Gerard M Blair

Training in basic Management Skills should occur in the context of the manager's own work environment. Gerard M Blair describes how this can be achieved through delegation.

One of the major problems in devising management training courses is in helping the participants to apply what they have learnt when they return to the work place. While it is easy to apply skills within the contrived situations of case studies and role play, it is far harder for a manager to recognise the problems (or to find the time) in the familiar routines of daily work. The key to effective training is to make that training part of the daily routine rather than merely the activity of an isolated workshop, and this can only be achieved by delegating that training to the manager. To achieve this, the focus of the training activity must be altered. Essentially a cultural shift has to occur so that the training officer is seen as the source of suggestions and the coordinator of activity: you no longer provide training, but rather you support the manager's own self-sustaining development.

Becoming a Manager

Most organisations are full of surprised managers. These are the people who are suddenly promoted because they were good at what they did, and given responsibility for projects and people which they do not understand. With surprised managers there are two major problems: they do not actually think about management issues because they do not recognize them, and they have only a limited experience upon which to draw to create solutions

Put simply, things normally go wrong not because the new managers are stupid but only because they have never thought about managing before. The way forward is to raise the issues, to provide suggestons and, more importantly, to get the managers to evaluate solutions in the context of their own work. Ultimately, they are the ones who will have to cope in the real situations and once they have recognized that the problems exist, they will be able to apply their own common sense.

Management is a skill - and like any other skill it comes with experience and practice. If you think that is not true, ask the better athletes or musicians how long they practise in a day. The experience, however, will be made far more effective in developing that skill if managers prepare for the experience and then deliberately exploit it. Thus tennis players do not simply play tennis, they determine their own strengths, they work to overcome their weaknesses, they think carefully about what they do and how to improve, and they listen to what the trainer suggests.

When master craftsmen took on an apprentice, they did not simply point to the materials and say: `Get on with it'; they showed the apprentice the skills in simple steps and then said: `Practise'. Yet a common experience at work is that new managers are expected to absorb their skills from thin air, by some magical form of osmosis. There is the irrational belief that people will develop management skills simply by being called names like: manager, supervisor, project leader. One day they are a gofer, the next they have gofers to go for them; yet the newly-appointed manager often has no initial ideas. They `feel their way', `jump-in at the deep end', `go where many have gone before - without bothering anyone else', and the results are not surprising.

There is a theory (known as the Peter Principle) that people rise to the level of their own incompetence, in that they get promoted until they no longer do the job well - and then stay there, performing badly for the rest of their working lives. This is probably true because most organizations actually ignore the difference between the technical competence by which the lower levels impress their superiors and the managerial skills which are needed in the higher levels. This problem can only be addressed by training - but that training can best be obtained by using the talents of the managers themselves through effective delegation of the training task.

Let us summarize: management is about pausing to ask the right questions so that common sense can provide the answers. By thinking explicitly about management skills, by deliberately practising and striving to improve, by learning from the experience and suggestions of previous managers, the surprised managers can develop their own common-sense approach to management practice. The training department has to promote the environment where this happens naturally.

The Basic Skills

The surprised manager needs to know what is expected. It must be clear what skills are considered (and rewarded) by the company to be important in its managers. If we are considering a manager with responsibility of small teams and small projects, then the skill set might be cast as:

These are nine topics, nine issues, nine skills which the training officer must bring to the attention of each of the surprised managers.

Organization is about providing a plan and a structure to help the manager and the team to get the job done. By providing a structure to the activity, the manger can support and encourage the team since they will know where they are, and what they should do. It allows the manager to pace, and so to stretch, the amount of work - and to select the work to bring the greatest overall efficiency. Thus organization is concerned with the work, the manager's own time, and the team's time; and every manager must be prepared to spend time to save time for the team. Even if all the time is spent organizing others, far more may be achieved than without that organization. This is not simply a question of allocating tasks. The important point is that the tasks should be structured and allocated so that they match the ability, experience and development needs of each person to whom they are given. Thus the work itself becomes the route to staff motivation and development.

Communication is the most important skill of management since the implementation of all others depends upon it. A manager has to be able to communicate through writing, formal presentations, interviews, specifications and simply in day-to-day conversation - and that communication has to be error free, or time and effort will be wasted. Not only must the information be clear, it must be understood; and what a manager understands from others, must be what was meant.

