Managers, especially middle managers have had it tough in recent years. They are the butt of the adage, ‘people join companies but they leave managers.’ In seeking to flatten the organisational hierarchy, and reduce costs, many companies have sought to remove the middle management layer. Those that remain feel pressure from below, from staff with big expectations, and from above, from senior managers who want them to be leaders. So what makes a good manager?
There has always been much debate about the difference between leaders and managers. We often think of leaders as visionaries and inspiring communicators, charismatic people who shape the future. They are seen as gurus and are admired for their maverick genius. Managers are viewed as bureaucrats, taskmasters who juggle resources and deal with mundane daily tasks.
It’s worth remembering that management as a discipline is only as old as the Industrial Revolution when unskilled labourers came off the land to work in factories. The financial and human capital in these enterprises had to be managed. Leadership on the other hand has been around for as long as humans have gathered in tribes and gone into battle.
Leaders and managers both have a role to play in establishing direction, harnessing resources, and motivating people. Traditionally, a manager will have a narrower remit, a department to run, a function to oversee, a process to follow. A leader will establish context, formulate a vision and ensure the organisation is aligned.
John W. Gardner in his 1990 book ‘On leadership’ distinguishes between the ‘leader-manager’ and the ‘routine manager.’ The former is concerned with strategic vision, long-term thinking and general effectiveness. The routine manager operates within established processes, the status quo, seeks maximum efficiency and generally focuses on short-term issues.
Two hundred and fifty years after the start of the Industrial Revolution, what mindset, traits and skills does a modern manager need to excel in their role?
If you are a people manager, a supervisor, or team leader, you only achieve with and through others. You cannot be an effective people manager without having a genuine interest in people. In fact, great people managers care as much about their team’s career and personal development as they do their own.
People like to be treated as human beings, not functionaries and not merely as a salary on a spreadsheet. Staff are not naïve, they know when a manager is manipulating them or going through the motions. When you care about your team’s well-being, you will be a natural coach.
Great managers encourage and support their people by facilitating their personal growth, coaching them to reach for their potential and in turn expanding the potential of the organisation. Discussions about career development and performance is in their DNA, it’s not something they have to be told to do once a quarter.
Of course, not everyone is a natural people manager, some people’s skills and personality are more suited to the subject, product or process expertise. The ‘Peter Principle’ is still visible in many organisations, where a manager has been promoted to the point of incompetence. A very good sales person does not necessarily make a good manager of salespeople.
From my experience, the vast majority of people want to do good work. It is the role of the manager to define what good work looks like and to ensure their team has the skills and resources to do good work. People like their efforts to be recognised and to receive feedback. A good people manager is skilled in delivering feedback, in a timely, appropriate and digestible way.
Trust underpins the relationship. So many managers simply don’t trust their people. It’s not that they hire untrustworthy people, it’s an ingrained belief, a world view. If trust is not present, business processes are designed with the worst behaviour of the worst people in mind. Micromanagement takes hold. Orders will replace open discussion. When trust is present, a manager will empower their people to think for themselves and the essential skill of delegation facilitates smooth workflow.
We all like to feel part of something bigger than ourselves. We crave a sense of belonging, a sense that our opinion matters and that we are contributing to a worthwhile endeavour. Ideally, we want our work to have purpose and meaning. It is the role of the manager to help shape that meaning, to ensure that his or her people are aware of the impact of their contributions. We like to know that our manager is in our corner.
The biggest factor in shaping the morale of a team, or an organisation, is the personality and behaviour of the manager. Effective managers are optimistic yet remain grounded in reality. They are positive, approachable people who role model the attitude and behaviours they would like to see in their teams. In this regard, they lead by example.
In these challenging times, we all crave certainty. We want to know the basecamps as we climb the mountain of change. Even if there isn’t certainty around the big issues of job security or salary, staff need to feel certain that their manager appreciates them, recognises their efforts, is concerned for their well-being, will treat them fairly, will act as their advocate and will keep them informed.
Delivering certainty is also about educating or reminding the staff as to what’s important. Managers are results-focused and steer their teams by the North Star, the key performance indicators that measure their individual and collective success. Effective people managers are also problem-solvers, removing or reducing barriers to productivity.
And you cannot be a problem-solver without being a decision-maker. Nothing cripples an organisation more than an inconsistent or indecisive manager.
It would be too easy to fall back on that overused phrase of good managers are good communicators. That goes without saying, but what does it mean? It’s about instigating quality conversations across different media (in-person, online, email, phone.) Conversations consist of listening and talking.
This presupposes caring enough about the other person to want to listen to them (see 1 above). To encourage open communication and to have something to listen to, an effective manager asks good questions. Their communication antennae are always up. They make a conscious effort to transmit and receive information, what’s said and what’s unsaid.
Collaboration is the act of individuals working together, across functions, layers of management and departments to make unified decisions. Without collaboration personal fiefdoms reign and an ‘us versus them’ mindset will create a toxic culture. The unrealised synergy will negatively impact productivity and results.
Whilst a manager may have a specific responsibility, their function is part of a bigger picture and they are aware of the interdependence. They are happy to share information and participate in best practice because they recognise that everyone is a resource that can be leveraged to make smarter decisions.
Effective management is not just about the ‘touchy-feely’ stuff. The soft skills and emotional intelligence are matched with inner resolve and competence. Modern management still encompasses product and/or process expertise, an ability to balance big picture thinking with an attention to detail, and the agility to be proactive but also quick to react to unforeseen events.
When a manager has earned their stripes by having been in the trenches, that ‘been-there, done-that’ experience adds to their competence and gravitas.
In the past, execution and expertise were the two pillars of management. Now a third is in play – empathy, and it is arguably the key skill for a 21st-century manager.
The world of work today is unrecognisable to what it was 50 years ago, let alone in the 1760s when factories started to appear in Northern England. The role of the manager has changed too, mirroring the shift away from viewing the organisation as a machine, to the organisation as a community. Whilst companies are still run for the benefit of shareholders, there is now a recognition of the needs of a broader set of stakeholders.
The command and control style of management once dominated, but an educated, globally connected workforce, who seek meaning and fulfilment in their work don’t tolerate barked orders.
Today, an effective manager employs a collaborative, empathetic, coaching approach to harness the knowledge and potential of their colleagues, who don’t necessarily want to climb to the top of the organisational hierarchy, but who do wish to self-actualise atop Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
Whilst some people join companies but leave managers, others are loyal, motivated and productive because their manager is interested in them, values their contributions and supports them on their career journey.
I hope you enjoyed this piece and do check out my post titled How to lead like Jacinda Ardern which will give you some more handrails to consider in this area of management and leadership.
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