UK Managers: Train Me, Please

Two-thirds of British managers receive no training before assuming their leadership role, a new study shows. One-third keep asking for it.

For most jobs, you need serious training. Doctors must earn a medical degree, then get more specialist training. Lawyers, accountants, and teachers typically train, too. But what about someone responsible for leading a dozen workers in a company setting? That’s usually a different story.

Training—whether providing it or participating in it—is a perennial issue that experts cite as a hidden cost to a firm’s success. According to a new study, two-thirds of British managers failed to receive training before they took their managerial role. And not for lack of trying: One-third of managers demanded formal training, the same report says.

In the UK, experts say, the training conundrum may have roots in a long-standing British tradition of believing some people have talent—the so-called “gifted amateurs”—and others don’t. “There is a little bit of that still lurking in the mindset,” says Grant Duncan, Korn Ferry managing director and sector lead for media, entertainment and digital EMEA. But this lucky talented few are more or less on their own. “Gifted amateurs are expected to learn from their mistakes,” Duncan says.

While letting people sink or swim may have passed muster pre-pandemic, many experts say it doesn’t work in today’s much more complex business world, where managers must juggle (for instance) work-life balance for staffers with increased productivity demands. According to the report, poor relationships between workers and their direct-line managers have led up to 31% of managers and 28% of workers, to quit, turnover rates that only add to corporate costs. “Despite 30 to 40 years of companies embracing emotional intelligence, the lack of leadership training has been decades in the making,” says Emma Cornwall, a London-based Korn Ferry associate client partner.

Some people aspire to be the boss simply because no other career track offers them the opportunity to make progress. Often they are highly skilled individual contributors who don’t necessarily want to be bosses, but feel they have no other option, Cornwall says. “It would be better to not push people into roles they don’t want, or aren’t suited to,” she says. “They go up the hierarchy, and then are suddenly asked to lead a team, and they don’t know what to do.”

Some firms do provide leadership training, but it’s often short-lived. For instance, younger workers may receive good training, but at some point, it stops, Duncan says. And when people get to the highest corporate levels the situation can be highly problematic. “Some people say they are at the top, so they don’t need any more training,” he says.

Experts say firms need more leadership training even at the bottom of the organization chart. That’s because the role of the frontline leader has become more difficult, Cornwall says. What looks like good performance is harder to define. Teams are more complex. People are working remotely. “Management requires a degree of complexity that didn’t exist even a few years ago,” she says. For people best suited to highly skilled individual-contributor roles, top leaders might consider making changes to a firm’s payment structure. Organizations need to think about creating different career routes for some people, then rewarding them appropriately, Cornwall says. “It’s not always about equating performance with great people management.” 

For people higher up the ladder, the subject of training can be touchy. A CEO may not have been offered training for a decade or longer, Duncan says. Sometimes this is because human resources has failed to approach them; sometimes it’s because the boss suddenly needs to get familiar with that newfangled artificial intelligence. The board of directors can be helpful in such instances, possibly by helping to set up a digital boot camp. “No one is perfect, and every individual needs help,” says Duncan. “There are mental muscles that are not so strong in those areas they haven’t used.”


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