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What Happened When Management Stopped Being an Apprenticeship?

I was lucky to be a young manager at a time when it was still typical to be directed, trained, mentored, and generally developed by your senior managers. There were enough senior managers around that all the junior managers got plenty of personal attention — whether they liked it or not.

My senior managers actually explained things to me. I didn’t always agree with everything they taught me or with all the particulars of their behavior, but their consistent attention gave me the opportunity to learn from both positive and negative examples.

Later, as businesses started cutting the guts out of middle management, each successive cycle of rightsizing, delayering, layoffs, and buyouts set up scenarios in which senior execs had too many direct reports — and too many of those direct reports were good material, perhaps, but definitely unseasoned.

The Disappearing Apprentice

When junior management was a form of apprenticeship, new up-and-comings learned their functional responsibilities, and also what was expected of their managers.

I’ve always suspected that the loss of this extended, informal training and development is one of the underlying reasons for ongoing management churn as well as the trend of young execs moving up by moving to another company, often before they were truly ready. It’s hard to train managers in both fundamentals and context when their senior leaders have no bandwidth, no time, and are themselves jumping from one apparent crisis to another.

And it’s not only junior managers who’ve suffered. Once there was no longer a clear path of internal advancement for junior managers, organizations were faced with a growing number of rising managers who hadn’t been schooled in all the fundamentals of the business and hadn’t been groomed for senior success.

Many of these managerial aspirants did not fit as well or accomplish as much for their companies as their predecessors had, so they tended to have flatter career trajectories — making it more likely that they’d be subject to the next round of cuts or that they’d have to look elsewhere for growth.

Much floundering and poor decision-making ensued. Even when companies recognize that crucial development is missing, the likelihood of their resurrecting the old apprenticeship system is low: it’s too expensive and too time consuming — and there’s too much work to be done just to keep the business running.

When Managers Need Coaches but Only Act Like Cheerleaders

Over time, both junior managers and senior leaders rely more on exhortations — “Come on, Team! You can do it!” — and less on truly teaching the underlying fundamentals with context and nuance. Sadly, this is often because it’s possible for them to look temporarily successful without having learned the fundamentals or the nuances themselves.

These days, many businesses outsource their professional development to corporate coaches, just as they outsource other functions that require specific expertise but are not perceived as essential. In fact, some large corporations outsource virtually the entirety of their managerial development to coaching companies that are assigned to coach all members of management at certain levels.

If you’re outsourcing what should be a core competency of leadership, the process of vendor management is absolutely essential. Assessing whether the participants are growing, developing, and serving the business is indispensable. You may want to consider an alternative approach.

Onward and upward,


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