wrong. When I’d ask what had happened it seemed to be the other person’s 50-percent that had gone awry. One of the best things I ever learned came from the book The Corporate Mystic, where they taught me that responsibility goes up in multiples of 100-percent. That was a game changer.

As you can tell from what Maggie writes, the Training Compact altered almost everything about our work. When we use it well, the Training Compact:

Gives the trainee real, meaningful, practical power to help manage their own learning. We all, Maggie reminded me and Paul back then, learn in different ways. Can’t understand what the trainer is saying? Just ask for help! Ask them to show you again, or say it in a different way, or ask if there’s written material you can take home or a video you can watch.

Helps us to manage through the expectations issue. The Training Compact pushed us to make our expectations clear, which in turn makes it easier for anyone to succeed.

Honors the trainee for the unique human they are. The underlying beliefs in this construct are that each training experience will be a bit different, and each can and should be tailored to the needs of the trainee.

Gives full responsibility to the trainee from the minute they start. This shift supports our belief that we’re all responsible for leadership regardless of level of job responsibility, and that we’re all 100-percent responsible for the health of the organization.

Encourages the trainee to speak up from the start. Yes, I know it will still be awkward. Heck, it’s still awkward for me now. Still, the Training Compact makes for better beginnings. The more voices we get into our “organizational room,” the more real life diversity and inclusion we make happen, and the healthier our organization is likely to be.

Starts to shift the beliefs of those we hire away from hierarchical thinking. Since most of our society is trained to think hierarchically (as I was), the sooner we start to introduce a different way of working and thinking, the better.

Gets better results! This is why Maggie called the overall approach Bottom-Line Training—it improves one or more of our three bottom lines (great food, great service, and great finance). When new staffers are more bought in, we learn from them more quickly, turnover tends to go down, they recommend our workplace to others, and the odds of them mastering the skills needed for their job improve. When their training is going well it manifests in their energy, which in turns increases their service skills and their attention to detail. In the end, everyone comes out ahead! As Peter Senge says, ​​“The only sustainable competitive advantage is an organization’s ability to learn faster than the competition.”

Maggie, I know, is not alone in realizing that the old teacher/trainer as boss, student/trainee as rule-following supplicant doesn’t work well. Jennifer Gonzalez’s progressive podcast, “Cult of Pedagogy,” has a number of talks you can listen to about it. Edward L. Davis, in his book I highly recommend, Lessons for Tomorrow, emphasizes that we can’t continue to make learning an assembly line process: “We need multiple pathways to meet learning goals and a system that encourages individual inquiry and discovery.” Davis supports what Maggie had written into the Training Compact ten years earlier: “Learning is demand driven, not supply driven.” In 2014, Frederic Laloux wrote about what he believes is the future of business: “The biggest change in regard to training is, of course, that employees are in charge of their own learning.” The Training Compact does a terrific job of putting all these progressive educational ideas into a very practical, on the ground, business savvy reality.

Although Maggie might not have known at the time we did this work, the roots of this thinking go back a long way; the ideas of self-management and equity are deeply embedded in the anarchist beliefs about education. Maggie’s progressive thinking about a more egalitarian, inclusive, and effective approach to training was prefigured a hundred years earlier by Francisco Ferrer and his colleagues at the Modern School. Ferrer, Maggie’s good work would indicate, was onto something. As David Whyte writes in Crossing the Unknown Sea, “A good artist, it is often said, is fifty to a hundred years ahead of their time, they describe what lies over the horizon in our future world… ” Ferrer was one of those artists. And so, I will forecast here, is Maggie.

For those who don’t know of him, Ferrer was a Catalan educator who was born in Barcelona in 1859. His life took many turns—at one point he lived in Paris where he taught Spanish and sold fine wine. In 1901, the year before Rocco Disderide built the Deli’s building here in Ann Arbor, Ferrer founded the Escuela Moderna in Barcelona. It was an anarchist school that was quickly recognized around the world as a leader in progressive education. Historian Paul Avrich wrote in his book The Modern School that Ferrer was, “Simple, direct, unpretentious, he never assumed an air of superiority. … When he spoke his audience listened with attention won over by his manifest sincerity.” Rudolf Rocker wrote, “Every word [Ferrer] spoke breathed sincerity. He had no pose. There was a warmth about him.” Ferrer was not about politics: “I am not a speaker,” he said, “not a propagandist, not a fighter. I am a teacher. I love the children above everything.”

