Why do we spend so much developing senior leaders and so little training new managers?
During the last five years of my corporate management career, I had a great deal of leadership development. Along with many other executives, I attended talks by noted management authors, I went to (often lengthy) team-building exercises, and I participated in discussions on different leadership styles. It was OK—extremely insightful at times, moderately interesting at others—but it often kept me away from the demands of everyday management.
And as I neared the end of my corporate days, I realized I’d received much more management training in the last five years than I did in the first 20 years—when I really needed it—combined.
Most students of management agree that the transition from employee to manager is one of the most challenging in business. It brings new roles and responsibilities, new ways of looking at organizations, and new ways of relating to peers and multiple constituencies. Like many new managers, I floundered. I avoided conflict. I wasn’t firm enough when I should have been, and then I came on too strong to compensate for it. I was assisted largely by that great old teacher: trial and error. I made so many mistakes along the way that I can no longer remember the first 200 of them.
Point being: new managers always can benefit from plenty of support.
It’s hard to find precise spending data on the amounts invested in management training (for supervisors and middle managers) and leadership development (for senior executives). Part of the reason this data is tough to find is that the distinctions here aren’t always clear—where exactly does management training end and leadership development begin? Some surveys seem to lump together technical skills training and classic management training. But, anecdotally, the consultants I’ve talked with agree that my own experience, heavily backloaded with training, is by no means unique.
I know talent development budgets are perpetually tight, but we can’t afford to overlook the junior managers who would most benefit from management knowledge. I’m not arguing that senior leadership development doesn’t have value—of course it does—but our proportions seem out of balance. We may be unconsciously harming our organizations by giving short shrift to those at lower levels.
What factors contribute to this training imbalance? I believe there are three key ones.
The people who control these budgets come from senior leadership ranks
Whether they’re heads of HR or reside elsewhere in the C-suite, the training decision makers naturally tend to be focused on issues that are of immediate interest to them now, not issues that were of interest a decade or three earlier in their careers.
Leadership development is sexier
Well, you know what I mean. It’s more visionary. More strategic. Less prosaic. In my experience, leadership development is often viewed as the cool big brother to management training’s dull stepbrother. Even my two favorite quotes on the subject (which always seemed to surface during leadership development sessions) betray a subtle bias.
Management is doing things right. Leadership is doing the right things.
Managers think about today. Leaders think about tomorrow.
I have to say, the excellent managers I know are concerned with doing the right things and are always thinking about tomorrow.
But even though we all recognize that the trains have to run on time, who wants to be mired in tedious operational details when you could be thinking higher-level thoughts about competitive global strategy?
It’s where the money, influence, and intellectual horsepower reside
Naturally, the most-sophisticated suppliers gravitate there. In a zero-sum game, with HR and training budgets perpetually being stretched, a tilt toward leadership development is in no way surprising. It’s far more stimulating to, say, examine productivity in China than to teach someone how to do an effective employee evaluation. It’s way more fascinating to discuss disruptive innovation than to talk about how to run a meeting that doesn’t drive attendees crazy. But both skill levels are necessary. Without a cadre of well-trained foot soldiers, generals will always have problems. Without solid shop-floor management, operations grind slowly. “Vision without execution is hallucination,” as the Thomas Edison saying goes.
There’s one more reason a preponderance of training being directed toward those who are most experienced isn’t very efficient. At the latter stages of their careers, most senior managers are pretty set in their ways, their good habits and their bad habits. After several decades, I know I sure was.
At the other end of the spectrum, however, the new managers (who of course are the organization’s future leaders) are a blank slate, just finding their own leadership styles. They’re sponges soaking up data, minds full of problems that need be solved, and they’re eager for thoughtful guidance to help resolve them.
Does it really make good business sense to give less training to those who need it more while giving more to those who need it less?
This article was originally published at Harvard Business Review and is republished here with permission.