If you’ve never trained before, start with coaching
The best way to introduce a learning culture into an organisation that hasn’t had one previously is to begin with coaching. Doing it this way dispels the notion that learning is simply about ‘going on a course’ and instead helps embed it into your everyday activities.
“Most people here have had more training on using the fire extinguisher than on managing people,” a newly appointed L&D manager told me recently.
Training in coaching skills affects people beyond those attending the programme; the real beneficiaries from such training are the manager’s staff.
A recent Investors in People (IiP) review highlighted a need to develop management capability if the business was to continue its almost uninterrupted pattern of growth. The directors were not surprised by these findings and were aware that their managers were often reluctant to accept ownership and accountability and had a tendency to micro-manage. My L&D client speculated that this may because the managers were long serving and had been promoted from within, based upon their technical skills with little if any exposure to management development.
What’s going on?
This is a classic problem, that I’ve seen play out countless times and it tends to lead to some fairly predictable, unhelpful behaviour. Without some input on how best to manage and get results through people, managers look for guidance in their own experience – role models if you like. They’ll go into their personal history and think about managers and bosses they once worked for or they’ll look around them to pick up cues and clues on the prevailing management style at their current place of work.
Whatever way they decide to behave as a manager, they’ll want to make sure it fits the current culture but none of this thinking necessarily takes place consciously. Of course, if those role models were not particularly good examples, and were themselves poor people managers, then it’s just reinforcing and extending poor practice.
Coaching can help us reinforce the idea that doing the job and learning about the job are not separate, competing activities, but rather part and parcel of the same activity.
This was definitely happening in the case of my client because all the managers were long serving, internal appointments. They had no best practice imported from elsewhere. The situation was never going to get better by itself. In fact, it would likely get worse.
The L&D manger told me that they had lost a big, long-term contract last year and the loss appeared to have exposed a few cracks. Blame was being thrown around quite liberally, trust was suffering and, for the first time, a few resignation letters had arrived with HR. The fear was that left unaddressed, this all might lead to a worsening of staff engagement, which would be a great shame because the IiP report had also highlighted some real strengths in the culture of the firm and the behaviours of its people that could surely be better channelled with a little realignment.
What can we do about it?
My recommendation – albeit a naturally biased one – was that they start with a programme of coaching skills for the managers. Why start with coaching when there’d never been any management development worthy of the term before? I think there are three reasons, which I'll outline below.
Extend the benefits
Firstly, training in coaching skills affects people beyond those attending the programme; the real beneficiaries from such training are the manager’s staff. Training one manager is likely to have a positive impact on six, eight, ten people or however many they manage or influence. It’s like the old party trick of pouring champagne into a series of glasses arranged in a kind of pyramid on top of each other. All we need to do is pour the drink into the single glass at the top and it will then naturally trickle down and fill the others.
Extend the budget
Secondly, we can use limited L&D budgets better this way too. For example, if there was a problem with time management in the team, we could incur the expense of training all eight or ten team members in time management techniques, or we could train their manager how to coach and then have them coach the team on their time management challenges over a longer period. This would happen in real-time and use their unique day-to-day issues to construct the learning opportunities.
Extend the impact
Thirdly, having managers who can conduct productive coaching conversations also challenges the idea that learning and development means ‘go on a course’. Coaching can help us reinforce the idea that doing the job and learning about the job are not separate, competing activities, but rather part and parcel of the same activity.
This was a particularly helpful notion for my client who was worried that if they suddenly started offering lots of courses, there’d be a stampede of pent up demand that they might never be able to satisfy, which would lead to even more disillusionment.
I admit that all of this is based on the perhaps naïve assumption that these managers would return from their training both willing and able to conduct coaching sessions with their teams and do it well. Who knows, but I’ve seen it happen enough times to be optimistic.
It’s also true that training in coaching skills, as with any kind of training, is not a silver bullet and there’d need to be other development too. The company would benefit from a coordinated approach to performance review and some input around change management and innovation would be helpful too.
My strong feeling, however, is that those type of initiatives would have far better chance of taking root in ground first fertilised with the coaching approach.
If your managers have never received much training, start now and give them some coaching skills. You may even find you can put out the types of fire that the extinguisher can’t help with.
Interested in this topic? Read Coaching: if you manage people, you’re a coach whether you like it or not!