How should we train managers in 2021?

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How should we train managers in 2021?

I fell in love with people management early in my career. In 2009, we started FanDuel (the sports gaming platform, recently acquired for $11bn) around a kitchen table in Scotland. A year later, I vividly remember walking home after the day we hired our first two engineers, past Edinburgh Castle illuminated magnificently at sunset, with a spring in my step. Until that point, I and another co-founder had done all the coding, and now we finally had some help. Being their manager was my first real management role, and I was euphoric: not only because the end of 12 hour days of coding was in sight, but because I could feel the leverage on my time, and therefore my impact, increasing.

My appreciation for the power of great management grew over time. As we scaled to 500+ employees in five years, I learned a powerful lesson: the key to sustainably growing your company is growing your managers. Excellent front-line and middle managers are the most powerful way to drive company performance, engagement, and retention. On the flip side, poor management is a pernicious, destructive force, and there’s plenty of research to back this up.

After 10 years at FanDuel, I was struck by how out-of-date the management training industry was, and left to start Hone, a modern manager training platform, as a way to help managers and companies succeed. In our first three years, we’ve trained thousands of managers in 58 countries. Over the past year during the pandemic, we saw seismic shifts and adjusted our approach accordingly. We’ve learned what works and what doesn’t on the front lines, and I wanted to share some of our lessons learned to help you as you plan how to train your people managers in 2021 and beyond.

It’s never been harder to be a people manager

Working Remote

Managing a team at a high-growth company has never been easy, and 2020 added unimaginable layers of difficulty and complexity. As 2021 continues with many of the same issues, people managers today must contend with a myriad of interwoven challenges:

  • Enforced remote work, and therefore remote management
  • The physical and mental health effects of a prolonged pandemic
  • Racial and other inequities in the workplace
  • A charged political climate
  • Drastic business change due to the pandemic
  • New generations of workers with new demands

All this is, of course, on top of their day job: driving exceptional team performance in an increasingly competitive marketplace, coaching a mix of personalities to bring their best, and often doing individual contributor work themselves.

How can we equip these essential team members to excel in this environment? 

Answer: we need to fundamentally rethink how they are trained.

Building on what’s gone before

Traditional management principles embraced by technology companies, such as those in Andy Grove’s seminal “High Output Management” — and more recently, the excellent (but often misused) “Radical Candor” — are as important today as they’ve always been.

But the left-brained mindsets of management matrices and time leverage must be augmented with new levels of empathy and human connection. We see our coworkers more intimately than ever before, Zoom-ing in from their bedrooms with regular cameos from kids and pets. Our surrounding world is in turmoil, and intense emotions can spill over into work as anxiety, anger, sadness, and detachment — especially now a year in — for reasons outside the control of employers or managers.

The point is that people managers need a new layer of emotional awareness and mastery on top of their standard toolkit. And we, as company leaders, must ensure they get it, because their success is mission critical.

From a training perspective, we can break down the challenge into three parts:

  • Content: What to Teach. What mindsets, skillsets, and toolsets do managers need in this new environment?
  • Delivery: How to Teach It. How can we effectively train people on these nuanced subjects when most are working remotely?
  • Solutions: Who Should Teach It. Given tight resource constraints in HR and L&D, how can we actually operationalize these initiatives?

Content: What to Teach

Over the past year at Hone, we’ve come to the conclusion that 2020’s challenges are not isolated to the pandemic. Rather, the pandemic exposed and expedited the most critical management skills for the modern workforce: effective distributed work practices, the capacity to create space for psychological safety, and agility in an ever-changing world.

These topics cannot be taught in isolation; they are essential layers of core manager skills (e.g., coaching skills for managers, how to run a 1-1). In addition to the research-based competency model that underpins our curriculum, we have woven the following threads into our standard manager training approach:

  • Remote-first. While co-located work provided a safety net for sloppy management, remote management must be intentional and explicit. Tools and processes to get the work done are important, but so too is managing the “emotional distance” employees feel during remote work. Ingraining remote first practices of making the implicit explicit are important now and need to be maintained as many move to hybrid remote/in-office arrangements later this year.
  • Inclusive. Diversity and inclusion are multifaceted issues. However, building awareness of bias and belonging can transcend dimensions of race, gender, sexual orientation, and political beliefs. We start with the neuroscience around exclusion and belonging and innovative research on in-group and out-group dynamics, then move quickly into actionable topics like handling microaggressions, communicating with vulnerability and seeking to understand first by listening deeply and empathetically.
  • Adaptable and Resilient. With the world in turmoil and business environments in flux, leaders need adaptability and resilience to overcome constant change. Consequently we focus on strategies to build commitment to sustain the process of change, as well as the capacity to communicate powerfully around company transformation.

Delivery: How to Teach It

To state the obvious: knowledge workers are working almost exclusively from home, and 92% of them want to continue some WFH arrangement post-pandemic. We’re not going back to the office as it used to be.

Learning on the Hone platform

When we started Hone in 2018 as a platform for live online training (otherwise known as Virtual Instructor Led Training, or VILT), classes over Zoom were a novelty. Many people mistakenly believed these classes would be a passive experience, and often showed up eating a sandwich or in the back of an Uber. Undeterred, we believed that training over live video would become essential given the growth of distributed work. In addition, the universal access live online training provided was a great equalizer: decoupling training from location meant upskilling was more accessible to all, everywhere and at every level of an organization. Little did we know we were on the brink of a shift so significant that I’ve come to call it the Third Age of Training.

