Managers are the unsung heroes of the workplace. They are the glue that holds the team together, the problem solvers, the listeners, and the ones who ensure the coffee is always brewing. In today's world of hybrid work, managers are even more critical than ever, as they are often the first point of contact for employees.
But are organisations doing enough to support their managers in their quest for greatness? Are they providing the tools they need to navigate the choppy waters of uncertainty and ambiguity?
In an exclusive interview with People Matters, Brainayan's Founder and CEO, Dr Nitin More, dives into the key challenges managers face in today's ever-changing work environment. From self-serve courses that have yet to quite hit the mark to the importance of carving out time for learning, Dr More shares his insights on how organisations can best support their managers.
Dr Nitin More has 18+ years of experience in learning and development. He holds several psychometric and other certifications (MBTI, DiSC, Hogan, NLI's Brain-Based Coaching, FIRO-B, NLP, Situational Leadership, StandOut, PeopleFuel, Crucial Conversations, Precision Questioning and Answering, to name a few.
When you look at manager development today, what are some of the top challenge areas that are being addressed and, more importantly, not being addressed?
There’s a lot of progress I see in the management development space today. When I started, there were no-to-low manager development programs that were being offered.
Most companies are doing a lot in this area. In some companies, the manager development curriculum is well fleshed out and targeted towards first-time managers, experienced managers, and managers of managers. Some companies also bring back their managers for refreshers. So, thumbs up for the investment being made.
Another good aspect in most cases is that the content is actionable. Managers are being offered tips and techniques that they can really start practising. Areas where efforts can be better, is really the holy grail of L & D - behaviour change.
Organisations do have good intentions while offering MDPs. At the same time, managers are super busy. That leads to their missing the programs, attending parts of it or not being attentive. Online programs with cameras off add a whole new dimension to this challenge. Additionally, whether they get something from the programs or not, they go back to being busy, and the best way to stay afloat is to continue your autopilots because, for behaviour change, you first need to go slow. More importantly, this behaviour change needs to be incentivised. Being a good manager is good to have in most organisations.
Managers are assessed against their business KPIs, not how well or poorly they manage people. If some component of people management skills is included in the performance review, it is small enough not to cause any major challenge. This leads to MDPs becoming a nice-to-have at best and a necessary evil at worst, and managers can get away with not being sincere in their efforts to apply what they learn in MDPs.
Sincere managers must be supported even after the program, but organisations often cut corners.
As L&D has always maintained, if we are not aligning with the 10-20-70 model (and all the jazz about 10-20-70 being passe are just ignorant comments or a foolish need for shiny tools all the time) and making sure learners practice what they learn, it won’t become an autopilot. We need to see more efforts in this area.
Which skillsets are the most important for managers today as we navigate a rapidly changing skill economy across digital-led businesses?
I think coaching is a key skill for managers in today’s world. The business environment is constantly changing. Somebody you hired for a job is no more in that job. Businesses restructure often, and we find deploying talent in new roles. Therefore, during hiring, while learnability is a key skill to look for, after hiring, they need to have good coaches to be successful.
That’s why managers need to be good coaches. Some companies have gone to the extent of calling their managers “coaches” and employees “players.” Now there’s a difference between a manager-as-a-coach and a sports coach. The sports coach, most times, has grown up playing the game and may/may not have been a good player but understands the ins and outs and knows what makes a good player and how to groom one.
Manager as a coach is a different ball game. If employees find themselves in jobs they have never done before; managers find themselves managing businesses and teams they have no experience in. But they still have the responsibility to coach people to do their jobs well. Figuring out how to be a coach in this environment needs deep thought and intentionality.
Building resilient teams is a key managerial competency for the VUCA environment we are constantly operating in.
If teams are going to face changes and upgrades all the time, they need resilience: how to deal with changes, particularly adversities and how to bounce back. Are you a resilient leader yourself and role modelling how to be resilient? I think this is very important in the current world led by disruptions.
As people leaders, our job is to build high-performing, engaged and motivated teams. There’s no cookie-cutter approach to motivation. People can be motivated by very different things. But one thing that seems universal is whether they enjoy what they do. Does it make them feel energised? Therefore, learning how to lead with strengths is a table stakes.
And given the VUCA environment, we have to be able to build teams that can address complex business problems. Herd mentality doesn’t help. People have to be able to come at it from different perspectives, so we can find a new way of solving a problem. Are we building diversity? And are we activating diversity through inclusion? Therefore, managers, these days have to be inclusive leaders.
In a nutshell, coaching, inculcating resilience, leading with strengths, and building diverse teams in an inclusive work culture are the key competencies a manager needs in today’s rapidly changing skill economy across digital-led businesses.
There are several learning solutions and courses in the marketplace today. But the gap in skill development is often the lack of practical application of principles learned. How should L&D teams find the best solution for this challenge?
Buying online learning content and leaving it to individuals to learn is a cop out, I think. I have seen this on both sides of the table. In the name of strategy, L&D departments spend a considerable amount of money on making learning self-serve by buying reputed online content and then complain that employees are not making use of such an amazing benefit. I have seen this over and over again. It just goes to show that we don’t understand or refuse to accept how people learn.
