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Rachel Lewis

Kingston Business School

Associate Professor

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New research tells you how to make management development programmes a success

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Management development is not simply a matter of choosing the right model and running a ‘training’ event: developing manager skills and identity is a process that evolves over time and requires a range of elements and activities.

Applying and sustaining newly learned behaviour in the workplace is not easy, so needs support, and the context in which managers work will have a major impact on how they actually behave.

While there is some research evidence about how to achieve successful management development, there was, until recently, no unifying model to help practitioners and organisations understand what they need to do to design effective management development, support application of management skills in the workplace and set the context for sustainable behaviour change.

To fill this gap, during 2013-14, Emma Donaldson-Feilder, colleagues and I at Affinity Health at Work conducted applied research to understand how organisations can best foster positive manager behaviour through: a) providing effective management development programmes, b) supporting managers to transfer their learning into their day-to-day management approach and c) creating an organisational context that supports this way of managing people, with the aim of achieving high levels of employee engagement, health and wellbeing.

Given the complexity of the territory this project was addressing and the practical nature of the desired outputs, they chose to take an ‘evidence-based practice approach.’ The aim of this approach is that, by gathering evidence from a wide range of sources, it ensures an integrated approach to a problem, and develops solutions in a more structured and informed way than would be possible if relying on only academic evidence or only contextual evidence and experience.

This research programme has recently won Emma and me the British Psychological Society Practitioner of the Year Award 2014.

Top tips for improving likelihood of success of management development programmes

Successful management development programmes should result in managers being able to apply and sustain their newly learned skills and behaviours in the workplace.  Experience and evidence has shown that this is not easy – and is actually rarely achieved.

Many management development programmes rely on choosing the right provider, the right model, and running a ‘training event’. This approach fails to recognise that changing behaviour long term needs both support and an organisational context that encourages and embraces the change.

Emma and Rachel have summarised the top factors for consideration to improve the likelihood of success of the programme, as follows:

  1. One off training doesn’t work.  The intervention should be long term (3 months plus) using a range of different methodologies (such as coaching, feedback and workshops)
  2. Ensure senior managers are onboard and supportive. Consider framing the programme in a way that will appeal to senior managers – for instance positive messages (development opportunity rather than addressing skill gaps), linking with existing organizational strategy, citing the business case and illustrating litigation risks or statutory duties
  3. Ensure senior managers lead by example. Long term positive change in middle and first-line managers’ behaviour won’t be possible if the managers above them are displaying different or negative behaviours. Consider cascading management development programmes from the top to the bottom of the organization.
  4. Set manager participants clear, multiple and challenging goals. Make sure all participants know what they want to achieve from the programme. Revisit the goals throughout the programme – it may be that goals change or develop with new learning. Make sure goals are challenging – but not too hard: they need to be realistic to be motivating.
  5. Have clear behavioural standards for managers. Ensure that within the organization, managers are clear about their role and what they are expected to do. Appraisals and development processes need to be clear and consistent and any competency frameworks up-to-date.
  6. Ensure that managers value the programme as an opportunity for learning and development. It has been shown that if managers value the opportunity for learning (as opposed to valuing the programme for the perceived status or promotional opportunities), the likelihood of them using the new learnings in the workplace is much increased.
  7. Ensure that managers feel confident in their skills. Managers don’t always feel like effective managers, or even managers at all. In order for the skills to be transferred, managers need to be supported to feel confident in their ability to succeed in the programme and in their ability to work as a manager. Focus on building managerial confidence.
  8. A supportive organizational culture is key. A supportive culture means one where there is open dialogue across all levels of the organization and where respect and recognition for all employees is embedded and visible.

Free to access outputs from the research have been developed for practitioners, including three checklists, which practitioners can use to improve the likelihood of success of their management development programmes, whatever stage in development they are at.

The intention is that organisations that are considering or involved in management development complete these checklists in order to generate a free gap analysis report that identifies ways to improve the effectiveness of their management development programmes.

The hope is also that this latest project will contribute to the national discourse around management skills and management development, moving it from a focus on what skills managers need to develop, to how to develop and maintain management skills in UK workplaces.

To read more about the project and access the free tools, see the link below:

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Rachel Lewis

Associate Professor

Read more from Rachel Lewis