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Why Manager Development Programs Aren't Working

Why Manager Development Programs Aren't Working

by Ben Wigert and Ellyn Maese

Story Highlights

  • 66% of managers say they participate in a learning program
  • But many report not having the opportunity for growth and advancement
  • Learn what your managers really experience on the job to boost development

According to Gallup's most recent manager experience perspective paper, 66% of managers report that their employer offers a professional development program.

For many (but clearly not all) managers, this is one of the most esteemed "perks" of being a manager: Extra attention, extra support and a developmental pathway to career growth.

Leaders naturally understand that their managers are future leaders, and so it makes sense to invest in them over the long term.

Unfortunately, Gallup's analysis also shows that most manager development programs have a lot of room for improvement:

  • Roughly one-third of managers strongly agree they have had opportunities to learn and grow in the past year.
  • Only 35% of managers strongly agree they understand how performance affects opportunities for promotion.

So, while leaders may think they are doing a lot to invest in their managers, most managers do not feel they are growing to their full potential or feel like they can clearly see how to advance their career.

And that matters a lot: Having opportunities to grow is a top reason employees are attracted to an organization -- and a top reason they leave.

The problem is particularly acute for high-talent, high-performance individuals. They won't wait around for your organization to get its act together.

So, if current manager development programs aren't working, what does?

To increase learning effectiveness, make sure:

1. It's a journey, not an event.

A one-day or two-day immersive manager development program can have great value (it can even be transformational), but the effects will be short-lived without follow up, real-world application, and further deepening and continuity of the learning.

Multimodal education -- in person, online and on the job -- reinforces learning over time. And this learning program must be a cohesive learning journey that helps manager continually hone critical skills and live the organization's culture.

Too often, managers are bombarded with Frankenstein trainings that are a hodgepodge of random topics and tools. These quick-hit topics are forgotten as quickly they are introduced.

In addition, there should always be an answer to, "What's next?" For instance, manager onboarding programs should point toward additional training opportunities, which should point toward key experiences or more advanced development.

2. It's integrated into the real workplace.

The best manager development programs integrate learning into the real workplace. This may include homework or other activities that require a manager to try something out and return to discuss their experience. Or it could include role-play experiences to simulate real-world scenarios.

Ultimately, the best learning programs apply critical "great manager" principles and practices to important daily workplace responsibilities and scenarios. And these real-world learning experiences help managers learn from each other.

This approach quickly builds a network of managers who continually teach, support and share best practices with one another.

3. It's personalized.

People perform at their best when they tap into their natural strengths and talents. Not everyone has the same management style.

When managers can bring their full selves to trying out new behaviors, they are more likely to remember it and more likely to use it. Professional growth needs to feel individualized, realistic and natural.

The right support makes all the difference.

When it comes to manager development, the role of the manager's manager is often forgotten. A leader can:

  • Help connect developmental training insights to everyday work situations.
  • Reinforce principles and concepts long after a developmental program is complete.
  • Tailor learning and development to an employee's unique talents and responsibilities.
  • Answer outstanding questions and encourage new ones.
  • Guide employees to the next stage of their development.
  • Explain how performance pay and incentives work.
  • Co-create a likely career path within your organization and regularly talk about progress and changes to the plan.

There's nothing more disheartening than returning to work after an amazing development program and realizing that you have no support to implement meaningful change.

This means that managers of managers need to be in the loop when it comes to development programs. They should receive tools, training and guidance on how to connect fresh learning to the job.

A development program is going be far more meaningful when one's supervisor can talk knowledgably and enthusiastically about the learnings and application to their job and future.

There's nothing more disheartening than returning to work after an amazing learning experience and realizing that you have no support to implement meaningful change. A manager's manager should set the expectation that things can and should change following manager training.

In summary, here are some key questions to consider:

  • Are our development programs integrated enough with the realities of our workplace?
  • Are managers experientially learning and growing on the job, and are they getting enough key experiences that build strong people leadership?
  • Are our managers having frequent conversations with their supervisor about their future with the organization?

Go deeper by understanding what your managers experience on a day-to-day basis.

For some managers, management is a constant state of controlled chaos. Putting out fires, making hard calls, dealing with the unexpected (and not losing your cool), confronting bad actors and repairing bad customer relationships.

And somewhere, squeezed between the urgent and the important, you have to grow and develop professionally.

Effective manager development programs are aware of the manager experience. That means leaders who create these programs need to have a realistic view of what life is like as a manager at their organization.

Fortunately, Gallup has you covered: We have recently published a perspective paper on the manager experience, which describes the top five perks and top five challenges of being a manager, based on a study of more than 50,000 managers from around the world.

We recommend you use this perspective as a discussion starter with your leadership team by asking questions like these:

  • How does our organization compare?
  • What would our managers say about their manager experience?
  • How can we provide better support and development opportunities to our managers -- in a way that makes sense to them?

Start creating a personalized learning journey for your managers today:


Ben Wigert is Director of Research and Strategy, Workplace Management, at Gallup.

Ellyn Maese is a Research Analyst at Gallup.

Ryan Pendell and Rachael Breck contributed to this article.

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