From Victims to Heroes: Four Ways to Make Your Managers Your Best Assets

In spring 2014, Harvard Business Review published an article by several Gallup experts titled “Why Good Managers Are So Rare.” They reported that one of the most critical decisions an organization makes is “simply whom they name manager.” I wholeheartedly believe this to be true.

After all, your first-line leaders or managers oversee the front line; they mentor and lead the very people who are responsible for creating the product or service that keeps the organization in business. They are in the pole position to accelerate success of the organization’s strategy simply because they are the real opinion leaders tasked with bringing it to life every day.

Managers can and should be viewed as strategic assets. Yet despite how vital they are, in a recent survey of talent development leaders titled “America’s Workforce:  A Revealing Study of Corporate America’s Most Neglected Employee,” reveals that as many as one third say their companies don’t consider managers to be important to the organization’s performance. And, only 28 percent report that manager investments have been prioritized in the last year. Yikes. It’s clear from this data that the power of managers as strategic assets is all too often untapped.

Managers Are Not Viewed as Strategic Investments

Those numbers, at first, felt shocking. How could so many companies not realize the value that managers bring to the table? A deeper look revealed a vicious cycle at play. Managers aren’t being tapped as strategic assets to accelerate business results because they don’t have the skills to do this. And because they don’t have the skills to accelerate results and bring the organization’s strategy to life, they aren’t viewed as important to business – making it rather difficult to secure funding for their development. “America’s Workforce” substantiates this cycle, reporting that talent development leaders find it painful to secure dollars for manager training programs, but have a much easier time securing funding for facility and technology upgrades. Well, it seems evident to me that there’s a flaw in the system, as managers are clearly not receiving the training they so desperately need for their roles to pay off for their companies.

Managers are your Best Assets

But the problem doesn’t end there. Even organizations that do invest in manager development programs are falling short. Manager training and development, if it’s provided at all, is often disjointed, cumbersome to put into action, and disconnected from the business strategy. And, one of the biggest failings isn’t even about the training itself. It’s the belief that a one-off training event is enough for new behaviors to take root. This is simply not the case. You need sustainment plans that hold managers accountable to embrace and apply the new knowledge for the long term. Without sustainment, organizations are not maximizing the money and time spent on training programs, and their managers aren’t making true commitments to incorporating new insights and skills into their everyday work.

Classic Pitfalls

We’ve had the opportunity to work with hundreds of organizations across a variety of industries and have found three common manager development failures:

  1. Functional-Only Training. A leader or manager development program that focuses exclusively on job-specific skills and processes, such as how to complete a performance review or how to conduct an interview, misses the mark. While these are definitely skills that competent managers need to understand, they don’t address the other intangible aspect of a manager’s job – the people skills. Not everyone is a natural “people person” with an innate ability to connect with, inspire, and motivate others. Senior leaders need to help managers live up to this side of the job and build these critical soft skills, too.
  2. Disjointed Training. It’s not enough for an organization to offer training on conflict resolution, communication, and coaching in isolation. Yes, these are all essential people skills that managers should master, but one-off courses are often ineffective because these skills don’t work in isolation in the real world. Actions such as coaching, communication, and setting expectations are layered in real-life interactions, and managers need to know how to move fluidly between them to be effective people leaders. Manager development training should prepare leaders for this reality.
  3. No Sustainment. Sustainment is a mandatory element for any successful manager development program. Without a sustainment plan in place, the knowledge gained from any great manager development program is going to be pushed aside by short-term goals if people aren’t held accountable. Sadly, sustainment typically either isn’t a strong priority or proves to be a major challenge for most organizations when it comes to manager development – according to the “America’s Workforce” survey, a mere 18 percent of people responsible for manager training strongly feel that they’ve been successful at sustainment so far.

But what’s the solution? How can managers evolve from victims of a flawed training system to the heroes of an organization with the skills and knowledge to lead teams with success?