The online strategy works well for training that is generally mandated. And there may still be a small percentage of people that are so driven by the sheer process of learning that they grab self-serve opportunities and learn. However, otherwise, all learning is need and community driven. What do I need to get done now? If I don’t get it done now, what are the repercussions? And then people swing into action. Then they will not only use the online self-serve content but reach out to peers that know this, find and ask mentors, access various SME communities, use YouTube videos and whatnot. But all this when something needs to be done now.
Learning something proactively with a long-range vision is very rare. Employees are so busy and the business environment so unpredictable that they don’t believe proactive learning makes sense.
Also, self-serve digital learning is helpful for solo skills. For example, learning how to use a specific software program to a large extent can be learnt via self-serve learning options. But what about influencing skills? Can you really learn how to influence by just processing some self-serve content? If you don’t try it out or get feedback on your attempts, how will you get better at it? All leadership skills fall in this domain mostly - whether it’s self-leadership or people leadership.
The same old 10-20-70 model still holds true. Are learning experiences designed so people can practice what they have learned - first in a safety net and then in a live environment? Therefore, while looking for solutions, L&D departments should look for solutions with a significant and high-quality practice component. Simulations are super useful. But we are using such learning aids mostly for high-risk tasks. We need to invest more on both sides of the tables - buyers and providers - in AI-driven technology that will make us better human beings and leaders.
Find out more about Brainayan’s innovative solution for manager development.
Uncertainty and ambiguity have become a feature of the modern workplace. How can managers be best equipped to empower and operate even when they don't have all the right answers?
Decision-making and being able to teach it is probably the most important leadership skill. True that we are in a highly unpredictable business environment. What do we need to thrive in this environment? Learnability, being nimble-footed, being open and inclusive, being data-focused, and having really good hunches. How often do we check how we are scoring in these? What do we do to get better? There are some odds that are stacked against us. Our brain is not change-friendly.
So we feel anxious or lazy around change. We don’t want the effort that is needed to rewire neural networks. We like to avoid gathering data and poring over it (unless you are a self-select data scientist, maybe). We like to be on autopilot so we don’t have to think. And we like to continue with our set of biases and let them use cognitive shortcuts to make decisions. We need to help managers see these traps and set up experiences for them that will push them out of their comfort zones for these skills.
We should create experiences that make managers make decisions in an ambiguous environment, take on board diverse opinions - even ones that make them uncomfortable and hone their learnability to explore the various inputs and make an informed decision that they get some feedback on over time from a real application of the decision.
A learning approach that is not just focused on organising training but really committed to working with managers to be able to take the learning to their day-to-day and try to do something differently, being invested in that follow-through matters. I feel organisations take a very hands-off approach in this. We are providing you with a learning opportunity; it’s your problem to use it and learn. In a way, it makes sense. But think about your customers. If your customers are not engaging with you, do you say, “We have a good product, and you don’t want to engage, so it’s your problem”, and leave it at that, or do you do more? You do way more! Why are we not putting the same attention and effort into developing managers that touch the entire organisation when it really makes us way more effective and impacts organisational performance? Don’t just try to scale with self-serve and let go of the responsibility of engaging your talent in a deeper, meaningful way to cut costs. These are not the corners we should be cutting. And despite that, we have been and continue to do that.
There is increased emphasis on building a culture of learning in organisations today. What is the role of managers in ensuring they are building a workplace?
The 10-20-70 model places 70% of the learning on the job, mostly influenced by managers. The 20% of learning from others who know a skill you want to acquire can also be influenced by managers via mentoring and buddying programs.
Using formal and informal approaches to ensure that learning from the experienced and high performers is being passed on to others on an ongoing basis, establishing a culture of continuous, ongoing feedback that flows in all directions and not just routed through managers, understanding learnings needs to different people for different tasks and intentionally addressing them using the formal/informal mechanisms can help managers create a culture of learning.
If we want to build a culture, it can’t only be through rules and policies. It needs to be embraced by people. How do we do that? That depends on what we reward and recognise. Do we reward learners who go above and beyond to learn a task? Do we celebrate them by giving them opportunities to teach others? Do we consider learning and teaching others an integral part of performance management? Do we value people that are multiplying the learning on the team by being teachers? Managers influence all of this. Therefore, I do feel building a learning organisation is something managers have influence over and responsibility towards.
What are some of the top trends in the learning and development of managers that, at Brainayan, you are most excited about in the future?
A couple of key challenges I see in developing managers are these:
- Managers are super busy.
- They are not incentivised for behaviour change.
- People management skills are considered good to have, not a must-have.
The trends that I see in developing managers keeping these challenges in mind are the following:
- More attention is being given to addressing different manager groups separately: First-time managers, experienced managers and managers of managers. This is a good thing as the efforts are more targeted and on point for the right audience.
- I also see an effort to create a people manager bench. Organisations are offering their ICs opportunities to learn people management and be ready, or even consider if people management is something they want to grow in.
- Companies are also creating parallel people manager and IC tracks and allowing movements across tracks.
- Most companies are looking for practical, application-oriented solutions.
- At the same time, I also see the trend that organisations offer opportunities for people managers to learn but are not holding them accountable to show up or change. That’s causing all the good efforts for developing managers to seem futile.
There’s a recognition of the need but not enough will. Some companies take an ODI (Outcome-Driven Innovation) approach and align processes and policies to the expected outcome. They are open to being challenged and changing. That’s a trend I am really excited about.
To understand Brainayan's approach to developing managers, click here.