From new hire orientations to "lunch and learns" to multi-day leadership acceleration programs, true partnership with line managers can boost learning initiative attendance, engagement, and effectiveness.
Managers want to see their employees grow and succeed. But all too often, they play a mostly passive role in the learning and development process, making them an underutilized, undervalued resource.
HR managers, learning practitioners, and executive coaches can change that by encouraging managers to adopt a more empowering role in the learning process — here are 7 tactics to test and implement immediately in your organization:
1.) Manager as needs assessor
Line managers and senior leaders will have extensive firsthand knowledge regarding skills gaps, training opportunities, and even future learning needs based on upcoming trends and technology.
The 21st century HR or learning professional can't afford to operate in a silo, rolling out programs and interventions based purely on survey results or what peers are doing. If manager interviews aren't the core of your needs assessment process, it's time to stop and reevaluate.
This also opens the door to continue your partnership throughout the learning journey, which leads to our next point...
2.) Manager as co-owner
In the learning and development cycle, managers are often involved at the edges of the process, but rarely in between. This puts them in a passive, disengaged role from the start. In their eyes, they present a problem or opportunity, the learning partner vanishes, and the next time they meet they're being asked for "input" (read: sign-off) on a proposal.
Back away from the waterfall approach and involve managers throughout the process. This could mean:
Offering a seat at the ideation huddle
Soliciting continuous feedback on iterations of workshop design
Close involvement in vendor or facilitator selection
Sponsorship of the program
Direct participation in the learning session as a speaker, panel member, etc.
This creates not just buy-in, but true ownership. If you win, they win, and they'll do whatever they can to ensure the program succeeds.
3.) Manager as advisor
Good leaders are closely tuned in to what competitors are doing. In addition to the obvious commercial merit of such informal "market research," along the way they'll often learn about how other organizations manage their human capital. In fact, they'll often pick up intel on the market's latest learning initiatives and experiments far before your local L&D newsletter.
Even better, anyone joining from another employers often has firsthand experience with their learning initiatives — and feedback around what could be done better.
It's important to stay engaged with managers and build strong relationships to ensure the information is shared freely. In conversations around learning opportunities, I've had more managers than I can count say "Sounds like a great idea… you know, my last place has been doing something similar for years!"
4.) Manager as influencer
Learning opportunities are often promoted via internal communications and learning management systems. If you're lucky, a robo-email about the training with a senior person's name attached might go out. At worst, employees only find out about an initiative after they're voluntold to attend.
This is where line managers are an especially underleveraged resource. Like an influencer promoting their favorite new product, mid-level managers can generate major interest in their immediate network around learning offerings. A quick mention in a team meeting can work wonders in marketing trainings and workshops.
5.) Manager as advocate
In a similar vein, a manager recommendation becomes even more impactful on a one-to-one basis. According to LinkedIn's 2019 Workplace Learning Report, 75% of employees say they would take a manager-suggested course.
"Managers know their direct reports best and can make personalized learning recommendations based on interest and skills gaps." - LinkedIn Learning
However a manager spins it - be it an advancement recommendation or warning - the implicit message "this would be good for your career" is very compelling.
6.) Manager as feedback channel
A trainee might eschew tough feedback for the sake of a facilitator's feelings, providing vague, positive, largely unhelpful comments. Even learning practitioners themselves might be peddling impotent programs because they're avoiding the painful conversations around what could have gone better.
But employees are much less likely to parse words with their manager.
Line managers are an invaluable source of honest, constructive feedback about learning programs. If instructional designers and trainers put the effectiveness of their programs before their own egos, such feedback is a necessity.
"If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid" — Epictetus
One note, though: Given such feedback is largely anecdotal and sample sizes tend to be small, it's an excellent supplement to - but not replacement for - feedback surveys and other formal post-training evaluations.
7.) Manager as accountability buddy
Managers can obviously hold employees accountable for attending training.
But for a healthier, more active accountability strategy, they can tell employees in advance of a training session that they'll be expected to share what they learned, either in a one-to-one meeting or with the broader team. This ensures trainees are not just physically present, but mentally present during training, and reinforces learning through teaching.
"Let employees know prior to training that they will be called on to make a report to their team or to an executive. That really helps to increase their attention, which will increase the likelihood of learning and on-the-job application." — Donald and James Kirkpatrick, Transferring Learning to Behavior
8.) Manager as coach
What good is a training program without application? How do you ensure learning is transferred from the classroom to the job?
Training initiatives provide new knowledge, skills, and techniques, but it can be a bit like drinking through a fire-hose. Even worse, all too often the takeaways vanish as employees return to the desk and get swept back into the daily grind. Even the greatest training program will have a shameful ROI if trainees forget everything they learned.
That's why this role is the most important of all. Managers can offer an opportunity to digest and reflect on learning content and key lessons. Better still, they can coach their employees toward finding opportunities to test and implement learning takeaways in their day-to-day. With some careful feedback and generous encouragement, managers can help employees cement new knowledge and develop creative, career-propelling action plans.
Ultimately the success of your learning initiatives - and career - depends on breaking from the silo mentality and becoming a more agile, commercial, client-oriented people partner.
If you're interested in exploring this topic further, I highly recommend perusing some of the sources mentioned above, namely LinkedIn's 2019 Workplace Learning Report and the book Transferring Learning to Behavior.
P.S. — If you're committed to becoming a more effective, innovative, commercial people professional, or you want to develop your skills as a leader, manager, or coach, follow me on Instagram @TheExecCoach where I share bite-sized Learning and Development, Coaching, Leadership, and Management insights daily!