TJ interviews: L&D specialist Al Dea

Speaker, facilitator and podcast presenter Al Dea talks to Conor Gilligan of Degreed about the changing role of the manager

Al, it’s great to connect with you and I have really been looking forward to this interview for some time.  I know you have a vast background in learning and HR  could you share a little more about how you got to where you are now?

Throughout my life, I’ve always gravitated toward roles where I was coaching, mentoring and training others, ever since I got my first job working at a golf course where I was tasked with training and onboarding new employees. Professionally, I’ve worked in the management consultant and technology industries in a variety of roles.  

After starting my career as a management consultant, I was asked to work on a project to develop a leadership development programme for a client, and in addition to the project being a success I fell in love with the idea of the work, and trying to help people develop their potential. Even though that wasn’t my core work, I kept finding ways to take on projects and roles related to training and learning, and eventually decided to leave my corporate job to become an independent trainer and facilitator.

Today, I help leaders find ways to attract and retain talent, and then facilitate programmes to help their employees build the skills they need to work and lead effectively in their organisation, with a specific emphasis on emerging leaders, and first-time managers.

In the work you do, you spend a lot of time training and speaking with people managers. Can you share more about what you’re seeing or how this role is evolving in today’s workplace?

As the world of work has evolved and changed, so has the role of the manager. The scope of the role is more expansive. As many companies have embraced the idea of focussing on the employee experience, the manager has become a critical enabler of that. Add in a three-year global pandemic, hybrid and remote work, and the blurring of work and life, and you begin to see just how much they are being asked to do. In addition to traditional responsibilities around goal setting, performance management, delegation and feedback, managers are being asked to help manage hybrid work, synchronous and asynchronous collaboration, the wellbeing of their employees, navigating difficult conversations around mental health, and move to more in the moment feedback and coaching. As work has evolved, so too has the role of the manager.

Finally, while it’s important to note that people of all levels are experiencing challenges in the workplace, it seems to be hitting managers pretty hard. In Future Forum’s latest pulse report, managers reported higher levels of burnout than individual contributors and leaders. 

Can you share more about how you see hybrid work impacting the role of the manager?

I think managers today have to be much more intentional about what they do and where they spend their time. This is just because when people are working in different places and perhaps even at different times, it requires a lot more coordination and focus. Additionally, in hybrid work, having positive relationships with your colleagues and peers becomes even more critical. But if everyone is working on different schedules and in different places, it can make relationship building a bit more complex. I think this also means that the best managers not only have the right set of relationships to get things done, but they’re also helping their own employees develop the social capital they need to be effective employees. 

Finally, I think managers today need to be continuous and consistent in their approach to developing their people. Formal learning and development should always play a role, but today’s workplace moves fast, and employee expectations have changed so that employees want and expect more continuous feedback, coaching, and on the job development. Instead of waiting for the mid-year check in to deliver formal feedback on performance, it’s providing that feedback after the meeting in the moment or doing a weekly check in specifically around how an employee is progressing toward a specific goal. 

How are leading companies approaching the role of the manager differently?

Companies are finally acknowledging that being a high performing individual contributor does not necessarily mean you’ll be a competent people manager. As a result, they’re redefining their criteria for being a people manager and then trying to promote people into the role who meet that new set of criteria instead of promoting just someone on performance or on tenure, which is what we traditionally have done.

Second, is the emphasis on providing proper training for new managers and delivering it in an effective way. In the past, many managers didn’t get proper training upon entering the role. Leading companies are not only providing training, but really focusing on developing capacity and skill building through ongoing training 

Finally, there is a shift in the capabilities expected of managers, which means the topics incorporated into training are shifting. Traditional manager training often includes some of the basics around goal setting, delegation, feedback, and performance management, and while many of those elements still get taught, leading companies are also incorporating topics that focus on the reality of what managers need to learn and behaviours they now need to exhibit in today’s world of work. Topics like psychological safety, coaching, feedback, and career development are now being incorporated into training programmes.

Given the changes in the workplace and to the role of the manager, what should organisations do to set up managers for success?

Admittedly, it’s hard to choose just one, but my priority would be to focus on teaching and training managers to be effective “people developers” and helping them coach, empower, and guide their employees to develop and grow so they can contribute effectively.  The goal of any manager is to get their team to achieve business outcomes, but it’s impossible for any manager to have all the answers. However, teaching managers how they can get the most out of their people through manager tools like coaching, feedback, career conversations etc goes a long way. Furthermore, creating an environment of development and growth on the team has all sorts of knock-on effects for employees. When employees are having regular conversations with their manager about development and growth, they’re much more likely to stay. 

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