Agenda: Education and Training Train Your Front Line

Manager training should focus on practical, immediately applicable skills.

By Kathryn Tyler Dec 1, 2013
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In September 2013, Carl Shazor Jr., a new on-road supervisor for UPS, learned how to better communicate with the 21 drivers he manages as he drove around Clarksville, an outdoor replicated city with real streets and commercial and residential delivery sites. Clarksville is part of UPS Integrad, a learning center for the packagedelivery company in Landover, Md.

"Integrad is a hands-on lab," says Anne Schwartz, corporate learning and development manager for UPS. "The employees have a 10- to 12-minute audiovisual module, and then they apply what they have learned with a buddy on a vehicle."

Shazor spent eight-and-a-half days in new-manager orientation. "It helped me with my people- and time-management skills," he says.

At the learning center, which opened in 2007 and serves many of the company’s 323,000 U.S. employees, drivers learn how to safely and efficiently deliver packages, while supervisors learn everything drivers learn, plus safety compliance, communication skills and labor practices.

"Supervisors learn how to best observe a driver’s performance, catch mistakes and identify them to the driver," says Tom Conard, site manager at UPS Integrad. Supervisors also learn about labor contract compliance requirements from district labor managers. Many facilitators are current and former on-road supervisors. "We use the ‘leader as teacher’ model," says Schwartz, who adds that the company relies on a three-step approach of pretraining, training and post-training.

This type of approach is also recommended by Terrence Donahue, corporate director of learning at Emerson Electric, a manufacturing and technology company headquartered in St. Louis with 133,000 employees worldwide. It’s important to treat training "as a process, not an event," he says.

Pretraining

The primary purpose of pretraining is to prepare learners for course expectations and to get them excited about attending. That can take several minutes or several hours.

For instance, Emerson Electric’s newly redesigned required three-day training program for front-line supervisors, called Leading at Emerson, contains a prework component offered in 13 languages. "Before supervisors come to the training, they have 20-minute meetings with their managers to agree on their expectations about what to get out of this investment," Donahue says. "When new supervisors have a pre-workshop briefing, they come with a mind to learn."

UPS has a pretraining component for its supervisory training program, as well. The eight-hour course covers safety and using the DIAD, a hand-held computer device, Conard says. Before employees come to Integrad, they are required to pass the prerequisite course with an 85 percent grade. "We only have two Integrad sites, with 24 seats in each class. We want to make sure employees are ready," Conard explains.

Training

Front-line management training should address several key areas, such as:

  • What does it mean to get work done through others?
  • What are the challenges involved in that transition?
  • How do you hold people accountable for performance?

Managers "have to be able to give feedback, communicate effectively, observe and know what to look for, and set goals and performance standards," says Ken Victor, partner at Edgework Leadership Group, a leadership development firm in Gatineau, Quebec.

Training should be "practical, just-in-time and result in tools managers can use," adds Bill Templeman, author of the e-book Leadership Basics for Frontline Managers (Edgework Leadership Group, 2012).

Experts recommend the following actions:

Stay focused. "Keep [training] relevant to your industry. You have to make it short. Many people don’t have long attention spans or time for a two-hour program," says Natalie Corey, managing director of SGA Network, the distance-learning division of Southern Gas Association, who has been developing 10-minute training modules.

Veterans United Home Loans, a mortgage lender headquartered in Columbia, Mo., with approximately 1,400 workers, combines instructor-led training with e-learning, says Kerri Roberts, director of training and development. "While our employees state they want training, finding the time is challenging," she notes. "We are combating this by providing brief sessions, as well as recording these sessions and placing them in e-learning for individual consumption."

Matthew Savino, managing partner and senior consultant at SHRP Ltd., an HR consultancy in Bridgenorth, Ontario, warns that, in his experience, the No. 1 mistake is trying to cover too much material in a training session. "Introduce one new skill at a time, and then let your team apply it in the workplace," he says. "Only then does the training become applied and relevant."

