Management Community of Practice

In this article, I want to spotlight a common business issue at the source of much dissatisfaction, conflict, and ultimately lost productivity within the workplace: the quality of the managerial skills of our managers.

Too often organizations assume and accept that good or great managers are hard to find.  This tacit acceptance is based on a general belief that organizations by nature cannot produce great managers, and we consider ourselves lucky if we work for one.

I want to invite you to consider that this scenario is not a given, that in fact it is possible for organizations to produce effective, productive and innovative managers.

During the height of one of the Silicon Valley booms, I led a 65-person division of a Fortune 500 company.  Our team was responsible for supporting an exceedingly fast growing number of customers. At the same time, hiring was an employee market, which was reflected in the company’s attrition rate of over 20% each year.  The continuous cost of replacing employees was an enormous loss – a productivity loss for losing an employee; a productivity loss for the employees having to step up and cover the gap; and a drain on our time to interview, identify, hire, train and integrate a new employee.  Needless to say, this quandary – not atypical in any industry at some point -- significantly undercut profits and morale.  We could not afford to have this attrition rate and still be successful.

To address this situation, one of the fundamental changes I made in our division was to instill the perspective that management is its own discipline.  In other words, management is a distinct profession that requires the continuous study and practice of its areas of expertise.  The method I used was to develop and establish a management group that eventually I called a Management Community of Practice.

The focus of this Community of Practice was to consider management as a sort of art requiring a vast range of competencies; it gave space for “management” to be a practice, a space for managers to ask questions and not think they needed to know it all.  More simply, the Community of Practice became a learning community to support and develop my new and seasoned managers.

Consider the medical and legal professions.  When doctors complete their academic coursework, a mandatory residency begins, which is an intensive time of “practicing” their skills.  Once this period has ended, doctors must regularly complete Continuing Medical Education (CME) training throughout their career.  The goal is to not only establish a baseline of theoretical knowledge (medical school) and real-time training (residency), but also to maintain a learning community to continually develop skills and knowledge.  In a similar manner, after lawyers complete law school and participate in clerkships, internships, and other entry-level or training environments, the American Bar Association mandates Continuing Legal Education requirements for lawyers.  In both professions, doctors and lawyers are practicing their discipline with the understanding that they will never be “done” with learning.

This model works for the profession of management.   Managers are the link between the employees and the company’s vision, goals and objectives.  In my division, I needed exceptional managers to effectively guide, empower and retain employees so that we could meet the needs of our customers, our partners and our shareholders.  But managers are not suddenly capable at the art of managing when promoted into management.  A number of books are written in an effort to teach someone how to manage, but the results are limited at best.  Like doctors and lawyers, managers at any level need – and deserve – consistent support, training, time to reflect, and practice.

The result after I established a Community of Practice?  My division’s attrition dropped to 4% a year.