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Building Better Bosses

May 1, 2000
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Suzanne Larsen has been a manager at US WEST in Richfield, Utah, for eight years. Currently, she oversees a team of 19 network technicians.

These are the people with hefty tool belts who install residential and commercial phone service. Ask Larsen about the toughest part of her job and without hesitation she'll tell you: "I think the hardest thing for managers is getting the job done while dealing with different personalities. Some days I feel like I'm babysitting."

But ask Larsen about the most rewarding part of her work and first you'll hear nothing but a long pause. Then she'll laugh. Then she'll ask for time to think about it. Then she'll tell you that management isn't what it's cracked up to be. "Some days I don't feel I accomplish anything," she says. "Can I have more time to think about this question?" Ten minutes later, Larsen is still thinking about the rewards of managing others.

Larsen, who is animated and easygoing and absolutely hates conflict, desperately wants to say something nice about being a manager. But for her and scores of others in the workplace today, management is a tough and often thankless job.

But let's face it: It isn't easy being managed, either. "So much [of your job satisfaction] depends on who you work for," explains an IBM employee on a Vault.com message board. "Some managers ... are open, receptive, collaborative -- their divisions and their results speak to the working environment they create. Then there are the my-way-or-the-highway types, the holdovers from long ago. God help you if you get on their bad side."

A colleague agrees, adding: "I cannot enumerate the number of times I or my coworkers have been completely neglected or downright disrespected by management ... no wonder we have the pitiful retention rates we have. No wonder we have such poor loyalty. Who is there to be loyal to?"

Combine the scorn of employees with the lack of intrinsic rewards, and you have to ask yourself why anyone in their right mind would want to become a manager. Dig a little deeper, and you begin to realize that managers do their jobs for the simple reason that they're needed -- "I get satisfaction knowing people depend on me," Larsen finally admits -- and they're needed now more than ever before.

In a knowledge-intensive economy where jobs aren't clearly defined, managers are the ones who help employees understand the work that must be done. Managers also are responsible for motivating workers, developing potential, increasing productivity, mediating disputes, maintaining work/life balance, and boosting retention rates. No wonder managers have a hard time; there's a lot riding on their shoulders.

Confirming this is research by the Gallup Organization, which reveals that employee loyalty, job satisfaction, and productivity are all determined to a great extent by employees' relationships with their immediate supervisors. Sure, people may join companies because of pay, benefits, promotions, and training. But how long those employees stay and their level of productivity are determined by the relationship they have with the boss.

Given the tremendous importance of managers and the enormous challenges they face, you'd think companies would be doing all they can to develop and support their management employees. Unfortunately, you'd be wrong.

Despite the vital need for management development, companies spend on average only 11 percent of their training budgets on managerial and supervisory skills training, according to the 2000 State of the Industry Report published by the American Society for Training and Development, based in Alexandria, Virginia. Information technology and technical processes receive the lion's share of training dollars.

Furthermore, in 1997 -- the last year figures are available -- less than half of all employees with supervisory, management, or executive responsibilities participated in some type of formal leadership training or development.

Worse yet, even companies that do invest in management training may be going about it all wrong. Well, maybe not all wrong, but they're not being as effective as they could be.

Why? Because companies tend to provide one-shot training programs for groups of managers instead of the ongoing and individualized support that many managers need. One manager may have a problem with delegation, for example. Another may have difficulty handling conflict. Put them together in a course on motivating employees, and neither one gets what is needed to be effective.

Clearly, it's time for a change. In a tight labor market where every company must get the best from every worker, employers must begin to pay attention to the biggest contributor to employee productivity: their supervisors.

What's the problem with management training today?
To understand how to improve management training, it may help to understand what's currently wrong with it. For starters, there's just not enough training being done.

"Many people move into management positions without ever taking a single management course," explains Gerry Faust, president and CEO of Faust Management Corp. and coauthor of "Responsible Managers Get Results" (AMACOM Books, 1998). Indeed, Larsen managed people at US WEST for eight years before she received any type of comprehensive management training. "I think it's a good idea to have people learning how to manage and work well with others throughout their careers, not just when they get promoted," Faust says.

