How to Get Line Leaders Involved With Learning

By engaging line managers and empowering them to become responsible for learning, companies can substantially increase transfer and impact.

Many learning leaders say that if they could only get their managers more involved in learning they would significantly increase its impact.

In April 2013, Dave Basarab Consulting interviewed two learning leaders about whether corporate training functions have taken over the responsibility of training employees from managers, causing management to disengage from the training process. They said this was the case. In general, learning leaders have asked for — and taken — the training responsibility and, over time, managers have given it to them, effectively disengaging from training initiatives.

There are pros and cons of having a centralized training function and having a chief learning officer lead it.

As for the pros, it provides strategic focus to align training strategy to corporate goals and objectives. It produces higher impact by aligning training to business strategy. It realizes greater efficiencies and quality by having learning and development professionals design, develop, deliver and evaluate training. It produces higher-quality training for less cost. And it ensures the solution fits the problem.

In terms of the cons: Managers might disengage from the training function and let the learning function do it. Many managers might feel that it is not their role to train or have little or no knowledge of training content and therefore struggle with post-program support. Also, with the flattening of the organization, today’s managers spend more time doing individual contributor work than managing, thus they don’t have the time to train. Training may also end up misaligned with the real issue because learning and development does not engage managers in needs analysis.

For CLOs, this is a slippery slope — companies need the pros of a centralized training function, but not at the expense of having managers disengaged.

So how can companies overcome these effects? Here a few solutions to re-engage managers in training initiatives.

Have leaders as teachers. Start at the business unit director level and have them teach their managers. They then, in turn, train their employees.

Larry Mohl, a learning leader at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, conducted a three-hour “Leaders as Teacher” session for all directors, teaching them how adult learning happens and demystifying the training function. After that, the directors completed train-the-trainer sessions for specific courses. They trained their managers, who in turn trained their staff.

Of course, learning and development is there to support and coach, but the training responsibility sits solely with the directors and managers. While training sessions may not be as polished, the increased potential for learning transfer is well worth the tradeoff.

Decide how to organize the training function. Companies often wrestle with how to organize the training function — should it be centralized, decentralized or federated?

Mark Miller, chief learning officer of Chick-fil-A, said the company switches between centralized and decentralized roughly every four or five years. “Each has its merits, but we cannot seem to fully adopt one,” he said.

The federated approach is likely to give the highest likelihood of maximizing manager engagement. In this model, a corporate function is responsible for strategic training initiatives — leadership, change management, etc. — while the lines of business take the responsibility for their unique requirements. Therefore, learning leaders face a juggling act, needing to ensure that all courses and programs align and don’t compete with one another.

In this model, companies deliver enterprise-level courses tied to company strategy that are appropriate for all business units. They then implement complementary “vertical” courses aimed at specific business unit needs. A firm may run an annual training program for all leaders, across all departments, focusing on the common messaging in line with their company leadership tenets. They also deliver training focusing on other relevant topics aimed at particular business units.

Focus on the broad middle. Analyze the nature of managers who see training as part of their role. Typically, they fall into three segments: those who naturally view management as developing their talent and will easily engage in whatever is asked of them, the broad middle — a large percentage of management — who will engage but need CLOs to lead them and set direction and those who do not see their role to train their employees.

Align learning to performance. Often, companies diagnose a performance gap, requiring learning as the solution. Isolated training events that don’t take a “complete training approach” produce less results — and less value to the business — than a more comprehensive, integrated approach.

Complete training combines learning, leadership and change management competencies to produce documented, sustainable results and value.

Dave Basarab is author of The Training Evaluation Process and Predictive Evaluation. He can be reached at