Some time ago in a previous organisation, I recruited two people for my team; overnight I became a manager.
Nothing to write home about there, you may say. This very attitude is the thing that really struck me – how absolutely nothing changed. No-one asked me how I was going to get the best out of my new staff, what my leadership style was, what the organisation expects of managers… nothing.
That may be a compliment; it’s often assumed that colleagues who are good at their jobs will make good managers too.
I worked in HR for 10 years, supporting managers prior to becoming a manager myself, and throughout my career, I have seen many different management styles. I saw how identical team structures in different locations would vary massively in terms of engagement and culture, and it was mainly down to their manager.
For example, I used to work in a highly-pressurised sales environment where it was key that salespeople were motivated to bring creativity, energy and personality to work; this easily directly translated into bottom line revenue. I understood the differences I was seeing and would try and pick up tips from the good managers and pass them onto the struggling ones.
But there was something I hadn’t fully appreciated at the time and didn’t give all that much thought to until I was in this position myself recently. What I hadn’t realised was that those managers who were really engaging – who got the best out of their teams and walked the fine line between being liked and respected – had mostly developed that skill by themselves.
They had the self-awareness to think about the needs of their team, and the intuition to copy traits from their own favourite leaders. They understood that they needed to treat their team as individuals and to trust them. They didn’t shy away from difficult conversations when things went wrong, in order to catch issues early.
I would know the weaker accidental managers straight away; they were the ones who saw people issues as an “HR thing”. They saw staff as lucky to have a job, or they’d jump on an opportunity to discipline if a policy was breached. They frequently had a staff member who “wasn’t working out.” They often didn’t know the first thing about the very employees they were managing.
At this organisation, all new managers went through the same internal 2-day management course. This was really helpful, and there are some great courses out there. My own organisation delivers excellent management and leadership programmes to suit a range of management needs.
But I saw first-hand how managers all applied their learning differently. Some were natural leaders and some would clearly need more support. And we have to be honest: some should never have been people managers in the first place, they just wanted a promotion and this was the only route. They had been brilliant salespeople but made terrible leaders.
We’ve probably all heard the famous saying that employees join an organisation but leave a manager. I can’t speak for everyone, but this has often (although not always) been true in my own career. But although everyone seems to know this, in my experience most organisations are still not giving leadership the emphasis and funding it deserves. Everyone I speak to about this, people who work across a variety of industries and roles at all levels, tells the same story.
But things have changed recently. We have cutting-edge research that tells us that teams work best when you can’t tell who is in a position of power. Powerful research has been done on the best traits in leaders, and “humility” comes up top. This is stuff that makes sense, and for which we are beginning to get evidence, but we still aren’t acting on it. We aren’t giving new line managers the space to think about these things, or placing the emphasis on their job role that being a leader is the most important thing they will do. After all, what good is their own productivity when their whole team is failing?
The old “command and rule” style of leadership, with the feared manager in his office while the factory employees work 9-5, is over. It clearly does not work in a knowledge economy where we need a creative environment in which to thrive (such as my current workplace). Yet still, organisations use the same interview paperwork to recruit the same sort of managers they have always done without thinking about what leaders they really want in place. People management duties are put to the bottom of the priority list.
But as we know, people are not an “HR thing”; they are the only thing that can give us a competitive advantage in today’s world.