  • The First Age of Training was in the physical classroom, often a conference room or hotel ballroom, with a live trainer and a crowd of students: an engaging if not wholly effective learning experience due to the brain’s tendency to forget information without spaced repetition (see Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve). While widely used pre-COVID and destined to return at some level afterwards, it’s clear that in-person training will be reserved for special occasions and more senior populations (like annual leadership retreats) rather than upskilling the entire company, as it doesn’t scale nor fit the distributed nature of modern work.
  • The Second Age of Training was self-paced e-learning: watching videos or clicking through slide decks online with minimal interaction. It’s convenient and scalable, good for individual functional learning by motivated students, but not broadly engaging or effective at teaching skills that require behavior change through interactive practice and feedback, such as leadership, management, and people skills. And let’s be honest: it can be mind-numbing for employees not captivated by the subject, and the engagement data backs that up (online courses only see 5-15% completion rates).
  • The Third Age of Training is just beginning. Only in the past few years have we had tools like Zoom and WebRTC that support high-resolution face-to-face online classroom experiences easily and cheaply. Small group classes taught this way can be so intimate we see people laugh, cry, and make career-changing breakthroughs on a daily basis at Hone. When you combine well-designed live online classes with supporting technology that reinforces and measures learning over time, you can build some of the most powerful educational experiences ever created — and do it at scale.

Let me be clear: we are not talking about webinars, but about engaging classes and continuous reinforcement that uses technology’s strengths to create training that is as effective as in-person sessions, if not more. Interactive live, online training is where we begin; continual reinforcement by technology to ingrain behavior change over time is the secret to success. Here are our top six tips for delivering engaging, effective blended learning programs, through the lens of the brain friendly learning model MASTER, a neuroscience-based approach to effective learning:

  • Motivate minds. People should be inspired to learn, and remotely a lot of that is down to the instructors. Without geographical constraints, there is no reason not to seek out an expert facilitator on the topic whose energy jumps out of the screen to deliver a memorable session that connects with everyone, regardless of being remote.
  • Acquire information. People have short attention spans, which are even shorter remotely. In order to keep pulling them in, “change the channel” every 4-6 minutes: mix up activities between presentation, discussion, demonstration, polls, games, breakouts and more.
  • Search for meaning. Allow people to connect new material to their lived experience through discussions, role plays, and relevant case studies. Mix up learning styles with interaction for linguistic and interpersonal learners, stats for mathematical and logical learners, and frameworks for visual and spatial learners.
  • Trigger memory. Make information memorable so it’s easy to retrieve. Use acronyms, stories, and top takeaways. Have learners share stories with each other.
  • Exhibit learning. Create a safe space to immediately practice new skills, and get feedback from experts and peers. Breakout rooms of pairs or triads are consistently named as our learners’ favorite part of the experience. When planned well they are extremely impactful at deepening practical learning interactively with peers.
  • Review to retain.  Encourage spaced repetition so new skills become a habit. Reinforce material in the days and weeks following the class, with content pushes (email, Slack, SMS), as well as follow-up discussions as a full group or in pairs/triads for peer accountability.

Solutions: Who Should Teach It

Over the past year I’ve spoken to dozens of HR and learning leaders, all passionate about the ways they want to support their organizations, but held back from creating the programming of their dreams because of lack of time and budget. Some spent years crafting tailored in-person training programs only to have to rebuild them from scratch for their newly distributed team.

The paradox, as everyone knows, is that standard, off-the-shelf solutions can never truly land for employees due to the nuanced and contextual nature of effective manager training. This is where many vendors fall flat, as they alone cannot land material effectively without adapting to the corporate culture and context, so solutions must be tailored to the client. This is one of the reasons that Second-Age e-learning videos for management training don’t work.

Our experience has shown us that the best option for companies is a true partnership between a vendor and in-house teams. In-house teams are often spread too thin, and alone they struggle to supply the repertoire of content, facilitation bandwidth (especially across time zones), supporting materials, and technological enhancements that a vendor can provide. An experienced vendor can fill in these gaps and bring content, subject matter expertise, technology, and bandwidth. Combined with in-house teams’ on-the-ground knowledge, design guidance, and implementation authority, we have seen truly remarkable results: 90% of learners show lasting behavior change from our programs.


Excellent managers are the key to success in good times and bad. Yet our new world presents new challenges to training and supporting them. It’s time training evolves to meet the needs of the modern workforce:

  • Weave the “2020 themes” of Remote-first work, Inclusion, and Adaptability and Resilience into existing training experiences. They are integral components of a high-performing, modern workforce, and cannot be taught in isolation.
  • Embrace the “Third Age of Training” by leveraging the power of live online cohort based courses, and follow best practices in design, delivery, and follow-up to maximize impact.
  • Ensure content is tailored to your organization for maximum impact. Working with collaborative vendors who can customize existing content allows for outsized impact by under-resourced L&D teams.

While I continue to be a student of great management, nothing is more fulfilling than seeing these combined approaches yield meaningful impact on the next generation of corporate leaders. That’s a whole new level of leverage compared to my early days as a first-time manager. I look forward to sharing more lessons we’ve learned working with managers new and experienced in future posts. I also invite you to join our new Learning Leaders community to discuss the latest approaches to corporate learning with exceptional peers.

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