Managing perfection

Adam Bernstein
Friday, December 18, 2020

So much has been written about the art of management that an individual looking to improve their knowledge with a purchase from Amazon had better become a speed reader or know how to narrow a search down. With more 90,000 books on the topic it’s clear that some think they have knowledge to impart.

But just as a writer may think that they have the experience to offer advice, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the reader will make a good manager.

In fact, there are countless examples of poor management. Robert Maxwell, the late publisher and owner of Mirror Group Newspapers, was well known for being both demanding and domineering.

Albert Henderson, who worked for Maxwell between 1969 and 1977, commented in a book on immigrant publishers that “his leadership talents came with an impressive physical stature – over six feet tall – features as striking as Gregory Peck and a deep voice that could resonate like a bassoon choir when he wanted to brag or be charming. He could also bully, barking orders and epithets with a menacing cadence reminiscent of Dolby Darth Vader. Reverberations of ‘I’ll chop off your fu**ing head!’ ‘Village idiot!’ and ‘What do you do around here?’”

And as we all know, Maxwell did create an empire, but it fell apart in scandal.

So, what can firms do to improve their management makeup? One option is do what independent German paper mill Feldmuehle did back in September (2020) – strengthen the board with a new appointee who is given specific tasks. But to replicate that requires an understanding of the person being appointed, their abilities and the tasks that they are to undertake.

Appointing on merit

While appointments don’t always go well, Ed Parsloe, chief executive of coaching and mentoring business The OCM Group, would have probably done the same as Feldmuehle. He says that “a sensible recruitment process would outline the role, responsibilities and crucially, the competencies required to fulfil the role”.

“If this is done,” he adds “then more often than not organisations will appoint a pretty good candidate.” This may well not be the most ‘senior’ person, but it should be the most qualified.

David McLaughlin of the Chartered Management Institute (CMI), agrees. He too thinks that managers should only be appointed for their ability to manage rather than their seniority or technical expertise. As he says, “management is about facilitating others to succeed and in order to do this, you have to understand people. If you can’t manage people and the complexities of relationships, you will inevitably struggle”. He cites CMI research, Management Transformed, published in November, which found that good management skills are even more crucial in times of great change and uncertainty.

But what concerns Clive Lewis, founder and formerly CEO of Illumine Training, is that all too often individuals are promoted into management roles as a reward for performing well in their existing role. “There is a strong argument for promoting from within whenever possible as it is motivational for employees to see that working hard, and performing, will be rewarded. However, being a manager can often involve completely different skills and strengths from being successful in a pure ‘doing’ role.”

Another scenario that McLaughlin has encountered is the ‘availability paradox’ where someone is appointed purely on the basis that they are available. McLaughlin terms these individuals ‘accidental managers’ as they are promoted without existing management skills, or with little to no training opportunities once they are promoted. The problem with this is, as he says, “that individuals can unintentionally be set up to fail. This is then seen as a failure of an individual rather than of the organisation that put them in that position”.

“In turn, this often leads to the unfortunate situation where an individual is then performance managed – often out – with no thought to why they have been unable to carry out the role effectively,” he adds.

And so, it should be obvious that there’s a need for support of a newly appointed leader as they transition into the new role. No matter how they are appointed, Parsloe says “the process can be fraught with risk as it can take a while for that person to ascend the performance curve. Many organisations don’t pay due care and attention to the transition. They just assume that a new leader will have prepared to leave their current role and to ‘join’ their new team too”.

But when things go wrong, it can prove expensive. As McLaughlin outlines, not only is there the cost of recruitment in the first instance, there’s also the cost of training and the cost of dealing with any fallout resulting from the promoted individual’s lack of management skills. Beyond that, he highlights “the cost of loss of morale among those being managed if the manager is seen as inept or out of their depth and the additional cost of loss of performance, not to mention the reputational cost to the organisation, and the cost to the wellbeing of the manager concerned.”

And it’s because these costs of failure can be so high that Parsloe recommends a specialist transition coach-mentor support during the first 100 days. The benefit to him is certain: “It provides skilled and objective external support and challenge. It also focuses effort on building new habits of thinking and behaviour which will create the most benefit for them, their teams and the organisation.”

But no matter the reason for a promotion, Lewis is well aware that some people have management skills – or are capable of developing them – but crucially, others won’t. He adds: “In truth, some don’t relish the idea of swapping some of their ‘doing’ for managing. They may like the idea of moving up the ladder and earning more money, but that isn’t the same as having an intrinsic motivation brought about by doing work that they love.”

Common mistakes

Inexperienced and accidental managers make mistakes, many of them common and they tend to revolve around relationships.

