Sustaining Manager Development

BUSINESS LEADERS ARE all too aware of the challenges of sustaining the impact of their manager development programmes. Time, ownership, resources, and preference for the old way of doing things, all conspire to undermine a programme before planning even starts. Learning and development teams are under pressure to do more with less and rarely feel like they have the resources to design the programme of their dreams.

On top of this, learning and development impact is notoriously hard to measure. And yet, leaders have a pretty good idea of when a programme is working, even if hard numbers are not available.

One measuring stick is the degree to which new managers apply what they have learned. If desired behaviours are sustained over the long-term, then they may or may not guarantee a measurable impact on the business. However, if the desired behaviours are not sustained, then they certainly have no positive impact. More than anything else, leaders need to see sustained behaviour change to know that the programme has been successful.

Research-Based Solutions

So, what can leaders do to improve learning transfer (i.e. the transfer of knowledge into workplace behaviour)? The work of Mary L Broad and John W. Newstrom has shed some light on the subject. They surveyed senior leaders, asking them to rank the most important factors based on their impact on learning transfer before, during, and after the workshop.  


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According to the respondents, the single most important factor was the involvement of the participants’ direct supervisor (called “next level leader” in the report) both before and after the workshop. Direct supervisors see the participants regularly, directly support accountability, tie the learning to the day-to-day working culture, and can assign projects that apply what they have learned to the workplace.

Facilitators, for their part, play a critical role before and during the workshop. However, even the best facilitator can only do so much to ensure that the participants apply what they have learned after the programme has ended. In fact, facilitators were described as the least impactful after the training programme.

Sustaining manager development programmes work best when there is a shift away from delivering workshops, towards building a sustainable learning culture that directly involves supervisors and encourages application.  Here are some practical tips that help to make this happen.  

1. Get Senior Leaders on Board

Arguably the most crucial factor in building a sustainable learning culture is the direct involvement of the organisation’s senior leadership. Having senior leaders on board will bring about some very tangible benefits:

  • The programme is more likely to get the resources and attention that will make it a success.
  • The learning objectives and topics will better align with what senior stakeholders really care about, and this means more buy-in throughout all levels.
  • The programme messaging will connect deeply to the most current mission vision and values.
  • Senior leaders will better understand how they can help remove barriers to learning application.

To show their support, a senior leader can comment on the programme in a company event or newsletter. They may also join training sessions as a keynote speaker, have lunch with the participants, or even facilitate a portion of the workshop. The more direct the involvement, the more the senior leader can influence the participants to embrace the company strategy and visualise their own role in the future growth of the company.

2. Create Multiple Touch Points

It may come as no surprise that workshop participants generally forget most of what they learn in a training session. This is due in large part to how the brain takes in, organises, and stores information. Humans simply do not retain theory, facts and figures very well, especially during the first exposure. Instead, we learn through repetition, social reinforcement, and application. This is why the education systems around the world tend to be organised in a similar fashion, with daily classes reinforcing the learning topics through repetition and practice. 

Organisations are already shifting the focus away from a single training event in favour of multiple sessions that are shorter and spaced out over a more extended period of time. More focus is placed on experiential learning, case study application, coaching, and action learning projects. Online portals and apps open up new opportunities for review, follow-up activities, micro-learning, case study assignments, and social learning.


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Changing the pattern of forgetting requires a shift away from one-off events towards regular culture-building touch points. This also means allocating some budget towards sustaining the programme, not just delivering the programme itself.

3. Involve Direct Supervisors Early and Often

  • Make sure the direct supervisor has a clear understanding of their role in the process. This is as critical before the programme as it is after. Here are some steps an organisation can take to ensure that the direct supervisor is involved:
  • Before the workshop, assign a meeting between the supervisor and participant to talk about what each hopes the participant will get out of the programme
  • After the workshop, have the participants schedule a meeting with the supervisors to review their action plan. What did they learn? How do they plan to implement it? What support can the supervisor and team provide? 
  • Provide coaching toolkits that are tailored specifically for the programme. These can act as guidelines for how to approach pre-workshop and post-workshop conversations, with essential talking points that the supervisor needs to cover.
  • Share workshop materials so that the supervisor knows what was taught and how they can apply the concepts within the team.
  • Enrol the supervisor into any online learning portals, apps, and notification lists so that they see new content and assignments that are given to the participants.
  • Promote accountability between the supervisor and participant, as well as the supervisors and their own next level managers. This requires leadership from the top.

Direct supervisors are not encouraged to join the workshop as doing so may cause their team members to withhold critical information from group discussions. However, it is crucial to involve the supervisor in pre-workshop and post-workshop activities as much as possible. 

4. Remove Barriers to Application

The programme must fit into the broader company culture and way of doing things.  This means occasionally stepping back from the programme and asking the simple question – “why are we doing this?” Manager development programmes need to show a clear connection between what the managers are learning, what they need to do day-to-day, and how it will impact business results and their success within the company. If that connection is not clear, then the development team should go back and make the necessary adjustments.

After the programme, the team environment needs to support, and not discourage, application in the workplace. Leadership from the top, the involvement of direct supervisors, and regular follow up will help to remove barriers. Business leaders can help to identify which company policies, cultural and bureaucratic tendencies might get in the way of application. These tendencies need to be eliminated as much as possible.

More than anything, sustaining manager development is about company culture. If the right conditions are in place, many of the required steps will happen naturally. But engagement needs to come from the top. Otherwise, development teams may become trapped swimming against the current and lacking the resources to implement full measures.