5 Tips For Mentoring New Freelance Instructional Designers

How To Mentor New Freelance Instructional Designers

After years of professional success as a full-time employee with a few small freelance gigs on the side, I left my job and transitioned fully into the world of instructional design (ID) freelancing. I knew I had the determination and skill set to join the ranks of full-time freelance instructional designers, but my first few projects were more difficult than I expected. The fact that I also went “virtual” added a whole new set of challenges into the mix.

On the first project, I honestly felt like I could do nothing right. I doubted my abilities and wondered if I made a huge mistake quitting my full-time job. I mean, I had a mortgage and other financial responsibilities! Somehow I muddled through and made it work.

On the second project, I felt barely adequate. I now understood some of the rules of the game, but I felt like I was faking it most of the time. How could I do my old job in my sleep, but yet this new gig was so challenging? I felt I must be lacking some sort of “tribal knowledge.”

After six months and completing three projects, I finally felt like I had a solid baseline and had more confidence in my abilities for future projects. Getting to that point was no easy feat: several months of “blood, sweat and tears” felt like quite a price to pay for my anticipated freelance utopia.

Tapping into these memories, I’m able to palpably feel the stress level I experienced several years ago. I know I’m not alone. In candid conversations over the years with some very successful IDs, their first experiences as freelance instructional designers —in many cases working virtually as well —  were similar to mine.

Let’s shoot ahead to the present day. With the overflowing cup of the once-elusive tribal knowledge now in hand, I now lead the charge in recruiting and onboarding new freelance instructional designers. My goal is to attract and RETAIN quality talent. I also have an eye toward making the onboarding experience for freelance instructional designers a pleasant one, and, clearly, I have the mandate to have them succeed and do well on our oh-so-important client work. There’s no glory in painfully paying your dues as I did. I need to bring new members up to speed quickly and give them all the tools to succeed on their very first project. It’s easier for them, and it’s a win for us. You can save “no pain, no gain” for some other enterprise.

If you recruit, onboard, and manage freelance instructional designers, these tips are for you. (And, hopefully, all “newbies” going freelance can gain knowledge as well.) Not only will your new team members appreciate this approach, but you’ll be less likely to have a new freelance instructional designer stumble with a colleague, client, or subject matter expert. At the end of the day, your team’s performance reflects on you, so taking these steps helps you look good, too.

1. Adjust your mindset.

From day one, remember to put on your trainer/coach hat with new freelance instructional designers on your team. Tap into your own memories of when you were the new kid on the block and have patience. Don’t take it for granted, even if they have years of ID experience, that working freelance is the same old thing. It’s not.

2. Provide thorough onboarding.

Of course, you will inform new freelance instructional designers about the tools and templates used on projects. Now take this a step further by sharing your organizational and client experiences. Discuss best practices where you succeeded; offer up the stories when you didn’t succeed and your lessons learned. Beyond typical onboarding, have these more candid conversations over lunch or coffee. Yes, even in the virtual environment, we regularly share stories while breaking bread. It’s your call if you want to have your webcam on or stick to audio only!

As the team leader, my door is open for any questions from any colleague, new or seasoned. Even if I cannot answer the question, I can direct the person to someone who can. Although I make myself available, I still regularly reach out to new freelance instructional designers to check in. IDs are self-reliant types, so you’ll almost have to insist, and create a culture where questioning and sound-boarding are just about required. Taking this proactive approach really helps cultivate the onboarding relationship and helps new team members to bring their best to the project.

3. Require live, iterative reviews.

Do not wait until the scheduled peer review on the project plan to review a new instructional designer’s deliverable. Review the first lesson of the detailed design document and storyboard on day two of the development window. Host this live session over Skype or other application where you share your screen and make corrections and suggestions on the fly, using the track changes and comments functionality.

These iterative reviews are a required component of the SweetRush onboarding process. During these live sessions, I encourage the freelance instructional designers to discuss the thought process behind their design approaches, and I do the same with my corrections. Catching global changes early in the process will save time in the long run by minimizing rework. The goal of this live review is to teach your new team members how to fish, so to speak.

4. Provide guidance when things might be out of process.

I already addressed the importance of providing adequate onboarding and iterative reviews. However, every company has its own list of unwritten rules or “tribal knowledge,” as I referred to it earlier. And every client has its own set of nuances/variables. Though you can prepare them as much as possible, new freelance instructional designers will typically gain awareness of these aspects of the job when they’re in the trenches. This lack of knowledge can be exacerbated by a virtual work environment, because it’s not as easy to tap someone on the shoulder and ask a quick question.

Watch out for these subtleties and keep new freelance instructional designers (and other team members for that matter) informed if you see trouble on the horizon. Regardless of who saw it coming, be positive and provide actionable guidance when a project goes out of process. Reinforce your company’s customer service and workplace philosophies — for example, at SweetRush we approach challenges from a place of respect and caring. Just as you did during onboarding, share stories about other projects, which will provide context for your recommendations.

5. Define and share the level of client consulting required.

Some clients need more guidance than others. The sweet spot will be determined by a combination of your organization’s specific definition of the ID’s role and what it takes to get the job done based on your experience with the client. This is a grey area that even an experienced team member must FEEL his or her way through. How do you explain these nuances to new freelance instructional designers?

If possible, actually write down and define the level of consulting needed, particularly if it goes above and beyond what was outlined during on-boarding. Then, share the WHYs behind the approach to a solution or working with a particular client. Here again, stories can provide context, and the goal is to teach your new freelance instructional designers how to fish. In the future, they will be more able to pick up on cues that suggest more consulting is needed.

Cover_ID_ebook_SweetRushWant to learn valuable tips for being a top-notch instructional designer?

Check out Catherine Davis’s new eBook, How to Be a Rock Star Instructional Designer: Learn the Ropes from a Corporate Training Veteran and Super Charge Your Career!

eBook Release: Thrive by SweetRush
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