Sustaining New Skills is Not Mission: Impossible

Here are four ways to stop your manager development efforts from falling short:

  1. Get the senior leaders on board. Unfortunately, 57 percent of talent development leaders say their leaders don’t support their training programs. Not surprising, when training isn’t directly connected to the business outcomes senior leaders want to see. But, when your manager development program does align with the company’s strategy and business goals, senior leaders are likely to lend their support because they can clearly see the positive impact managers can have toward achieving the desired results. Get them on board and they’ll be your most influential cheerleaders, sending the message that “this is important” in a sea of other responsibilities, tasks, and challenges faced by managers. And, if you can get senior leaders to experience the program for themselves before it launches, then they will be well-poised to walk the talk and model the behaviors that are key to success.
  1. Give managers the right foundation. Be very deliberate about how you structure your manager development program. It needs to have the right balance of functional training and leadership skill building to give managers the range of tools needed for success. Managers need to understand how the two types of skills and behaviors are connected to be effective in their role.

But, even with a focus on skill building, many programs neglect to teach managers how to engage and inspire their team in the business strategy. You can have great relationships, coach like a champion, and set crystal clear goals — but leaders who fail to engage their teams in the business first will the miss the mark every time if breakthrough results is their target.

  1. Focus on accountability. If you want the big payoff from your investment in managers, don’t shy away from accountability. A great manager development program inspires action. People leave feeling excited with strong intentions to do things differently. But inspiring action and taking action are not the same things. Back in the realities of their work, managers quickly slip back into old habits. To get the results you are after, you need to view the program itself as the catalyst for change, rather than the end solution. The real challenge comes after the training is complete — this is the crucial point where managers need to feel there is no turning back. They need to know the investment the business has made in them is serious and they need to see how committing to new behaviors and creating new habits is critical to their success and the success of the business.

You need to be transparent that any change worth making requires hard work and long-term commitment. Spend as much time crafting your sustainment plan as you do your initial manager development program. Focus on the areas that have the biggest impact first. Don’t try to reinforce everything at once. Tackle one consistent message and behavior change at a time.

And be sure to pay close attention to what motivates your managers to push on. Consider putting a success measurement in place so they can easily see their impact.  Many organizations do this via a 360 survey or manager effectiveness survey. Alternatively, consider ways to recognize your managers who have made the change in company meetings, newsletters, blogs, etc. — whichever means you have to celebrate people through your company’s culture.

  1. Remove all barriers. If you’re serious about change, then the organization needs to do its part, as well to make sustaining the new behaviors as easy as possible. After all, any sort of change is hard and if you’re asking your managers to embrace a new behavior or skill for the long term, then you need to make things so easy that they can’t help but change. For starters, when planning the training, take the time to consider what the potential barriers to change are and develop the program with those in mind. Look for ways to embed the new behaviors you want to see into existing routines, systems, or processes. For example, if your organization has six-month review cycles and your manager development program has introduced a coaching model, make sure the guide managers are given for their six-month reviews is rewritten to follow the new coaching model. It’s a simple but powerful change. Rather than telling people “practice using the new coaching model” back on the job, you’re setting everyone up for success by rewriting the form. Every manager gets to practice with the new model without fail.

Ensuring leadership support is critical here as well. When the leadership team is behind the change — and demonstrates buy-in and advocacy — people will have no choice but to adopt the new process (or skills, behaviors, etc.) because it’s everywhere. Leadership sets the tone by showing how the new behaviors are a priority for everyone in the organization.

Here’s the bottom line: managers are core to the business. They interact with customers and front-line employees alike. They need to be given the tools, support, and knowledge to become great. But, it’s not just about technical knowledge. Managers also need a deep understanding of how to engage and inspire their teams (and to be held accountable to sustaining these behaviors for the long term). When your managers have the right balance, they become your strongest strategic assets, accelerating the execution of strategy for your organization and propelling your business to greatness.