While companies are starting to recognize the importance of ongoing leadership development, those activities are still directed mainly toward top executives, senior managers, and high potentials, according to a 1999 Conference Board Report. The rank-and-file managers who are the majority of bosses in companies today appear to be neglected.

The second problem is that training often doesn't take into account individual needs and differences. Horror stories abound of newly minted MBAs being put in charge of people without a clue how to manage them, of uncommunicative high-tech workers being promoted to supervisory positions without any support, of blue-collar workers being put in the uncomfortable position of directing their former peers. Each of these managers has special needs that one-size-fits-all training can't possibly cover.

Managers vitally need people with whom they can confidentially discuss difficult personnel issues.

Third, management training is frequently just plain ineffective. "Companies tend to 'mass' their training," Faust says. That is, they take groups of managers away from their jobs, herd them into a classroom for several days or weeks, dump a bunch of management theory on them, and expect them to waltz back to work with heightened abilities. Unfortunately, adults don't learn that way.

"Putting people into mass training sessions is like force-feeding them for a weekend and then telling them they'll get no food for the rest of the year," Faust says. This is because people don't tend to remember large amounts of information. In fact, research on the typical "forgetting curve" shows that 30 minutes after adults hear new information, they will remember only about 8 percent of it. A day or two later, their recall drops to 2 percent. However, if people learn a little bit of information and practice it right away, retention swells to 90 percent immediately and drops to 50 to 60 percent over time.

"What this tells us is that if we want management training to work, we need to train in smaller chunks of time and allow people to practice on the job," Faust explains.

Another problem with the force-feeding approach is that it doesn't acknowledge the fact that adults learn best when they have control over what and how they are learning. Unlike children, who are used to being talked to, adults want to interact in their educational process and are more motivated to learn when they get to pick the topics and the method of delivery. One person may learn best with the help of a mentor, another may turn to books for new information, and still another might prefer role-playing or classroom discussion. Because of these variations, it's often demotivating for adults to be told what skills to learn and how to learn them.

Create better training.
So what should companies do to create more effective management training and thus more effective managers? Three things. One, individualize the training; two, give managers more control over their learning process; and three, provide ongoing, on-the-job support. Let's look at each of these in more detail.

Individualized training: Every manager comes to the job with certain strengths and weaknesses that more than likely differ from the strengths and weaknesses of his or her colleagues. Because of this, companies should base their training efforts on the trainee's actual developmental needs. After all, it doesn't make sense to waste time and money training a manager to be a more effective communicator if that person already excels at interpersonal communication.

How do you discover these individual needs? Through assessments. "People are hard-wired with different skill sets, strengths, limitations, and biases," explains Dr. Robert Smith, chairman of Kinsel Enterprises, a management consulting and industrial psychology firm based in Dallas. "If you don't take these differences seriously, your training won't be effective."

Smith, who provides personalized management coaching, has developed something he calls the Kinsel-Hartman profile to determine differences in thinking patterns that influence management ability. He uses this assessment tool prior to doing any development work because, he says, "all training has to be done in context."

Another popular way of assessing a manager's abilities is the 360-degree evaluation. This instrument uses feedback from a manager's peers, subordinates, and supervisors as a way of assessing that individual's strengths and weaknesses.

Last November, Larsen attended a six-day supervisor-training program at US WEST that began with a review of her 360-degree assessment results. "The assessment showed me what skill areas needed the most attention," she says. One of her weaknesses, for example, is a tendency to avoid confrontation. Knowing this, Larsen was able to focus her attention on the training discussions and role-plays that would help her become more comfortable with confrontation. Furthermore, she left the training with an individualized list of skill-improvement activities.

In addition to helping trainees understand their unique needs, assessments can also provide the motivation to change. Susan H. Gebelein, executive vice president of Personnel Decisions International, based in Minneapolis, explains that motivation is a key component of the management development process, for without it, lasting change is virtually impossible. "People are more likely to be personally motivated to improve their skills once they understand why it's important for them to do so," she says.

Control: Let's be honest: Most grown-ups are control freaks. We want to be in charge of our own lives, careers, professional development, you name it. Because adults learn best when they can make decisions for themselves, some of the best management development programs are ones that offer choices to managers as to how and what they learn.

