Helping Managers Be the Best They Can Be
Blue Cross Blue Shield of Arizona (BCBSAZ) offers health insurance and related services to nearly 1.5 million Arizonans. Leaders at BCBSAZ are committed to helping their members get healthier faster—and stay healthier longer—by connecting people with the care they need. To meet this mission, they help their employees be the best leaders they can be by offering management skills training. BCBSAZ’s corporate training specialist Dawn Vinh says, “We use two programs from The Ken Blanchard Companies: First-time Manager and Situational Leadership® II. These training programs help ensure that our supervisors and managers have the skills they need to lead others and help them reach their goals.
“We had offered Situational Leadership® II for several years. When we were introduced to the new First-time Manager program, we realized it would provide the foundational skills that new supervisors need early in their careers.”
It’s not uncommon for high performers to get promoted into management roles. Leaders at BCBSAZ knew it was critical to provide basic management training for people new to the role. “Just because a person is an outstanding individual contributor in one role doesn’t mean they have the skills to manage others. It’s our job to give them those skills—and the First-time Manager program begins with the basics,” says Vinh.
Participants in this program learn and practice four conversations that enable them to partner with direct reports to set goals, praise progress along the way, redirect efforts when things don’t go as planned, and celebrate success by bringing an honorable close to a project. The program also teaches managers how to improve the effectiveness of these conversations using a simple model that shows how to improve listening skills, ask questions to gain clarity, confirm understanding, and express confidence in the direct report’s ability.
“We offer First-time Manager as the first day of a two-day program for newer supervisors and managers,” explains Vinh. “The second day focuses on topics such as delegation, coaching, performance reviews and how to partner with Human Resources. The two-day program is a comprehensive combination of basic management skills and customized organizational tools to set our people-leaders up for success.”
Although there is not a required curriculum, supervisors and managers usually attend First-time Manager training, use the skills back on their job for six months, then attend Situational Leadership® II (SLII®) training.
SLII® teaches a model of diagnosing the needs of an individual on a specific task and then using the appropriate leadership style to respond to those needs. The goal of a situational leader is to help their direct reports develop competence, motivation, and confidence through frequent conversations about performance and development.
“Leaders must understand that their leadership style needs to change all the time,” explains Vinh. “The kind of direction and support they offer their direct reports will be different for each person and also for each task the person takes on. Being a situational leader is like being a chameleon. During SLII® training, the light really comes on for people when they realize that a person can be at development level 4 (D4) on one task, but at a completely different level on another task. In fact, treating a high performer as a D4 on every task is a disservice to that person. It is the responsibility of the manager to adjust their style to the needs of each employee.”
Tips for Successful Training
Managing the rollout of a training program involves a lot of trial and error, and Vinh is eager to share what she has learned along the way. Here are a few of her tips:
- Make sure attendees can walk away with two or three golden nuggets of information—things they can apply on the job immediately. It is unreasonable to suggest they could make changes in eight or ten areas right away. But focusing on just a couple of things is very realistic.
- Let people know what to expect from the training. Some of the exercises might seem redundant, but that is actually the brilliance of the design. Repetition is intentional and purposeful. In this way, participants have a chance to practice and reinforce the learning so that they will be able to incorporate their new skills into their everyday work.
- As a facilitator, it is critical for you to practice the activities before you train—even if you are an experienced trainer. The facilitator notes have everything you need, but you will enhance the learning greatly if you bring in some company-specific examples.
- Make the learning sessions relevant and worth the time people are spending in the classroom. Not only will they improve their skills, they will also share their excitement about the good experience so others will want to be trained, too. That is just good business for the entire organization.
An aha moment came for Vinh when she noticed that even experienced leaders in the organization were attending the First-time Manager class. At first she thought it would be too basic for someone who had been in a leadership role for several years; but she learned that experienced leaders were taking the course as a way to refresh foundational skills.
“When I spoke with senior leaders who were attending the classes, they said they appreciated the opportunity to sharpen their skills. More important, though, was that they wanted to be familiar with the skills their staff members were learning. The training provided a way for everyone to speak the same leadership language. And when new supervisors saw senior leaders taking the class, it reinforced the importance of learning these skills.”
Another big aha moment often happens during SLII® training when people self diagnose their development level on tasks outside of the work environment, such as running a marathon or cooking a meal for 12 people.
“We define each corner of the room as D1, D2, D3, or D4 and ask people to go to the corner that represents their development level on something personal. During that activity, I see the lights go on for people. The exercise is so personal that they are able to relate easily. They understand how an employee can be a D1 on one task and a D4 on another, just like they might be a D1 at marathon running and a D4 at cooking. They also realize that they are learning life skills, not just leadership skills.”
The role of the manager is to bring out the best in their people. Vinh knows her role is to bring out the best in managers. “I think being a trainer is like being a coach of a sports team. I would want every player to be the best at whatever position they play on the field—so why wouldn’t I want every manager to be the best manager they can be at BCBSAZ?”