Expert Interview Series: Todd Macey, President of Vital Learning, on Why Most Management Training Programs Are Lacking

Todd Macey is the president of Vital Learning, where he leads a world-class team and partner network to deliver award-winning leadership development solutions built for today’s managers. We recently chatted with Todd about why many leadership training programs fail and how a company can effectively develop its managers so that they can help achieve the organization’s goals.

Tell us a bit about your background. Why are you so passionate about leadership training?

Throughout my career, I’ve had plenty of experiences with both good managers and bad managers. Whether I was working for a good manager or a bad manager, it had a huge impact on whether I enjoyed the job. I’ve worked for some pretty horrible managers, which both incentivized me to do better as a leader myself and developed my passion for building leadership skills early on.

I’ve seen first-hand the ineffectiveness of many training solutions. And there are a lot of bad managers out there in the world. People are commonly promoted to a management position because they are good at their previous job, but in their new role as a manager, they do not know how to get work accomplished through a team or lead others. Often, these managers are never given the fundamental skills they need to be effective, or they are put through a lecture-heavy training program that doesn’t actually help them develop the core skills they need.

My (and my company’s) passion is achieving a positive impact for people and companies by developing practical and critical management skills. We want to help rid the world of both bad managers and ineffective training solutions.

What are some of the skills that many of today’s business managers lack?

It often starts with the basic communication and leadership skills. We call these the “foundational” skills because a good manager must use these skills every day.  These include how to communicate clearly and concisely, know your audience, and use active listening skills. Next, today’s managers need to know how to involve team members in decisions, create a collaborative motivating environment, and focus discussions around facts and observable behaviors instead of attitudes or opinions. Another area where we often see people struggle is learning how to effectively provide feedback and coach others. Lots of managers, especially new managers, don’t delegate as often as they should, which does a disservice to themselves and their team. The most difficult management skills to master are the ones that often involve emotional reactions from team members. These include handling complaints, resolving conflicts, and disciplining employees.

Is there any truth at all to the adage, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks?” Is there a certain age of a manager after which it gets really difficult for him or her to develop new skills or learn new ways of doing things?

There is some truth to that statement, but I would say that it is never too late to learn good fundamental management skills. What happens when managers are never provided with a good framework for how to be effective is they will usually learn these skills slowly and very painfully on the job. Often, bad habits and poor workarounds are developed. Without a good framework, many new managers do not last long in their leadership position. Sixty percent of new managers fail within their role (i.e., are let go or demoted) within the first 24 months.

It is always valuable to provide managers with a good framework of skills regardless of their experience level. Managers who are used to a certain way of doing things may have to adjust their existing approach, which can be more difficult than learning with a blank slate. But experienced managers have, by necessity, already tried different tactics on the job and have likely seen the consequences of not leading the right way. This can give the experienced managers extra motivation and a structure to build upon.

Do you have any suggestions for how company leaders can convince managers that they are in need of leadership training?

The most impactful approach a senior leadership team can take is to help managers become committed to developing themselves as individuals and professionals. If the managers see the value in training (versus just being told it’s a requirement), they will approach it as a great investment of their time. A good first step is showing current managers (and high-potential employees) what building their skills will do for them and their career. Having the right skills will help them be more effective at their job, make their work days better, and can lead to bonuses, promotions, career growth, etc.

Getting managers to be fully committed to their own development can take some time. It may mean experiencing a few classes, applying the skills on the job, and seeing the impact this has. Since a lot of us have been through ineffective training, some people come into training sessions with the mentality that this is a waste of time. But what we’ve seen over the years is that even highly doubtful employees tend to realize over time the value of developing their own skills.

Is it possible for someone to improve their “soft skills” without training or practicing these skills in a face-to-face environment?

Yes, certainly. Participants do not need to be face-to-face to have excellent practice opportunities. Our courses provide practice scenarios throughout the experience, presenting short situations and asking the student to respond. Managers can get quality practice and develop the confidence they need to apply skills back on the job in both in-person and virtual environments.

As technology improves and becomes more accessible, virtual skill practice will continue to become more effective. For example, using virtual reality to fully immerse managers in realistic conversations with their team members will create an even more powerful version of the video-based scenarios we have today.

What steps do you take to ensure that managers who complete your leadership training programs actually retain and use the knowledge they learned?

We place a lot of emphasis on developing skills over time. Just like learning to drive or ski, it takes continual practice to become an excellent manager. Instilling these critical management skills means lots of practice handling various situations to build your comfort level and confidence.

The initial classroom or online course is a good first step. But that’s just the beginning. There are a variety of follow-up practice opportunities and resources so that skills become ingrained and are actually used on the job. At the end of the day, that’s what is most important to us.

Also, we have a free reinforcement app that gives participants additional short practice scenarios for about a month and a half after the initial training. Participants are assigned exercises after the course to help them retain their knowledge and skills. Follow-up skill practice sessions are built in, and materials are made available for “just in time” learning. Plus, we provide various job aids and resources to assist managers in using the correct framework back on the job.

Finish this sentence: “The biggest improvement that companies tend to notice after their managers complete their leadership training is…”

…that company objectives are executed more frequently and with higher quality. Managers who communicate effectively, create a collaborative environment, and can get work accomplished through their team will be able to execute the company’s strategic vision. The manager is typically the critical link to quality outcomes.

Having good managers in place has a powerful ripple effect. If managers at the company are using proper fundamental skills, we often see a resulting increase in employee engagement and morale, job satisfaction, and retention. The result is cost savings as well as revenue growth for the company.

In the future, what skills must effective managers learn and master in order for them to be successful?

Management skills, in my opinion, are generally timeless. How to communicate effectively, properly delegate, structure a coaching conversation, etc. doesn’t change much over time even as our world and our workplace transform radically. However, what does evolve significantly over time is how these core management skills are delivered and practiced.

Thirty years from now, the key concepts, skills, and framework for how to be an effective manager will be largely the same as they are today. But we will see major advancements in how these concepts and skills are learned and delivered. As people’s needs shift over time, learning and development will need to continually evolve along with them. This is something that continues to make me excited about the future of our company and the future of our industry.

Could you use some help with your management skills? View CCSU’s open courses now.

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