Ten years ago, I managed the world’s busiest roller coaster. More guests boarded my “wildest ride in the wilderness” in an hour than visit most businesses in a full day. People were a critical part of keeping the ride safe and efficient. So, every morning, hours before the first guest arrived, I would review staffing levels. We usually had just enough people to run the operation. However, on some mornings, I was greeted with a sudden, steep dip in manpower due to ... training! Taking my team members was not a good way to get management buy-in!

Figure 1: No, that’s not the roller coaster I managed. But it looks amazing! (Source: Pixabay) 

Without warning, I was forced to squeak by for an hour or two with minimal staffing and hope that nothing would go wrong until people came back from a classroom session or eLearning lab. Needless to say, I was not pleased. And, when people came back from training, I rarely saw a meaningful change in their performance. Sure, they had checked some boxes so we wouldn’t appear on a delinquency list, but what value was this time bringing to my operation? Training too often became an annoying interruption rather than a meaningful enablement exercise. I could see why L&D has problems getting manager buy-in!

Frontline managers are the most important people in workplace learning. They control employee time, priorities, resources, feedback, etc. Without their support, our ability to help employees is extremely limited. Many well-planned L&D initiatives with plenty of executive buy-in stall within the management hierarchy once they come into conflict with day-to-day operational priorities. Yes, managers should recognize the value of workplace learning. But, in real life, they are also under constant pressure to hit their numbers. If training is just going to get in the way, why should they make the extra effort to support it?

Here are three tactics modern L&D teams can use to gain and sustain manager buy-in for their initiatives.

Fit your strategy into their reality

The operation will not change to suit L&D needs. Staffing will always be limited. Customers will always be number one. Priorities will always be shifting. They don’t have to come to us. We have to go to them. I previously shared tactics for fitting learning opportunities into the average day, but L&D pros must also better understand the manager role so they can apply non-disruptive tactics that meet management expectations.

Clarify the value

The reason for providing training to employees should never be a mystery to management. The value must be clearly articulated in the language of the business. If it’s skill-based training, it should be connected to key performance indicators (KPIs). If it’s compliance training, it should be connected to potential business risk. People don’t go to work to learn. They go to work to do a job. We must respect this, including the role of the manager in leading the operation.

Support them in the same ways

This is the big one! How often do you provide learning and support to the managers from whom you want buy-in? For many organizations, “leadership training” remains a structured program that managers have to wait for—often until well after they’ve started their roles. Otherwise, managers tend to only hear from L&D when they want something. How can they buy into our workplace learning strategy if they’re not experiencing it for themselves?

When we talk about a modern approach to training, such as the Modern Learning Ecosystem Framework, we should be shaping an experience that works for all levels of the organization, including frontline management. Access to information. Performance support. Practice. Coaching. Managers can benefit from these tactics just like frontline employees (Figure 2). And, because the same tactics are being used to help them do their jobs better, they can more easily recognize the value training for their team members brings to the overall business.

Figure 2: Shaping a consistent organizational experience can unify roles through learning

After my time in roller coaster management, I moved back into L&D, this time in a call center. If you’ve supported a call center, you know rule number one: don’t take people off the phones. This pushed me to reimagine my approach to match the realities of the operation. And, with my recent experience as a frontline manager top of mind, I designed a strategy that worked for managers too.

  • We started by curating manager-specific resources, including best practices and stories of common management scenarios, alongside general employee information. While we communicated these resources to managers, they were available to everyone to ensure transparency.
  • Rather than push the same training to managers and frontline employees just for awareness, we provided managers with specific resources to help them coach to the new behaviors expected from their team members.
  • We provided daily, voluntary five-minute online reinforcementscenarios to managers to drive continued knowledge growth and retention.
  • We explained upcoming employee training initiatives by relating them to the similar tactics we were using to support managers. This not only made the initiatives easier to understand, but it also demonstrated consistency and reliability in our overall learning strategy.

Managers are knowledgeable. They have experience. They have control over their time and priorities. But they are still employees. They deserve opportunities to learn and improve their performance—just like everyone else. By applying the same modern tactics to support managers as we do frontline employees, you will not only strengthen your influence with this critical audience, but you will also create new opportunities to positively impact the business through the people charged with leading the operation. It is the best way to get management buy-in.