Learning Trends for Talent Management

Technology Solutions Are Becoming an Essential Part of the Whole Process of Developing Managers

By Mollie Lombardi

In many organizations today, managers are the front line of business and talent management. These critical individuals are responsible for ensuring that their teams are engaged; for coaching, mentoring and providing feedback; and for evaluating performance, and ensuring compliance with training or other requirements. And at the same time, they must ensure that all of these efforts result in improved business performance, as well as be able to shift the focus and efforts of their team on a moment’s notice in order to respond to new challenges.

In its just-published research Learning and Development: Arming Front-line and Mid-level Managers to Deliver People and Performance Results, Aberdeen Group surveyed executives from more than 525 organizations, including 189 that have current formal learning and development (L&D) efforts in place specifically for front-line and mid-level managers, to understand what Best-in-Class organizations are doing — the content being provided, the learning delivery methods being used, and the tools and capabilities put in place — to develop these key members of the organization.

Pressures Driving Managers

The uncertain economy and an increased focus on business performance (cited by 58 percent and 49 percent of respondents, respectively) are the pervasive pressures that this study identified as driving organizations to focus on L&D for front-line and mid-level managers. As organizations continue to flatten, and as many organizations work to adjust to the “new normal” of accomplishing the same or greater amounts of work with a reduced headcount, managers have a crucial role in ensuring that the organization stays on the right path. Providing front-line and mid-level managers with the skills to do so can be a critical business performance differentiator. The study found that Best-in-Class organizations enjoyed a 6 percent year-over-year increase in revenue per FTE, versus an 8 percent decrease among Laggard organizations. Developing both the business and people management skills of managers is no longer a luxury but a business necessity.

When organizations were asked to rate the leadership issues that were of greatest concern to them, some interesting trends surfaced. The top three concerns identified were:

>> the need to capture knowledge and organizational insight from leaders before they leave the organization;

>> younger, high-potential future leaders leaving the organization for opportunities to advance more quickly; and

>> fewer experienced leaders available in the marketplace requiring the organization to grow more leaders internally.

Shifting demographics are a big concern, and companies are looking to their L&D programs to help them share knowledge from experienced workers before they leave the workforce, to develop the talent they need for the future, and to provide compelling challenges to keep key leadership talent engaged long enough to take on new leadership roles.

What Works Now

When asked to identify the modalities that are being used to develop managers, Aberdeen found that instructor-led training and informal, on-the-job learning were used by nearly all organizations. But despite the fact that these high-touch and one-to-one solutions are still in such wide use, technology solutions are becoming an essential part of the mix. Virtual classrooms and other synchronous learning technologies were the number one technology cited by Best-in-Class organizations for manager learning and development.

Given the increasingly dispersed nature of many organizations today, the ability to connect individuals over distance and bring them together in order to share learnings is a critical capability for more and more organizations. And not only are learning experiences and classes moving online, so are the ways in which managers access information about learning opportunities available to them. One of the characteristics of top-performing organizations was their ability to make managers aware of development opportunities, a capability cited by 78 percent of Best-in-Class organizations. Online learning portals or other resources that bring together all of these learning channels in a way that makes learners more aware of the options available to them will become increasingly necessary as organizations adopt new modalities for learning delivery.

One of the other most differentiated technology tools being deployed in support of manager L&D efforts was the use of succession planning tools. With critical shortages looming in the talent pool, and given the level of concern cited above around the need to capture knowledge and the lack of leadership talent available in the marketplace, succession is top-of-mind for organizations. Utilizing succession planning tools to manage this key concern is one of the ways that Best-in-Class organizations are improving their performance in identifying and retaining future leadership talent.

Right Skills, Right Audience

When it comes to the key skills that organizations are seeking to develop in both front-line and mid-level managers, it’s all about the skill to manage the performance and development of their teams. The top three skill or knowledge areas for both groups focus on people development, giving and receiving feedback, and writing/conducting performance reviews. In Aberdeen’s July 2009 report, Engaging Employees to Retain Customers, one of the most critical capabilities identified for improving employee engagement was managers holding regular, informal feedback sessions with employees on progress toward goals. Providing this type of feedback, and manager involvement in the performance and development of their team has strong ties to both engagement and employee performance, so it makes sense that these skills are a main area of focus for Best-in-Class organizations.

Where we start to see some differentiation between the skills being addressed for front-line and mid-level managers is the priority placed on personal leadership skill and communication skills for front-line leaders, while mid-level manager skills tend to be more tied to managing larger more dispersed groups, and focused on managing the business as well as people (Fig. 2). As managers progress from managing individual contributors as a front-line manager, they build their collaboration skills and become ready to focus on increasing their business acumen as they move into mid-level management.

Senior Execs Set the Stage

Getting involvement from senior executives is one of the distinguishing characteristics of Best-in-Class organizations. Best-in-Class companies are 25 percent more likely than Industry Average companies, and more than 2.5 times more likely than Laggards to involve executives in the development of front-line and mid-level managers. This buy-in is so important for building engagement among this key managerial group.

Just as individual contributors look for feedback from their direct managers, these managers want to know that the executives above them are invested in their performance and development as well. And having a senior executive take time out of their schedule to participate in learning and development events for managers makes a statement to the whole organization regarding the importance of these efforts. And among Best-in-Class organizations, not only are executives more likely to be involved in manager development, but 74 percent of them also have distinct L&D strategies for these executives themselves, as compared to 64 percent of Laggard organizations.

This kind of involvement also trickles down within the organization. Twenty-nine percent of Best-in-Class organizations link manager compensation to the learning and development progress of their direct reports, nearly twice the number of Laggard organizations that do so. Accountability for developing others can and should be cascaded throughout the organization.

Developing Managers

Managers are such a crucial part of an organization. An individual’s direct manager is often the only point of contact he or she has on any regular basis with the leadership of the organization, and that manager really represents the “company line” to most individuals. It is so important to ensure that managers are supported by the organization, and are provided with the skills, knowledge, and development required to execute on business strategy, as well as manage their teams.

Organizations wanting to take a page from the playbook of Best-in-Class companies should start by defining the key competencies for front-line and mid-level managers — the skills, behaviors and attitudes required for success in the organization. They should assess against these skill and knowledge profiles and create an accurate picture of gaps that can be addressed by learning programs. And they should involve their executive team every step of the way to bring organizational focus to the development of this key constituency within the organization.

—Mollie Lombardi is a research analyst in human capital management for The Aberdeen Group, Boston, Mass. She focuses on how organizations enable business success by unleashing the potential and productivity of their workforce. Her passion is helping business and human capital leaders understand how to fuse business and talent strategies and processes to achieve breakthrough performance for individuals and organizations.

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