From Lewis’s perspective, there’s an analogy to parenting to be drawn here – that we do what our parents did. He says that “without the systematic development of appropriate management skills... sadly, in many organisations new managers start by managing in the way in which they were managed”. Of course, that’s not a problem if, as he says, “they have been managed by skilled and empathetic managers”, but it is if they had managers who were also inexperienced or pushed into management roles too early or with too little preparation.

Inexperienced managers can end up leading from the rear; Lewis has seen individuals promoted into a management role without the appropriate training and development – they are unprepared or at least under-prepared. This, he says: “Leads them to feel insecure. But admitting that is rarely an option. So, they overcompensate by being rigid and aloof and use a one-size-fits-all approach.”

McLaughlin considers the failure to communicate effectively is by far the biggest mistake: “Managers can fall into the trap where communication is one-sided. This is often portrayed as, ‘I tell you what to do and you do it.’ He says that managers must not lose sight of the fact that they need to listen and build relationships with the people they manage. Doing this will greatly help facilitate the success of the individual, the team and the organisation as a whole.” He believes that managers can fall foul of the idea that they are either the experts or need to know everything.

To an extent Parsloe agrees, noting that not listening properly and failing to give constructive feedback are the biggest mistakes he sees: “All too often managers pass responsibility for ‘difficult’ conversations onto HR or others in more senior roles when in fact it is they who need to have them. But a manager who truly listens, asks insightful questions and is prepared to give feedback – both good and bad – is worth their weight in gold.” Parsloe adds that: “You’ll notice their team and direct reports are much more engaged, more productive and perform better than those who are led by someone who just tells people what to do and takes no interest in them or their development.”

Continuing, Parsloe advocates taking time at the beginning of each day to “check in and engage with direct reports to build trust and rapport”. And when discussing work matters, he recommends helping others to think for themselves to come up with their own solutions.

It should be noted that some corporate cultures enhance mistakes made and normalise them. Worse, says McLaughlin “it is often the case that managers forget what they are there for – to organise and support others. They also forget that they manage by consent,” as McLaughlin comments – “people don’t leave jobs, they leave managers”.

To crack this nut means, for Parsloe at least, ensuring there’s an appropriate workplace culture which includes policies, procedures and processes. But he notes that “in some highly regulated environments, having a stronger command and control culture might be appropriate whilst it’s possibly not as effective in some creative industries.” From a board perspective, he believes that it’s “important to consider the optimum culture for your business – how are you going to consistently get the best out of your people and stay ahead of the competition?” Coaching might help, but he warns that “it can’t be coaching for coaching’s sake, it has to be highly targeted. Senior managers must lead from the front and role model the behaviours you wish to see more broadly across the business”.

Lewis is more direct. He says: “The development of good management practices and of effective managers is, arguably, the board’s more important role. The effectiveness of managers will determine what gets done and how well tasks are executed throughout an organisation.”

He would put in place regular and effective appraisals, consistent disciplinary procedures and rewards aligned to the organisation’s overall objectives, “to ensure that good management thrives”.

Building relationships

Management is all about relationships, trust and respect and these take time to build. McLaughlin makes a critical observation – that it’s perfectly true that “no one will trust you simply because you are their manager – they need a reason to do so”.

But how to build this trust? McLaughlin considers it simple – deliver on what is promised, support staff – both when they succeed and when they fail, demonstrate personal and organisation values, communicate, and also demonstrate empathy, consistency, and clarity.

“Communicating with honesty and integrity,” says McLaughlin, “will pay dividends for any manager. People need to understand what their objectives are and why, how they are to be met, and what the outcomes are likely to be. When acting in this way, it is important to remember that saying what needs to be said is not necessarily what people want to hear.”

But while managers should be outgoing and inclusive, they also need to allow time for what McLaughlin terms as “reflection and self-assessment”. He thinks that for managers to be effective “they need to understand the impact they have on others, look at their own strengths and weaknesses, and be certain that they recognise what levels of power they hold and how they use that power”.

Misuse of power can damage relationships and, in some cases, cause a team to fracture. If this happens, time is needed to heal the team’s spirit. McLaughlin makes one other observation – that teams and relationships will develop and mutate over time – “recognising this will allow managers to get the most out the people they manage for the benefit of all”.

Parsloe looks to diversity as a solution. He says that “multiple studies have demonstrated that more diverse teams make better decisions – this is true at board level as it is at lower levels”. His point is that when everyone feels encouraged and enabled to be the best version of themselves, then it’s likely that there will be an inclusive culture that is high performing. “In these circumstances,” he says, “dominant people are less prevalent as they have learned the value of collaboration and working with difference.”

