Why front-line managers are a learning program’s greatest ally


The need to upskill employees, trainees and even potential hires has kept L&D professionals busy and in demand. Thanks to buy-in from the C-suite and a wealth of accessible content, continuous learning is now a line item on every employee’s job description.

But the next phase in the journey toward future-proof employees (and businesses) may be at the hand of supervisors and leaders. How can they participate and encourage growth and learning for their staff?

Whether a company has a formal mentoring program in place or not, leaders and supervisors should be active participants in learning and development initiatives. They are at the forefront of identifying areas that need development, which employees are ready for learning and which talent might be lost if there’s no room to grow. Leaders can do more than simply keep employees in the loop; they can provide pivotal guidance for growth and development at every level. The challenge for most business is to cultivate leaders so they can, in turn, encourage growth and learning.

At the front lines

“It is absolutely critical that L&D buy-in doesn’t stop at the executive level,” Karen Hebert-Maccaro, chief learning experience officer at O’Reilly, told HR Dive in an email. While executive support sets the tone, it takes managers and leaders across the organization to turn it into action, she added. The most successful front line managers are “learning-focused leaders.” These leaders demonstrate a commitment to open dissent and debate, routinely debrief mistakes and failures as a team, encourage questions and model the importance of learning, even discussing their own development goals and progress with the group, she said.

“Without buy-in from front line managers, any L&D program risks failing,” Antonis Christidis, partner at Mercer, told HR Dive in an email. “Managers should embrace the need to learn and encourage their team members to participate in learning.” Beyond being role models, he suggests, they need to create conditions that enable colleagues to develop, making sure they have enough time to learn and plan, and understand how learning helps them reach short- and long-term goals.

Getting buy-in

Leaders are busy, often juggling multiple hats to get the job done. Asking managers to not only carve out time to go beyond managing their employee’s daily work but anticipate what they’ll need to grow for tomorrow may seem like more work for little gain. But without manager buy-in, L&D is simply availing staff of content that may not even be applicable.

“In order for training to be effective,” Phyllis Millikan, senior vice president of career management for ManpowerGroup’s Right Management, told HR Dive in an email, “it requires buy-in and engagement for all levels of management. Behaviors and learning are practiced and reinforced based on expectations and discussions with your direct leaders — which includes leaders of leaders.”

So how can businesses get leaders actively participating in the learning process? “By clearly demonstrating the impact of learning to the end business results,” Christidis said. When leaders can see the direct result of employee growth, and how it will benefit them as well as the staff member, they’re more likely to collaborate with L&D. “What’s in it for me?” is a legitimate question leaders may ask; “smarter, more independent workers” is one answer employers should offer.

Setting the design and the agenda

Millikan suggests leaders are critical to designing training that sets clear and measurable goals and outcomes; addressing the skills that lead to desired results. When they are involved from the beginning, it is easier for them to promote the training, monitor success and reinforce the training in day to day interactions. They should “model the techniques, meaning, walk the talk; and conduct debrief discussions with the team focused on key concepts and the application to the work environment,” Millikan said.

At the managerial level, what are the needs and goals? Where is learning necessary and where can it take employees? Even the most encouraging environment for continuous learning can fail if there is no direction or if there is no measurement of success. Basic questions leaders should ask include: where are we today, where should we be, and how can L&D professionals get us there?

Business should promote performance adjacent learning, Hebert-Maccaro said. “Performance adjacent learning diversifies learning beyond traditional classroom instruction, helps meet employees where they are, and is continuous, seamless and integrated to meet the most relevant challenges and needs of the team,” she added.

Setting goals and embracing risk

Often leaders see employee development as another responsibility dropped in their lap. But their participation doesn’t have to involve constant attention. Hebert-Maccaro says leaders should work with staffers to find out what they know, what they need to know, and what they hope will be their career path. Help them map skills and competencies to get there and provide support, but “the individual must be the one to drive their career forward.”

Hebert-Maccaro suggested employers must allow for mistakes, even embracing failure as an opportunity to learn. She encouraged debate and an approach that enables everyone to share ideas without fear of being dismissed, no matter their rank or role. Every error is an opportunity for growth; but employees must be comfortable sharing their failures without fear of reprisals for everyone to experience that growth. And managers must be comfortable working through their own failures, as well as the team’s, fearlessly.

Most managers set performance goals for new hires, but for established employees, conversations must be targeted toward growth. The old performance evaluation meeting is an excellent time to set goals for the future, rather than dwelling on mistakes in the past.

“It takes a little more effort but matching interests to opportunities is likely to make your team member feel that you are focused on their development and that is likely to increase retention, loyalty and engagement,” Hebert-Maccaro said.


Learning-focused leadership is more effective than any one style or approach to leadership, Hebert-Maccaro said. It benefits the organization as well as every member of the team with higher productivity, greater engagement and retention.

“This is one thing we should screen for, recognize, measure, and reward if we want to really have an impact on the success of our organizations,” she added.



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