Learning & development plans for senior management


The thing about senior managers is that, they are senior and they manage things.  On the other hand, the thing about learning and development is that learning supports development. Plans? well, don’t they just help people get from one place to another?

I’ve found when I’ve made these statements at the start of a learning day, they tend to polarise people.  They’ll either think I’m an idiot simply stating the bloomin’ obvious or, as is always hoped, they’ll think, great, let’s get back to basics, strip away all the nonsense and hyperbole which so often accompanies L&D and actually learn something.

The big “but” was that only 12% felt their managers took learning and development seriously, while 20% thought they didn’t take it seriously enough

A couple of years ago I read a CIPD survey which showed that more than 90% of the 700 respondents believed that managers are ‘important’ or ‘very important’ in supporting learning and development in their organisations.  The big “but” was that only 12% felt their managers took learning and development seriously, while 20% thought they didn’t take it seriously enough.  Awesome, if ever there was ammunition needed to get senior managers serious about learning, here it is.

I’m all for leading from the front and if managers expect their own people to take L&D seriously they need to get beyond the rhetoric about it ‘being a good thing’ in its own right and embrace plans designed specifically for them.  That’ll silence their critics!

It would seem that having a clear plan is not just a good idea, but essential if the seniors are needing buy-in from the emerging talent pool. Nobody wants the bright young things to become cynical about learning when they themselves take on senior roles.  Surely then it is one of the tasks of a manager to ensure first class learning for tomorrow’s job as well as today’s?

Having a plan demonstrates a desire to get from one place to another with an intention or decision about what is going to be done and having a detailed proposal for achieving it.  It’s something which needs to be done in advance.  Senior managers with a plan written specifically for them will be able to turn the theory and knowledge into practical applications which affect the bottom line.

Back to basics
What do we mean by the term senior management?  It’s nothing to do with age, could well be to do with experience but most likely to do with responsibility which some would argue demands both inward and outward flows of learning.  By inward I mean what the person learns themselves and by outward I mean in the form of coaching or mentoring others which, in case you were in any doubt, are entirely different things.

Taking the most popular information available on the web, a definition of the term “senior manager” can be summed up as “…high level executives who participate actively in the daily supervision, planning and administrative processes required by a business to help meet its objectives.”

That’s sorted then, we know who these people are, yet there’s more to consider because to be effective in the area of senior management the manager must:

  1. be intelligent
  2. possess initiative
  3. be able to rise above problems
  4. be able to think laterally
  5. be confident
  6. have integrity.

In which case we may not know who these people are after all!  Some senior managers may have these characteristics from birth and others may need some encouragement to point them in the right direction.

These are of course characteristics which aren’t necessarily gained through learning but should have been uncovered during the initial selection process and which should have been monitored and noted as people progress through their career.  Assuming then a business has the right people in senior management roles to begin with, what do these people need to learn?

Learning Needs Analysis
Let’s do a generic needs analysis for senior managers so that we can understand what managers do and what actions they take to achieve their goals and objectives.  Then I’ll suggest some learning to support changes in behaviour to allow them to perform their activities and develop in their roles.

Generally in any organisation, the management must have overall goals which include:

1.       knowing what is happening within their department and how it affects the overall business
2.       constantly seeking to improve those things which are within their control
3.       having viable plans to assist the implementation of new ideas or methods
4.       ensuring the short and long term commitment of all personnel.

Table 1

Drilling down to the next level, specific objectives to achieve the goals in table 1 might include:

1.       having an effective method of defining results expected from the business
2.       having an understanding of the impact of those results on the business
3.       improving the flow of communications up down and across the business
4.       securing and holding recruits of suitable calibre
5.       having a flexible succession plan for staffing the business in the future
6.       motivating people and rewarding them fairly in relation to the results achieved
7.       having a reliable means of judging people’s performance
8.       encouraging people to continually improve their performance.

Table 2

Two questions worth asking at this stage are:

  1. what do senior managers expect to gain from their own leaning plan and
  2. exactly what development are they expecting to achieve?

Question 2 is easier to answer because it can be defined as a comparison of where the manager is now and where they want to be in the next three to twelve months.  Having established that, we can start to map out a plan to give the manager what they need in answer to question 1.

Looking at table 2, on the face of it, we can ascertain a need for not just an understanding of, but robust core competencies in:

·         communications
·         motivation
·         statistical and financial analysis
·         business development plans and strategy
·         HR
·         managing conflict
·         change and performance management.

Table 3

Setting aside essential competencies in regulatory disciplines, a search online for senior executive learning programmes results in a list of training companies with similar themes focusing on strategy and change.  One training provider offers “…a fresh look at both new and established ideas by stripping them apart and applying them to individual’s needs.”

I wondered how the focus got to just those two particular areas of strategy and change – is that all senior managers need to know about?  What about all the other stuff, maybe it’s included within these two themes?

Let’s take the topics in table 3 as a sub list incorporated within our theme of strategy and change which senior managers need to have in their core skills portfolio.  We can easily add the words strategy or change to create chapter titles in a learning plan e.g.

  • communications strategy for a changing environment
  • strategies for motivating people through changing times, or even
  • how to get to the next level of business performance by having a defined change strategy.

It now seems appropriate that the themes of strategy and change are at the sharp end of an L&D plan for a senior manager.  We can now create a personalised plan so that the exact needs of an individual manager and their organisation are taken into consideration to meet their particular roles and goals.

One other subject I would also suggest is teamwork.  A manager who understands why it is necessary to have the right mix of personalities and talents in a team, understands the need to have output which is greater than the sum of its parts i.e. 2+2=5.  So much of what is learned about teams can be applied to planning, strategy, motivation, communications and performance that I feel it almost should be mandatory learning for all managers.  Plenty of team management theories have applications outside of teamwork which are beneficial to senior managers having an appreciation of people being a perfect fit in a team or role or seeing a need for flexibility of what someone might achieve given the opportunity.  Any organisation is a team of people after all.  The key is the correct application in the workplace.

Delivery methods
Learning styles differ, time available for study differs, but with so much flexibility built in to the different methods of learning available, managers can make their own decision on which method will not only suit them but also fit into their diaries.

What next?
Having taken an all too brief look at the inward learning potential for managers, outwardly the senior manager’s responsibility is to define their own learning plans and support learning for their own people at an appropriate return on investment so that in a couple of years from now a different survey will conclude that senior managers take L&D very seriously and their participation in dedicated learning programmes has been shown to support and develop their people and their organisation in an ever changing marketplace.


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