3917961982_8e019d2102_oOnce upon a time, people worked for the same company for a long time.   Maybe their whole lives.

For this discussion, let’s set aside the downsides of this model.

Instead, consider the upside. Lifetime employment was a platform that allowed people to develop, and master, complex skills.

My dad, for example, was a computer programmer for 40 years.

Entering the workforce at the end of that era, I had the good fortune to spend almost 10 years in a network of highly skilled professionals.   They saw me for what I could do that day, and soon after that.

They also believed that I’d adding value to the firm 20 years down the road.   And that they were responsible for preparing the firm’s future leaders.  So their vision for me had a longer arc.

I grew into a darn good manager.

How did this happen?   First of all, I wanted it.   But that wasn’t enough.

Imagine that my bosses coached me 5 hours a week.   Probably an underestimate.  Other managers in the enterprise kicked in another 3 hours.

My bosses had thousands of hours of training themselves.   Many of them were combat veterans.   They had a different and terrible kind of leadership training.

So if I’m doing the math right, I received 3800 “contact hours” of coaching and training from these seasoned pros.

The first few years of my training involved frequent instruction, possibly hundreds of hours, in how to extract my foot from my mouth.

I also had a network of peers who were being put through the same paces.   Assume we interacted with one another 5 hours each week.   There’s another 2400 hours of peer training, and moral support.

Imagining a 50-hour workweek, I had 37 hours remaining to practice.  Over 10 years, 17,760 hours.

All together, more than 20,000 hours of training and practice.  From people who knew me, and my own effort.  (And the people I managed, oh, their effort too.)  Everyone involved wanted to contribute to the future of our organization.

How could I have not gotten to be pretty good?

B-school, training classes, and the reading I did on my own – or that was handed to me by a manager – supplemented the practical training I received in Real Life.

Today, in larger firms, we’ve killed off a lot of the training programs.   In smaller firms, we never had them.

Today, the average tenure at a company is said to be about 4 years.   Probably a low estimate for Con Ed, and a high estimate for a startup.

You might argue that emerging managers receive less training today, that the recession left fewer middle managers in more established enterprises.

Assume that away, too.   To me, the problem isn’t a contact hours problem.

It’s consistency.  When people come and go, it’s disruptive.   A new boss, or move to a new firm with a new peer group, interrupts the learning curve a bit.

And quality.  In many companies the boss probably doesn’t have a ton of experience, either.

There are more nuanced pieces for this puzzle. Maybe for another blog post.

Today, my job is to provide one-to-one coaching and consulting for people as they learn to lead people.   It’s very customized, and requires a big investment in attention, commitment, and money.

I love this work!   And yet it’s not available to many people.   And over the years I’ve been doing this work, and thinking about all of this, I’ve come to think that management skills will not be made obsolete.  By robots, or “culture.”

In the summer of 2014, alongside my day job, I spent a lot of time thinking about this.   Designing “products,” and getting awesome coaching on this process in the Orbital Bootcamp.

The result of the work I did in the bootcamp was a 6-session management development program, where participants also meet with me individually six times during the course of the program.

This does not come close to the kind of development I received as an emerging manager, and my program does not attempt to duplicate the support and mentoring I received from my boss, his peers, and their bosses.  (And my team members who supported my learning, too.)

What I do believe:  when people are willing to participate in an intense introduction, and thoughtful conversation, they will emerge knowing the broad outlines of what it means to be a manager.  And the best practices of solid managers, which are developmental, when put into practice.

And, they will know that best way to become a good manager is to care enough to want to be a good manager, and to take care of your people.

Honestly, you don’t have to be a great manager to stand out.  You just have to be pretty good.

And if you practice, over time, you will be pretty good.

NB:  I updated this post on September 11, 2018.  When I wrote the post, it was an announcement of the creation of my Management Intensive program, which I originally launched as an open-enrollment program. 

Since then, I’ve learned that my one-person business is not suited for selling and running open-enrollment programs; currently, I offer the Management Intensive exclusively to organizations, on site in their offices, several times a year.  So I edited this post to remove references to the open-enrollment program.  This is part of work I’m doing to redesign my website.  What a tangled web many years of digital presence can weave!

Märchenbuch – German language book of children’s fairy tales 1919, by William Cresswell, via Flickr under Creative Commons license.