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L&D managers at a crossroads?


In response to a series of articles published earlier this year on TrainingZone, John Pope thinks we need to look at the fundamentals of leadership and management.

Donald Taylor has recently written a series of three interesting articles on the training of managers. He emphasises how much more managers and knowledge workers now have to learn, and how much more information they need than they used to. He makes a strong case for using the most effective and modern means of transferring information. He is particularly concerned at the lack of use of learning technology which he views as being at a crossroads and in danger of being underused and neglected. 

His articles generated much comment, including the lament that the level at which Learning & Development is represented is often too low, and should be raised, some say to board level.
I have different concerns:  I am concerned about the combination of weak management and the way in which so many managers do not take up their responsibilities for training and developing their people.

Weak management

It can be a revelation when a new enthusiastic manager takes over part or all of a business, revitalises that workforce, at all levels, and transforms the organisation, its performance and its prospects. This underperformance is often the result of previous managers' failure to focus on individuals' performance improvement and development. While many organisations have some development systems too few, in my experience, are really effective.
"I am concerned about the combination of weak management and the way in which so many managers do not take up their responsibilities for training and developing their people."
I meet many managers who have plenty of information; they have been taught new techniques and are certainly very knowledgeable and better informed than their managers, but I also see too many, some at very senior levels, who have little idea of how to lead and manage people at work so that they attain the performance they should be capable of, and which is needed for profitability and survival. Too often the workforce becomes disheartened and the organisation stagnates.

Long ago

My experience as a manager goes back over 50 years, my experience of training and developing managers goes back 40. Managers then were chosen because they seemed to have strong character, good attributes and an approach which fitted their organisation's style. 
In that distant past many supervisors and junior managers were taken through a modular programme on how to manage. They learnt essential skills such as how to deal with a grievance or a discipline problem, run a productive meeting, plan their people's activities, plan and conduct a small project successfully and how to confront a serious issue. It was very low-tech – film strips, note cards to put into a shirt pocket – but effective. Those skills were essential. They helped remove barriers to higher performance, but higher performance, sometimes as much as a dramatic transformation only came when, starting from the top, managers concentrated on getting the very best from their people, an important aspect of which was regular and sometimes individual reviews of performance and potential prospects. 
A similar approach was used for more senior managers to give them essential skills for managing more senior people and more complex jobs. There were also opportunities for them to further their management education. One of my clients who started his management career as an apprentice is now the chairman of a multi-million pound company. The development on the job he got from his manager originally; the skills he developed in his early career and his ability to lead and manage people and to take tough decisions are the foundations of his success. His technical knowledge, though good, was not. However, his attitude to learning has always been clear. He reviews results, good or bad alike, with the penetrating question "What have we learnt from that? What will we do differently next time?" He uses that infectious question so regularly that his team ask the same question of their people. He sets the tone for learning in the organisation.

Managers are responsible for their people

Many will agree that managers are responsible for training and developing their people. They are in the best position to identify their people's performance, abilities, and potential. They are in the best position to recommend any training and development; they are also in the best position to guide, coach, and develop their people's skills and attitudes to their work. That many do not, and take the alternative of writing a vague phrase in the annual performance and development review and handing any problems over to L&D is a serious but often unpunished failure. It is also a waste; a wasted opportunity for the managers to learn more about their people, their ideas, their potential.
But this is understandable. Too many organisations now expect managers to be operators and do things themselves rather than getting their people to do the work. Managers are too often measured on their own personal performance. When we do that we reduce them to the position which at a lower level used to be called a charge-hand.

The failure of Learning and Development

In too many organisations there is no effective, monitored way of ensuring that people learn what is needed to develop their talents. Annual performance reviews are done perfunctorily and, unsurprisingly because of their length, discussions about the individual's training or failures are explained away. Planned training does not take place, and managers who should be actively developing their people see that responsibility as being an optional extra to their 'real job'.

Strong management

I believe there are too many managers whose knowledge of management theories and techniques is great, but whose ability to get difficult jobs done or face up to and take tough decisions, is sadly defective.
Of course managers, at all levels, need some education in management techniques but this should not be at the expense of developing habits of initiative, drive and leadership, and the ability to get ordinary people to achieve extraordinary results.
I do not believe that such habits and principles of strong management can be learnt through some technical process: I believe they are best learnt from the example and guidance of a mature and effective manager. As such, I would not be too concerned if IT and similar approaches to learning and development drifted into a backwater. I am concerned that so many managers now, some at a very senior level, do not seem able to drive a business forward, face up to serious issues, or get outstanding results. Readers may be able to identify examples from the commercial, business or political world. They may also identify how, or from whom, they learnt the skills which led them to be successful tough managers and leaders.
John Pope has been a management consultant for over 40 years and has worked to improve the development and performance of businesses, managers and management teams for most of his career. To know more about John's work and services please visit the website: His book 'Winning consultancy business' was published in 2009 and is available through his website.  He can be contacted at

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