The Manager As Learner

Securing manager commitment to learning can be challenging, especially in uncertain times. However, gaining buy-in and delivering effective manager learning is a critical step in ensuring peak organizational performance.

Change is the new constant for organizations in a multitude of industries and across myriad time zones. In these uncertain times, learning and development is the currency organizations must leverage to adapt, evolve and grow — and learning professionals are the catalysts.

That said, however, it really is today’s business manager who is the linchpin to make successful change initiatives flourish.

There are significant risks and rewards associated with engaging managers and their leaders in the learning continuum, not only for those willing to invest their time and mindshare, but for the learning professionals who advocate new programs and whose reputations, as a result, are put squarely at stake.

Give a manager new insight he or she needs to succeed in a shifting business environment, and you’ll gain both improved business outcomes and an important ally when it comes to future learning investments. Force a manager through an ill-conceived development exercise that fails to expand his view and doesn’t support key business objectives, and you’ve not only wasted his valuable time, but you risk losing his sponsorship and impugning learning’s contribution to individual and enterprise performance.

The Challenge: Intensifying Pressure to Learn

“The holy grail for learning professionals and, I’m sure, for many business leaders is that their organization would be a learning organization — constantly learning, growing and investing in being creative and innovative to achieve great business results,” said Maria O’Donoghue, director of global learning and development at the Global Talent Management Centre of Expertise within Hertz Corp. “But if you have a management population that’s not learning, for whatever the reason, you’re never going to get to that.”

Perhaps for this reason, expectations are rising for managers in every business. O’Donoghue said managers simply can’t afford to get complacent or comfortable about their own development. To thrive in today’s environment, they must possess not only a learning mindset but also the intent to actively pursue learning opportunities whenever they can.

“Change is the big constant in the world of business, and organizations are continually transforming themselves in order to beat their competitors. For managers to be able to cope and thrive in this environment, they need to learn quickly and well. A learning mindset is a very important characteristic of the manager of the future,” she said.

Providing a Role Model for Learning

“The manager as a learner is a very powerful influence on the employees they manage,” O’Donoghue said. “If you are managed by someone who takes their own learning seriously, you are likely to have access to a wide range of learning experiences — formal and informal. This, in turn, creates a team where people are improving their skills and performing at a higher level than a team without a learning focus.”

But securing a manager’s commitment to engage in learning and development often proves a monumental first task. Why is that? Many corporate learning leaders point to a variety of challenges that often inhibit managers’ commitment.

One issue is that managers have distinct, special challenges, and the opportunity cost of separating them from their day-to-day responsibilities can be higher than with other employees. Some may struggle with being away from the business, others with revealing their developmental vulnerabilities. For that last reason alone, managers may want to more clearly differentiate the boundaries of confidentiality related to their learning objectives.

Committing Time to Learn

Lucy Dinwiddie, vice president of organizational development at ConAgra Foods, said the intense and ever-increasing demands on managers’ and executives’ time often conflict with the time required for structured learning programs. Dinwiddie stressed, however, that one can generally dismiss the notion that as the manager progresses up through various roles and responsibilities he or she “becomes more of a knower and less of a learner.”

“It’s just harder for managers to make decisions about committing time for themselves, and [it’s harder] for learning professionals to convince [managers] that their commitment to learning will bring more value than spending time with their team, a key customer, the P&L or the marketing committee,” Dinwiddie said. “I attribute that to noble reasons. Managers often feel that when they take time for themselves to learn and grow, they’re being selfish, or they should rather go out to the plant and be with the troops or spend more time with one of their team members.”

Breaking Through: Define What Drives Results

The keys to breaking through and winning a manager’s commitment to continuing development are rooted in a solid set of core management competencies that drive results and against which individual managerial accountability and performance are measured, said Frank Stanesic, vice president and learning officer for Affiliated Computer Services Inc. (ACS). Success hinges on linking learning commitment to improved business outcomes and exposing managers to external best practices to increase their range of vision, he said.

“It’s critical to work with managers to help them understand where their skills gaps and managerial blind spots are and how they relate to real business issues they’re facing right now,” Stanesic said.

It’s important not to overprescribe a learning regimen for the manager, however. Rather, it’s best to pick two or three initiatives that will help move the manager on a competency scale from where he or she currently scores to where he or she wants to be.

Promote Cultural Acceptance for Managerial Development

Beyond the kind of manager competencies required for high performance, Dinwiddie said the enterprise must also have the kind of development culture that allows managers and other leaders to acknowledge their shortcomings.

