It can be tough for first-level managers to find their way. They might excel at specific job skills, but if they’ve never led a team or project before, they’re likely to have a lot of questions about managing others. An enormous industry provides management research and advice, but it primarily targets executives and corporate leaders. The managers in the trenches, forming that middle layer between the rank-and-file employees and the executives, are often left out in the cold.
Particularly when newly promoted, managers need a source for objective, in-depth advice and coaching. The lack of useful, practical advice geared toward first-level managers inspired co-founders Rob Cahill, the current CEO, and John Howard to create Jhana. The innovative San Francisco company offers just-in-time eLearning for first-level managers. Believing that “first-level managers are the real key to organizational health,” Jhana delivers microlearning nuggets via a weekly email, providing performance support, coaching, and curated content to these crucial ambassadors.
“We see that first-level manager as a real linchpin of the organization,” said Loren Mooney, Jhana’s vice president of product. “If they’re successful, you’ll have engaged individual contributors; people are engaged at the employee level. You have company changes successfully implemented, so a much healthier organization overall.”
Training is essential, of course, and some companies run or send new managers to seminars. But training tends to be concentrated—a managers’ retreat or a multi-module, in-depth eLearning course. A team leader can attend training, engage in the group bonding and morale-building exercises, and return to work with fresh enthusiasm and great ideas. But none of that will help several weeks down the line when she’s struggling to set the agenda for a meeting or broach a difficult conversation with a direct report.
Here’s where performance support comes in. The weekly message from Jhana includes tips, new content, and links to previously published articles and curated content. In addition, the growing library of topics on the Jhana website, always available to subscribers, is likely to have content that meets managers’ needs. It includes:
- Templates and checklists
- Suggestions for starting or navigating tough conversations—with direct reports and with higher-level managers
- Resources, organized by topic, listing books and further web-based reading
- Video interviews with managers
Some of the content is created by Jhana’s in-house team, based on advice from Jhana’s expert panel of managers; some is curated content from outside experts. Topic development begins with a survey of the “expert” literature but brings it into the real world via interviews with as many as two dozen first-level managers. “I think when things are theoretical, they are not very grounded in real-world experience,” Mooney said. “One of the things that we stay really focused on in our content approach is really blending the best practices from management scholars, from the top-tier management consultants, with real-world, lived experience.”
The video interviews, for example, feature a manager—from the expert panel or from the community of Jhana customers—describing an actual problem-solving experience. “Those kinds of stories are actually much higher impact than a theoretical video that talks about somebody’s research,” Mooney said.
Just as smaller companies might outsource human resources or payroll, outsourcing managerial coaching offers a broader range of material, perspectives, and content than a single manager—or even a fantastic human resources department and willing cadre of upper-level managers—can provide. A new feature Jhana is adding in 2017 leverages the broad experience of managers in the user base. Called “Help a Manager,” it will offer members a way to make suggestions to other managers, facilitating a collaborative learning environment that, Mooney said, is what “modern learners” prefer.
“Help a Manager” will consist of a question or problem presented in the weekly newsletter, along with a call for solutions. Managers can respond via an email form, describing their experience with that issue. Jhana staff will edit the responses, contact some contributors for additional information, and craft a response that represents a variety of viewpoints and experiences. “We’ve done this once, and we were blown away by the quality of the responses, how thoughtful people were, and how useful it turns out that their experiences can be to others,” Mooney said. “One of the things that we realized when we got those answers from the group—we were able to present a range of experiences and contexts that really gave advice and answers much more robust than we ever could’ve developed on our own. That real-world experience is essential.”
Jhana considers a topic area to be fully developed only when “we’ve canvassed the landscape appropriately for our audience,” Mooney said. That “landscape” is uniquely focused on first-level managers’ experience. She cited the topic area of “managing company change.” Much of the published work talks about leading corporate change. “What we realized is that, for the average manager, they’re not necessarily devising the company change or determining the company’s direction. In a lot of cases, they’re receiving the company change and then turning around and having to implement that company change. They [the team leaders] are a middle piece of the process—an essential piece of the process—so we constructed the topic from that particular perspective. We weren’t resting on a lot of the more executive-level company change research that’s out there,” she said.Jhana’s approach to eLearning performance support understands that managers are busy. Articles are short and focused. Templates and checklists are similarly uncluttered. The writing style is conversational, intelligent, comfortable. Mooney likens it to providing recipes—step-by-step instructions for implementing solutions to real problems. “Our goal is reducing as many barriers as possible to people being able to use it [the content] and apply it in their day,” she said. “That can come across as stripped-down, but we like to think of it as the most efficient way to reach these learners.”