July 2021
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TD Magazine

Don’t Let Managers Down

Thursday, July 1, 2021

How to become their trusted, reliable, and valued TD partner

Middle managers we talk to often tell us about the challenges of getting their direct reports ready, willing, and able to improve their performance by adapting to new ways of operating. That's not only in reference to the big, corporate-level changes but more often the smaller changes that require middle managers and their teams to reconsider how they do their work. And, of course, managers and teams often struggle with even small changes. Talent development professionals want to help—but are you truly ready to do so?


To be respected and trusted as a valued business partner by middle managers, you need to get beyond being too often seen as little more than an order taker and deliverer of generic training. What middle managers want is TD professionals who can provide specific strategies that will help their teams make quick changes in how they do things in their particular work environment to achieve current and future business expectations.

We often run into training professionals who do not have a business or operational background, and rather than making a concerted effort to learn about their organization's business, they rely on a training and development lingo and approach that are free of business context. But for middle managers, context is everything. They have specific changes to adopt and implement, with emphasis on specific processes, procedures, and technology. Generic change solutions are a distraction for them.

The good news is that you do not need to have an advanced business degree to be successful at consulting and business partnering. To become what we call a trusty TD partner, you must build two-way, trusted relationships with middle managers that truly assist them in developing their direct reports in ways that, amid all their daily pressures, help them bring about performance improvements that enable them to achieve their business-critical mission and goals.

To accomplish that, present yourself in ways that demonstrate that you understand each middle manager's business line and work pressures well enough that the manager seeks you out to provide business-relevant training and development help, services, and advice.

The basic mindset that trusty TD partners need is one of curiosity and the commitment to take the time to understand the middle manager's work environment and business pressures. In addition, the basic TD partner skill set comprises a readiness, willingness, and ability to provide practical development solutions that feature two-way customization, where the TD professional works in tandem with the middle manager to co-design the solutions.

Time for a talk

To get a better handle on what we are suggesting, let's sit in on a conversation between a middle manager and a TD professional who is not behaving like a trusty TD partner.

Middle manager: As you know, I'm the operations manager, and I'm under a lot of pressure from my boss to support a new change in how business development (BD) hands off new products and services to operations. The change requires us to deploy some new processes, procedures, and tracking technology. My team is struggling with the change.

TD professional: So, what are your training needs?

Middle manager: Whatever solves my problems! The BD manager called me today and said that my people aren't doing their part in sharing feedback and communicating with his folks.

TD professional: Hmm, communications and feedback. Good news: I have just the thing for you. We have a new, exciting communications training program that is very engaging—lots of online learning, videos, games, and role plays. It is designed to help people improve their two-way communications.

Middle manager: I guess that sounds right. You're the training expert.

The TD team delivers the training, and four weeks later, the middle manager hasn't started seeing any improvement. The manager may observe that her team members are asking better open-ended questions, but she still feels that they are not committed to the change. She tells the TD professional that her team is clearly showing a lot of resistance to the change.

You can likely picture how this story continues when the TD professional is caught in a seemingly endless Möbius loop of off-the-shelf order taking: "Resistance. Got it. I have a new training program that is based around a card game—you get points for building levels of commitment and get points taken away for resistance."

And you can probably also predict the middle manager's final thoughts: "I invested in two training programs and they just didn't work. My TD rep doesn't have a clue about our business and keeps trying to sell me on their newest, latest fad. From now on, I'm just ignoring calls from TD."

Be someone managers can count on

It doesn't matter how much you may know and can do to help middle managers successfully lead change in ways that build their teams' change-readiness capability if those leaders don't yet take you seriously as a TD partner. That means knowing enough about the real work problems and pressures associated with their jobs as people managers in their particular business line and helping them improve their ability to lead change in readily workable ways.

No doubt there are some middle managers who will take an immediate interest in learning about what a TD specialist can do to help them with their change leadership responsibilities. But you can't count on that always, or even typically, being the case.

Partner-building strategies

Being able to create engaging development programs for what are often captive audiences is certainly a useful skill set for you to have. But if you want to become a middle manager's trusty TD partner for leading change in their organization, the following strategies for building rapport and establishing credibility with middle managers and their teams could prove helpful.

Present yourself as having a business advisor mentality, not a TD silo mentality. Have strategies for presenting yourself as a TD problem solver, not as a TD salesperson and order taker. "So, what are your training needs?" should never be your first question when talking to middle managers.

Imagine if the TD professional from the above conversation had signaled early on his interest in the business context of the middle manager's problem by responding in this way:

"You are going through a change in how BD hands off new products and services to your team. And your team is struggling with the change. So, what's the business goal driving this change for you and BD? Are you trying to reduce cycle time and costs by a certain percentage? Does your team understand and accept that goal? And are those changes in procedures and tracking technology likely to affect some of your team members' job prospects?"

Find out managers' business context and the thorny problems they're dealing with. Converse with managers in ways that signal you get what they are up against and can feel their frustration and pain.


Let's see how a TD partner would approach this: "I need some context. You said you had a communications problem related to the change effort. Can you give me some examples of team members' interactions with the BD team? What challenges have you observed? What is the impact if they don't get this right?"

Help managers identify the real learning needs associated with developing the required skills. Do so before proposing TD solutions and offerings. Be careful to acknowledge, as physicians do, "the presenting symptoms" associated with the vexing problems that managers may raise, but do not overreact to them.

Likewise, do not force-fit too-simple TD solutions (communication issue equals communication training) that may sound right to the uninitiated but are unlikely to address the deeper problem. Instead, demonstrate your ability, as a business advisor, to think on a deeper, more analytical level when suggesting solutions to middle managers.