Instead of requiring managers to attend workshops -- which may not be the most effective style of instruction for some people -- organizations can often get a bigger bang for their buck by offering managers a menu of options. This might include seminars, reading groups, online training, self-paced computer-based instruction, college courses, individual mentoring, discussion groups, and management support networks.

At Aetna Financial Services in Hartford, Connecticut, Ginette Purcell, education director, has put together a very practical, inexpensive, and effective lineup of management development efforts. "We used to have the Aetna Institute for Corporate Education, which was housed in its own building and offered mandated management education," she explains. At the time, there were something like 130 educators and support staff who made up the training department.

But the program was expensive, and with corporate cost-cutting, Purcell and her team had to find out how to deliver management training in a more efficient, cost-effective way. So they put together a menu of training efforts that allows managers to pick and choose not only the topics that matter most to them but also how they want to participate in training.

Among the list of developmental opportunities are 1) mini-case studies focusing on a specific workplace issue -- e.g., employee hygiene -- that are e-mailed to managers and then discussed in conference calls; 2) leadership reading groups in which managers discuss articles on relevant topics -- e.g., managing generation X; 3) hour-long programs focused specifically on HR issues such as compensation and workplace flexibility; 4) handbooks on such things as performance management; 5) half-day workshops on traditional supervisory topics such as motivating and delegating; and 6) a supervisory network program that meets for 40 hours over the course of a year. In addition, much of the content covered in these modules is also being made available on the company intranet so that managers with specific issues can immediately find resources online.

Not only are these programs less expensive than those previously offered at Aetna Institute -- they're managed by 8 educators versus 130 staff members -- but Purcell also believes they are much more effective. "We're working with practical, day-to-day management issues," she says. "We're giving managers tools they need when they need them."

Ongoing support: In addition to providing managers with insight into their individual needs through assessments and giving them control over what and how they learn, a key component of management development is ongoing support. Why? Because as anyone who's been there can tell you, it's lonely at the top. Managers vitally need people with whom they can confidentially discuss difficult personnel issues. Support can be provided in a number of ways, including external coaching, mentoring from a higher-up elsewhere in the organization, and management support networks.

Polaris International North American Network is an association of 75 independently owned accounting firms. The association provides member firms with leadership training to help develop the skills and abilities of their partners and senior managers. "Our thrust is developing managers so that they know how to motivate the next-generation workforce," explains Daniel Shogren, director of human resources and training.

Polaris has designed a management development program that begins with a 360-degree assessment of each manager's skills. Then managers are brought together a total of four times over an 18-month period for three days each. The three-day sessions cover various topics related to management, including strategic planning, communication, motivation, and the changing accounting environment. The sessions are spread out over a year and a half in order to give participants time to digest the information presented before learning new information. Remember the forgetting curve?

But, content aside, the most powerful elements of the program are these: 1) each manager receives one-on-one coaching and developmental planning during every three-day session; 2) participants develop an external support network consisting of their peers in other member firms; and 3) trainees are assigned mentors in their own firms to talk with about the course material and get ongoing feedback on their own abilities.

Shogren believes that the individualized and ongoing support is what has made the program so successful. "People tend to have an easier time working through specific issues one-on-one with a counselor or a peer than they do speaking up in group situations," he says.

It's not rocket science.
When you look at the elements necessary for management training to be effective -- assessment, control, and support -- you may be struck by the fact that there's nothing very revolutionary about these ideas. "We've been talking about this stuff for 2,000 years," says Rex Gatto of Gatto Training Associates, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. "We know what it takes for people to be more successful in their jobs. The trick is giving managers the tools and opportunity to practice what it takes to be successful."

And that's exactly what some companies appear to be missing. Managers don't automatically know how to manage, what they need to know, how to talk through their issues, and why they may -- or may not -- be successful on the job. But they can learn. And in a tight labor market where good bosses are the key to employee productivity and retention, doesn't it make sense to take the time to teach them?

Workforce, May 2000, Vol. 79, No. 5, pp. 32-39.

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