- Why should I read this? If you’ve ever been on management training, coordinated it, or are planning some, we have some thoughts to share and lessons learned from the managers we have spoken to. As you can probably guess from the title, not all of it is positive. It’s some of these failings which encouraged us to build Kommon.
- Finding the time: sounds obvious but managers are really busy. Companies are still arranging training at inconvenient times, and/or 6 months after managers actually need it.
- Making it relevant: companies are still serving up general training from external providers to employees who need specific, practical advice on their roles. It doesn’t help.
- People forget: hard to believe given the size of the industry, but one-off management training is generally a lousy way to get information across, no matter how good the content is. People forget unless learning is put into practice quickly and on an ongoing basis.
- Training at scale: designing training programs which are general enough to scale to hundreds or thousands of managers but specific enough to help is incredibly difficult. But more work could be done to acknowledge trade-offs and fill in the gaps.
- Getting accurate feedback: sub-standard training programs remain in place because meaningful feedback is not collected once managers have had a chance to see if it has actually helped them in their role. Managers also shy away from appearing ungrateful for what can be expensive training.
When we began speaking to managers as part of building Kommon, we were pleasantly surprised to find that about 70% of the people we spoke to were getting some form of support in the role from their organisations. However, it became less pleasant when we dug into the detail.
The majority of this ‘support’ was through management training programs. Mostly either external providers or internal programs delivered by their colleagues. When we asked managers how effective these had been, about 80 percent said that the training hadn’t been particularly useful in helping them with the role.
Now, whilst our sample of managers we spoke to may be relatively small, the size of the number (80 percent!) suggests there is an issue here. A big one. Not only is there a problem with managers not getting the support they need. But in the absence of good feedback mechanisms, it is likely that organisations and HR departments think that they are providing meaningful support. This has the potential to create a real institutional blindspot, where senior leadership congratulate themselves on rolling out training programs, whilst managers struggle on, making the same mistakes and hindering the development of their people and teams.
We should say this is not a criticism of management training in general - at it’s best, it can be a great tool. But the conversations we’ve had contain important lessons for structuring those programs; what works, what doesn’t, and what managers might not always tell HR departments in feedback forms. We also think they point towards how technology can play a role in supporting managers, and complement more traditional training initiatives.
Finding the time
"My organisation has some online manager training and has access to LinkedIn Learning. Do I have time to do those online courses, though? The answer is no." (Kommon Interview)
Ok this part is basic, but we have to start here. If trainees can’t even attend the sessions then we don’t even need to move onto the actual content. Research has suggested that the average employee only has 24 minutes a week for formal learning, and we know managers are amongst the busiest people in any organisation.
So finding the time is hard enough, but then it seems organisations compound that with inconsiderate scheduling. They hold training without thought to different time-zones, or do one-off sessions which are not repeated for several months.
One San Francisco-based firm we spoke to set their management training at a time which meant their UK colleagues had to dial in from 10pm to 2am on a Friday night. Not typically when employees are most receptive to learning about the intricacies of performance improvement plans. We heard several stories of people who had been promoted only to find out they’d ‘missed the training’ but they would have another opportunity in six months. During which presumably, they had to, yes, ‘figure it out’ with all the mistakes and missed opportunities that entails.
Making the content relevant
Assuming you can catch people when they’re available and hold their attention for a reasonable period of time, there appears to be a real challenge in creating management training which resonates with the chosen audience.
Management is difficult because developing people, careers and companies is complicated. Every individual and therefore every team has particular characteristics, needs and motivations. This creates a real challenge for training providers - how do you create something which is relevant across such a diverse audience? For some managers we spoke to, it seems providers chose to dodge the question; creating general content that didn’t necessarily help particular managers with the situations they faced in their daily jobs. This issue is often exacerbated by whoever is delivering the training. In some instances, trainees felt that the person delivering the training was too far removed from their experience (often as a people expert, rather than a frontline manager) to offer trustworthy insights on what they should and shouldn’t put into practice.
This may be why generally we found more positive comments about internal training, where those providing the guidance had been in the shoes of the trainees. These people were better trusted, and could really tailor the content to the lived experience of their colleagues.