Again, let's see how a TD partner handles this: "Thanks for your input. It seems to be more than just a communications problem. Your people are busy, and this change initiative seems to take them away from the operations goals they are being measured by. You also mentioned reluctance to have difficult conversations, especially against some of the assertive BD types. In addition, there seem to be some turf battles going on and some challenges doing collaborative problem solving. Do you mind if I interview a few employees from your operations team and the BD team to see whether I can figure out what's really going on here? Then we can customize a solution that will get you the results and impact you want."

Provide TD solutions that feature two-way customizability. Demonstrate your willingness to work collaboratively with middle managers by recommending, whenever possible, strategies and offerings (for example, workshops, coaching) that you and the manager customize to convincingly address the real learning needs. Preferably, present TD solutions that you can continually adjust as circumstances and learning needs change. If you want to be taken seriously, it's important that the TD offerings are uncomplicated—meaning learners can schedule and complete them within timeframes and venues that do not unduly disrupt extremely busy people.

Here's what our trusty TD partner had to say a few weeks later: "Here is my report with my findings. I uncovered several issues. Some we can deal with in training, some will require some coaching on your part, and some will require you and the BD manager to establish some shared goals for both teams. Let's discuss in detail, and I want to work with you to fine-tune a set of solutions that will work for you and your team, including a training program that is customized to your unique situation. This may take a bit longer, but if you want results and impact, we need to do it right. I don't want to waste your people's time—they are busy. In fact, we need to find a way to deploy the training so that it doesn't disrupt your team's productivity. If we do this well, it should help accelerate change and help you achieve your goals."

Enhance the breadth and scope of your TD organizational presence. If you want opportunities to have a significant impact on enhancing your organization's capabilities, it's no good just hanging out with your TD department colleagues. You need to have strategies for getting out and about in the company, both face-to-face and online, in ways that make it likely you will hear about early opportunities to offer TD input—because problems and new initiatives emerge outside the TD function.

The TD partner's request would sound like this: "Do you mind if I sit in on a few of your staff meetings so I can get to know your team a bit better? Also, I'm prepared to check in from time to time with some of your staff to get additional insights into other business challenges we can address together. Lastly, as we plan this upcoming training, I'd like you to consider co-facilitating parts of it."

Start thinking of yourself as a TD business partner

To demonstrate your potential to be a trusty TD partner, when you have opportunities to present training strategies for helping middle managers improve team performance:

  • Ask the managers business-oriented questions that signal your interest in understanding how they see the key details of the work they do.
  • Invite them to customize TD strategies with you in ways that encourage feelings of ownership. After all, the targeted outcomes and the approach taken are likely to work in their specific real-work context.

How will you know you are well on your way to becoming a middle manager's trusty TD partner? When "So, what are your training needs?" is one of the last questions you ask.

Eight Partnering Reminders for TD Professionals

  • Be willing to invest some time in building trusted partnerships with middle managers.
  • Avoid training jargon—use layperson's terms while learning the business language.
  • Be curious to understand the basics of the managers' business and how their work currently gets done.
  • Get to know the business specifics of the needed change—and the desired outcomes.
  • Ask probing questions that go beyond the presenting symptoms to uncover root causes.
  • Don't force-fit off-the-shelf training solutions if they are not a good fit.
  • Customize talent development solutions so they will work in the team's particular real-work context.
  • Make sure the team can meet its current responsibilities while also being trained.
About the Author

Dr. Frank Satterthwaite is a professor of organizational leadership and a past director of the MBA program at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island. Frank, who has contributed numerous blogs to ATD’s Community of Practice, is co-author of Becoming a Can-Do Leader: A Guide for the Busy Manager (ATD Press). He is also the senior author of The Career Portfolio Workbook: Using the Newest Tool in Your Job-Hunting Arsenal to Impress Employers and Land a Great Job (McGraw-Hill), a bestselling career book that was selected as an “Editor’s Choice” at the Wall Street Journal. In addition to his cover story for TD Magazine, “The Delegation Conundrum,” his articles have appeared in national magazines, including Esquire. He has appeared on nationally broadcast radio and TV programs in the United States and Canada, and is currently doing webcasts for ATD. Frank also has a management consulting practice in which he helps managers become Can-Do Leaders. He studied psychology at Princeton and received his Ph.D. in organizational behavior from Yale. Earlier in his career Frank was a member of the U.S. national men’s squash team. Frank and his architect wife, Martha Werenfels, live in Rhode Island and are proud parents of their two sons, Peter and Toby.

About the Author

Jamie Millard, co-author of Becoming a Can-Do Leader: A Guide for the Busy Manager (ATD Press), is the executive partner and co-founder of Lexington Leadership Partners, an executive coaching and customized leadership development and training firm focused on developing can-do leaders who demonstrate commitment, competence, and courage. He formerly led the national organization change management practice at CSC Consulting. Prior to that, Millard was a partner at Harbridge House, where he led the continuous improvement and project management customized training and consulting practices. He holds a bachelor of science degree from the US Military Academy at West Point and an MBA from the University of Rhode Island. He is a proud veteran and member of the Global Educator Network with Duke Corporate Education.

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Lots of solid advice here. I particularly appreciate the reminder about enhancing the breadth and scope of your organizational presence. Building strong relationships and keeping your finger on the pulse of the organization is critical in TD work.
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I enjoyed reading this post. These are simple suggestions that can make a huge impact. Great reminders for all!
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Great article! Thank you for the straight-forward and useful recommendations.
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