Learning & Development, Talent

Hot Spot Managers: How to Develop and Support Management Talent

Will the economy slow down? Will yet another industry get disrupted? Will robots finally take over the world? There are many unknowns when it comes to 2020, but one thing is certain: Managers will matter more than ever.


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Through our research at LifeLabs Learning, we’ve come to realize that managers are hot spots of culture, engagement, and productivity in their organizations. The term hot spot refers to an area of highest transmission efficiency for a contagion. Instead of attempting to prevent malaria in an entire population, for example, epidemiologists focus their efforts on hot spots to make the most impact with the fewest resources and in the shortest time. Hot spots allow malaria and, on a brighter note, malaria prevention efforts to scale.

In the same way, managers are the points of highest transmission efficiency in our companies. When managers are disorganized, disengaged, or just unskilled, they rapidly “infect” the organization. On the flip side, great manager habits spread to their direct reports, peers, and executives, tipping over into a great culture. It’s no surprise, then, that Gallup found that a whopping 70% of variance in team engagement is solely determined by a team’s manager.

Why do these manager hot spots matter now more than ever? Across the 700+ companies LifeLabs supports, we’ve seen steadily increasing employee demand for development and for a positive workplace culture. To recruit and retain talent, organizations have to prioritize meeting employee needs.

Luckily, these needs align perfectly with the biggest challenge organizations face: how to build a culture and workforce that can adapt and respond to any change. In 2020 and beyond, we will see a growing pressure on companies to out-learn rather than outsmart their competition. Organizations will have to become more nimble, agile, and skilled at learning (and unlearning), even as they grow in size and complexity.

It is incredibly resource-intensive—and, in most cases, impossible—to provide individualized attention, development, and personalization for every employee without leaning on managers as points of leverage. Level up your managers, and you’ll level your entire organization, including building the infrastructure you need to rapidly adapt to any change.

So, what can companies do to set up their managers for success? There are three essential pillars to any manager development program:

1. Communicate Manager Standards.

Given how critical the role of the manager is, it’s a wonder how companies rarely explicitly spell out what they expect of their managers. Companies that do this well put their manager standards in writing; focus on observable behaviors; and use the standards as a tool during onboarding, training, and performance assessment. Want help getting started with your own manager standards? Here’s a template based on our research on behavioral units that distinguish great managers from average managers.

2. Provide (Effective) Training.

Once managers understand what success looks like for their roles, they need to be trained in the skills that enable those behaviors. This is where training can go horribly wrong. Most training programs consist of “sheep dipping,” or funneling managers through a long, dense course; checking the “managers have been trained” box; and hoping for the best.

In truth, very little learning actually takes place, and most participants have no idea why they have to sit through the training. Imagine if we used the same approach for training pilots or surgeons! It is essential to remember that getting trained is not synonymous with being trained.

So, what method actually works? In a typical year at LifeLabs, we train about 50,000 managers, so we’ve had the opportunity to study not just the skills that matter most but also what makes the learning stick long after the training program ends. We’ve found that a few factors make the biggest difference:

  • Leverage the power of spaced learning. Instead of condensing your program to make it easier to schedule, space out the sessions (and keep them to 2 hours at most) to make the information easier to digest and retain.
  • Design in error learning opportunities. For leadership skills to stick, learners need the opportunity to practice, make mistakes, get feedback, and try again. This type of learning doesn’t have to take place in-person (roughly 30% of the training we do at LifeLabs is virtual), but it does have to be live.
  • Create ongoing nudges. After training wraps up, help managers convert new insights into lasting habits by building in reminders and small, simple opportunities to apply what they’ve learned. For example, at LifeLabs, we use videos, templates, small missions, and social learning prompts to keep core skills top of mind.

3. Create Feedback Loops.

The last piece of the manager development puzzle is to create feedback loops so managers know how well they are performing and feel motivated to keep improving. This is where manager standards come into play again. Convert them into self-assessments and/or 180 surveys using a platform like CultureAmp or simply by encouraging managers to pull for feedback from their team.

So, whether your 2020 goals include scaling your company, changing your company, improving your culture, or building those robots, start with managers as your hot spots.

Tania Luna is the Co-CEO of LifeLabs Learning, the go-to manager development resource for innovative companies (like Lyft, TED, Reddit, Sony Music, and Warby Parker). She is a researcher, leadership trainer, and co-author of the book Surprise: Embrace the Unpredictable & Engineer the Unexpected. Her work has been featured in dozens of media outlets, including Psychology Today, HBR, TIME, NPR, Wharton Business Radio, HuffPost, O Magazine, Mashable, and The Wall Street Journal. Her TED talk has over 1.7 million views.