How to help your managers develop themselves

By Mike Cook
For The Bellingham Business Journal

Among the many concerns of employers these days is finding the right people for their organization. Right behind that is a virtually equal concern for keeping those good people once they are found.

If you are running a business of any size, I mean anything over about 15 employees, you have probably delegated at least some of the responsibility for employee retention to at least one or possibly more managers. That runs an employer right up against another key issue: Are your managers capable?

Everything else being accounted for — salary, benefits, working conditions, type of assignment, etc. — if the quality of the relationship between your employees and their managers is not good, you are skating on thin ice.

But how do you account for this? You are a business owner, not (in most cases) a developer of managers.

Honestly, most management development is done by whatever means available, and the results are hit and miss.

This results in companies making the wrong choices in just selecting management candidates about 82 percent of the time. The most fundamental reason for this dismal statistic is the simple reason that most often managers are selected on the basis of technical skill, not interpersonal or leadership skill.

This means management development is not optional.

From time to time in my posts here for The BBJ I have mentioned that, among other things, I also teach in the MBA Program at Western Washington University.

About three years ago I decided to use a text authored by Henry Mintzberg called “Simply Managing.” This is a pretty basic text and focuses on the essentials of managing, perfect for students in my class Managing Organizations and People.

As I was becoming familiar with the book I ran across some information toward the back about something called coaching ourselves, a program that had been designed on the premise that given the time and opportunity, managers, working with their peers, could develop themselves.

I am going to encourage those of you struggling with balancing the need to develop your managers along with the dual constraints of budget and time to take a look at this approach.

It is based on what has come to be called the 70-20-10 approach to development. The origins of 70-20-10 are somewhat murky, meaning it is hard to know who to credit for certain with its development.

For me this is consistent with the approach itself, in that it promotes an organic model of management development, as follows:

  • 70 percent: informal, on the job, experience-based, stretch projects and practice

  • 20 percent: coaching, mentoring, developing through others

  • 10 percent: formal learning interventions and structured courses.

What’s obvious from this model’s formulation and the good news for those of you running smaller companies with limited resources is that the tried and true formal learning approaches, workshops, corporate universities etc. are seen to have limited value when tested over time.

In my experience as a practitioner of management development over some 25-plus years I would agree with these findings.

I ran a lot of workshops and developed week-long intensive trainings and sold them for lots of money and in the end, could not have been more disappointed with the long-term outcomes.

This is not to say that the work I did had no value, far from it.

However, the value was experienced more on an individual than organizational or systemic basis. In large part, I would say this was true because a key component of management development is peers learning from each other.

In the model I promoted for many years, managers-in-training were learning from me or my colleagues, and guess what? None of them were going to work with us when the program was over.

The significant breakthrough I found in this coaching ourselves approach is that it is built around managers learning from each other and in the process learning to trust and appreciate the very people they count on every day to get their work done.

I have tested this approach out in several venues in the past three years, and it works, it is affordable for even the smallest of companies and it is time efficient and flexible because it does not rely on the participation of an outside expert.

Of course, there is a time and place for the outside expert, but your people can learn a lot from each other.

 Mike Cook lives in Anacortes. His columns appear on every other Tuesday. He teaches in the MBA program at Western Washington University and also runs a CEO peer advisory group in the Whatcom/Skagit area. He can be reached at

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