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I’ve always been a big fan of French. So much so that, over the last few years, I’ve learned enough to comfortably read novels in the language. (I recently finished Charlotte by David Foenkinos; if you’re after a recommendation – it’s excellent).

So I was rather shocked last week when I discovered my eldest son’s homework was to learn the present tense of être, the verb to be.

I couldn’t work it out.

He’s been learning the language for over two months. How on earth could he not know it? Along with avoir it’s one of the two essential verbs.

So I decided to teach him it. It took 10 minutes. And then I taught him avoir for good measure. I’ve now decided to teach him a few verbs a week, starting off with aller, pouvoir, faire, venir and all the other basic building blocks he’ll need.

The episode made me remember how important it is not to assume people know things, and how vital it is to check.

It’s why I never got on with Latin.

My teacher drilled me in conjugations and declensions but I simply couldn’t grasp how to apply them. She assumed I knew but I didn’t – and I got more lost and fell further behind as the weeks and terms went by.

Quite often the same thing happens in the workplace.

When I got a summer job as a forester in the mid 1990s, my employer assumed, when they took me on, that I could drive a tractor. Nope. I couldn’t drive at all. So they had to train me.

Similarly, when I worked with a caretaker in a large house, he proposed painting the walls in the cellar. I agreed, and turned up the next morning wearing my overalls.

He handed me a brush and a vast tub of topcoat. “You start at that end,” he said, “and I’ll start at the other.”

I looked at the porous walls, then back at the caretaker. “But what about primer?” I said.

“Och, we won’t need that,” he said confidently.

“You will,” I replied. “Or this lot will fall off.”

“No it won’t,” he said. So I gave up and got painting.

The next morning I returned to the cellar, only to find the caretaker surrounded by sheets of paint that had fallen off the walls.

“I’m off to buy primer,” he said. And to his credit he applied it without any help from me.

Not every gap in our knowledge or skills leads to such a dramatic failure. But we know there are plenty of people out there who don’t have the right skills and knowledge for their job – whether they are salespeople, marketers, trainers, plumbers or in any other trade or profession.

That’s why it’s good idea to take a look around your business and ask yourself who’s performing well and who appears to be struggling.

You’ll often find the latter aren’t performing because they don’t have the skills or knowledge you assume they have – and it could take only a little time or investment to get them up to speed.

And while you’re at it, could you ask them how long it took for them to be taught the verb être when they were at school? I bet it wasn’t after more than two months of learning French!

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About Ben Locker

Ben Locker is a copywriter who specialises in business-to-business marketing, writing about everything from software and accountancy to construction and power tools. He co-founded the Professional Copywriters’ Network, the UK’s association for commercial writers, and is named in Direct Marketing Association research as ‘one of the copywriters who copywriters rate’.

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