Company leadership spend a lot of time running the place, but do they forge a common view with managers of actually how to manage? Many managers are promoted through the ranks and have never studied management. Those who have bring diverse perspectives and approaches. So leadership often does not share the same language of management. Problem-solving discussions may resolve an immediate issue, but how can leadership coalesce around a unified approach at a deeper level?
A common solution is to hire one experienced manager for each area or function, to tell everyone what to do. But this can lead to silos and resistance, complicating pathways for personnel development, especially for high potentials. Another approach is to escalate everything to the CEO – she sets the tone, so let her lay out the management guidelines. But not all CEOs are experienced managers, and they may not know all the intricacies of the art of management. Plus, they have other things to do. A third idea is to dream of sending everyone to business school – the ultimate non-solution solution.
Build-It-Yourself Management Training
Recognizing that management is a matter of lifelong learning, a more positive approach establishes an ongoing internal learning program. Tailoring a program around topics important to the team and specifically applicable to the business provides a practical and useful curriculum. Taking time to draw from the wealth of books, videos and other resources available in best-practice raises the game. And wherever possible, having existing leaders lead the programs ensures a constructive, sharing environment.
“Our leadership development program got us aligned and it got people excited about the opportunity for a new career,” says Stan Schneider, CEO of Real-Time Innovations (RTI), the 250-person software framework provider based in Sunnyvale, CA. “Even within the first year, we could see that the company was being run better and people also got to explore opportunities for leadership.”
RTI started its training program during the dot-com boom in 2000, when the company found its niche and experienced exponential growth, expanding from six to 60 people in 18 months. Of those, 40 were engineers from Stanford University. But no managers.
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Schneider started a class with 10 employees in more senior roles who wanted to be managers. He has a love of learning and especially of teaching, so he took to the role naturally. He designed a practical course focusing on leadership, time management, personal growth, teamwork and communications. He put together a series of a half dozen classes, meeting every other week and including homework and in-person discussion.
Of the original group, six have stuck with management. Building on this success, the program has continued and expanded significantly, so that now all new employees take part in the program, with some components specifically for managers and future managers, and many others about basic corporate operations and more general skills.
Designing the Course
Here are some steps to designing effective management curriculum:
Find a “teacher” or two. The person might be internal if they love management and teaching. Or they might be external if no one in the company can be found. Ideally, they are coach-like, supporting learning by the team rather than being directive.
Allocate a budget, both of money and time, otherwise the initiative isn’t serious. Allow employees to take part in classes during work time, so they know it is a priority.
Start the program focusing on high potentials as the primary audience. Take their input and write up a course outline to see if they are interested and align with the topics. Forcing people to learn never works. Start with a motivated core of three to five participants.
Run the program for six months to a year, assessing it quarterly, looking for signs that participants are learning and that the company is benefitting from their new knowledge. The aim is to provide practical, useable skills and techniques, as well as to build a common vision for management across the company.
Expand the program carefully, protecting the central course program and adding to it incrementally. Remember that your high potential leaders – both technical and managerial –make the biggest impact on growth. So invest in them first, then other groups.
Continue to monitor and assess feedback and results. The course should remain dynamic and responsive to the interests of participants. The company should evaluate the program regularly, to make sure that it is achieving results and remains worthwhile to continue.
A Passion for Learning
Too many companies get excited by a new employee training concept and try to use it develop everyone – then they can’t execute it. So be focused at the start, not overambitious, and make sure the program is benefitting a core group of high potentials while delivering early results to the company itself – that’s the whole point.
RTI’s case may be a bit unique, however, as the main driver and the principal teacher, turned out to be the CEO himself. Schneider says he found himself as an “accidental manager” in his first job, where he had only been in place for three years before ending up with nine reports. But he has clearly thrown himself into his new-found role and has a passion and talent for it. “I love teaching it, that’s part of the reason I do it,” he says.
With the CEO’s enthusiastic involvement, RTI’s leadership development program now is called the Professional Development Series. It consists of 20 one-hour sessions and takes about two years to complete, usually with one session a month. Schneider still teaches a majority of the classes, with six taught by others.
The curriculum has expanded from the original six subjects to more than 20, from practical tasks like spreadsheets, effective meetings and interview techniques to management skills like problem solving and project management to subject overviews, like finance, legal basics, marketing and sales. Several modules draw from leading management experts, such as Patrick Lencioni’s work on team building.
Classes are drop-in style, not a set group, with participation at anywhere from 40-70 employees. With continuing growth at RTI (including international expansion), the company has continued hiring, and all new employees attend classes. Management sessions continue to focus on key senior personnel and high potentials. But with the program established, Schneider is keen for everyone to take part.
“The earlier employees are in their careers, the more likely they are to attend every class,” he says. “I’ve had people send me emails, ‘When’s the next class? You’re late! It’s been more than a month.’”
The classes are not static and go through significant modification every time around. As a result, some individuals join every class and have been through every class multiple times. “The feedback comments are really good. The conversations I have with people about their experiences often turn into modifications to material. It also forces me to keep learning,” Schneider says.
High-potential employees who are on track to become company leaders may need training over and above what internal mentoring and training videos can provide. They may get the most from development customized to their particular situation. We’ve seen excellent success in our practice do a type of emerging leadership development on a regular basis to supplement what company owners can do themselves, and to help with succession planning.
Some midsized companies offer emerging leaders one-one-one coaching. Others run groups that bring up-and-coming high-potential leaders with similar titles or responsibilities together for a learning experience customized to their needs. Some companies do both.
The content of these programs can cover all aspects of business, including dealing with current company challenges. The format of group sessions may be as simple as meeting every month for 90 minutes to discuss a business book everyone’s read, and how to act on ideas pulled from it. Or, a group could meet more often, over weekly coffee or Zoom calls.
Koshland Pharm, a Bay Area compounding pharmacy, runs emerging leader programs for a handful of high-potential employees who were promoted into middle-manager positions without previous management experience. Megan Patton, a principal in our firm, runs a monthly session with this group. In it, the group discusses takeaways from a management or leadership book. She also has monthly meetings with each group member, and quarterly check-ins with CEO Peter Koshland.
Patton’s work takes away some of the training burden from the CEO, who founded the firm and is a self-taught manager. “I don’t have an MBA,” Koshland says. “Our managers really needed some clear mentorship around making that transition from worker to manager.”
The trainings have helped managers solve issues they previously weren’t equipped to handle. For example, Jeremy, a manager who oversees a large production crew, struggled to get staff to share feedback during monthly all-hands meetings. Patton suggested he give conversation prompts to his team ahead of meetings — so that they had time to think through their responses and so Jeremy could call on people directly without having them feel caught off-guard – opening such a floodgate of suggestions that there now isn’t enough time in meetings to hear from everyone.
The feedback from managers who’ve taken part has been universally positive, Koshland says. “They look forward to their meetings.”
Changing the Culture, Changing Lives
For a modest investment of time and money, developing your management team together pays many benefits. Some results are realized right away, with improved operational efficiency. Others build up over time as learning becomes part of the culture and a shared language and perspective emerges.
“I learned very quickly that someone who has been trained to recognize good management is a much easier person to manage. You don’t have to explain why you’re doing things anymore,” notes Schneider. “We all speak the same language. That’s hugely valuable.”
More broadly, an engaging program contributes to personnel development and employee satisfaction. Schneider believes the program has led to a higher rate of internal development than at other companies and has embedded a culture of lifelong learning. “You get a couple of students where it just clicks. They’re so excited about it,” he says. “And they’re sponges – it’s changing their lives.”