Train early. From peer to leader "is one of the toughest transitions employees go through," says Elizabeth Bryant, vice president of training for Dallas-based Southwest Airlines, which employs 46,000 workers. "Those first 90 days after being promoted are a critical time in prediction of success. ... Our goal is to get [front-line managers] to the training facility in Dallas within 60 days." Southwest offers three front-line supervisory programs. The most common one, called Leadership Southwest Style, began in 2004 and trains 300 to 400 managers per year.

Use leaders as trainers. Southwest uses senior leaders within the company as guest professors. "Rather than a facilitator talking about what it means to build talent, one of our senior vice presidents talks about struggles and successes," Bryant says. "It is great for a new leader to hear from a senior leader in the classroom. And it rejuvenates the senior leaders."

Facilitate peer connections. Front-line managers love hearing from others who are "in the trenches" with them, so it is important to build networking into any program. "Create more opportunities to talk to peers," Corey recommends. "Networking and roundtable discussions with others not in the same function, but who are doing the same duties, are so valuable."

At Southwest, about 30 supervisors at a time participate in the Leadership Southwest Style class. They stay together through later classes, which creates camaraderie, Bryant says.

Keep the classroom. "Front-line training is best conducted in person," Savino says.However, some experts say online training can be used for prework, post-training communication or as a supplement to in-person instruction. Strike the right balance among offering real-time interaction, deploying technology and providing opportunities for managers to apply learning, Templeman advises.

Southwest doesn’t conduct any leadership training online, Bryant says. "So much about leadership is face to face and relational," she explains. "We have a ton of blended learning with technical training, but none related to leadership."

Continue to train. Savino cautions HR professionals not to view management training as a one-shot deal. "Having an organization that offers regular training workshops—even just brown-bag lunch hour sessions if this is all you can budget for—can go a long way toward improving the capabilities of your front-line leaders and, by definition, the team."

Post-Training

In the past, training usually ended when participants left the classroom. However, experts say, this approach neglects the most important phase of training: the transfer phase, when training is implemented.

"We want to put as much focus on implementation of the skills learned as acquisition of those skills," says Emerson Electric’s Donahue. "Too often, trainers pass out an ‘action plan’ with five minutes left to go in the workshop" and ask participants to write down three things they intend to do. But the actions identified "are nothing more than New Year’s resolutions," he says.

Instead, Donahue recommends that participants develop a "traction plan." He explains: "Some people leave workshops with a whole list of actions but then don’t have a direction or an end in mind in order to take the actions. So they are not on a track but a treadmill. Others create a beautifully laid-out plan or track, but they never take action. When you combine a directional track with deliberate action, you get traction."

At his company, Donahue says, training includes a virtual "capstone conference" 12 to 15 weeks after the original training. At the conference, new supervisors report on successes and challenges. "The real work begins when the workshop ends," he says.

Southwest’s four-month program is broken into three-day segments that are delivered once a month. "The supervisors come Tuesday through Thursday, learn, and then go back to the field to practice for a month," Bryant says.

Measure Effectiveness

Because front-line managers directly affect front-line employees and customers, measuring customer satisfaction and employee engagement and satisfaction is revealing. HR professionals can also measure employee retention, because many employees who leave cite their managers as the reason. "You should see movement in retention and engagement metrics from doing front-line supervisory training," Victor says.

To measure the success of its supervisory training program, Emerson uses employee opinion surveys in which a third of the questions pertain to each respondent’s immediate supervisor. "We feel confident the training has been a contributor to the steady increase in employee satisfaction," Donahue says.

Veterans United Home Loans has seen a similar rise in employee satisfaction, which leaders attribute to its manager training program. Satisfaction survey scores improved from 80 percent in 2012 to 87 percent in 2013.

Bryant says her team has noticed a drop in supervisor turnover. "A majority of the supervisors who step into the role remain in leadership positions at Southwest," Bryant says. That wasn’t always the case. "In the ’90s, some supervisors stepped down because they felt stressed and isolated." Now, only a few self-select out of leadership and return to individual contributor roles.

Front-line manager training is not only about ensuring satisfied employees and customers now but also for many years to come.

Kathryn Tyler is a freelance writer and former HR generalist and trainer in Wixom, Mich.

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