Q&A with L&D expert Tania Luna on manager training

Tania Luna’s background in psychology was the spark that led her into organizational development and training. Just as people operations is becoming more of a data driven field, Luna believes psychology comes from the same beginnings. “I think how psychology became a science versus just philosophy is we started measuring things. It became a tangible, believable, useful science,” says Luna.

When she took on her first role in Organizational Development, about twelve years ago, talking about company culture wasn’t as common as it is today. Now, as organizations are getting better at understanding what to measure, they can perform experiments and backup their perspective with data.

Luna has been in the field of learning and development for over a decade, specializing in organizational psychology, emotion regulation, and surprise psychology. As a Partner and Facilitator at LifeLabs Learning, she leads manager training for fast growing tech companies worldwide. Her research on how to handle and harness surprise is featured in her book, Surprise: Embrace the unpredictable and engineer the unexpected. Her TED Talk, How a penny made me feel like a millionaire, shares how experiences in her childhood first opened her eyes to the wonder of surprise in life.

In this interview, Luna shares with us how she came to specialize in manager training and why it’s an exciting path for her. She also provides advice on making training stick, and how anyone can get started learning more about organizational development.

Your TED talk explores the idea of gratitude and how surprise can help us thrive in the face of uncertainty. Does this influence how you approach manager training?

For sure. Our CEO [at LifeLabs Learning], LeeAnn Renninger and I, actually met because we were both doing research on surprise. Through our collaboration, we've realized that unpredictable environments demand different skill sets and norms than stable environments. All of the skills we teach are relevant in the context of workplaces that experience constant surprise, uncertainty, and ambiguity. In particular, we focus a lot on question skills and clear communication, which are the tipping points skills we need to thrive in the midst of constant change.

The role of a manager has typically been a linear way for people to climb the career ladder. How do you define what it means to be a manager?

We often talk about leadership or influence without authority. Even if you do have formal authority, we never teach tools that will make you better at telling people what to do. Some of my favorite groups to work with are tech leads who don't have formal authority but who are tasked with leadership. That's such a fun place to be because you don't get to use authority as a shortcut to motivate people and to help people develop. I use the word manager probably pretty loosely. It's anyone who's in a position to help grow someone, that could help create clarity, that could help facilitate insight. That doesn't have to be a formal manager title.

Is there something for you in particular that makes manager training exciting?

Yes, there are a couple of things. One is just the amount of impact managers have on the entire organization. I started off being more excited about individual contributor training. Then during workshops people would inevitably say, "Ugh, I wish my manager took this. I'd love to give feedback but there's no way my manager's going to hear this message.” People may leave their jobs because of their manager or because they assume there are no growth opportunities. These things woke me up to the importance of a manger.

What's exciting about it is seeing that when you train just a few managers, you start to see the shift in the entire organization. When managers are really skilled up, they spread that skill and empower their teams. They also push it up to their managers. It's a really great level if you want to make impact on the organization.

For me, management is one of the hardest jobs. You're leading humans. You're constantly juggling tasks. You're regulating your emotions. You're trying to motivate people and read people. That's really hard but it’s also an exciting opportunity to grow as a person. That's one of the reasons we're called LifeLabs is because we focus on skills that tip over into life. It's exciting to see people really embrace that role and realize how special the opportunity is to grow as a leader.

You’ve said that learning and development programs that are successful are integrated. Do you provide ways for companies to continue learning after you've led a workshop?

Yes we do. This year we've focused on it even more. We hired a wonderful L&D professional named Diane Sadowski-Joseph. Her title is Impact Strategist and she partners with our clients to help them figure out how to get the most impact out of their training. Just as an example, let's say that we're doing feedback training. A two-hour workshop aimed at helping people get better at giving feedback is great, but there are so many other things you can do. For example, we help companies get their executives on board and help coach their executives to figure out how to model great feedback. Other examples might be using tools like Culture Amp for manager 180s so that managers know whether or not they're giving feedback effectively.

What has been the most rewarding moment in your career so far?

One of the first that comes to mind is when a student in one of our manager training programs came up to me after class and asked to chat privately. Because there were no meeting rooms available, we sat in a stairwell. She started crying and told me that taking LifeLabs workshops saved her marriage. She and her husband began to have the first open, honest, and caring conversations that they've had in years thanks to the tools she was learning in the program. It really brought to light for me that the hard line between work and life is evaporating. Our workplace interactions and personal growth opportunities at work are becoming so rich, that they demand as much care, thoughtfulness, and skill as our most meaningful relationships. It also reinforced for me that the workplace is a dojo for learning life's most useful skills. Every single day we come to work is an opportunity to become a better version of ourselves.

Do you have any exciting projects coming up this year?

I am particularly excited about five initiatives:

  1. Weaving elements of unconscious bias and inclusion training into every workshop (an initiative spearheaded by McKendree Hickory on our team). We have a stand-alone Unconscious Bias & Behaviors of Inclusion workshop, but we want to make it a subtle, red-thread in our entire course menu.
  2. Investigate differences in skill sets between managers and executives (headed up by our facilitator and executive coach, Robleh Kirce).
  3. Conducting research on the remote employee experience (a project led by Megan Wheeler on our team).
  4. Completing a study on meeting effectiveness, in collaboration with my coworker Roi Ben-Yehuda and psychologist Dan Ariely.
  5. Expanding our ability to serve our clients with dispersed teams (e.g. providing virtual training, open-enrollment workshops, and setting up residencies in various cities throughout the world). 

What would be your advice to someone starting their career in organizational development or learning and development?

Meet other L&D/People Ops folks and grill them about the details of their jobs. Look up their resumes on LinkedIn. Make a list of the accomplishments and responsibilities that look more interesting, then find a way to reverse engineer them. For example, if you think launching an onboarding program is intriguing, find a small way to do onboarding (even if it is not part of your role). Maybe you can volunteer to mentor new employees, start buying balloons for new hires on their first day, or create a survey to measure onboarding satisfaction. You don't have to get formal approval or a job title change right away. Just own the initiative (even a tiny one).

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