Managing effectively

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Written by Sarah Cook and Steve Macaulay on 1 November 2013 in Features
Features

Sarah Cook and Steve Macaulay have some tips for helping managers become more effective

This article seeks to capture the difficulties that managers face in today's organisations. It describes how to grasp the opportunities the role presents and discusses what can be done to assist managers in their role, particularly from an L&D perspective.

A lot rests on the shoulders of middle managers, who are often seen to be the critical element in making things happen in organisations. This is with good reason, because capable frontline management is frequently a catalyst for change, vital in this continuously shifting world. On the other hand, a poorly briefed and unskilled manager can hold back change, become submerged in details or be overly defensive of the status quo. Yet the manager who communicates his vision and is a role model is an essential factor in the success of any organisation: guiding the team and directing individual efforts, steering events and setting a positive example to others.

How do L&D professionals assist managers in working to their strengths and in the most positive way, and not be overcome by their limitations?

Typical managerial challenges

To gain insight into the role, we will start by describing a typical, newly-promoted manager. Stefan worked as an operations manager for a large multinational. Just six months into the job, he was starting to wish that he hadn't accepted the promotion and had continued to work as a respected specialist. His day always seemed so busy: he was expected to continue to be the expert who was available to handle the difficult technical issues yet his hours seemed to be filled with meetings, dealing with targets and figures, demands from senior people and customers and time-consuming staff issues. There were times when he felt exhausted and ineffective.

After speaking to a friend who had been a manager for five years in another organisation, Stefan realised that, even for experienced managers, managing is complex, can be rewarding but is also, at times, pressured. So what is required for a manager to be successful?

The manager as juggler

Effective managers are frequently jugglers: they must learn to balance a whole set of priorities and pressures, delivering on a raft of core activities and achieving objectives, creating and maintaining an effective team, and addressing the need to build the confidence and competence of each individual member.

Managing effectively means tackling substantial challenges. Recent surveys have indicated how the pressures of today's business environment have increased for managers1. What are the principal challenges they face? Here are seven, to which many managers will relate.

Managing change big and small

Change and improvement are a must in today's environment. Traditionally managers are seen as executing change made at more senior levels. In fact, change should come high up on managers' list of priorities, however busy they are with other matters. Large-scale change requires thought and planning, with monitoring and communication on progress at regular intervals. This means the manager should use change positively as an opportunity for questioning everything and doing better. In practice many people resist change and managers can do this too. Successful managers are able to articulate clearly the reasons for change and make change meaningful to individuals.

Equally, a manager should work to the principles of regular improvement, developing a plan of action to overcome areas of weakness and reviewing how he and his team are performing on a regular basis. A useful motto is that lots of improvements can add up to a big change for the better.

Focusing on the customer and delivering objectives

A manager must agree team objectives that are clear, measurable and realistic. This must be matched by ensuring that everyone knows what the team is aiming to achieve, and regularly reviewing progress.

Focus on the customer means making certain that, in every activity he or his team undertakes, he can ask how will this improve the service we provide? It means looking at his organisation's procedures from a customer's perspective, remembering that he has internal customers too. Delivering objectives won't be achieved in isolation, so communication forms a vital part of the objective-setting and delivery process. This will help to keep objectives relevant and in tune with stakeholders' needs.

Engaging employees

Research shows that a person's line manager has a key role to play in the degree to which he gives discretionary effort2. Employee engagement starts by ensuring managers involve team members in decisions and share their successes, and the managerial role is primarily to encourage and guide team members. One of the critical aspects of this process is to make sure that needs such as recognition, a sense of achievement, purpose and belonging are met.

Nurturing and growing the team

An organisation really flourishes only if its people are growing, so managers need to recognise the power of learning and development to equip and energise employees to meet the current and future needs of their organisation.

Development is often about good-quality feedback. One of the best types of feedback is recognising and celebrating success all along the way.

Communicating

People will work harder and more productively if they share a vision. Communication makes the difference between vision and reality, carrying every member of the team towards commitment and meaningful action. This puts an imperative on verbal and non-verbal communication skills, matching the importance of the messages the manager wishes to convey. Storytelling is a key skill in communicating a vision and helps engage and inspire team members.

A lot of success in communication is achieved through thorough, regular discipline. Managers must ensure they follow a regular communications process by such means as meetings with their staff, colleagues and customers, newsletters and special events. They must keep to the fore that a key role is to communicate with a wide range of people: regularly talking and listening to external customers, team members and internal customers, then acting on what they tell them.

Proactive decision-making

An important part of the process of ensuring operations run smoothly is to achieve consistency. However, it is easy to get into a rut by operating rigid rules and processes that may be out of date. Managers need to be flexible in their approach to problem-solving and taking decisions. Where possible, the manager should allow his people the room to be flexible in taking decisions - and not give them so little space to move that they and the customer feel frustrated.

Rigidity can apply to those outside the team: managers need to be role models and adopt an open and friendly manner in their dealings with both customers and other teams.

Deploying resources wisely

Once priorities are clear, the manager must channel resources to where they are going to make a difference. Success lies in wisely putting resources where they will have the most impact - and then keeping them that way as events change. This means that, despite interruptions or crises, he must keep a steady eye on priorities. Perhaps the first thing that is lost sight of is the difference between importance and urgency: events always seem to crowd out longer-term, strategic activities.

Case studies

Here are three cases studies of developing managers in organisations. Read through them and look for lessons for your organisation.