“If your managers aren’t learners or if it’s not all right to say, ‘Things are changing, ‘I need to learn,’ ‘I don’t know,’ or ‘I need a new way of doing it,’” she said, “the consequences are that you become extinct because the environment around you will change and others will move on without you.”

Further, the higher you go into the management hierarchy, the more skill — and learning options — development professionals must bring to make the experience truly valuable, Dinwiddie said. Often, those programs include the kind of interactions that only an elite academic institution, exclusive job-shadowing opportunity or closed-door managers’ forum can provide. Increasingly, however, hands-on learning simulations and virtual interactions customized specifically for management marry the best, most practical learning solutions with improving technology.

Stanesic said that manager-focused learning options may also include mentoring, coaching and job rotation programs, in addition to engaging in coursework at an external university.

“What I hear every time I send a manager to an external university is that one of the biggest values I created was the network the manager created outside the company,” he added.

O’Donoghue said Hertz pushes information-sharing across the enterprise, which takes the form of online learning programs, webinars and webcasts, reviews of relevant case studies and business dialogues with peers and colleagues. In fact, O’Donoghue said the more senior the manager, the less likely Hertz is to provide classroom or online training. Rather, the company is more inclined to offer various forms of experiential learning such as business simulations, leading a project or other action-learning activities.

Tell the Leadership Story

“When you have leaders leading leaders, the productivity of those types of organizations goes up dramatically,” Stanesic said. “What that leader is doing as a teacher is providing a point of view that the learner doesn’t have a line of sight to — providing their stories about what has worked for them, the stories that may have provided learning for them.

“The most outstanding leaders, in my experience, are fantastic storytellers,” he continued. “People gravitate to great leaders because they can connect to their stories.”

That’s why the potential of manager engagement in learning promises such huge rewards for individuals and their organizations. And that’s why coaching and mentoring mean so much.

Demonstrate Clear Payback and Results

“The more we in the learning profession put out those learning sessions that might happen in the employees’ workspaces — be it on the shop floor, cubicle space, office or conference room — the closer we get to directly addressing the learning needs of the individual performer, team and/or the executive,” Dinwiddie said. “One thing our organizations need to get better at is codifying learning solutions and putting development in place so the manager can get really good in the areas [where] he or she has skill or growth opportunities.”

In addition to providing similar, more informal learning opportunities, O’Donoghue said she pushes for payback from formal learning. After all, “managers, for the most part, want to learn,” she said, but they struggle with understanding whether the investment of their time is going to pay them back both personally and professionally.

“Learning professionals have to rise to that challenge and meet our responsibility to ensure that the programs we are putting in place are very robust and specifically driven to the competencies a manager needs to deliver for the business,” O’Donoghue said.

Further, learning professionals must communicate and demystify an often opaque value proposition more clearly at the outset. And being more diligent about showing the return on investment delivered by management development programs is also important.

“It’s always a challenge for the learning professional to figure out, ‘We invested this much in this manager, and how has this learning transferred into business results?’ What has been the return?’” O’Donoghue said. “If we can show the return on learning investment back to the business, we will have more credibility when we’re trying to roll out new programs and looking for management support and budget.”

Stanesic added that the challenges that exist in the workplace and those faced by clients require new and emerging skill sets, so a manager’s capacity to continue learning is crucial.

“If you’re going to stay status quo in this environment, that’s not a good thing,” he said.

Mark Neeley, director of talent acquisition and development for Amplify Consulting LLC, acknowledged the risks and rewards with positioning a leader as both manager and learner.

On the one hand, “managers are in a position to throw up more roadblocks when it comes to getting engaged with learning,” Neeley said. And if their experiences don’t meet expectations, they can “torpedo or undermine” the learning and development function based on their access to people who will listen.

On the other hand, “the manager is also in a great position to impact learning exponentially,” Neeley said. “If they have it trickle down to their people, they can amplify the impact of that development across the organization by demonstrating that they’re putting it into action.”

Making learning work for today’s manager can be complicated, but it doesn’t have to be. Getting buy-in from managers is critical, and the way to do that is to show its business impact.

“I’ve found that people behave rationally,” Neeley said. “They will tend to participate, support and champion something if they see a connection to performance and development. But if it’s rooted in busy work or some organizational mandate that has no bearing on their work, they’ll rat you out on that pretty quickly. If you get it right, they’ll begin to evangelize learning to people around them.”

And that’s when things really get exciting.