How To Implement a Great Management Training Program

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Individual contributors turn into first-time managers who become team leaders, and eventually great leaders. That’s how it’s supposed to work in your organization, right?

Well, the transition from employee to leader isn’t quite so easy. It has complexities, politics, human resources input, personal ability, and willingness of employees to take on a greater role.

If ambition is present, oftentimes, your preferred manager candidate is simply suffering from a lack of knowledge, leading to the overwhelming feeling of doubt — or worse yet — an imposter complex.

Before you anoint your next leader or push your current manager to the next level, the only way to alleviate the chances of a catastrophe is with a management training program. Designed to help first-time and veteran managers, management training programs offer a plethora of knowledge that turns mere managers into phenomenal leaders.

All you need to do is emphasize its importance, learn the ins and outs, and put a program in place. It may say daunting, but once you dig into the concepts, you’ll wonder why you didn’t do it in the first place.

What Is a Management Training Program?

A management training program is a series of seminars, classes, and courses designed to teach and develop leadership skills and managerial competence. Some of the most effective programs target first-time managers through interactive training, while other courses gear themselves toward seasoned managers or executives.

Management training courses can come through many channels, but most are administered through your business (if you have the resources), management and leadership companies like Unicorn Labs, certificate programs, or universities/colleges.

Programs are often more suitable for onsite training — such as retreats, seminars, or webinars. However, self-paced learners can find excellent options online that often require no prerequisites to join. The latter is a bonus if you don’t have the current finances to bankroll a management training program internally or externally through a professional company.

Some of the most common concepts covered in management training programs include essential skills or more complex topics, including:

  • Leadership training and leadership styles
  • People management and team management
  • Emotional intelligence
  • Employee development
  • Conflict resolution
  • Performance management and talent development
  • Time management
  • Team-building
  • Problem-solving
  • Communication skills
  • Project management
  • 360 feedback
  • Organizational change management (framework for major organizational transformations or changes)
  • Decision-making
  • Critical-thinking
  • Transition from individual contributor to manager for first-time managers
  • Interpersonal skills

Finding a program that works for you is integral. You’ll need to analyze your budget and decide whether you want to try management training program initiatives internally or turn to a proven consultant or management coach/company for training solutions.

5 Ways To Plan Great Management Training Programs

Three workers smiling at a computer during a management training program

Planning a proper management training program is tantamount to success. Without proper planning, you’re spinning your wheels. To some degree, traditional, unplanned management training programs frequently don’t help new managers with the role. Don’t follow this formulaic, disastrous approach.

But it’s not that management training is inherently bad. It’s just frequently done badly. This makes it so wonderful to see a company put thought into creating a fantastic program for its new managers.

For a quality example of management training programs, look at the engineering team at Skyscanner — the UK headquartered travel technology company. In their recent piece, “Maker to Manager — How we Support New Leaders,” they detail how they advance software engineers into potential managers. It has many features commonly advocated for whenever someone asks us here at Unicorn Labs how they should structure their programs.

You might see something in here to incorporate into your own learning, and for those who have influence in designing management programs at your organizations, you might find even more inspiration.

Some of the main points from Skyscanner you may want to include are:

  • Planning in advance: Employees are asked whether they’d be interested in limited management responsibilities and whether they’d be interested in doing so. If so, it’s built into their development plan so they can build up to taking on one or two direct reports over the coming months.
  • Peer learning: All new managers are invited to a dedicated Slack channel for those on the path. Regular coffee meetings for managers allow them to share their experiences and challenges.
  • Mentoring: Each engineer is assigned a mentor for 1:1 support as they learn how to manage.  There are also quarterly “Ask-Me-Anything” sessions with engineering leaders and more experienced managers.
  • Online and in-person training: Both combine to offer guidance on key management skills.
  • Is this what you want? After six months, a check-in occurs with the new manager on how they’re finding the role. If it’s not the right fit for them, they can go back to their previous career path with no impact on their professional development.

