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Back to School

Kittredge Center Course Teaches Soft Skills That MBAs Overlook

Richard Steiner, CEO of MD Enterprises

Richard Steiner, CEO of MD Enterprises

It’s a familiar scenario in the workplace.

The venerated top sales professional gets his big break and lands the coveted manager position. But soon, something is wrong. The top seller has no idea how to manage people, and it’s affecting the entire office. He’s been doing his own thing for years, and it’s always worked, but now he’s got to deal with everyone else’s personalities and problems.

Meanwhile, the expectations from upper management are not only higher than in his previous position, but completely different. In some cases, add to that the jealousy factor in the office because someone feels they were overlooked for the job.

“This new situation has to be based on facts, not opinions, and in the workplace, emotions — like guns and knives — need to be left at the door,” said Richard Steiner, CEO of MD Enterprises and a freelance business trainer at Holyoke Community College (HCC). “It’s critical that you recalibrate the relationship to recognize that this is a ‘professional’ relationship.”

But knowing how to ‘recalibrate’ that professional relationship, from peer to manager, requires behavioral skills that may seem obvious, yet unfortunately don’t come naturally to some, and are completely foreign to others.

That’s where the American Management Assoc. comes in.

The AMA offers a certificate in Management program through the Kittredge Center at HCC. Steiner explained that the cost-effective courses are held either one day a week for two weeks, or one evening a week for five weeks.

Instead of the analytical and technical hard skills that MBAs focus on, this series of courses is all about dealing with people, time, and how both affect company profits.

“It’s a program of study that focuses on a practical way to learn the soft skills of management,” said Steiner, “the sorts of things you don’t pick up at an MBA course.”

Of the 14 courses, each of which costs $325, the subject matter covers “The ABCs of Management,” “Effective Team Building,” “Essentials of Supervision,” “Conducting Productive Performance Appraisals,” and “Effective Communication Skills,” to name a few. If an individual completes five of the 14 courses successfully, Steiner said, the AMA issues an internationally recognized management certificate through HCC.

Jim Phaneuf sees the value in such a program.

While nothing was broken from within, Phaneuf, president of Bell & Hudson Insurance Agency in Belchertown, knew that he could use some help in the area of time management. But not all company executives, or those on the fast track to the C-suite, think they need help.

“A lot of business people think they have things right where they want them to be,” said Phaneuf. “I’ve always had the feeling that, if we’re not improving all the time, someone else is.”

For several professional levels of management and front-line supervisors at Holyoke Gas and Electric (HG&E), the courses on communications, supervision, and management ‘ABCs’ were eye-openers, said Comptroller Brian Richards. He called the courses a ‘framework’ in which a mix of those with MBAs and those lacking any management training could put what they learn to real use.

“There are ideas that are not inherent, but once you are exposed to them, you may use them,” he explained. “But unless you have the framework to actually put those ideas to use, the actions are not always effective. These courses give you that type of framework to put ideas into action and practice.”

Brian Richards

Brian Richards says the courses are useful to both those with MBAs and those lacking any management training.

The beauty of the program, both Phaneuf and Steiner said, is that, no matter who takes one of the 14 courses — a professional on the management fast track or a business student — the vital soft skills can be used immediately as soon as they walk out the door.

Steiner’s said too few companies pay attention to the importance of people skills, “and they wind up losing a valuable employee and gaining an ineffective or even destructive manager.”

For this issue’s focus on education, BusinessWest sat down with Steiner and some of his former students, all professionals in the region, to learn about the unique AMA courses, and how their focus on soft skills often overlooked in MBA college programs can help not only office morale, but productivity ― and, ultimately, the bottom line.


Talk Is Cheap

While it’s hard for Steiner to pick which course is the most important overall, communication training is high on his list because it’s often overlooked in the workplace, or at least not identified as a major problem for companies.

Steiner said the course, “Effective Communication Skills,” is as important, and as basic, as it gets.

“If a manager is complaining about communication, he or she should look in the mirror,” he said. “Communications is a loop: message transmitted, received, and the receiver gives feedback. They either do what the instruction was, answer what the question was, or agree or disagree with a proposition and close that loop.

“As a transmitter,” he continued, “if you don’t get that feedback, ask for it.” But closing the loop all the way doesn’t happen often enough, and when communication is hampered, time is wasted and productivity goes down.

One of Steiner’s classic examples is what he calls the “stone story.” A manager asks an employee to go get him a stone. The employer goes out and brings back a stone, but the manager says, “I wanted a rounder stone.” The employee returns several times with more stones, none of which are the right kind because little to no direction or description was given. But, Steiner added, “the employee is also wasting time by not asking.”

