There’s a motto that stretches from political to organizational life: “The middle makes it happen.” Your organization’s middle managers are no exception. They execute strategic priorities, support change initiatives, are the nexus for cross-functional collaboration and account for at least 70 percent of variance in employee engagement according to 2015 Gallup data.
Despite this, a 2015 Root study suggests that when it comes to development, the manager is often the “most neglected employee” in the organization. As a result, there are a lot of ineffective managers in today’s management pool. Gallup research found only one in 10 people “naturally” possesses the talent to manage. That means 90 percent need support to increase their effectiveness. Yet few development programs deliver what managers need to become more effective.
As a learning and development team responsible for training our global management cadre, we sought new methods to tackle these challenges. Our end-goal was simple: to close the knowing-doing chasm, and shrink the skill variation in our global manager force. To do so successfully, we had to radically reimagine our approach to manager development. To develop 50 to 70 percent of our managers worldwide, we outlined three requisites for the learning experience: scale, personalization and linking learning to on-the-job doing.
To address scale, we knew we couldn’t deliver a conventional classroom-based program; our managers are spread all over the world. We also needed to think differently about how to build an intimate virtual experience. We needed a personalized online learning environment that would keep learners engaged and motivated, and we needed strategies to embed development into managers’ day-to-day activities.
These three elements — scalability, personalization and embedded learning — became the cornerstone for our modernized approach to manager development. The six-month experience transformed manager development from a once-delivered program into a weekly learning habit built on reflection, experimentation and application.
Program Pillar 1: Microlearning and experimentation
When it comes to learning, having access to content isn’t what managers struggle with. It’s having the attention to assimilate it. Managers need to be fed relevant information in realistic doses so they can digest the information and actually do something with it.
Drawing on research from neuroscience, we curated quality content into smaller, microlearning interventions. Every Monday, participants receive their “WEEKLY,” which includes curated resources — such as a short video, article or book summary — around a specific topic and are guided on how to put the topic into practice. In one assignment, participants learned the LAP model for effective communication: listen, ask, prime. After watching a short video describing the approach, they identified a meeting on their calendar that week to test drive it. This builds a powerful dynamic for learning: attention to a new skill, with the intention to practice it.
In this microlearning model, we replaced what management training expert Michael Bungay Stanier calls the “flash flood” model of learning with more focused learning sprints that resemble a “drip irrigation” approach. Well-designed microlearning produces microchanges — small shifts in behaviors that feel manageable to undertake. As one participant said, “While the expectations should not be to come out of the program as an entirely new person, you will get a series of small yet valuable opportunities to grow.”
Program Pillar 2: Meaningful, personal support
When it comes to changing our behavior, the odds are stacked against us. In Alan Deutschman’s book “Change or Die,” he wrote that when heart patients were told they needed to change their lifestyle — or they would die — 90 percent of them were unable to sustain the changes.
What the successful 10 percent of heart patients had that the others lacked was not more commitment or capability. They had weekly support — from dieticians, psychologists, yoga instructors — to help keep their desire on fire. We fashioned a similar support model for our managers.
This was possible given our partnership with coaching firm BetterUp. BetterUp’s global network of certified coaches uses behavioral science and positive psychology to help employees strengthen their psychological capital. The building blocks of psychological capital — resilience, hope, optimism and self-efficacy — are not only essential to support personal change. They are also linked to higher employee commitment, well-being and performance as well as the ability to cope and thrive in the face of constant organizational change.
All employees received weekly sessions to provide highly personalized, dedicated support. Since the virtual coaching sessions were administered over video chat, directly from participants’ smartphones, location was irrelevant. The results were impressive. One participant said his coach was able to work his strengths to help him better respond in challenging situations. Another participant said, “My coach was able to pull ideas out of me which I didn’t even know were there.”
This personal approach proved to be a real differentiator in the development experience. We saw improvements in all baseline measures captured, with the most sizable gains in lower stress and burnout, higher engagement, and greater sense of self-efficacy. This data revealed that our participants were not just growing as managers, but also as human beings.
Program Pillar 3: Building new manager habits
No development program is complete without having participants set well-defined goals, but setting and sticking to them can be taxing on a busy manager. Instead, we focused on helping them build healthier habits.
One way we did this was to improve the consistency and quality of manager one-on-ones. In his book “The Effective Manager,” author Mark Horstman details a study that found if a manager scheduled weekly 30-minute one-on-ones, the manager’s results and retention rates rose by about 10 percent.
We provided all our managers with a topic and questions to use for their weekly one-on-ones. Their direct reports received the same topic and questions, with tips on how to prepare. Turning the weekly meeting into a quality discussion to connect and engage with employees proved to be a foundational habit for most managers. One manager said, “I have learned to ask better questions and spend time to listen to my team … I now have deeper insights into who they are, and what motivates them.” We also provided other just-in-time resources for things like career development discussions and rewards conversations to support building healthy managerial habits for practices they were already handling.
We pushed ourselves to rethink manager development by introducing microlearning and experimentation, personalized support, combined embedded learning with social learning, and promoted the importance of healthy habits. In the process, we designed an experience that combined the scalability of a virtual program with the high-touch impact of a classroom experience.
The result speaks for itself. At the time of this publication, more than 98 percent of participants would recommend the program to other managers.
Ellie Harris is a senior consultant for global learning and development, and Jessica Amortegui is head of global learning and development for Logitech. Comment below or email editor@CLOmedia.com.