Why Your Management Training Program May Not Be Working (and How To Fix It)

Management coach leading a seminar with five workers

At Unicorn Labs, we spoke to lots of managers about how comfortable they felt in the role and about the support they were getting from their companies.

Reassuringly, or so we thought, we found that 70% were getting some assistance, usually in the form of management training programs. Less reassuringly, over 80% of those respondents said that it wasn’t actually helping — especially for new managers.

And it’s not just managers who realize there’s a problem. We’ve spoken to many people/HR professionals tasked with training organizations who privately know that their solutions aren’t having the desired results and are struggling to find the right fix.

To build upon the tenets of a great management training program, presenting some of the best practices we’ve seen work in successful companies is essential. If you’re a manager trying to advocate for better support or one of those trying to provide that support, these tips are for you.

Solving the Right Problem

Management training is a means rather than an end. That should be obvious, but too often, it seems like ‘doing some management training’ becomes the organizational objective rather than the actual result you’re trying to achieve.

If we go back to the result you’re after, we imagine it’s broadly something like:

"Helping managers get better at their jobs."

So far, so good.

But do you actually know what your managers’ challenges are and what would help them get better? When you dig into it, there might be things that can’t be fixed by training.

Here are several examples of typical structural issues that no amount of training is going to solve (but which hinder managers all the time):

  • Lack of time to manage due to overwork: managers may want to spend more time planning their 1:1s, working with team members on development areas, discussing career paths, and thinking about how they can be a better boss, but can’t due to the sheer volume of their other work.  
  • Too many direct reports: In some cases overwork is created due to having too many people to manage, with managers spread too thin to be able to adequately support each team member. That’s to say, managers’ 1:1s act as natural bottlenecks to direct reports. Managers should be able to meet all their reports for a good weekly/biweekly 1:1. If they can’t do that, they’ve got too many direct reports.
  • Underperformance due to poor hiring: Underperforming employees create some of the largest time burdens on managers. They require additional attention to improve and remove resources from other team members. Managing underperformance is a key part of any manager’s role, but only if the employee may reach their full potential. Sometimes that’s not possible because the wrong person was hired in the first place, and no amount of great management is going to fix their unsuitability for the role.  
  • Demotivational performance processes: Motivating high-performing teams when that performance isn’t rewarded proves difficult. As happens in many cases, it’s rewarded inconsistently through onerous and artificial processes that hinder rather than help managers do their jobs.
  • Lack of organizational clarity: Managers can’t orient their teams to do their most impactful work for a company if they’re not clear about what success looks like. A lack of clarity in communication from senior leadership can quickly undermine managers’ best efforts as they waste time second-guessing what their bosses want.
  • Lack of guidance on progression: The desire to help their people develop and grow (and this improved performance also has obvious benefits to the organization) is the motivation of many managers. But if an individual’s progress in a company isn’t clear, then again managers are left guessing as to how they should direct their teams.
  • Promotion of unsuitable managers: we’ve all seen the ‘wrong’ people get promoted into management positions, often due to a lack of other senior career pathways. These individuals often have neither the skills nor the motivation to be great at the job. Good luck training for that.

Good management training programs increase people’s capabilities. But if those capabilities butt up against organizational issues like these, you’re not going to achieve the impact you want.

Put another way, if structural issues exist, pushing responsibility for fixing the symptoms onto individual managers by sending them a LinkedIn Learning course on ‘Giving Better Feedback’ isn’t going to help.

So before thinking about training, make sure you’re clear on the core question: “How can we best help our managers improve at their jobs?”

If you don’t know the answer to this, ask your teams.

Speaking to Your Teams

Your people are the key to understanding how to shape any management training program and subsequent manager training courses. A few structured conversations can yield invaluable insights that will help you understand the challenges in helping your managers succeed in the role.

