To succeed in the 21st-century world of work, you have to move quickly; there often isn't time to gain all the skills you need through experience. But don't panic - a gamut of intensive courses will help to equip you for a fast-track career.
Your e-mail in-box is overflowing, and IT have just asked you, again, to sort it out. That report on the new sales strategy still isn't ready.
You are on the road next week, in meetings for three days. You haven't brought the chief executive any good news for a month. And now HR are on the line, reminding you about your professional development needs.
Is this really a good time to disappear on yet another training course?
Any manager might be tempted to slam the phone down, cursing the HR department.
But that would be wrong. When simply keeping up with the day-to-day challenges of a job is proving difficult, it is not the right moment to dismiss management education and training. Complacency can be dangerous.
At this stage of the business cycle, cost control is at the top of the corporate agenda, rather than investment. But leading your business out of this difficult period will require management skills of a high order. 'In the past, we have seen training and development budgets cut in a downturn,' says Tricia Bradley, director of management development at the Chartered Management Institute (CMI). 'But there is less of that attitude now. Businesses recognise that you need better managers in tough times, and more not less development activity. In the good times anyone can manage!'
Young managers who've been promoted quickly may not even have experience of what business was like in the grim days of 1991-92, say, or in the recession of a decade earlier. And because of changes in the way businesses are structured, managers find themselves taking on much greater responsibility far earlier in their careers than in the past.
Says Dr Bill Byham, chairman and CEO of DDI, the training and development consultancy: 'Organisations used to be much more hierarchical. Now they are less so. Levels have been pulled out, so it makes the jumps between levels more difficult. Just because you're doing a good job down there doesn't mean you're going to do a good job up here.'
So up-skilling becomes a harder but more urgent task. 'We used to have deputy jobs,' adds Byham. 'That's where you used to learn. But today we've had to develop strategic-level training for people new to senior management. They haven't had the chance to think about what their new role entails.'
Last month, the CMI launched its new 'chartered manager' qualification, in part as an attempt to signal the importance of continuous learning and development. Explains Bradley: 'Chartered managers will be re-assessed every three years, through a rigorous process of peer review, to confirm that they are committed to learning, and that they are having an impact in their organisation.'
Chartered status for individual managers, the CMI hopes, will be a useful extra qualification for managers in the jobs market. As with qualified accountants or HR professionals, chartered status underlines the professional standing of a manager.
So continuous education, training and development are absolutely necessary for managers serious about succeeding. But given the economic climate, it is not surprising that for many businesses the thrust and focus of that training has changed.
Dr Robert McHenry, founder and chairman of OPP, the business psychology consultants, attended the annual conference of the American Society for Training and Development in San Diego earlier this year and noted a distinct change of tone in the research that was being presented. 'Whereas 10 years ago the discussion concerned generic training programmes and syllabus, and five years ago the talk was of blending online and traditional training, this year the key phrase was 'return on investment',' he says. 'It was a case of 'welcome to the real world'.'
DDI's Byham is struck by how much money can still be wasted by firms that don't make the best use of the training options available. 'Companies often pick the wrong things to develop,' he says, 'or they don't focus on the things that are really going to make a difference to their life.
So here are people spending all this money and time trying to stimulate the development of their people, but they are not getting much out of it. You cannot develop 50 things, or even 15 things. We are all adults - it's very difficult to change behaviour. You've got to figure out what the one thing is that, if you did it differently, you could be more effective - really put a lot of effort into that. Take a holistic view of your skills and personality and focus on a single goal.'
Training and development has to deliver value for money, be targeted on genuine business needs, and be of practical use back in the workplace.
No wonder that so-called 'action learning', where senior managers get together to discuss real challenges from work, is proving increasingly popular in some circles.
The right sort of training and development may take the form of a short course, a diploma, a module, or a complete MBA. Above all, these interventions should be designed to help produce the leaders that businesses and organisations need now and in the future. The following two articles look at the options available: inaction is not one of them.