Building Middle-Manager Morale: Training sessions for middle managers tend to be part leadership lesson, part pep rally and part strategy session. Here’s a glimpse into how some companies do it

August 7, 2013, 7:17 p.m. ET

Building Middle-Manager Morale

Inspiring the Ranks With Trips, Computer Simulations, and Roller-Coaster Rides

RACHEL FEINTZEIG

It is 8 a.m. on a summer Friday and AT&T Inc. T +0.31% vice president Ken Fenoglio is trying to pump up a crowd of 400 at the convention center in downtown Dallas. “Who runs this company?” he asks. “We do, right here.” The men and women in the audience aren’t executives, nor are they on the front lines dealing with customers. They are in between: middle managers on the corporate ladder of a vast organization. And Mr. Fenoglio wants them to feel like that is a good thing. “You’re right in the middle,” he says. “You’re right where the action is.” Scenes like AT&T’s training session are becoming familiar at companies from telecom to health care to retail—especially those attempting rapid change. According to a study by research and consulting group Bersin by Deloitte, 50% of midlevel leaders received formal leadership development in 2012. The average spending per midlevel leader across the U.S. was $2,700 in 2012, up from $1,000 in 2009. The hope is that managers will attend talks and tackle problems, learn negotiation skills and become better leaders. And if managers walk away with a rosier view of their company, that is a plus.Middle managers need the boost. Though unemployment among the middle ranks remained low during the recession and recovery, many presided over layoffs, forcing them to do more with less. Numbers show that levels of engagement following the financial crisis fell more sharply among middle ranks than any other group.

AT&T’s two-day training session was part leadership lesson, part pep rally, and part strategy session.

Here is a glimpse into some other companies’ training and morale-boosting sessions for middle-managers:

Macy’s: M -1.26%

Thinking Like an Executive

At Macy’s Inc., midlevel leaders like store managers and merchandise managers take part in a computer simulation that puts them at the helm of a midsize retailer.

At the company’s Leadership Institute in Cincinnati, Ohio, teams of four or five people tackle problems like an underperforming juniors department or a truck that has arrived early.

The simulation programs aim to teach managers how their daily decisions can affect the business as a whole.

Even small choices and behaviors can drive business or inhibit it, says Sherry Hollock, Macy’s senior vice president for talent and organization development.

***

IBM:

Out of Your Comfort Zone

International Business Machines Corp. IBM -0.78% has steered away from the classroom setting and into the field to shape its middle managers.

It routinely sends groups to developing countries to get them out of their comfort zone and working on big, pro bono projects like improving children’s hospitals in Brazil.

The goal is to get them used to working with diverse groups—important when teams must collaborate across continents and divisions.

The experiences also encourage staffers to stick around. In a survey of 575 workers who went through the program, 76% said the experience “boosted their desire to complete their business career at IBM.”

***

EY:

Celebrating the Manager

Staffers promoted to the middle ranks at EY LLP (formerly Ernst & Young) get a reward: a weeklong training session.

The event is “celebratory,” according to Alison Hooker, EY’s Americas chief talent development officer. Last December 3,200 managers took over three Orlando, Fla., hotels and spent an evening at Universal Studios, where the rides and food were all theirs for the night.

The company’s top leadership was on hand to thank the managers. Networking and skills-building plays a role too—managers attended classes and sessions covering topics such as being an effective coach and identifying strengths.

Managers are especially important these days, Ms. Hooker says, as companies like EY try to stay nimble in the wake of the recession.

“Without them being able to be responsive…the organization kind of falls apart,” she says.

***

AT&T:

Steering Change

AT&T’s 6,750 general managers are close enough to the front lines to have an impact on thousands of workers: Most have about seven direct reports—some have as many as 50—and a total of 240,000 employees report up to them companywide. So motivating a group that touches so much of the firm’s workforce is crucial, says AT&T head of talent development, Debbie Storey.

At one session, Glenn Lurie, who heads up emerging enterprises and partnerships at AT&T, regales the managers with stories about how the company nabbed its exclusive (and now expired) partnership with Apple Inc.’s AAPL -0.06% iPhone. (The message: Don’t be afraid of failure.)

At another session, the son of drug addicts explains how, as a six-year-old, he used the local playground to get his life on track. (Moral of the story: loosen up and get creative.)

Jean Banahan-Lange, a director with AT&T in North Carolina, has been with the company for 29 years and says events like this “revive” and refocus her.

“You hear all this innovation, and you think, maybe I want to change,” she says.

Harry Kraemer, a management professor and the former chief of health-care company Baxter International Inc. BAX -0.53% speaks about leadership and values. Mr. Kraemer fields questions from the middle managers about how to handle older employees and supervisors who have no concept of what it means to have a life.

Through it all, Mr. Kraemer keeps coming back to the idea that it’s up to middle managers to lead the company into the future.

“What does this organization really want to do? Some group of people has to figure that out,” he says. “No pressure, but you are those guys.”

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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