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The Role of a Manager as People Developer

“What do you mean, manager as people developer!?! Double nope! We are waaay too busy.”The Many Hats that Managers Wear logo That was the initial response from a division director in a production environment. We were discussing strategies for boosting employee engagement and reducing turnover. I had just presented research that leaves little room for doubt about the importance of developing employees:

  • 94% of employees say they will stay with an employer IF the employer invests in their development (HBR).

  • 70% of employees said they would consider leaving their current job to work for an organization that emphasizes employee development and learning (SutiSoft Solutions).

  • In 2023, 69% of organizations are doing more skill-building than pre-pandemic (McKinsey).

  • 78% of business leaders believe that employee development is crucial to organizational success (HR Magazine).

Despite the above findings:

  • Only 27% of employees report that they received upskilling/reskilling training from their employers in the past two years. 65% of these found their own training opportunities. (TalentLMS).

  • Only 35% of employers have an official, formal upskilling/reskilling program in place while others report offering it on a case-by-case basis (TalentLMS).

  • Despite good intentions, training is often not provided due to lack of time (reported by 55%), lack of resources to provide training (46%), lack of budget (19%), resistance from upper management (19%), and employee disinterest (18%). The intentions often fall short of the actual delivery (TalentLMS).

Those objections and issues that interfere with training delivery can be partly allayed if managers provide training and development opportunities to employees. This was the division director’s main objection.

He’s not alone. Many functional heads are in favor of training and employee development, as long as it doesn’t cost anything + doesn’t take any time + doesn’t require managers to divert attention from the day-to-day oversight of getting work done.

Obviously, you can’t have it both ways.

Common Misunderstandings about People Development

Development requires investment.

There’s no way around that fact. Learning requires focus, time, and financial investments. The financial aspect of this investment, though, can be greatly reduced when managers participate in teaching and/or reinforcing what’s been learned.

Before we build on the idea of manager as people developer, let’s examine seven misunderstandings that interfere with people development in organizations.

1. HR provides development, not managers: There may be a Learning & Development function inside the HR department. The training budget may be administered by HR. You may have trainers who report to HR and/or external trainers who are retained by HR. Before providing or outsourcing any training, you may be required to get approval from HR. People practices like talent review, succession management, and employee development may reside in HR, too.

No wonder it seems like HR “owns” all training and people development and is solely responsible for it!

The folks in HR, though, have limited interaction with employees. They aren’t involved in the day-to-day work and have no sightline to observe performance, strengths, or development needs. This is the purview of the manager.

2. We don’t have time for people development: No matter who’s providing the training, there’s often pushback. People ask “How are we supposed to get our work done if we’re tied up in training?”

This short-term focus is short-sighted and unfortunate. It’s like the old adage about sharpening the saw. Taking time to improve the effort makes the work go faster. Investing time to learn improves performance, thereby saving time in the long run.

Employees recognize this. They feel trapped by the daily grind even as they yearn for development and sense that there are better ways to operate. When denied the time to learn and grow, they typically become less engaged (which translates into it taking even more time to do the daily work).

3. People development is not needed: Justifications for not providing training include endless variations of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” “we’ve never done that before,” and “don’t rock the boat.”

When business is good, these justifications are used to reason away training. When business is bad, these justifications are accompanied by misunderstanding #2, above. In both cases, there’s usually an element of “I never got any training, and I’m doing find” from mid-level and senior ranks.

This is why so many organizations suffer from The Peter Principle, a concept introduced by Laurence J. Peter in 1969. See if this sounds familiar to you:

Someone who’s competent in their role “earns” a promotion to another level or role that requires different skills. If they manage to learn the new job, they’ll be promoted again. This continues until they eventually get promoted into a role where they cannot develop competence to perform and cannot hide that incompetence. Their career stalls out at this plateau, or they are forced to step back.

4. People need to develop themselves: The Peter Principle fuels this misunderstanding, too. Because some have succeeded in self-development, it’s assumed that all should be able to do the same.

Even if that were true, there’s a risk. There are an infinite number of options for self-development, each with its own methods. Do you really want so many disparate approaches to co-exist in your organization? Unlearning is significantly harder than learning, and it’s a mistake to rely on independent experiences for all learning.

5. If we develop people, they might leave: True. And if you don’t develop people, they’re even more likely to leave.

More than any other factor (including pay!), employees choose employers based on the opportunities they will have to learn and grow. Employees leave managers who don’t provide feedback to help them improve or don’t provide stretch assignments where employees can prove themselves as they are learning.

If you don’t want people to leave, don’t deprive them of development.

6. Not everyone has potential, so not everyone should get development: This antiquated notion dates back to 1970 when McKinsey, working with GE, introduced the 9-Box Model for Talent Review.

Who’s to say who has potential? Especially when, without development opportunities, there’s no way to demonstrate potential… This is ludicrous and overly simplistic. Everyone has potential, and everyone deserves a chance to discover and develop their potential.

