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One of GitLab Learning & Development’s (L&D) biggest charters for FY21 was building out a management training program. It was a huge task! The CEO asked the L&D team to build a program that trained managers on remote leadership, managing teams, and management best practices. GitLab has been around since 2011. With our massive growth over the years, there was a huge need to train and develop managers for the future. Building a program from scratch was going to require a proactive approach to ensure all voices were heard and to build a program that equipped our leaders with the right skills.

So, how do you build a management training program for an all-remote company? What do you include? How do you design and develop an impactful program?

In this blog, I’ll cover some tips and tricks to what we did in L&D to build the Manager Challenge program.

Start With a Learning Needs Analysis

When I first started at GitLab, I learned that there had never been a formal management training program. L&D was a relatively new function within the organization. With the massive growth, L&D saw an opportunity to train our managers for the skillset they needed to be successful. Our first task for developing a program was to conduct a learning needs analysis. We took a consulting approach to the analysis by interviewing a wide range of stakeholders at the company with varying experience levels. From C-suite executives to new managers, to established Directors, we had to diversify who we would receive input from.

We divided between us, at the time a team of two, by collecting feedback on the management needs and skill gaps. We conducted a job task analysis by determining what managers do at GitLab and what knowledge and skills they would need. During the interviews, we identified consistent themes across stakeholder groups. Some of the themes mentioned “foundational management” as a critical area to focus skill building. Many of our people leaders had been recently promoted and never managed a team before. The skills needed to manage people are different when you have direct reports versus being an individual contributor.

From the learning needs analysis, we could pull out additional themes and recommendations for the training. Managing an all-remote team requires a different set of skills than a colocated office environment. For one, people leaders need to ensure their people are set up to be “Managers of One.” You have to empower your people to work autonomously and get the job done to achieve results. We synthesized the themes which led us into the storyboarding and training design phase.

Design a Training Experience That Fits Your Culture

Everyone is super busy at GitLab. Like any high-growth, pre-IPO organization, the company moves at lightning speed. We knew that managers would have limited time to dedicate to training. L&D didn’t want to make managers take huge chunks out of their day to dedicate to training. And there is nothing worse than being on a three to five-hour-long virtual training event!

The training was divided into two parts:

  1. Daily asynchronous learning activities
  2. Weekly live learning sessions

We knew that the training needed to be bite-sized over a period of time to reinforce management behaviors and skill-building. When we started designing the program, we looked at 30-day challenges as a framework to support behavior change. Participants would be required to do a short daily challenge that would take twenty minutes to complete on their own time. GitLab is a global company. Our team members live in over 65+ countries around the globe. Coordinating calendars with managers was going to be difficult for dedicated virtual live training time. Instead, we built the curriculum by dividing up themes and topics into weeks and days. We created bite-sized learning and actions for participants to complete on their own time.

At GitLab, we don’t just read off of slides during a presentation. We ask that participants review slides ahead of the call and use the time together to ask questions while facilitating a discussion. We designed the live learning sessions with these best practices in mind. The live learning sessions would focus on the themes covered during the daily asynchronous activities. Also, we prompted managers to openly discuss specific management topics (i.e., giving/receiving feedback, performance discussions, wellbeing check-ins, etc.) that are important to GitLab.

The program design started to take shape. We designed a three-week program with asynchronous learning activities to be completed Monday-Wednesday. Thursday’s were dedicated to live-learning events to network and learn from other managers. Friday’s served as catch up days, weekly course evaluations, and self-reflections.

Use What You Have Available

The best way to understand how GitLab works is to use it for as much of your job as possible. We dogfood our product by threading it into everything we do in the organization. Managers need to be well-equipped with using GitLab to manage their all-remote team. We designed the training to incorporate GitLab into the curriculum as much as possible. The daily asynchronous learning activities are posted in a GitLab Issue. Everyone in the program, anyone with a GitLab.com account, has access to the learning content. The asynchronous topic was posted daily. Participants could read through the Issue and complete the action item by posting their responses in the comments section.

The practice enabled our transparency value by allowing all participants (anyone really) to review manager’s responses. The benefit of using GitLab reinforced multiple behaviors. One, everyone was dogfooding our product. Two, participants could learn from others by reading how other managers respond to different situations. Three, participants now have a reference point to go back to as they grow in their careers.