If you’re considering this, here are a few tips:

  • Target: Unless you’re a small business, you’re not going to be able to speak to everyone for this exercise; you’re going to have to choose who to speak to. Target your conversations on the areas where improvement would have the most impact. You probably have informal signals to suggest you’ve got issues with, for example, new manager transitions, or senior leaders losing experienced hires. Pick a management issue to focus on and speak to the relevant people about it.
  • Team: We say “team” because you won’t just be speaking to managers. While managers will have a view on the areas they find challenging and want to improve, you’ll get just as much information — if not more — speaking to their team members about what they want to see more of from their bosses.
  • Topics: You’ll want to gather information on several subjects — from how comfortable managers feel in the role to the support they get to how effective they think those solutions are.
  • Talk: You may have been tempted by these exercises to use a survey to gather anonymous responses. While this can be a useful tool, and you may wish to use it, we’d always recommend talking to your teams too. You’ll gain valuable information you wouldn’t get through a survey, it demonstrates your investment in tackling the issues, and you bring people into the process who can be internal champions for your eventual solution.
  • Trust: Some of the questions you’ll be asking will invite potentially critical responses from other employees. You’ll need to make sure whoever is conducting the interviews (or any surveys) has the confidence of the interviewee to maximize honest answers. For example, getting HR to ask managers what they thought of the management training HR just organized or asking bosses to speak to their team members about what they think of them is unlikely to generate full and frank answers.

Finding the Right Solutions

A man looking at his computer contemplatively

By this point, you should have a good idea of how you can best help your managers improve at their jobs. You’re probably aware of some structural issues but have identified some capability gaps you want to fill.

So finally, training? Well, maybe.

Different people learn in different ways. The most successful leadership development and manager training programs often include various options to give managers the best chance of finding a learning opportunity that works for them. For example, a format that resonates, or often just one that fits in with their work pattern.

So rather than narrowing your focus down to formal training, we wanted to present a range of manager development approaches and their use cases.  Based on what you heard from your teams, and the challenges you’re having, we’ll leave you to pick which items from the menu best suit your company.

The answer probably still includes training, but we bet you see a couple of other things you can layer in, too, which will dramatically improve your approach to manager development and leverage any training you decide to do.

  • Training: The one you came to this article to actually read about! By now, you should have a wealth of information to judge what training will be most effective — which topics people want covered, which formats they would find most useful, etc. If you’re using an external trainer, find one who will be most familiar with the context of your company and your growth to make sure it’s most relevant for your teams.
  • Peer learning groups: The people who know most about the difficult situations managers will face at your company are your people. Organizing sessions for peers to share their experiences of management and discuss them will highlight issues others are likely to face ahead of time in an informal and engaging way.
  • Buddying: Some people won’t be comfortable sharing their management experience in a group forum, so pairing them up with a peer manager to meet 1:1 may be more effective.  Again, the intention is to meet every few weeks to discuss any challenges and successes with a peer who’s also experiencing the same role.
  • Mentoring: If peer groups and buddying are about learning from others going through the same management experience, mentoring is about learning from those who’ve already been through it. The opportunity to ask a more experienced manager about the role can be invaluable, and management mentoring programs can be very effective.
  • Community building: One of the challenges of manager development is consolidating learning within your company and sharing useful experiences as broadly as possible. Though peer learning groups are helpful, you can broaden this further by creating a manager community across your company. We’ve seen companies serve these manager communities with specific Slack channels, events, knowledge sharing, and even dedicated monthly newsletters.  Not only does this help managers develop but it sends a powerful message that good management is a valuable skill within your company.
  • Tooling: You’ve probably read various statistics about how easily training is forgotten.  If your managers don’t put what they’ve learned into practice soon, it will often fade away. Your managers are also likely to be some of the busiest people in your company, and integrating new habits into their schedules will be challenging, even with the best intentions.

Beyond your management training program, specialized tools from Unicorn Labs — such as our 12-week training program, retreats, and individualized and team coaching — help managers make necessary changes, integrate the best practices into their work, and more effectively manage their teams.

Learn more here about how.

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