7. Our employees don’t want training or development: Are you sure about that?

More likely, employees don’t want to put into an uncomfortable situation where they will be expected to maintain full productivity while spending time in training.

Possibly, employees fear that they will be “put on the spot” or unable to learn quickly enough. They see training as risky or threatening. They have flashbacks to school or other situations where they were embarrassed, uncomfortable, or bored. Or they’re recalling training that was irrelevant or something that never got any traction (“so what was the point?” they wonder).

For some, it may be that training feels like a punishment. It’s presented as mandatory, and no value or benefits are defined. The message suggests that the training is a consequence or signifies an expectation for change. Without setting the training up for success, the training will not succeed.

The bottom line is that employees want opportunities for development. It’s not a sustainable business strategy to deny employees development and learning experiences.

The Manager as People Developer Isn’t an Optional Role

HR can’t do it all.

Individual employees can’t do it alone.

Managers are best situated for providing continual learning and for providing regular opportunities for growth. This should not be extra work for managers. It should be the way ALL work is done by managers.

There are opportunities for building business acumen every time expectations are set or feedback is given. In every team meeting, managers can provide snippets of training and incremental takeaways. When observing employees on the job, managers can mentor to offer tips and coach to promote self-awareness.

Managers can share articles and items of interest pertaining to functional/technical skills and industry changes. They can host “lunch and learn” sessions with free webinars on soft skills. They can assign peer mentors for cross-training.

The list is endless. Why wouldn’t an organization take advantage of a manager’s experience and apply it in these ways?Figures on a podium receiving awards

When managers focus too heavily on daily production and neglect employee development, it sends the message that employees are no more than cogs in the wheel. These five contrasts should be considered in every interaction between a manager and an employee.

  • Micromanaging VS Motivating. Task focus and “what have you done for me lately?” projections are demotivating and dehumanizing. Providing big-picture context is instructional and helps employees develop business acumen that is motivating, inclusive, and dignifying.

  • Hiring & Firing VS Retaining & Training. Managers who have a revolving door of employees have to spend an inordinate amount of time on interviewing, selection, onboarding, performance management, progressive discipline, and the like. Managers with higher rates of retention use their time to nurture employee development and engage employees.

  • Results Matter VS People Matter. Constantly talking about performance, results, goals, and metrics marginalizes the very people who deliver on them.

  • Highly Disengaged VS Highly Engaged. Managers with low levels of employee engagement interact with employees less often and less personally. They distance themselves from people and make unilateral decisions from on high. Managers with stronger employee engagement involve employees in the decisions that affect their work. These managers ennoble employees.

  • Reactive VS Proactive. Putting out fires and swooping in to save the day isn’t noble. It may provide an adrenaline rush and a feeling of self-importance, but it doesn’t empower employees or give them confidence for the future. Instead, it makes them over-reliant on the manager and suppresses development.

Highly effective managers put people first and seize opportunities to develop people. They operate by this principle: 

”A good leader causes others to have
confidence in the leader.
A great leader causes others
to have confidence in themselves.”
                                                 - Eleanor Roosevelt

How Great Managers Prioritize People Development

Here’s some good news. You don’t need to add extra hours each day for people development. In fact, the opposite – when you focus on people development at the very same time that you’re doing your daily work, then you’ll soon see that you have more time in your workday.

That’s because employees will become more autonomous, more confident, and more engaged. Engagement, incidentally, produces a whole host of benefits including improved retention, higher productivity, increases in customer satisfaction, and boosts in profitability.

To get these benefits, it’s absolutely essential for a manager to be a people developer. Managers must build the people who will build the business.

Start with these 5 steps to incorporate people development activities into your everyday work.

Assess and know the skills gaps for each employee.
Don’t wait for the annual performance appraisal! Observe and check in often enough to notice the little things that cause employees to make mistakes or take longer than needed to do their work. Discuss these openly with the employee, with a clear commitment to helping them improve.

Demonstrate a commitment to continual growth.
Model your own, personal commitment to learning and growing. Access training opportunities, watch videos or read books to extend your current knowledge base and skill set. Learning is for everyone, and no one has mastered all the skills needed for their own job (let alone next-level jobs they may desire).

Create learning experiences and safe stretch assignments for employees.
Don’t make learning a punishment or a high-risk endeavor. Instead, create incremental and routine opportunities for developing confidence, competence and capacity in every employee (including you). Position training or learning experiences as rewards, not punishments.

Learn to effectively mentor and coach employees.
Both mentoring and coaching require specific skills and approaches. They aren’t the same, and they’re both different from managing. Build your managerial toolkit by becoming proficient in wearing all the hats available to managers.

Enlist employees in mentoring, training, and sharing best practices with peers.
The best way to reinforce and extend learning is to share it. Just as everyone can benefit from continual learning, everyone can benefit from teaching others. Make teach-backs a norm following any learning experience. Show how much you value shared learning by encouraging and recognizing it.

Positioning managers as people developers need not be complicated, expensive or difficult. It’s a common sense approach that helps every person in the organization to enjoy their work more and contribute at a higher level.

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