Does your organization have a tool like GitLab to help facilitate L&D initiatives? If so, consider using it to reinforce behaviors and to allow managers to become comfortable using them. If not, consider having your team members sign up for a free GitLab account and implement a challenge using GitLab.

Apply Social Learning

Remote work can have some drawbacks. One of those challenges may be a lack of connection with your coworkers. Managers need to form relationships with their team members over virtual calls. And people leaders may not have a lot of opportunities to learn from others in a social setting. When you work for a globally distributed team, there can be isolation if the rest of your team is in different time zones.

We designed the live learning session as a forum for social learning. Managers were given prompts and scenarios on certain situations they would face in their role. Breakout activities were implemented to strengthen networks and collaboration. Participants would share tips on how they would handle the scenarios. We focused less on slides and presenting material and more on engaging with one another to learn from others. Managers shared lessons learned, and many participants walked away from the live learning sessions with new skills to apply right away on the job.

Review and Validate the Program with Executives

We are lucky that our leadership team is passionate about the growth and development of our team members. GitLab’s CEO, Sid, asked us to spearhead management training, and he partnered with us on reviewing the content to ensure it aligned with his vision. High Output Management is a book written by Andrew Grove, former CEO of Intel. It is one of our CEO’s favorite books!

When we met with Sid for the first time to review the curriculum, he wanted us to ensure that important principles covered in the book were included. We threaded multiple topics (i.e., 1-1 meetings, performance management, making decisions, etc.) into the program.

Also, our executive review meetings validated whether or not the program reinforced our values. Gitlab Values are central to how the organization operates. I’ve never worked for a company where they are emphasized so much! Executives had a keen eye on ensuring that the program equipped managers with being role models of our values. The review and validation from executives were vital as we launched GitLab’s management training program.

Don’t be afraid to Iterate

It’s easy for L&D professionals to get caught up in requirement gathering and rapidly develop learning programs. However, it’s important to remember that your solution’s best feedback will occur once you pilot the program. We’ve launched two iterations of the Manager Challenge program, and the two looked completely different. The first program was longer, four weeks, and didn’t do enough to reinforce GitLab Values. We also held several meetings with leadership to thread more GitLab “ways of working” content into the curriculum. We ended up cutting out one of the weeks of training to make it three weeks and used the book High Output Management as the foundation to the enablement.

For the first iteration, we created a large project plan. We didn’t start with the smallest thing possible and get it out as quickly as possible. The plan allowed us to develop a comprehensive curriculum, but it was without testing. The upfront work took a great deal of time. Looking back, we should have developed a shorter program, iterated, and moved forward with the next version. To be successful, we had to get something out right away, pilot, receive feedback, and update.

During the training, we conducted weekly evaluations of the content. With the feedback, we were able to apply constructive points and incorporate them into the next week. For example, participants wanted to network more. So we adapted the curriculum and added more social learning in the remaining weeks.

Iteration was central to how we rolled out a more seamless program that incorporated GitLab Values and ways-of-working. Don’t be afraid to iterate if you are building a management training program. The best feedback will come once you get it out the door.

The Result

After months of planning, content development, stakeholder reviews, we developed the Manager Challenge program for GitLab people leaders. The program is a blended learning approach that incorporates self-paced daily challenges and live learning sessions to build foundational management skills. The program includes leadership assessments, interactive learning, networking, and digital learning, all in three weeks. The program builds a set of baseline management skills that complement our values.

Here’s what a few participants had to say about the program:

  1. "The handbook has so much content, it's easy to forget how much tactical information can be found right at your fingertips."
  2. "Team performance is cyclical. Perceived regressions aren't bad, but rather a reflection of a change in team dynamics. Look for the types of questions people are asking to know how to respond."
  3. "The handbook is a great resource with tons of information on being a manager, having hard conversations, and helping teams grow."
  4. "For me, these are good reminders of what are the best practices to adopt as a Manager. I am always exploring what are ways we can do tasks better and faster. With that said, as a manager, we need to be sure my people and others are part of the process."
  5. "I learned that there are so many amazing managers here at GitLab. Each of the days' comments were treasure troves into how to approach something differently or new techniques that others have found success with."
  6. "It's possible to be a great remote manager!"

If you are set out to create a management training program for your organization to develop leaders, use some of the points in this blog as a reference point. Feel free to reach out to GitLab Learning & Development at learning@gitlab.com.

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