The one thing most managers never ‘get’

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There are a handful of things I’ve never understood about management training. Let me condense that down and try to focus on two elements.

The first one is about timing. Consider this article from Fast Company, where you learn these two facts:

  • On average, people get their first leadership position at 30.
  • On average, people attend their first leadership training at 42.

OK. So, let’s unpack that. That’s 12 years. If you had a child on the same day you first became a manager, you would get your first management training when your kid was … in the fifth or sixth grade. What the ever-loving shit? We religiously train people on process and protocol almost every day, but we’re waiting 12 years on average to give people their initial management training? That seems flawed.

Now, admittedly you can argue that the entire leadership training industry is total bullshit, and there’s something to that. But still … 12 years? Sheesh.

So that’s problem 1. Let’s move to problem 2 with management training.

Management training: How we construe it

I guess I should quickly clarify a semantic issue here. Above, I used the terms “management training” and “leadership training” as synonyms. That might be confusing to some, because “managers” are not the same as “leaders.” In this post, what I’m talking about is the general idea of equipping people with skills to guide the progress of others — whether that’s because of organizational vetting (“a manager”) or transformative skills that need to be harnessed somehow (“a leader”). From here on out, I’ll say management training. We good?

Now here’s the issue about management training and how we construe it. Check out this graphic, from here:

So only about 1 in 3 executives feel they’re prepared to lead a global workforce — seems low. Only about 4 in 10 actually create succession plans for key roles in leadership. And there’s a whole issue of access which comes back to people protecting their turf and wanting to be seen as someone that needs a gatekeeper. This is all reams and reams of workplace bullshit stacked on top of each other.

But clearly, if you look at data like this, you understand there’s a need out there for management training. Clearly we’re not filling that need immediately — see 12 years above — but when we do fill it, and we send people to management training sessions or courses or webinars or whatever else, what do we do?

We focus on the transactional, instead of the transformative. The processes and protocols of management, the best practices … not the new ways of thinking about it and the innovations.

This is the same flaw you see with on-boarding a new employee, right? On-boarding is all about transaction. “Here’s your desk. This is your e-mail password. This is your health insurance info.” That stuff is necessary, yes — but for on-boarding to deepen the connection between employee and employer, it needs to be transformative. A SVP has to come in and explain the mission, the purpose, the value-add, how the company makes money, how the company works in teams, etc. All that. There needs to be a tie back to elements that really shape and change the organization — not just how to find the xerox paper.

We’re seeing this problem in management training too. I’m sure there’s some module or chapter or slide in every management training presentation about “Dealing with the problem employee,” right? Something like that? And I’m sure I could predict the advice given about “having difficult conversations” or “involving Human Resources.” It’s all generic garbage. It’s all transactional. It’s not transformative in any way — for example, what if management training on problem employees instead focused on the idea that there really isn’t any such thing as a bad employee? (There’s just good people in the wrong fit.) I’m sure most in the management training would dive through a plate-glass window screeching about the value of their time, but we need to teach new ways of thinking at these things. It can all be the same trite, generic fluff.

Management training: The power of context

If I had to pick one thing — one single thing — that ties together most bad managers I’ve ever had, I’d say this: complete lack of context when giving instructions, directions, or information.

Clearly I think about this shit a lot. I named my blog “the context of things” in part for that reason — we talk often about content (it’s king!), but very infrequently around context. Here’s a dirty little secret: without context, the content means shit.

That’s especially true in work situations. So that needs to be baked in management training.

Let me give you an example to maybe tighten this concept up: at my last gig, I go into this meeting on a random Thursday. I had worked there maybe 7–8 months at the time. I mostly knew who people were and who did what, but I wouldn’t say it was entirely perfect or in totality, no. The place had three main offices (locations) and a bunch of remote workers, so no … I didn’t know everyone.

In this meeting, you’ve got 2 SVPs (highest non-CEO rank), 2 Directors (right behind that, basically), 1 bullshit made-up title guy, and me. Total salary for this meeting is probably somewhere around half a million, right? This is the time of these people, so let’s value it.

One of the SVPs launches into a whole sequence about some guy named “Dave.” I have no idea who Dave is, and as I’m looking at other people — in the room and via video call — I am not really certain they all know who Dave is either. No one stops and bothers to ask, though. So this meeting goes off the rails for about 47 minutes because some guy keeps throwing “Dave” in everywhere and no one knows who Dave is. There’s no context. 47 minutes, gone. Kaput. Puff of smoke.

Turns out Dave was some third-party vendor or something, but Dave had only been working with that one SVP and no one else in the meeting — and because people in business love to assume information flows perfectly even though there’s no documentation in history that it ever has through cubicle walls, well, he just started mentioning Dave this and Dave that.

That was 47 minutes of my life. I will never get it back. And stuff like that happens all the time at so many jobs and in so many organizations. You go to a meeting, or get an e-mail, or get an assignment/project … and there’s just no context. It’s just some grenade plopped in your lap, and you’re about to spend the next 2–3 hours even figuring out what it is, why it’s relevant, and where to start.

How can we tie context into management training?

Basically, we need to convey to managers that for anything — anything — in business, they need to provide context. That means:

  • What is this?
  • What’s the end goal or purpose?
  • How will we know when we’ve reached that? (KPIs, essentially)
  • Who is involved?
  • Who “owns” it?
  • Who are the other players?
  • Where to begin?
  • Where are these events or meetings taking place?
  • Who do you go to for more information?

That’s just a start. It basically just scratches the surface. But it’s impossible for a project to be done effectively if the project lacks context from the beginning, because then everyone on the project is just running around trying to figure out WTF the project even is … and that’s harmful to productivity and harmful to real business growth.

Yet, because of unclear organizational priority, we let managers set these hair-on-fire, no-context “priorities” all the time.

Shouldn’t management training be affecting that, in a perfect world?

The easiest way to think about management training

When you send an e-mail, you want to add value. (Although most don’t.) You don’t want to just run people down a Reply All drain.

When you schedule a meeting, you hope it moves projects and priorities and strategy forward. (Although most meetings have a value of roughly negative-17 on a 1–10 scale.) You don’t want to sit and circle jerk about a bunch of info everyone already knows.

When you assign a project, you want strong results from the project. (Although about 1 in every 2 managers have no clue what they even do all day.) You don’t want a bunch of people chasing their tails and getting verbally demeaned over process.

Sending e-mails, scheduling meetings, and assigning projects pretty much is management.

So how do we improve management training?

We bake context into it.

What else you got?

My name’s Ted Bauer; I blog here regularly and you can learn about hiring me for freelance and contract gigs as well. You can also subscribe to my newsletter.

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Blogging, largely about work and how to improve it. How I make (some) money:

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