In a world of changing employee expectations, hybrid work, intense change, and deep uncertainty, managing people is a daunting task. And yet, those of us who lead L&D initiatives in organizations may be counting on managers to take a role in developing their people, adding another concern to their growing responsibilities.

At the same time, the skill of developing others has ranked – in each of the last five years – as the highest priority learning need for leaders (according to the 2023 Annual Leadership Development Survey by Training Magazine and Wilson Learning). So while we depend on managers to be effective in developing people so that emerging challenges can be met, we recognize that it’s a skill set that needs to be strengthened.

How should we develop the people who we depend on to attend to the development of other people? What skills do these people managers need, and how can we support their learning in these areas?

In an earlier post, I said that these leaders need three ingredients – a culture that genuinely values people and supports learning and growth, a deeper understanding of how people learn (so that their development efforts are effective), and allocated time for developmental responsibilities. But they may also need advanced skills to deploy the right kind of developmental support, and to do it effectively.

Identifying people development skills

Since there is a fairly long list of skill sets that go into the work of supporting others’ development, you need to start by identifying the most important skills. Given your particular organization, the roles people play, the context in which they work, and the priority development goals employees have – identify which specific skills you want to put a lot of support behind.

Here are some of the skills that might be useful to hone:

  • Coaching for development
  • Holding career development conversations
  • Setting up stretch assignments
  • Providing developmental feedback
  • Establishing psychological safety
  • Nurturing a strong learning environment
  • Mentoring
  • Developing a team
  • Supporting self-directed learning
  • Designing on-the-job training
  • Developing strengths
  • Managing a skills portfolio (rather than job roles)
  • Determining strategic capability development needs
  • Using personal development planning processes effectively
  • Managing employee learning in the workplace (broadly)

Once you’ve identified where you need to focus your support, then you’ll need a solid blended learning strategy to help managers advance their skills in those areas.

Crafting a learning and development strategy

A strategy for developing leaders in any skill needs to be robust and multi-faceted. At the same time, if you provide too many options and leave skill development to leaders’ own self-directed discretion, you may not get the results you want.

You’ll want to customize techniques and make recommendations based on the situation in your organization and the nature of the skills your managers need to develop.Your strategy should offer a number of techniques, but selectively. The suggestions below highlight some of the techniques that might be useful specifically for helping managers develop the skills to be development leaders.

Facilitate access to curated resources.
An internet search for resources on any of the skills for developing people will produce an overwhelming list of options, and a response from artificial intelligence tools can be vague and not quite applicable. To help managers, do the sorting, vetting, and evaluating work by recommending relevant, useful resources.

  • Focus on recommending just a few in-depth, rich resources rather than having a long list of possibilities. Use your judgement to find advice on developmental practices that are likely to work in your organization.
  • Annotate the resources with notes on what managers might get out of reading, viewing, or listening. Follow Mike Taylor’s advice regarding curating to facilitate learning. Tell managers how to apply the ideas in your context, and perhaps provide some job aids and other supports for doing so. Acknowledge and help managers mitigate the implementation challenges that might be present in your organization.
  • Provide some resources that help managers to see the retention and engagement benefits that accrue when leaders attend to developing people (the why).
  • Consider sharing resources on modern employee expectations regarding developmental support.

Enable active learning.
Reading resources or listening to podcasts can provide rich fodder for learning, but lasting learning comes from more active engagement with material, as through reflection, discussion, and practice.

  • Provide simulations, role plays, and other means of practicing skills in a safe environment. Interpersonal exchanges like coaching and giving feedback, for example, may need to be honed a bit in a practice session so managers can be comfortable engaging in those kinds of conversations in real life.
  • Suggest reflection questions. Provide several food-for-thought questions along with the rich resources you’ve curated to get managers started on the task of translating what they’ve read or heard into concrete actions they can take to support the development of the people on their team.

Encourage social learning.
People learn from and with one another in powerful ways. Be sure to do at least one thing that strengthens social learning.

  • Enable peer-to-peer conversations. Managers place a great deal of store in the experiences and advice of their peers, who know the organization and its challenges and can provide real-life counsel and examples. To support manager interaction, consider action learning teams, discussion groups, special events with networking opportunities (e.g. speakers, internal conferences), or mentoring programs that are narrowly focused on the role of developing people.
  • Share stories. Produce videos or articles about development success stories or exemplary developmental leaders to provide inspiration. These personal testimonials are meant to give managers confidence that taking action to develop others is worth their time and effort.
  • Enlist senior executives in making their own learning journeys visible, especially with regard to how previous managers gave them development opportunities. Also encourage the senior leadership team to communicate how important it is for managers to take on a developmental role. That kind of exemplar-sharing and priority-setting can help managers make the commitment needed to be a developmental force for good in the organization.
  • If your organization supports its managers by offering them coaches, enlist these coaches in raising the bar on employee development interactions. Work to make employee and team development a regular part of coaching (or mentoring) check-ins.

Support on-the-job learning.
People say they learn by doing. But they usually don’t “just do it.” Learning by doing entails reflection, and feedback, and self-evaluation, and experimentation, and more. Make sure your managers have the support they need to enact their people development skills on the job.

  • Provide job aids and templates to guide managers in applying what they’ve learned about supporting employee development. Make it easy to follow the recommendations that they have explored through other means of learning.
  • Offer self-assessment tools and quality checklists to help managers self-check. It can be difficult to know if you’re “doing it right,” and hard to get feedback on conversations and activities that happen one-on-one with employees. Tools that allow managers to self-evaluate their employee development interactions and plan how to improve going forward can be very valuable.

Provide training and education for new skills
Training and education is most useful as a technique for teaching topics and skills that are completely new. (Think new hire training.) If your managers need to learn basics or useful frameworks, or could benefit from group practice of skills, a well-designed training or education module (or modules) may be just right.

  • Keep training modules short, narrowly focused, and highly interactive.This allows managers to engage with training on the specific skills they need rather than have to sit through modules that don’t (immediately) apply.
  • When you bring managers together to learn the skills that strengthen their developmental role, facilitate plenty of discussion and practice. These activities take advantage of rare moments when managers can interact with one another and provide opportunity to build peer-to-peer relationships to support and encourage one another.

When we talk about modern learning strategies, we are most often referring to the notion that any approach to developing people should draw from an array of techniques and offer choices. We should take advantage of material that already exists and call attention to the best of the lot for our specific context. While digital resources are accessible and allow self-study, we should always engage social learning in some fashion to amplify the impact.

Making developing people a priority management role

Too often, organizations place responsibilities on their management team without giving them the support they need to take on the new role(s) effectively. The emerging demand for more personalized management and local skill development will put a strain on managers if we don’t do enough to support them in enacting a developmental role and honing the necessary skills.

While the above advice is useful for addressing the manager’s skill development needs, it’s reasonable to assume that lack of confidence in their skills is not the primary reason managers may not be as invested in developing people as you might like. It’s likely, for example, that managers are pressed for time and perceive that developing people isn’t a priority – either because employee capability is not the performance enabler that needs the most attention in the department, or because developing people is not recognized or rewarded as a management priority in the organization. Before you expand the managers’ role in developing people, then, you should ask whether they have room on their plates for what you are asking – and to find ways to help them make room if needed. (See Time to learn.)

Business leader Harvey Firestone once said, “The growth and development of people is the highest calling of leadership.”  That’s a lovely sentiment that may not always ring true to today’s leaders under today’s pressures. But if we want leaders to take on that calling, we should do what we can to support the development of their skills for being great developers of people.