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Fixing the manager class: It starts with top leaders

Managers as a class mostly get a bad rap in our world. From the pointy-headed boss in the "Dilbert" comic strip to the Michael Scott character of television fame to a nearly endless barrage of articles and blog posts suggesting leading is good and managing is less good, it's pretty clear the role needs an upgrade or a new spokesperson. Or both.

Sure, there's a seeming oversupply of knuckleheads in our workplaces that give inspiration to our bad managers of comic and sitcom fame. "Raise your hand if you've ever worked for one of these lousy managers. OK, EVERYONE, put your hand down now."

And while there are more than a few great reasons to satirize and artistically skewer the worst of these characters, remember that managers serve as that critical middleware between vision and strategy and execution and outcomes. Great managers bring ideas to life with and through others. They promote learning, guide people's development and help bring our values to life daily.

It's imperative to get manager management and development right, and the responsibility falls squarely on the shoulders of top leadership.  

A great manager is hiding in your past somewhere

Ask every successful person you know about the role models in their professional careers, and there's a great manager in the story somewhere.

You hear stories of second chances and much-needed tough feedback. You learn about individuals not afraid to roll their sleeves up and break a sweat helping the team. And you hear about managers who went the extra mile to teach, mentor, discipline, encourage and take a chance on someone or some team everyone else thought was a lost cause.

Unfortunately, these effective, caring, often hard-nosed individuals who elevate people and teams are all too rare in our organizations. Or, if they are present, they're so busy trying to navigate the traps and time-killers laid out by an organization's leaders they're rendered ineffective.

It's time to quit creating traps for our managers

I spend a great deal of time in my work engaging with and listening to managers interested in growing their careers and scaling their successes. Much of what I hear suggests managers must devote a disproportionate amount of time to navigate the traps set for them by their bosses.

Some of the most common traps include:

  • Trying to figure out how to operationalize a double-digit dose of key performance indicators -- many of which contradict each other.
  • Bringing corporate's cascading goals to life with their teams when the real goals of development and innovation are left as extra-credit projects.
  • Trying to guess whether you'll bite their head off today when they raise that challenging topic that is killing morale.
  • Laboring to explain top management's change initiatives to their teams when they don't know why these changes are needed. (Hint: nor does top leadership.)
  • Trying to keep people motivated in the face of shrinking headcount and increasing work demands.
  • Working on an endless stream of reports and presentations that they're not sure anyone cares about or uses.
  • Trying to explain to team members why you can't get the boss's support for professional development.
  • Wondering what they have to do to get ahead, get your support and your help for development and advancement.

Is that enough?

3 big sets of ideas to help you better support your managers

Aside from the obvious "Don't do that" for the list of traps above, here are some specific actions you can take to help create more great manager stories on your team.

 

1. Reframe your view on the value of your managers

An organization's success happens on the front lines, not in boardrooms. Strategy is two-dimensional and has no depth until managers take words and turn them into actions through and with people.

Organizational learning occurs because savvy managers bring ideas to life, observe outcomes, and adjust and adapt behaviors and actions to pursue continuous improvement.

Culture is strengthened when good managers engage their team members with respect at every encounter.

Innovation takes place because managers work hard at creating an environment where others are comfortable taking risks in pursuit of success.

The right results happen because the same environment that promotes experimentation motivates individuals to strive for their personal best every day.

Viewing your managers as enablers of success and growth is a radical departure from thinking about them as productivity optimizers and cost-control hall monitors.

 

2. Coach daily

In my conversations with managers, a shocking number of them struggle to point to a meaningful coaching conversation they've had with their boss in recent weeks. Sure, they've engaged for status updates and operating issues, but coaching and development weren't on the agendas.

Said provocatively: Many senior leaders don't understand how to coach team members. A bold claim, yes, but one reinforced regularly in my work. Nor, in my experience, do many senior leaders have coaching front of mind when engaging with their managers. The urgent pushes out the important.

If you are leading managers, I encourage you to rethink your role as a coach for your managers. As needed, get some coaching yourself on this vital activity. However, while you're waiting for coaching on coaching, try these no-cost ideas on for size:

  • Approach every encounter with your managers with the mindset of identifying opportunities to praise and promote growth.
  • Quit answering questions. Instead, ask more questions. Used properly, your questions are potent teachers.
  • Listen harder. Focus so hard on what your manager is trying to share, that, to paraphrase consultant Tom Peters, "If you aren't sweating after a conversation, you weren't really listening."
  • Learn to give meaningful, timely feedback -- both positive and constructive. Annoyingly, too many at all levels still muddle and mutilate these potentially valuable conversations.  
  • Use three of my favorite coaching discovery questions in your one-on-one sessions:
    1. What's working great that you want to do more of with your team?
    2. What's not working that you want to change?
    3. What do you need from me to help you and your team succeed?

While there's a great deal more you can do daily to support your managers, the few items listed above will help you start thinking less about what they can do for you and more about what you can do for them.

 

3. Help your managers develop in these core areas

With apologies to my HR friends, I long ago concluded I couldn't develop people on the fly according to a competency model with 20-plus items. Instead, I needed a few focal points to create a common vocabulary and anchor my discussions with my managers. These include:

  • Communication adaptability: The ability to adapt to the situation and engage, persuade, inspire, and clearly share ideas and uncover insights.
  • Leadership agility: The ability to tune in to teams and individuals' needs, and adjust approaches and behaviors to help create success.
  • Operational acuity: The ability to turn ideas, processes and programs into outcomes that support strategy.  
  • Critical thinking: The ability to translate ambiguity into opportunity, navigate both complicated and complex situations, think differently about problem-solving and then make timely, effective decisions.

These four core areas guide both coaching and development discussions with your managers. They are invaluable in wrestling goal development away from the cascading set of items present in every organization to the one or two things your managers can do that will move the performance needle for them and the organization.

The bottom line

Your actions today create someone else's backstories. You have the choice to support the growth and emergence of managers that are the focal point of success stories for a generation. Or, you can choose to give life to more cartoon characters. To me, the choice is a simple one.

 

Art Petty is an executive and emerging leader coach and a popular leadership and management author, speaker and workshop presenter. His experience guiding multiple software firms to positions of market leadership comes through in his books, articles, and live and online programs. Visit Petty’s Management Excellence blog and Leadership Caffeine articles.

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