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How CARE Shapes Management Culture

December 7, 2021

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Sarah Arnason

Learning & Development Advisor


Kendra Heide

Learning & Development Specialist


Jessica Walker

Senior Manager, Convenings, US

How do you tackle a major culture shift with limited staff resources and no in-person meetings? CARE’s Learning and Development (L&D) Team has dedicated the last year to designing and implementing a management development community of practice that is cost-effective, accessible (regardless of travel restrictions and location), and sustainable.

Previously, our management development program was a three-day in-person workshop facilitated by various people within the organization who were talented facilitators and passionate about management. The facilitators traveled all over the world to conduct trainings for country offices. While the workshops were met with enthusiasm, they were expensive due to the travel and inherent cost of big in-person events. Though the training received positive feedback and some managers adopted new skills, there was no sustained habit or cultural change.

The Philosophy

After several years, this training was paused for updating – then the pandemic started, and poor management practices were highlighted by remote work. While we had presented solutions for distance learning before, there was a prevailing narrative that in-person training was better, so they had not succeeded. The pandemic, however, provided an opportunity to demonstrate how distance learning could serve us.

We knew we didn’t want a traditional online learning program that was “one and done.” We wanted to create a community where managers could learn and try new things, share their experiences, and see each other grow. We wanted a “community of practice” inspired by Etienne Wenger-Traynor. Our priority for the community was to encourage the idea of being “lifelong learners.” We believed that by inspiring a critical mass of managers to be lifelong learners constantly striving for small improvements in their managerial skills, we would see a shift in CARE’s management culture overall.

During  in-person training, participating managers always expressed excitement about interacting, discussing, practicing, and learning with their peers, so the social aspect was a key characteristic that we wanted to retain. From this feedback and our own research, we knew that peer-to-peer learning was a powerful piece to incorporate into the community.

The Pilot

We had an idea. And we had an entire region asking for management training. So, we brought 50 mid-level managers from our Middle East and Northern Africa region “together” in a Microsoft Teams channel called Management Matters. The first six months were an induction period to orient them to a new way of interacting and learning with highly facilitated programming. After six months of participating, managers transition into a General Community, continuing to engage and connect with reduced facilitation. Eventually, we plan for the induction period to serve as manager onboarding.

We worked with a Core Team of seven local HR staff led by the Regional HR Business Partner throughout the pilot. The L&D Team met with the Core Team weekly to train them, check-in, and adjust the program as needed. Our plan is that once a pilot cohort has been completed for each region, the L&D Team will step back, and each region will be able to train its future Core Teams and lead the community independently.

This virtual community was very new at the time (and still is!), so we knew there would be a learning curve. During the first few months, we offered a lot of handholding around expectations, use of Teams, and what it meant to “try things out.” We also focused on how to learn when work (and life) gets busy. Throughout previous programs, we would often hear, “I’m too busy for this.” We wanted to confront that head-on, especially with our spotlight on managers becoming lifelong learners. We encouraged participants to unplug when things get overwhelming. We didn’t expect managers to respond to every post or complete every assignment. To support this, we balanced synchronous and asynchronous learning. We recognized and rewarded the super-engaged participants, and we never shamed anyone for limited engagement. Instead, we offered support and encouraged them to check back in when they could.

To encourage cultural change, we took a marketing approach to our material. We wanted to inspire our managers, get them excited, and help them find value in the community early on. Every piece was planned to inspire action and paired with a powerful message or aspiration and an action. These pieces were organized in a Program Guide that mapped out each month’s posts, events, and exercises. The Program Guide also instructed the Core Team on their responsibilities and the various roles they rotated through for community facilitation.

We had a lot of ambitions and key outputs for the community:

  • Managers connecting with managers across the region and within their country offices
  • Active participation, not passive learning
  • Ongoing engagement, even when work (and life) was busy
  • Application of learning through “experimenting” with new things with their staff

We consistently emphasized that learning (in this community) could take many forms. It’s not just about the hours invested; it’s about how they engage and what they do with their learning. From a facilitation perspective, we didn’t want to be grading assignments, we wanted to see participation and hear impact stories.

Once started, we immediately saw results like:

  • Participants talking to each other and broadening their perspective while learning new things
  • Participants reading shared materials and conversing about it with their peers
  • Participants asking each other questions, which deepened their learning and helped them retain new information
  • Participants reflecting on their own experiences and sharing openly

Overall, they were connecting, actively participating, and engaging regularly. Unknowingly, they were also holding each other accountable by publicly making commitments and sharing goals. They owned their learning; we did not need to follow up or ask people to respond because engagement happened organically. We think this ownership came from managers being active for one another rather than for the facilitators.

The “How”

Here are our secrets:

1. We invited people to apply for the first cohort. This was a shift from CARE’s usual nomination approach and received quite a bit of pushback. We stood firm because it ensured that applicants were eager to join and provided an opportunity to create a diverse community.

2. We deeply considered the participant experience. We asked ourselves: Is this too much? Is this realistic? If I were busy and couldn’t do this, what could I do? This was a critical piece for success and a positive participant experience, so we did the following:

  • We didn’t want the technology to be a barrier or make people uncomfortable, so we only used technology everyone could access and was familiar with: Teams and Zoom. We offered simple and frequent instructions to help people learn these tools.
  • We acknowledged the importance of psychological safety, which included openness to disagree, debate, or share a different perspective. In fact, we encouraged people to disagree! We were very intentional in building safety and space for asking questions.
  • We maintained an informal, conversational tone. We didn’t want this to feel heavy or have participants feel like they had to polish their answers before sharing.
  • We reminded participants that there was no “right way” to participate, and nothing was graded. Whatever they did, whatever they contributed, and however they engaged was right.

3. Participants routinely connected in smaller, more personal groups. Every month participants were randomly connected with a buddy and assigned a task, and each month a sub-cohort of managers in the same office were tasked to gather and discuss a particular topic. This helped participants get comfortable and build peer relationships.

4. Any examples we used were very practical, including real-life examples connected to CARE’s actual work. This focus on the participant experience produced strong engagement results and helped the participants build their competence and confidence in discussing and practicing new ideas. This was the cultural change we wanted to see!

The Outcomes

We are very excited by the participation throughout the pilot – we maintained an 80-85% engagement level!

We look forward to:

  • The transformative potential of managers that will strengthen our management and create a positive culture.
  • The sustainability and scaling potential for other regions’ management and HR teams to build and facilitate these communities.
  • Managers who are life-long learners that model that behavior for staff.
  • Creating a cultural narrative around management and organizational investment in staff capacity.
    The expansion of the program to other regions and language groups!

This management program has helped CARE’s mid-level managers in the Middle East and Northern Africa develop a sense of community, build their management skills and a culture of learning and growth, and create an understanding of emotional intelligence and interpersonal awareness.

We were able to promote autonomy for our managers – not only with this community and how they engaged with the materials and activities but also in how they think about training and learning. Each time they chose to join an activity and participate resulted in more meaningful interactions. We’re immensely proud of their progress and eager to start our next cohort and expand to new regions.

If you’d like to learn more about CARE’s training program, you can listen to a recording of our recent webinar here.