"It wasn’t ‘how do you manage a poor performer’, ‘how do you establish relevant boundaries with the people you’re managing’ like that kind of stuff. It was more about ‘this is how you inspire people’, ‘this is how you bring vision to people’ and all that which is useful but is slightly different to people management.” (Kommon Interview)
Assuming you can actually get people in the room, hold their attention for a reasonable period of time, and keep the content relevant, unfortunately there’s a good chance they’ll forget it. This dynamic is not unique to management training, but nevertheless is important to highlight.
Research by German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus in the late 19th century on ‘The Forgetting Curve’ found that if new information isn’t applied, it’s forgotten in about six days.
Although some of what is taught in management training is generally applicable, many of the crucial situations managers have to navigate are unlikely to occur in the immediate aftermath of training. It would be a tremendous learning experience to have to combat poor performance, convince a high-achiever to stay, hire someone, fire someone, improve your team’s mental health and broaden team diversity in the space of a week. But it would suggest there were larger issues with your management style if that was to happen!
Instead, by the time a manager comes to confront one of these critical scenarios, much of what was learned in ad-hoc training has been lost.
"I’m sure I was given some nice flyers and stuff which have quite handily gone into the bottom of a drawer somewhere never to be seen again" (Kommon Interview)
Training at scale
It seems that for support to be effective it needs to fit in with managers’ schedules, be relevant to their day-to-day roles and be ongoing so it’s there when they need it. What we’re saying then is that in order to be effective, training should ideally be personalised.
Unfortunately, anything that’s personalised or tailored tends to be more expensive and hard to scale. This leads to two options: a) make it less personalised (read: less effective) to reach more people; or b) restrict the number of people who receive the personalised training.
We heard stories of both scenarios. We spoke to people professionals who were dissatisfied with the management training solutions available to them, but had to implement them because they were the only ones that scaled across their organisations to meet implementation KPIs. We also spoke to managers who’d been overlooked for management training because it was only available to a certain subset of employees.
Perhaps most interestingly, because expensive management training can be seen as a ‘perk’, we saw cases where it was top performers or senior leadership who were given it - which is precisely the wrong way round. Those who needed support the most could find themselves at the back of the queue.
The bottom line is that in all these cases, a certain cohort of managers is missing out. Either because they weren’t deemed fit to receive the specialised training, or because they received a sub-standard experience in the name of creating a scalable program.
Getting accurate feedback
As should be evident by now, putting in place effective training is really difficult. Organisations shouldn’t necessarily be expected to get it right the first time. Or even the second time. But that’s what makes it really important that good feedback is collected on what works and what doesn’t, from those who the training is meant to help. Unfortunately this doesn’t always seem to be happening.
We found that feedback is often falsely skewed in a positive way, for a few reasons:
- There probably were some good bits: unless you’ve really got it wrong, there probably were a couple of insights that people found useful. Especially in the absence of any other support, managers will initially be inclined to give positive feedback on those areas.
- People don’t want to seem ungrateful: particularly if the training isn’t available to everyone (see Training at Scale above), it can sound ungrateful to focus on the negatives. Much easier to say you found it useful and move on.
- It hasn’t been tested in the real world: what sounded good in a meeting room or an online video might feel very different when you’re testing in a real-world situation in several months' time.
We would venture that if two months after completing training, you asked recipients how much they put into practice in their daily roles, and whether they still needed support, the answers would be ‘very little’ and ‘emphatically yes’.
"if someone thinks that you are a future star of the company and you get sent away on training... I don’t want to turn around and be like, guys, this is a waste of money." (Kommon Interview)
So what should organisations do?
As we said at the start, we don't mean to be critical of all management training. But we think the conversations we had highlight some useful shortfalls that organisations can be aware of when designing their own approaches to supporting their managers:
- Make support ongoing: one-off training is easily forgotten. Organisations need to find ways to support their managers in the day-to-day flow of their work.
- Ensure advice is practical: work with employees to find out what they really need help with in their roles and then create tailored support. Don’t just fall back on generalised leadership content.
- Make it accessible: make sure that those who you’re trying to help actually receive the benefits, at a time that works for them.
- Be aware of compromises when scaling: if you do have to make compromises to scale a training program, be aware of where the gaps are and seek other solutions to fill them. Don’t pretend your chosen solution is a silver bullet.
- Get real feedback: find ways to get honest feedback from managers on the effectiveness of your support. Don’t just collect feedback in the immediate aftermath of any training.
We believe technology can have a role in some of these areas - you can read some more of our thoughts on that here.