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Getting Managers to Develop their Staff



Management consultant John Pope explains why managerial involvement in development programmes is crucial and outlines how to achieve this.

Losing good people? People losing their 'edge'?
You lost a very competent and high potential manager recently. At the exit interview you asked why she was leaving – the reply "I was told when I joined that there were opportunities to develop and progress – it just hasn't happened and the work is getting boring – I need a change" You remember that you had been reminding managers of the need to develop their talented people, but to no avail. Pity about that!

Whose job is it to develop staff?
You have been talking to a group of managers about their duties, responsibilities and tasks, and they have, collectively, produced some pretty good answers. You ask in all innocence whose job it is to develop staff. They all say, with minor variations, that it is the manager's job. You ask them to give examples of what they themselves do to develop staff, and the replies are not very satisfactory.

They agree that, as managers, they expect staff to come to them in a fit state to start work, and be reasonably trained or competent. If their work is special they expect this to have been arranged by the training department, though this is generally for skilled or technical work. From there on they know that it is their job and that, however good the staff looked when they arrived, there is much more to be done to fit them to their new work.

You then ask "Who develops you, how much development do you get". The managers show that they are a fairly self-reliant bunch and, if they like their own manager, will say that he does try but he is generally too busy. Pity about that!

Why this difference between theory and practice?
What have we, whether as specialists in learning and development, or in HR done to help? What did we tell managers about developing their staff? We probably told them that it:

  • is an important regular part of the manager's job; - can improve their people’s performance and should be considered and formalised at the annual performance review
  • is a sensitive area because it affects an individual's career and their future progress
  • needs time; it must be properly thought out and that the discussion on performance and development needed should be well prepared and not rushed
  • and that managers must identify and prioritise development for their people, make good plans, and ensure that the development or promised training happens and the results assessed.

This is probably done at annual review time when managers have a number of people to deal with. Since managers are generally behindhand on these things and have other priorities, and HR is also chasing them for the return of the review forms, it is not surprising that development issues to do not get the attention they deserve. In short we have made the job of planning and ensuring the development of staff seem big and daunting. Should we have applied more pressure to make development happen? Perhaps – but would it have worked? Unlikely. Pity about that!

Culture is fundamental and notoriously difficult to change, especially in a long established organisation. It is essential to develop an attitude to learning throughout an organisation so that learning is seen to be an essential part of the business. Continuing personal and organisational development must be seen as normal – so much so that people would think it absurd if personal development was not clear to all. But let's look at the issues.

So what are the big issues in getting managers to develop their people?
I believe that the big issues are more concerned with how to do it, rather than what to do. They are:

  • how to get managers to see the value to themselves of developing others
  • how to make it easy to start, and start getting clear benefits
  • how to monitor the outcomes as well as their activity
  • how to link the individual’s improvement or extra skill to the individual’s subsequent progress
  • how to give the individual the opportunities to realise their potential within the organisation
  • how to get people to believe that continuing learning is essential.

Get managers to see the value of developing their people

Many managers see themselves as being over-burdened. If they are responsible they are working long hours and leave at the end of the day feeling that they have not achieved all that they should have. Many of them could have achieved more had they been prepared to delegate more. As usual, they may also have thought that they could have delegated more, but that it was quicker to do it themselves.

Most managerial jobs include substantial tasks which could be delegated if only the manager were to sit with one of the more responsible members of the team, discuss the task, the things which are involved and explain it to the member and then hand that task over while retaining an element of supervision. It can be the gradual process in which the scope of a task is gradually extended, or a new task added or new learning opportunities found, and as the individual becomes more skilled at doing it the manager can add further tasks.

It is important that the tasks are done correctly of course, but it is also important that it is not only the manager who understands how it is done. It gives the manager more time to do other things and the benefits are soon apparent once the initial investment of time has been made. Fine so far, but this is unlikely to happen regularly until the manager starts seeing the personal benefit of having better staff.

And what personal benefits can there be: off-loading a task to one or several subordinates so that the manager can tackle other things; freeing up the manager's diary; perhaps even to get the job done better because it is new to that individual, while to the manager it is a chore.

It doesn't have to be a major job either; the simple act of training a subordinate in the way material should be presented still produces a saving. Part of the manager's job is to teach how things should be done – the saving to the manager is the reduction of 're-work'. This is where L&D or HR really can help, by advising the manager on ways of getting these savings, by providing guidance, by identifying opportunities, encouraging. All 'carrot stuff', but with the 'stick' ready as well.