The Escuela Moderna quickly became the center for anarchist education—within four years there were nearly fifty Modern Schools in Spain. There were twenty more in the U.S. and hundreds of other schools around the world that were using some of Ferrer’s methods. Paul Avrich called it “a remarkable educational experiment … under the aegis of the anarchist movement.” He adds, “No other movement assigned education a more prominent place in its writings and activities.” One of the key tenets of Ferrer’s teaching work was to treat students like intelligent equals, to have them share actively in the effectiveness of their own education, and then to use the educational system as a caring and constructive tool for self-development. As Avrich writes, “The school was at once an instrument of self-development and a lever of social regeneration. Ferrer believed that this work could create ‘… an enclave of freedom within the larger authoritarian society. … He dreamed that the entire world would follow its example.’” For Ferrer, education was “continuous, a never-ending process extending from cradle to grave.” In all of these ways, I can see now that what Maggie created by artfully designing the Training Compact back in the mid-90s was well in line with Ferrer’s free-thinking approach to education nearly ninety years earlier.

Sadly, in one of the most controversial legal cases of his era, Ferrer was accused of conspiracy in a bombing that had taken place in Barcelona. The general belief in much of the world was that he had been framed, and large protest marches were held in Spain and around the globe. He was executed on October 13 of 1909; the New York Times gave his killing a good bit of space on its front page the following day. Happily, Maggie is not nearly so controversial and I’m confident that we will be able to keep working for many years to come. And that long after she and I are gone, the ZCoB and others who use it will continue to reap all the benefits of the Training Compact. Ultimately, the Training Compact is one way to live Natural Law #6: If you want great performance from your staff, you have to give them clear expectations and training tools.

Making the trainee responsible for the effectiveness of their own training, to be clear, is not a free-for-all, nor does it lead to chaos. To the contrary, it gives the people who work in the ZCoB the kind of framework and guidelines in which creativity and individuality are actually more likely to come out. As poet Gary Snyder says, “If there is no path there is no freedom.” The Training Compact provides the path, while encouraging people to embrace the freedom, all in the interest of better learning, reduced stress, and improved organizational effectiveness. Brené Brown talks regularly about this metaphorically as the rope handles on a rope bridge across a wide river; you still need to do your part well, but they clearly help keep you from falling all the way off into the water below. The main thing to know is that the Training Compact really works. Karen Shepard, who works at the Candy Store, says, “It’s so great! We had a new staff member the other day. She used to work here, but I still went over the Compact with her. Everyone needs this. I wish I’d had it back before I worked here, when I owned my own business.”

Using the Training Compact that Maggie came up with back in the mid-90s, harkening back as I believe it does, to the progressive late 19th/early 20th century educational work of Francisco Ferrer, really can make all those positives I listed in the first paragraph a reality. Having taught it and used it for years now, it’s easy to see how tangible the results are. Like the organizational recipes I’ve written about the last few weeks, it leads the people doing the work towards good answers, but it lets them make the decisions in the moment that are right for the moment. From the minute people start working it’s teaching them to take responsibility. It makes artists of them as well. As Robert Henri, who taught painting at the Modern School in Manhattan, said, “Art when really understood is the province of every human being.” In hindsight, I can see now that Maggie’s design of the Training Compact was an exceptional act of organizational art. Anton Chekhov, the Russian writer, once said, “Art doesn’t have to solve problems, it only has to formulate them correctly.” Which is exactly what Maggie’s design did. And as writer George Saunders says, “That’s what an artist does: take responsibility.”

The Training Compact will not fix every problem in the Zingerman’s ecosystem, nor will it cure all of society’s long-standing ills. But it can make a meaningful difference. As Harry Kelly, one of the founders of the Modern School that was set up in New York in 1910, a year after Ferrer was killed, said,

“We make no claim to saving the world. … If we have not reached the promised land, we have at least stumbled into one of its by-paths, and that is something.”

>>> Get the Bottom-Line Training® Trainer’s Toolkit here!

P.S. To test this model of the Training Compact and its congruence with our other work, I pulled out the handy pocket card of our Statement of Beliefs and ran through the list of 34 beliefs to see how we’d done. Of the 34 on the card, by my quick count 28 were clearly and directly supported by the Training Compact!

P.P.S. For more on our approach to training, check out “Creating Training Plans that Work.”


*** This post is an excerpt from Ari’s Top 5, a weekly newsletter from Ari himself. Sign up to receive Ari’s Top 5 here!

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