While humorous, Steiner said everyone can identify with a similar situation in the past where they were the one searching fruitlessly for something — or the one, sadly, who was giving the weak instructions for what kind of ‘stone’ they wanted.

For Richards and the professionals from HG&E, the communication classes were well-received, due partly to what Richards calls Steiner’s ability to speak to everyone’s discipline. “He did a good job of a balancing act by not making it too boring for some and not too much for others,” he said. “For many, this was their first time being exposed to these types of ideas, and it was conducive for people who are in different jobs — engineering, accounting, etc. — working together, and those younger and older were able to share their experiences about how situations come up and how people handle them.”

While communication is high on Steiner’s list, he said “Essentials of Supervision” is another key course for someone on the management fast track, who learns what to expect in the transition and some of the pitfalls to avoid.

Steiner teaches why first-line supervisors are important and the issues they have to deal with, like the balance between needing time to learn management skills and understanding what management is expecting of the group. Add to that the new, required workload that can’t be delegated to others, as well as the challenge of managing a group of different personalities.

One pitfall to avoid: reverse delegation. This is a scenario, Steiner said, in which an employee is given a task, then comes back and says he or she doesn’t know how to do it, so the new supervisor says, “OK, I’ll do it; let me find something else for you to do.”

The consistent act of reverse delegation trains the employee to know the manager will always finish the job, similar to a child learning that when a parent says ‘no,’ it doesn’t mean that at all.

With almost a wink, Steiner added, “in essence, management is very much like bringing up children.”

He also teaches the balance between being a micromanager and letting the staff freewheel through their day with no oversight whatsoever. In the “Managing and Resolving Conflict” course, students learn that those in charge who don’t want to deal with conflict professionally are going to see problems grow and fester beyond the area of the manager’s responsibility and up to the next level, which reflects badly on the manager and his or her obvious lack of skills.

At this point, one starts to see how the specifics of each session melts into other topics. A manager’s consistent avoidance can lead to employees who lose motivation or escalate to major conflicts that never get resolved — and that can affect every area of company business.


Planning Makes Perfect

Of all the AMA courses, Steiner said the one he really enjoys teaching is “Conducting Productive Performance Appraisals” because it is absolutely the most misunderstood area of management.

“Feedback should be a continuous process, both positive and negative,” he told BusinessWest. “The idea of performance appraisal is to improve performance and productivity all year long; it should not be a point where the boss unloads on the employee … it should be a summary.”

Steiner said the contents of an annual performance review should not be a surprise to anyone, and bad reviews are a classic sign of manager avoidance.

During the weekly meetings leading up to the review, one of Steiner’s rules is to never play the blame game. Start with determining how the process broke down, and use ‘I,’ not ‘you.’ His example of what not to say: “you’re always late; you never meet your deadlines.” Instead: “on this day, I observed that you were late,” or “I saw that you missed your deadline by a few days.”

Steiner said this makes the feedback more easily accepted because the situation, similar to the jealousy problem, should be unemotional and based on facts, not opinions.

Meanwhile, the “Managing Multiple Priorities” course discusses a trap that many new managers fall into: automatically putting a new job at the top of the priority list, which endangers the deadlines of everything else. It’s all about planning, said Steiner.

“We do a lot of meetings in our office,” Phaneuf noted, “and one of the courses helped us learn about planning agendas and making sure only the most important items are covered in meetings. And we now have a great understanding the cost of meetings … and the importance of not ‘meeting people to death,’ because when you add up what people are making per hour, meetings are expensive when nothing is accomplished.”

To sum up the program, Steiner argues that a good management foundation is necessary to have the most profitable bottom line. “Then success brings visibility and approval from peers outside the team, resulting in pride in a job well done and the motivation to do even more.”

From years of being a consultant and working in management-level positions, he also weaves into his teaching an affirmation he calls “Plan. Do. Learn.”

“Plan what you want to do. Do it. Analyze the lessons learned after to find if it worked or not and what you would do differently in the future,” he explained. “That way, you don’t make the same mistake twice.”

Richards said the courses provide a framework so that participants can look back later to see which ideas are most successful and determine how to do a better job moving forward.

Phaneuf added that the courses were helpful to him and his staff, not only for the basic, yet vital concepts, but because of the ability to literally go back to school.

“Sometimes it’s good to have an outside person give a second opinion,” he said, “because you’re just too close to it.”

He and Richards are among a growing group of managers who understand that going back to school at any age or level of professional management can only help the company as a whole, by getting the most out of its greatest asset — its employees.


Elizabeth Taras may be reached at taras@businesswest.com


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