Leadership is a very nebulous concept. In the last analysis it is about getting people to work with total commitment; it is getting them to follow the manager. The approach which most modern gurus advocate for leadership is through building the work group into a team so that all their talents are working together and with the manager. The theory goes as follows:

Establishing the Environment

Let us take presentation skills as an example. In any managerial position, a manager must give both formal and informal presentations of information and ideas to both his or her staff and for senior management. The training officer's role is to cause the manager to focus upon the effectiveness of these presentations and to provide material by which the manager can improve. One single idea, is to provide a feedback form by which the audience express their opinion. Based upon this, the manager can be asked to designate one area which merits improvement and the training officer can provide the suggestions for literature to address this specific point. If this simple procedure is habituated throughout the company, it is immediately obvious to any surprised manager that presentation skills are important and part of the training which is expected. The feedback proformer is just one example of how presentation skills can be implemented within the company's work place. The task with training officer is to find many and varied methods for raising the issue of the skills. For instance, IBM have a programme of guest speakers whereby senior managers offer presentations to external institutions such as universities and schools: the feedback from these presentations actually affect a manager's performance appraisal.

Such formal procedures, however, can quickly become stale and lose their effectiveness. The challenge of the training officer is to obtain the momentum and enthusiasm of the managers for their own skill development. One simple idea would be to designate the skill of the month. This requires a large notice board and a big sign. Each month a new skill is pasted onto the notice board and the activity of the training department is focused upon the promotion of that skill. There could be a monthly training newsletter with a future article of tips for the evaluation and enhancement of a skill. There could be a short series of talks at the beginning of the month, possibly from "external experts", on the theory behind the skill. The training department may produce a suggested method by which the surprised manager can monitor the skill. At the end of the month, the training officer can pull together the experiences of each individual manager in developing that skill.

Providing Support

For managers to develop skills, they will need access to suggestions. In the short term this can come simply from providing access to short management guides. There are several series of these available from book stores or the training department may wish to provide their own. In the long term, however, it is far better for these guides to be written by the managers themselves. This works on two levels. First, people respond more readily to the advice of people they know and respect, and especially from people whom they know are facing the same problems as themselves rather than from some freelance writer. Second, the production of this literature provides an excellent focus for each manager's activity. So, at the end of each month, every surprised manager should produce a short (500-800 word) handy hint for that skills development. The training department can then collate the best ideas and publish the managers' booklet. Next month, the next skill; and next year the focus can return anew.

Support can also be offered in terms of one-to-one counselling. This will be particularly important for skills less easy to explain, such as team work for people management. For these, the training department could organise an appointment for each manager with an "expert" either from personnel or from outwith the company. For this session, each manager would prepare a case study of the most pressing problem from within his/her team. The case study would then be the outcome of the manager's review of the entire team's personal needs; and it would contain the manager's own analysis of the problem, options for solution, and recommendations. The interviewer must achieve two objectives: first, to review the case study and so to act as tutor for the managers skill development; second, to ensure that the selected plan for addressing the person problem has with it an appropriate system for monitoring and hence for determining success. Notice that these interviews provide an opportunity to review the delegated task (of the managers skill development) without detracting from the manager's authority in either that or the personnel issue.

Establish Criteria for Success

Success is a movable goal. In skill development, success can normally be equated either with improvement in one particular aspect, or with achieving a level of competence over a larger field. The training officer must help the manager to establish small individual goals in skill development - and then to track these goals. In this, the training officer acts not as the stick to beat the manager forward, but rather as the source of the carrot. Since the manager has been delegated the training, the compulsion to progress must come from the manager him/herself; however, it would be a lonely journey if no one else could celebrate the successes - and the training officer should be ready to do just that.

The key is to extend the goals gradually. If someone is presented with a goal which is daunting, one with which he/she does not feel able to cope, then the goal will not be achieved and he/she will be severely demotivated. Instead the skill should build up gradually; first a small goal leading to a little development, then another small goal which builds upon the first; when that is achieved, add another stage; and so on. This is the difference between asking people to scale a sheer wall and providing them with a staircase: by staggering the development you allow them to climb with confidence. Each goal should have enough complexity to stretch the manager staff - but only a little, and there should always be support and recognition available.

Remember too that the "best" is often the enemy of the "good". Many surprised managers need only to be effective in their management skills, not expert. If the training puts too much focus on any one skill, the rest may suffer. The aim is to be good over the broad range of managerial skills, not to be the best at any one.


Becoming a great manager is easy because it is only common sense. Once the questions are thought through, common sense will support the manager's needs. Becoming a great manager is hard because it is only common sense. The manager actually has to apply the ideas in practice rather than merely to acknowledge that they are good. The challenge for the training officer is to motivate the practice, and to support the manager's own search for answers.

Gerard M Blair is a Senior Lecturer in VLSI Design at the Department of Electrical Engineering, The University of Edinburgh. His book Starting to Manage: the essential skills is published by Chartwell-Bratt (UK) and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (USA). He welcomes feedback either by email ( or by any other method found here

Links to more of my articles on Training of Management Skills can be found here