Throughout her career, Sprout Social Chief People Officer Maureen Calabrese has seen the benefits of employee development programs across industries and experience levels. One focus area she’s consistently seen the tremendous returns is new manager training, which at many companies is minimal or nonexistent. For Calabrese, this is a can’t-miss opportunity to drive long-term engagement and embed your company’s values in its future leaders.
“I fundamentally believe that a person’s first leadership role is one of the most pivotal times in their career. Suddenly the stakes are much higher. This is the point at which you establish the leadership practices that are either going to help or hurt you throughout your career. The habits that get set right at the beginning can become very hard to overcome if they’re not in fact healthy habits. Not only is it shaping your trajectory as a leader, but now you have this exponential impact because you’re impacting people on your team and their development and future career prospects.”
Calabrese has been part of developing new manager training programs at Cision and Sprout Social, and in this exclusive article, she explains how even the most time- and resource-strapped teams can put their first-time managers in a position to navigate change and conflict and drive team performance.
Here’s why you need a plan
In addition to being a pivotal developmental moment in an employee’s career, management responsibilities are profoundly different from those of independent contributor roles, and the required shift in approach is far from innate. Individual contributors are primarily task-oriented and detail-focused, while managers play a vastly different role. “There’s also a mind shift that needs to happen in that your success in the role is driven less by what you can individually do and more by how you can align and inspire others to contribute to the business in meaningful ways.”
Making this transition even more difficult, many first-time managers’ first direct reports are their peers, and often their friends. “These are the people whom you're potentially hanging out with outside work, and now your relationship fundamentally has to shift… in a way that feels authentic and doesn't feel like you have to cut off the relationship, but where you can start to create a little bit of a line of separation,” Calabrese explains.
Where most first-time managers struggle
Conflict avoidance: Giving effective feedback and coaching, particularly in cases where you’re providing constructive criticism, is challenging for most but particularly those who haven’t had to lead those types of conversations before. Calabrese emphasizes preparing new managers to “step up in a difficult conversation and provide people the coaching and context” they need to develop.
Disavowing responsibility: “One thing that can be easy for both first time and senior managers is wanting to disavow responsibility for company decisions or things they don’t understand.” In an effort to distance themselves, new managers often end up eroding their capacity and authority. Calabrese remembered one new manager who in every compensation conversation would say he’d go talk to HR, only to avoid the challenging conversation. She adds, “every time you push that decision off on someone else, it actually undermines you as a manager because people don’t think you can get anything done on their behalf.”
Lack of vision: "As a direct report, you’re so focused on individual tasks/day-to-day details," Calabrese says. "As a manager, even if you’re managing a single employee or small team, you have to be the company evangelist and provide a vision, road map, and clear expectations for each direct report to grow and contribute to the goals at large."
Management fundamentals & compliance: Calabrese believes this is one of the most overlooked parts of manager training, mostly because it’s not as flashy as other aspects of leadership development. “Nobody is born knowing compliance, whether it’s what interview questions could potentially be in shaky territory [or] things like FMLA or ADA and what role a manager plays in ensuring organizations are taking necessary steps when those situations arise.”
In her nearly two decades of building teams and developing talent, Calabrese has consistently seen new manager training programs yield measurable gains in engagement, retention, and team performance. She also believes the training programs signal to job seekers that “this is a place where I’m going to learn from smart people, and smart leaders are going to be invested in me and my development.”
While structuring a robust training program is unrealistic for early-stage startups, Calabrese believes if you’re in a position to promote someone into a first-time manager role then you need to invest some time and support to ensure your team is in a position to succeed.
Manager training encourages interdisciplinary connections and embeds values
No matter the size or depth of your new manager training program, Calabrese recommends focusing on three core features, all of which come at no cost beyond employee time and can be implemented at a company of any size. The Sprout Social program consists of two-hour sessions that take place over four weeks, consisting of lecture, group discussion, independent study, situational roleplay, and self-assessments. Learning cohorts then meet on an ongoing basis every few months to continue to share and learn from each other’s experiences.
Diverse groups: At Sprout, the new manager training program is designed for both first-time managers and new hires joining in management roles. “It’s important, even in the case of experienced managers, to internalize what we believe about leadership at Sprout," says Calabrese. "Those mixed groups allow for even richer discussion because those experienced managers can bring their own experiences to the table.” In addition to more active discussions and opportunities to share experiences and success stories, this approach ensures all managers have gone through the same training and align with Sprout's values.
Leader-led learning: Recruiting senior employees or executives to present on a specific subject of management or leadership they’re passionate about helps reinforce company values and encourage ongoing conversations outside of the training session environment. This is also an efficient way to involve your leadership team in employee development, without the time commitment of a mentorship program.
Continuation beyond classes: “Making sure there’s some sort of feedback loop is critical," says Calabrese. "Anyone can sit through a training, and unless the learnings that are acquired are then put into action, it’s not a good use of anyone's time.” She recommends actively involving new managers’ managers as method of integrating training session lessons into everyday situations.
Most companies can resource their entire manager training program in-house to keep costs down. The key, especially on smaller teams, is getting someone to take ownership. “If it’s everyone’s job to make this happen it’s no one’s job,” says Calabrese.
Assigned readings and leader-led discussions on strategies and tactics can suffice for small teams. “There is so much rich content, free content available, more than ever,” she says. “Set up time to review the learnings (with your new managers), and discuss how are we going to put that into action. That’s a training program. It’s one-on-one, but it still sets that person up to be successful in their new role.”
Finally, remember that manager and leadership development are not one-and-done process. Whether with first-time managers or your middle and senior managers, "make sure they have opportunities to continue to refine their skillsets, talk to others, and look at new ways of doing things.”
Untie management and career advancement
The most widely shared trait of effective managers? Calabrese believes it's the enjoyment in coaching and developing others, and a desire to do it well. Most companies offer few opportunities for continued professional growth outside of management tracks, meaning talented and career-oriented individual contributors have no other path to follow.
If your company offers options for career growth, Calabrese believes the onus is on the individual to decide what’s best for their happiness and long-term success. “If I don't want to spend upwards of 50-75% of my time talking with other people and helping them be more effective in their work, if that’s going to be frustrating to me, I’m thinking ‘I’ve got to go back and do my own work,’ then that’s something to think about,” she says. “I think it’s important decision for people to think about for their own careers, and for people thinking about promoting employees into leadership or management roles.”