Make it easier to start
Many managers know they should delegate more but are unsure where to start as well as how to start. In many organisations there are sufficient similarities in the tasks required by managers for it to be worthwhile to produce a guide to the task and notes for the manager on learning opportunities. We have produced several such guides for managers. One identified a range of common tasks in retailing, of which stock-take is one example – usually unwelcome but necessary task.

It is relatively simple to produce a guidance note which suggests to a manager how to delegate that task, how to identify aspects which may cause problems and guidelines on how to brief an individual whom the manager will task for organising and running it. Such guides do not take long to produce and sometimes just preparing them identifies system weaknesses – a double benefit to the manager.

Develop a Learning culture
An organisation does not become a 'learning organisation' unless there is a positive culture led from the top. The example can be set so easily by the Chief Executive, and I have seen it done, and seen how that chief executive's example has quickly penetrated the whole organisation. It is, of course, easier when the chief executive is a 'new broom'.It was a long fraught top team meeting which discussed a range of difficult problems, and had come to a close. All the members were gathering their papers, anxious to get away before any more problems were brought out into the open. The chief executive said "Just before you go" – members' hearts sank noisily – "I want no more than one minute from each of you in turn on what you have learnt from this meeting, or what you will do differently in the future". After a pause, one of the members stated what he had learnt, and was going on beyond his allotted 60 seconds when the chief executive said "Fine I don't want any more – next!" And the others responded in turn. Within two months each of those senior executives was adopting the same approach at their meetings. It did not take long for that approach to make a big improvement to the learning culture. Try it out.

What can we do to formalise the development?
There are a range of options. If you have a reasonably simple and useable set of management competencies – not all of them are simple – you can organise the development guide around those competencies and find examples which managers can consider when discussing an individual's development and where the improvements can be identified subsequently at annual review.

You can link the staff development to career progression or to assessment of potential for promotion: Design the processes so that individuals can consider their own progress and raise their sights higher; many of them will then put extra effort into self-development. You can link the development process to qualification or suitability to undertake special projects or an extension of job role; you can also link it to with such things as eligibility to represent the organisation at winter conferences held in sunny places.

One major IT company made two conditions for their sales people to attend the annual 'binge'. One was that they had achieved their year’s sales targets – the other was that they had attended all the training which they had agreed on at the start of the year. "Too busy working on a big project" was not accepted as an excuse. It did show that the business took development very seriously. They did not apply it to the production staff though, knowing that if they let them go on binges they might never come back. Pity about that!

Monitor and record the outcomes
Many organisations keep a record of the formal training of each individual, fewer keep notes on informal training on development experiences. Even fewer record the outcomes and benefits, pity about that! But it's not that difficult to arrange a quick review after the event – a check up which goes further than the end of course 'happy sheet'. It is fairly easy to check three months afterwards by asking about the application of the new knowledge or skills and the benefits. Of course, the manager should respond, but the busy manager will find it another chore – so why not ask the individual who may well be more interested in his progress and career?

Some organisations encourage their people to keep an active CV on file and some – especially construction companies quoting for work – make it mandatory. Of course, it could be dangerous and encourage people to review their progress and might stimulate them to look around – pity about that, but then if you are not making good use of their talents it might stimulate you to make better use.

To close
Of course, managers should look after their people, they should be concerned about their people's performance, progress and careers. HR and L&D could do more to help managers, and many would respond to that help to the benefit to themselves, their people and the organisation. It would make life easier all round. Of course, there will always be some managers who won't, and they deserve to lose their best people. Pity about that!

Read other articles by John Pope:

  • Repetitive administration: why don't we learn from the past?

  • Recruiting talent: practical advice

  • How to get better results from clients

  • How to get better results from consultants

  • Competencies overdone
  • A note about myself

    John Pope has been a management consultant for 40 years and seen management fashions come and go. He has worked to improve the development and performance of managers and management teams at all levels for most of his career. He has strong views on the terrible waste of people’s talents at work. He has a reputation for original thinking on management issues. His papers help managers on a wide range of topics, and set out underlying principles and factors in a clear way.

    John Pope
    John Pope can be contacted at [email protected]


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