Tied to this is Lewis’s recognition that one of the most common problems in organisations is the tendency of managers to recruit in their own likeness – “that often, without realising it, managers are attracted to people who think the same way as they do. Worse, when someone joins a team and thinks or works differently from the other team members, they are subtly ‘encouraged’ to change the way they see the world; to conform and fit in”. He’s seen the same thing happen at management level where “there is an often unwritten and unspoken view that there is only one way to manage effectively. This assumption can lead to a uniformity – and narrowing – of thinking that can be detrimental to any organisation’s long-term success”.

A different model

Thinking outside of the box, McLaughlin suggests running apprenticeships for managers. As he says, they “are a fantastic opportunity to form individuals in the mould of an organisation and a way to train internal staff”. A key element of this is off-the-job training. Without it he says that “there is the risk organisations develop replicas of existing staff who follow tired and out-of-date processes, procedures, and policies”.

But for Parsloe, the value of apprenticeships depends on the role. Even so, he considers that the apprenticeship scheme “has been, in my view, unfairly stigmatised in this country; for many, it can provide an excellent opportunity to learn new skills whilst earning a living”.

And Lewis wouldn’t disagree. While he reckons that there are many ways to ensure that individuals acquire the skills required to make them effective managers, “some aspects of an apprenticeship model can be used – on the job training, mentoring and the gradual introduction of additional responsibilities”.

He would, however, plan ahead. He’s seen a leaver’s notice period spent interviewing candidates, rather than ensuring that the person appointed has the requisite skills in place before they take on their new responsibilities. For him, “effective succession planning means that potential managers are identified and trained up in advance of specific positions becoming available”.

But Parsloe takes the line that the key benefit of apprenticeship-type training is that “it provides an excellent mechanism to develop employees with the only budget available”. As a result, he “strongly recommends organisations that pay into the apprenticeship levy to check out the different apprenticeships standards as there may well be one that is perfect for them”.

It should be noted that according to a 2013 Department for Education definition, “an apprenticeship is a job that requires substantial and sustained training, leading to the achievement of an apprenticeship standard and the development of transferable skills” over a minimum 12-month period with off-the-job training. Age is not mentioned.

Firms should remember that apprenticeships work for any level of a business where there’s a supervisory role. According to thinktank EDSK, the most popular ‘apprenticeship’ in the country is now becoming a ‘team leader / supervisor’, closely followed by ‘chartered manager’ and ‘department manager’.

Training matters

It’s no secret that training done well is very valuable; it’s the reason why the military carry out regular exercises and pilots spend time in simulators. For management the situation is no different. According to McLaughlin, the “benefit of training cannot be underestimated. Trained managers will perform better, deliver better, facilitate others, and achieve better outcomes for all”.

And Lewis holds the same view: “No organisation would expect someone to perform well in either a selling or buying role without learning how to conduct negotiations. It is exactly the same with management skills”. As he explains: “Appointing someone to a management role and hoping to goodness that they magically acquire the necessary skills simply by being called ‘manager’ doesn’t have a great track record.”

It’s logical that business strategy should drive training. It’s why Parsloe thinks that a wise employer should ask a number of questions such as: What are the strategic goals? How do they impact on people? What will people need to do differently as a result of the strategy? And what behavioural shifts are needed to stay ahead of the competition? As he explains: “When you understand the changes you are seeking to make, you will understand the value to your business. You will understand what skills are needed and who might be well placed to develop those skills in your people. Crucially, you will also understand what you need to measure to demonstrate the return.”

Despite the value of training, there are issues to consider.

One highlighted by McLaughlin is “a fear relating to training that runs around an old myth: ‘if I train my staff, they will leave and get a better job.’” The truth, in his mind, is the opposite – that untrained staff leave for a better job. “Training,” says McLaughlin, “is not a one-off process, but a series of iterations which build one on the other, each further developing the individual according to both personal and organisational need.”

And when engaging with training it’s important to consider the culture of the organisation. If managers receive training, is the organisation ready and willing to look at new ways of working? Is it ready to adopt new processes and practices as a result of its managers being trained? If it’s not then the training will be a futile exercise and will no doubt lead to eventual departures of staff, management or both.

In summary

It’s entirely clear that care needs to be taken when appointing managers. The ‘warm body’ approach will not work and assuming that an appointee is not in need of support is a fatal mistake. Just as firms prepare to win business, so they should prepare when hiring managers.


© MA Business Limited 2021. Published by MA Business Limited, St Jude's Church, Dulwich Road, London, SE24 0PB, a company registered in England and Wales no. 06779864. MA Business is part of the Mark Allen Group .