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Management Training While the Game is in Play

By Thomas Walsh


Instead of sitting in that management-training course this weekend watching the ivy grow over the windows, why not investigate how baseball teams deal with talent at their spring-training camps, which recently finished. After all, baseball has a better training record than the corporate world.

The draft-picks all want a call-up to the big leagues during the season, but no matter what happens, all baseball players train on the same training field. Unlike in your management-training course, at baseball’s major training event, the top players sweat it out alongside the new recruits.

Big-league coaches understand that if they only train the A-listers, then longer term, the whole team will underperform. The corporate training world, on the other hand, tends to focus management-training resources on senior executives in the belief that companies topple from the top down. If sales are sluggish, products are not innovative, and staff is unmotivated, it must be senior management’s fault.

In fact, companies are seldom decapitated from the top like Enron during the accounting scandal or Lehman’s following the mortgage crisis. Instead, you need to watch out below. It is your middle managers who have the greatest impact on your business and its success. They uniquely touch all stakeholders of your company — employees, supervisors, vendors, and suppliers. And thus, they uniquely can drive or break the motivation and engagement of your employees and other stakeholders.

Perplexingly, when it comes to management training, the key supporting role of middle managers is often overlooked. In fact, as a consultant to owners and executives, I have overlooked it to a great extent. Only in the past several years, as I watched the senior folks age and head toward their own exit, have I become aware of the weaknesses of the people behind them. We have had them “making the donuts” every day instead of developing their managerial, leadership, and strategic-thinking capabilities.

This training gap is counter intuitive to everything we teach in the hottest management courses today. We know that self-efficacy — that is, confidence in one’s ability to do his/her job — is what keeps employees happy and productive in job positions, and training and development develops the competencies and skills that in turn build self-efficacy. Put another way, investing in training is investing in productivity.

The average amount spent on learning and development by U.S. organizations, about $1,100 per year, decreased in 2011, according to the American Society of Training and Development (ASTD). A little more than one-third is invested in training managers and supervisors.

So in a worst-case scenario, our middle-manager ranks are filled with relatively competent guys and gals with low self-esteem — walking the company corridors dragging their feet, head down, and not making eye contact. They are shuffling around the office like a pitcher who has just let three hitters in a row hit homeruns. At the root of their lack of confidence is your failure to invest in developing the competencies and skills that they need to perform the job.

The solution is to personalize your management training program. Imagine applying corporate training to the Yankees or Red Sox. As the pitching coach, you spend most of your time with your top pitcher and send him to expensive executive pitching programs, but then he hurts his arm. A replacement with a few weeks of training courses under his belt shuffles up to the mound. Are you worried? It is no coincidence that the world’s top companies invest the most in training. When management shortages appear, they have the bench strength to fill them. Here are the first three steps to start personalizing your management-training program.

▪    Destroy manager prototypes. Most training programs develop models and prototypes of the perfect manager. In their quest for the model manager, training managers are not unlike the game developers we spoke of in the last column in the gamification of the workplace. They begin by defining “player types” based on stereotyped patterns and archetypes.

Gamification is an attempt to institutionalize employee development. The bug in these training programs is that they are more likely to build emulators than innovators. Instead of building the archetypal manager, the best training programs break down position, hierarchical structures, personality type, and behavioral patterns. Any prototyping is done around common objectives, goals, and values; managers start training in the self-concept stage in which they define the competencies and skills they need to develop to achieve these goals.

▪    Do not design your workplace around a management prototype. Even if you have a middle-manager prototype of behavior and personality skills and have hired all A-types or WXYZ-types, truth is, you will have a diverse array of management styles. You will have introverts and extroverts, administrators and innovators, and everything in between. Training programs build prototype managers that function optimally in an imagined business environment. Identify the competencies and skills required and provide a fluid training structure.

▪    Integrate specific training to your culture and integrate it with development activities that help the company. Sending people off to generic management-training programs that are not focused on your strategic goals does little except make people feel valued and uplifted. Training that works is designed to meet your culture, your strategic objectives, and is integrated with projects that further the goals of the company, excite the participants, and add value to all.

Moving back to the baseball field and the recently completed spring training, one can quickly see the difference real-time training makes. The game is in play and as the players are moving on the field, their grip, motion, and form are being tweaked by their coaches. If a performance gap opens up, any one of the players are ready to be called up to play on the field.

In the business world, in contrast, only a few percent of managers are ready to step in and fill a performance gap because only a few middle managers are invited onto the training field.

How is your company doing at developing the talent pool?


Thomas Walsh, Ph.D. is president of Grenell Consulting Group, a regional firm specializing in maximizing the performance of organizations and their key contributors. Email Walsh at


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