Leisure group A long-established leisure group needed to respond in a more proactive way to global competitive pressures. It identified its middle managers as the 'backbone of the company', with a wealth of technical knowledge but lacking proactive skills for organisational change.

It set up a programme with three short modules on strategy and the business environment, leadership and operational skills. The result was renewed impetus, with the managers engaging more fully in whole business issues, having purposeful conversations with their teams and their managers.

Financial services A medium-sized financial services group instituted a highly successful transformational development process for its senior managers. However, the barrier was then the buy-in of a highly traditional but technically competent group of middle managers. This led to a management development programme being tailored to that group. Senior leaders took a hands-on approach, showing personal interest through pre-briefing and taking part in the programme itself and then the follow-up.

The real turning point was this tangible leadership, followed by evidence of organisational change. Buy-in then really picked up and teams could look positively for leadership and changes from their managers, actively supported by their senior managers.

Software company An IT software business used a blended learning approach befitting its fast-moving, highly-focused techno-culture. The programme began with a triad briefing between the line manager, participant and L&D business partner to establish development objectives. It used a mixture of webinars, e-learning, bite-sized learning, masterclasses, one-day workshops, coaching and action learning sets, which help increase managers' business confidence and competence.

Throughout the four-month programme, each participant was assigned a mentor whose role included reviewing the progress of the participant and providing guidance and advice. At the end, a debrief discussion took place between the mentor, the participant and the line manager. This process has given managers skills fitting the company style, highly focused on their own issues within the business context.

Setting up development initiatives

We have chosen these examples of programmes aimed at helping managers be effective in their roles. What do they have in common? They are all anchored in the businesses issues and are not standalone, there has been active follow-up and involvement from the organisation, and their design is in keeping with the organisational culture.

A plan for L&D to increase managerial effectiveness

L&D has a key role to play in increasing managerial effectiveness within an organisation. We suggest that, firstly, you draw up a personalised organisational list of important management characteristics and competences, using structured or informal methods. Then work through the following action areas. Not all the actions suggested will be right for your organisation - a lot depends on its history and maturity. Also, you may benefit from additional external support in bringing about these tasks and the objectives behind them.

1 Take the qualities outlined in the list that has been drawn up then, either one-to-one or in managerial groups, discuss and agree a list of the positive qualities individual managers bring to their own teams, then facilitate a plan of action for developing these qualities. One-to-one coaching or other management development interventions can help here.

2 Work with individual managers and their teams to clarify what qualities and behaviours team members expect of their managers and how well those expectations are met. Through discussion, draw up a list of the themes that emerge. Some managers and teams may find this a difficult process. Discretion is needed here and the process may involve confidential feedback and discussion, with coaching where necessary.

If there are qualities that need to be developed further, L&D can suggest what kinds of activities will help the manager to display them in his everyday work. For example, if the team would like its manager to delegate more, perhaps suggest they could rotate the management of weekly team meetings. Again, some individual coaching could be appropriate, using internal or external coaching support. L&D professionals can also observe the manager in his day-to-day activities, providing both motivational and developmental feedback.

3 Facilitate the development of a vision for a team, department or the company. Get groups of colleagues together and invite them to look positively at the future, assuming everyone already really works together as a strong-functioning team. Discuss how they could best communicate this vision and make it a living reality. Put time in the diary to review how the vision is being implemented among the team.

4 Encourage each manager, in their teams, to write down the goals and objectives for their team to meet this vision. Make certain they are specific and clear to everyone. Check that they include both long- and short-term objectives. Regularly review how well team members are performing against these objectives and whether they are communicating and recognising progress.

5 Facilitate a discussion around the feedback each team receives about their output. Raise issues voiced by customers to managers, colleagues and staff at every opportunity. Encourage each team to have frequent customer contact. Review the number of times managers visit their customers, internal and external, and encourage targets to increase this.

6 Encourage managers to set a goal to increase the number of times they recognise the achievements of their team. A 'well done' and 'thank you' have a powerful motivating effect. Assess ways managers could invigorate this process to capture interest, win support and provide motivation. In high-performing teams, the ratio of positive to negative comment typically runs at around 10:1.

7 Coach and develop managers to listen more. Canvass the opinions of all those people with whom they come into contact. Discuss how they and their teams could improve their listening skills. Encourage managers to set specific plans for improvement with their teams.

As an L&D professional, lead the way for implementing change by personally making some visible changes in the service you provide to your internal customers.

Summary

Managers at the operational level play a vital, if under-rated, role in today's customer-focused and changing organisations. Time and money invested wisely in improving management skills can pay off many-fold down the line, particularly at times such as now when many organisations are under pressure to change. The pressure put on managers today is an important litmus test to indicate that more needs to be done to support them - investment in management development, particularly for middle managers, is not sufficient in many organisations.

L&D plays an important role in the management development process. As an L&D professional, consider how you can best help all your managers - not just high potentials - to be well equipped to lead their teams to provide outstanding results and make effective decisions.

References

1 CIPD Employee Outlook Survey (2012)

2 CIPD Research Insight Management competencies for enhancing employee engagement (2011)

About the author

Sarah Cook is MD of The Stairway Consultancy and author of The Effective Manager (IT Governance); she can be contacted at sarah@thestairway.co.uk

Steve Macaulay is a learning development executive at Cranfield School of Management; he can be contacted at s.macaulay@cranfield.ac.uk

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