Management Training: Outbrain Style

|Catie Maillard

photo, management training

We are super excited to announce that Outbrain’s management training program has been  selected as a 2015 finalist in the employee engagement awards’ project of the year! We’ll see  how the awards unfold at the ceremony later this month, but until then, we wanted to give you  a peek into what it means to manage at Outbrain. Hint, not this:


A common challenge high-growth startups face is how to support their newly minted managers. Lots of expansion often means lots of promotions as middle management layers are built out to support a growing company, and many of these new managers are just that – new to management.

As we know from Gallup’s research, engagement is strongly correlated with strong managers. In fact, ten out of their 12 aspects of employee engagement are heavily influenced by manager actions, and many of the tools managers need to keep employees engaged aren’t super intuitive. Ever have a manager who only sat down with you when something was wrong? Whose performance reviews were fluffy or nonexistent? Who gave you barely enough information to deliver? Yep, we hear you. Bad managers lead to low engagement and high turnover. So how do we make sure that doesn’t happen? Well, we started a holistic learning and development program beyond the basic into trainings that many organizations provide.

Our goal was to provide All managers at Outbrain US with the tools they need, covering management “101” topics in a 2-day boot camp: the goods and the bads of managing at Outbrain, moving from peer to manager, management styles and decision making, delegation, global communication, legalese, performance management and more. With different experiences and seniority levels in the room, the groups are able to share their tools and past successes. We worked to create a safe space where people would be receptive to information and sharing; everyone in the room was treated as an expert. We used a blended learning, participatory style with videos, slides, post-it notes and games to appeal to different learning styles.

But we didn’t stop there.

To combat the dreaded “skill fade,” we added monthly peer-support “cohorts” to run after the initial management boot camp. During these monthly workshops, we do a deep dive into a management issue (managing in a matrix, delegation 201, etc.), explore case studies and leave time for troubleshooting management challenges that the participants currently face.

We also leave time for complaining. Because when you’re a new manager, you can’t complain to your teams and we all have things to complain about at work, no matter how engaged we are.

 So, has it worked? Totally. Through qualitative feedback (in performance reviews, round tables and other forums) from our employees and managers, we found that the management culture has changed for the better – particularly at the mid-management level – and that managers are generally stronger. Outbrain has also seen remarkably high retention rates despite growth and change management challenges

There have also been a number of (positive!) unintended consequences from the cohorts. For one, we’ve been able to surface issues in the company as a whole before they become real problems. While we don’t promise total confidentiality (we can’t for legal and ethical reasons), what happens in the room generally stays in the room with the exception of themes that are often managed up. The cross-departmental nature of the cohorts also helps with between team communication and interdependency issues, which tend to get a bit complicated as you grow.

We ask all participants to evaluate all workshops and iterate on them based on what we hear. As Outbrain continues to grow and evolve, we hope to continue to support all managers with the tools they need to be successful!

We’re hiring! Check out all our open positions.

Rachel Marcuse, Senior Director, Global Learning and Organizational Development and Catie Maillard, Senior HR Business Partner


Feature image courtesy of Gvahim via Flickr.

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Catie Maillard

Catie Maillard

Catie is on the Americas HR team at Outbrain, where she focuses on bringing in new folks and helping Outbrainers... Read more

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  • Jon Davies| June 17, 2015 at 10:10AM

    Thanks for the mention of regarding skills fade.

    It’s great to see an organisation reaping the rewards of a forward-thinking approach to management training. Creating a feedback loop like you have is proven time and time again to improve competency, retention and wellbeing amongst both management and talent.


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