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Jodi Baker

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How to: Train a new line manager to manage


Jodi Baker takes us through her tried and tested three-step process.

Imagine you are two or three years into your career: knowledgeable, confident and well-regarded within the organisation. What’s next? Maybe a promotion with a team, more responsibility and a pay rise? Though alongside these come new pressures, a new way of working and the need to use a different type of skills.

How do organisations typically help these newly-promoted individuals build the skills and understanding of a new way of working to succeed in their jobs? In my experience, the short answer is they don’t; or at least they don’t in the way these line managers really need it.

Often in organisations that have identified this gap, the solution includes a generic ‘introduction to line management’ course that touches on a broad range of subjects from performance reviews and managing employee relations issues to coaching and giving feedback and how to use the new manager self-service module on their HR Information System. This may or may not be supported by an employee handbook and some advice and direction from their new manager. Worst-case scenario, the first-time line manager is handed their new job description and expected to just get on with it.

The issue

But is this really enough support for a first-time line manager to be effective in their new role? Great leadership theorists have always argued that people are promoted for their strong technical skills, not their ability to manage or to lead – which creates a barrier to their potential to really excel in their new role from the offset. With this in mind, how can we expect these first-time line managers to have the skills to manage without the proper interventions? 

A conversation I had a few weeks back with a newly-promoted line manager confirmed this point. When discussing upcoming performance review conversations with his new team, I asked him how prepared he was for these and what skills he would draw on in the process. He stared at me blankly before responding with: "I figured I would mimic the conversations I’ve had in the past with my line managers. After all, they worked for me."

Sounds sensible but how can his organisation be sure that he’s:

  • Having the right type of conversations with his employees?
  • Stretching his employees to their full potential?
  • Developing the skills they need to take their career to the next level?

The answer to all these questions is that they can’t. Through working with organisations in the public and private sectors in the UK, Europe and globally, we constantly find that new managers are not getting the right development and support they need - like the manager above - to work effectively in their new role. The effects may include anything from an underperforming team or stalled individual development to a resignation and the loss of ‘top talent’ within the organisation.

If a manager is going to make as much of a splash in their new role as they have in their previous role - which got them promoted in the first place - there is a need within organisations to start focusing on their development. This applies to seasoned managers as much as it does to new managers.

So, what’s the solution?

With employee engagement and line manager development as hot topics right now, what is the answer to making this work? And what’s L&D's role in making this happen?

Through working with organisations on exactly this issue, we developed an approach to close this gap. Our three-step approach was designed to ensure that all line managers, new or experienced, are clear on what ‘great’ looks like in the line manager role with clarity around how they can get there.

Step one

Step one is about identifying what good line management looks like in your organisation from the skills and behaviours to the mindset and beliefs. We call this the Line Manager Success Profile. It is L&D's role to lead the pack on this initiative – building a model for what excellent management looks like in their organisation.

This starts with identifying exemplar line managers within the organisation and then interviewing them to dig below the surface to identify what it is that makes them successful as a line manager. In our experience in running these exercises, what typically make these line managers successful are not the ‘hard’ skills – such as the ability to conduct a performance review, recruit a new team member or manage a grievance - but the mindset and beliefs they hold about their role as a manager.

Step two

Once the success profile is built, step two is about helping managers assess themselves against this model of exemplar line management to really understand where their development areas lie. In some instances, HR will run these exercises and in others their role is about facilitating the process and making sure it happens. This may require L&D to coach these line managers’ managers on how to engage the employee or how to ask questions to test their employee’s abilities.

This activity is important for two reasons. Not only does it ensure the newly-promoted line manager really understands the role of the line manager - far beyond what is included in their job description - but it helps the employee recognise what they need to do to be successful in their new role.

Step three

Once development gaps have been identified, step three is about identifying the development intervention(s) to close this gap. In our experience, courses focused on coaching skills, having difficult conversations and employee engagement are a good starting point. Though, with current learning and development budgets feeling the pinch, it is important to remember that this activity doesn’t need to be grand and expensive. It is HR's role to get creative with the initiatives and identify which solution will have the most meaningful impact for that employee. Sometimes this may be as simple as recommending a great book on leadership, organising a coaching session with the employee, setting up a formal mentoring relationship with well-regarded line mangers or providing access to an online toolkit.

From the line manager’s perspective, the outcome of this three-step process ensures that they:

  • Know what good looks like for line managers within their organisation
  • Have a clear view on how they measure up against this and where their strengths and development areas lie
  • Have a clear picture of how they will fill these gaps
  • Are confident their development interventions are fit for purpose
  • As there is no one ‘right’ way to manage that fits all situations, line managers need to understand the skills and beliefs that the best adopt and learn to use them alongside their natural style. It is the role of L&D to facilitate this process: from creating a model for exemplar line management within their organisation, to ensuring managers feel supported to excel in their new role
  • HR, with the support of L&D, needs to create a culture that supports development of line managers - new and seasoned - within their organisation. They must ensure that line managers are well-equipped to manage their people in the most effective way possible - balancing the needs of their organisation against the needs of their team.

Jodi Baker is a partner at Orion Partners 


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