Why do we need to think differently about Professional Development for Managers?
Does the new generation require a different approach to professional development for managers? Here’s an example. I just saw and responded to an interesting question on Quora. It was to the effective of – Will online learning eventually replace academic learning? What direction will employers take?
Coming from the perspective of management skills, my response was focused around the current picture of an employer. And recognizing that there are many exceptions, I do believe that there is still some bias toward academic learning. This is likely because Universities enforce strict standards on educational content and student evaluation. While online learning platforms do have advantages (can be done at your own pace, etc), my concern is that there is no ability to monitor the quality of the content. Any teacher can publish any course, claiming themselves an expert. Often, there is no peer review or evaluation from other experts.
So – how does a student really know if they are learning the management skills correctly? Or in enough depth? How does an employer know if the employee really learned those skills? And (perhaps more importantly) can they actually apply those skills in the workplace?
Universities generally screen instructors, approve learning objectives and curriculum. They usually require evaluations to ensure the student has achieved the learning objectives. And they issue some sort of degree, diploma or certificate acknowledging that the student achieved the objectives. So both student and employer have some sort of tangible proof.
What’s Changing with Professional Development for Managers?
Some of the criticism that has been expressed recently about academic education (and especially MBAs?!?) is that it can be too theoretical and not applicable to the work environment. It is very expensive, takes much time and effort and may not be current to what’s happening in industry. It doesn’t prepare students for the “real world”. Some believe that developing managerial skills can only be done through experience.
Well, I have personally experienced both approaches to developing managerial skills. I progressed from a technical position into management without formal training – which was like being thrown in the deep end to learn how to swim! I later did the MBA program, and frequently expressed that I wished I would have known this stuff at the time. Perhaps not all of it was relevant, but many things came into focus. It definitely broadened and deepened the skills I had learned through trial and error.
So, I truly believe that you need both formal training and experience to develop effective management skills. But we need to consider how to bring these two aspects closer together. That is, take some training, apply it, take some more training – rather than spend 4, 6 or more years training, and then trying to apply it. Leadership skills, in particular, require application in the workplace, and learning through observation and reflection.
So the question becomes… how is this combined approach best delivered? Through an academic institution? A private company or individual? Or an internal training program? Mentoring? Or self directed learning????? And what should a Management Course for Managers contain?
Strategies for Developing Future Managers
First of all, we need to think about moving towards strategic management and leadership skills. That is, creating a more proactive and “big picture” approach to management. As the work place becomes more complex and changing, managers need to move beyond the traditional approaches of management. Establishing this strategic thinking approach early on in their career development will position them to adapt and grow. It will position them for more advanced leadership roles.
But how do we develop those type of skills? I believe if we are targeting future leaders, these are individuals that are already self directing and motivated. So why not put them in charge of their own learning? While the employer may set the objectives (such as specific competencies), each employee could have a “menu” of options that they can pick and choose to develop their competencies. In the end, the employee would need to demonstrate that the learning objectives had been met.
For example, there could be a list of university courses (many now offer non-credit Professional Development courses designed for people in the workplace); workshops offered by private companies, online training, mentors on specific topics, etc. The “proof” of learning would vary with each of these (for example, certificate of completion, mentor feedback, student project, etc)
This would allow employees to choose what works best for them. And don’t most people like a choice, and to feel that they are in charge of their own career?
Professional Development for Managers Helps with Attracting and Retaining the Right People
Another issue we must wrestle with – how much will employers expect new employees to come already trained? Versus how much will employers provide training for those individuals with high potential? In the current economic situation, we often have many highly qualified applicants for each position. The employers hold the power. However, we know that cycle will shift (it has in the past, and certainly will accelerate as baby boomers retire). The highly trained employees will then have the power to pick and choose who they want to work for.
One of the perks that an employer can offer is to provide both opportunities and training for employees to reach higher career goals. This demonstrates that you value the employee and want to keep them. However, we also need to ensure that employees also match that value. That is, they need to contribute significantly to ensure they have a high stake in the outcome (successful learning). So, we need to find some balance and ensure flexibility for employees with different needs and conditions. For example, those employees with limited finances could contribute by taking training on their own time while the employer pays tuition.
The bottom line is that we need to think differently about professional development for managers. And as many managers and leaders are at or near retirement age – we need to start NOW!
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