We’ve all seen the statistics about new-manager turnover. Considering that over a quarter of leaders never receive any training at all, those aren’t surprising. But when you equip managers with the skills they need ahead of time, they can have an outsized impact on how their companies perform.
Getting there requires more than impersonal training videos. That’s where HR and learning and development teams come in. When handled the right way, manager training programs can be interactive, engaging, and digestible. Here are some tips to consider as you structure your company’s program.
There’s a reason why great individual contributors don’t always make great managers — and vice versa. While you don’t want to scare off anyone, you need to make it clear that management requires a different mindset. In other words, what got them here won’t necessarily apply going forward. According to Rachel Ben Hamou, Director of Talent Development at PeopleStorming, that’s worth emphasizing upfront.
“One of the top challenges I see in organizations is that managers haven’t had the right expectations set. Particularly new managers. Sometimes they see becoming a manager as having some additional duties on top of their former individual contributor role. In reality, it’s an entirely new role where the majority of your focus should be on supporting the team,” Hamou said. It’s best to be clear about this shift in the first few minutes of the training so managers don’t learn about it the hard way.
“My top tip is for organizations to think deeply about their expectations for managers. Early on, you should clearly communicate those expectations and repeat them regularly,” she said.
New leaders often report feeling isolated. Going through management training alone only exacerbates that. Experts recommend grouping managers together into “classes” so they can learn and practice together. Keep in mind that not all your participants need to be new managers. In fact, sprinkling in a few seasoned leaders might be just what your program needs.
“I prefer to train them in a peer group with other managers. That way, the more senior leaders can share advice, examples, and insights with the newer managers,” said Laura Handrick, an HR consultant at Choosing Therapy. These group sessions can help build relationships between managers across departments, helping foster future collaboration and giving participants someone to empathize with. This approach also facilitates roleplaying, as managers will need to practice remote one-on-ones, difficult conversations, and other scenarios.
Some companies had creative ways to keep the conversation going after class. Taking inspiration from new hire buddy programs, companies applied the same approach to manager onboarding. “You should provide them with a buddy, another manager, who can guide them through the systems that they now have access to but don’t fully understand how to use. That same buddy can help them understand what meetings they need to attend, what the unwritten rules are, and what the written rules are,” said Laurie Battaglia, CEO at Aligned at Work.
Emily Goodson, the founder of CultureSmart, recommended smaller, monthly group sessions on topics like emotional intelligence and psychological safety. “Many managers crave being connected to other managers in the company who aren’t in their direct department or field. Having a manager book club or meet up is a great way to accomplish this,” she said.
Being a manager doesn’t mean having all the answers. That might be the biggest misconception about leadership, and part of the reason why managers are so apprehensive about their roles at first.
Coaching skills can go a long way in assuaging those concerns. In this context, coaching means empowering reports to come up with solutions through questioning, rather than giving direct advice. In answering questions around the who, what, where, and why of a problem, reports will often realize they’ve come up with the answers on their own.
Dianna Anderson, CEO of Cylient, believes coaching isn’t just important; it should arguably be your manager training program’s main focus. While it may involve some rewiring of how leaders perceive their roles, the payoff is worth it. “Having in-the-moment coaching conversations is a way to inspire and motivate people to take action. This can be very helpful for first-time managers who aren't used to helping people solve problems. By asking insightful questions, you can get to the underlying issue, and ignite an insight that sparks a motivation within the other person,” Anderson said.
For some first-time managers, learning how to coach ends up being their “aha” moment that puts everything else into place. “Graduates express that they feel like they have the skills and confidence to have conversations that they were previously avoiding. They even say that coaching conversations are easier to have because they don't need to have the answers to problems — they just need to be a resource for the other person to talk to,” she said.
Leadership comes with a steep learning curve. Though it might be tempting to organize one exhaustive crash course and be done with it, you’ll always miss something. Managers will likely just get overwhelmed by all that content.
“What I’ve noticed works best is first making new leaders aware of the shift they need to make, and then offering them that knowledge in bite-sized chunks,” said Edoardo Binda Zane, a leadership coach. Binda Zane recommends structuring your manager workshops to be no longer than three hours, scheduled two to four weeks apart. During those sessions, participants should be free of distractions — meaning no smartphones or laptops. If the session is remote, participants should be cameras-on.
“This structure allows them to rapidly ramp up their knowledge without overloading them, and it’s also light enough to easily fit into a company’s calendar. Also, I’ve found that interactive and practical workshops are much more time-efficient and allow for better knowledge retention” he said. Binda Zane and members of Lattice’s Slack community, Resources for Humans, suggested a few topics that were session-worthy:
Though management doesn’t come with an owner’s manual, participants should still leave your training and development sessions with something tangible they can turn to later. Resources like one-on-one talking points or a 30-60-90 day plan template can help give managers the confidence to implement what they’ve just learned. Try to leave participants with at least one physical or digital handout for every session.
Sure, there are certain qualities or skills that great managers tend to share. But leadership comes in many forms, and staying true to oneself might be one of the most important rules of management. When building your curriculum, tread lightly when distinguishing between the right and “wrong” ways to manage.
Jenna Carson, HR Director at Music Grotto, emphasizes the big picture in her company’s manager curriculum. “We start off by making sure that new leaders fully understand the culture of the business and our managerial philosophies so they can work towards discovering the best management style for them,” Carson said. While instructors shouldn’t shy away from citing specific examples, getting too prescriptive can trigger new leaders to start “acting,” rather than being true to themselves. In practice, that mental shift tends to stunt new leaders and make them tentative decision makers.
“The most important thing is to show confidence in the new manager, both to the manager themselves but also their employees...We don’t tell them how to manage their team per se, but we do show them why their role is important, which areas of the business they do directly impact, and what are their responsibilities are with regards to the development of the company and its staff,” she said.
The transition to management is almost always hard to make. Knowing that, time-strapped teams might be inclined to let new managers “wing it” and learn on the job. Experts were quick to dismiss that idea.
“It’s a recipe for failure when we don’t train and onboard leaders well. What I’ve seen is that we let them flounder around in the role for a while, get discouraged, make some career-limiting or career-ending mistakes, and then maybe, about six to twelve months into the role, we send them to leadership class and hope for the best...Training and onboarding should always be part of the plan when hiring or promoting new leaders,” Battaglia said.
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