Managers play a crucial role in organizations — in fact, the employee-manager relationship is usually the determining factor in whether an employee is engaged and committed to the organization. And yet, many companies don’t invest heavily in training their managers.

However, if you want to be a great manager — which can lead to being recognized and rewarded for your efforts — you may need to invest in yourself.

Why companies don’t invest in their managers

If the management role is so important, why don’t companies invest in their managers?

"It is often assumed that newly-promoted managers will just pick it up, that somehow they will know how to manage people, or will have learned how from their own managers," according to David Deacon, HR leader, psychologist, and author of "The Self-Determined Manager: A Manifesto for Exceptional People Managers." It’s a troubling assumption since not all managers have themselves worked with great managers or even know the criteria for even being a good manager.

Training tends to be very formulaic among companies that do invest in managers. "Training usually involves processes, checklists, and procedures — the tools and systems for managing, record-keeping, and monitoring," Deacon explains. "Sometimes this includes training on what to do if something goes wrong — disciplinary processes, grievances, performance management."

However, he says that training rarely covers what’s really important: the skills and approaches needed to create an environment of success and outperformance around the team.

Another problem for companies is deciding how to allocate the organization’s funds. “There are a lot of managers, and not endless amounts of money to spend on training,” Deacon explains.

For the past several decades, he says companies have focused so much attention on encouraging leaders to step up that there’s no shortage of people to be trained. So, they’ve decided that training people at the most senior leadership levels is the best training investment.

"But this approach leaves managers behind — the people who shape every employee’s experience every working day," he says. "It shouldn’t be a surprise that so many employees are demotivated and not engaged in their work, because we haven’t invested in training their managers."

The importance of managers continuously improving

While everyone needs to continuously grow, learn and develop, managers are in a unique position since they are directly responsible for the people who report to them. "And in times of change and ambiguity, managers take center stage. We look to our managers to understand how things are, to get guidance on what to prioritize and what to focus on, to get direction, reassurance, and information," Deacon says. Employees expect managers to have a vision for the future and the employees’ best interests at heart.

If that’s not enough, the U.S. is at full employment, so employees have more employment choices. "If you believe the stereotypes, many employees will exercise those choices based on the things that matter most to them, like having challenging work, making a meaningful contribution, getting opportunities to learn and grow, and feeling a sense of belonging."

Against this backdrop, Deacon says managers have to be focused on developing themselves more — and this includes being better at their jobs, and more effective at managing individual employees and teams.

It’s a view shared by James DeVaney, associate vice provost for academic innovation at the University of Michigan. "The future of work and the future of learning are converging and our new normal is calling for pathways to continuous competency."

Not only do managers need to adopt a lifelong learning style, DeVaney says they need to do so transparently. "As leaders, coaches, and mentors, they need to clearly demonstrate that they understand how to acquire new knowledge and skills." He says they need to model behavior by applying new skills and knowledge in the right way, too.

"It’s unfortunate and short-sighted that many organizations are reducing learning budgets, just as the need to refresh and re-tool continues to accelerate," DeVaney says.

How managers can invest in themselves

There are several steps that managers can take to grow and develop. "Fortunately, many educational institutions and organizations are deeply committed to removing the barriers of time, space, language, and affordability in order to meet the needs of motivated learners," according to DeVaney.

He points to an emerging ecology of credentials that are well-suited for managers who want to invest in themselves. "For example, the MasterTrack and MicroMasters models and other derivative experiments that ignited from the MOOC (massive open online course) era provide targeted and affordable opportunities to engage with cohorts and some of the greatest universities around the world."

Institutions like the University of Michigan, MIT, Georgia Tech, Boston University, UC San Diego, and the University of Penn offer micro-credentials in such areas as project management, supply chain management, data science, digital product management, and cloud computing.

These micro-credentials, a series of online graduate-level courses equivalent to a semester in grad school, also allow learners to earn credit towards a master’s degree — without spending a ton of money. "We’re putting learners in the driver’s seat and creating new models for learning that allow us to reach a new generation of talent and connect these learners with a global network of perspectives," DeVaney explains.

Managers can also benefit from reading quality leadership and management books and identifying others (who may be inside or outside of the organization) as possible mentors.

However, Deacon says managers also need to do something else. "To be a truly effective manager you have to ‘opt-in’ to this way of thinking, to recognize and accept that the approach you take, your attitude and intentions, are the central part of managing people well."

This refers to how you approach the job and the ability to understand the power, opportunity and responsibility that come with managing others. "There is only limited value in learning skills like coaching and giving feedback — and even technical and operational skills — if you don’t first figure out what kind of manager you intend to be," Deacon explains.

"You also have to work out the environment you will create around your team, understand the dimensions of being an effective manager, and sort out your own priorities, vision and point of view," he says. "By all means, ask for skills training and seek out learning opportunities yourself — that’s always good — but start by thinking about the kind of manager you want to be, and how you can use your role and capabilities to have the impact you want."