Kevin Lawrence is MD of Odyssey Management Training – on a mission to eradicate mediocrity Odyssey specialises in leadership and management development, change, executive team development and organisational development strategy.
There is a long-standing problem with productivity in the UK:
• In 1998 the productivity of British companies trailed France and Germany by 20 – 30%. The gap with the US was even larger, at 40%.
• In 2003, research from the European Commission’s Directorate for Economic and Financial Affairs found that of all the 15 countries then in the EU, only two had lower levels of productivity than the UK.
• And in December 2014 a report published by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) stated that in the six years since 2008, UK productivity has again fallen behind its competitors.
A number of factors account for the UK’s weak productivity. But the CIPD report explicitly identified one key contributor to the problem: the quality of UK management. Effective management leads to an engaged, committed workforce and improved economic performance. Ineffective management has the opposite effect. The CIPD report found that in the last decade, there is little evidence that the quality of management has improved in the UK.
Why is there a problem?
One issue is historic. The UK was slow to accept that management is a learned skill and needs to be taught. In the US and Europe, business schools were first opened in the 19th century. The UK’s first proper business school didn’t open until 1965. The attitude that sees management as a set of skills that can simply be ‘picked up’, lingers.
A related issue is that in many companies people are promoted into managerial roles because of their technical skills, rather than because they display an aptitude for management. They are then expected to learn management ‘on the job’ rather than being supported and trained. Technical ability does not always translate into managerial acumen.
A third issue is that, in the UK, a negative stereotype of ‘the manager’ has developed. The word conjures up an image of someone whose contribution is ineffectual or even destructive. The result has been that while many young professionals aspire to be ‘leaders’, fewer aspire to be ‘managers’. This creates a lack of commitment to managerial positions, which contributes to the problems of managerial malaise.
What can companies do?
There are several steps businesses can take to improve the quality of management within their companies.
1. Think carefully about who you promote into managerial roles
Good managers possess a range of skills. It’s important that they have a good understanding of their field and the skills needed to work within the field. It’s often important that they possess technical skills themselves but they also need to be people who can develop a range of ‘management skills’ to complement their technical abilities. These skills include problem solving, budget management and, crucially, people management. When you are thinking about filling a managerial role, make sure you choose people who have the ability to get the best out of other people. If you have staff whom you value for their technical expertise, but who wouldn’t flourish in a managerial role, don’t promote them into management simply to retain them. Think of other ways to keep them motivated and committed. Mark Beatson, the chief economist of the CIPD, says, “Employers should… consider providing alternative routes to higher status and more pay that don’t necessarily involve management responsibility – some employees may be more valuable in a position making full use of their technical skills than they are in a management role. This would reinforce the message that management is a skill in its own right, not something that comes with a promotion.’
2. Teach your staff to be good managers
Managers aren’t born, they’re made. Some people will have qualities that make them better suited for managerial responsibility than others, but even these people need the right training and development. They also need opportunities to learn to manage different teams in different contexts. Senior management should consider implementing a mentor programme, creating small-scale management opportunities and one-off projects, as well as formal training. The key is to avoid a ‘one size fits all’ approach. If you have identified someone as potential management material, talk to them about it, discuss openly the skills they have and the ones they feel they lack – then find ways of letting them practise, to develop the skills needed.
A useful tool for developing managerial skills across all levels of an organisation is the Leadership Pipeline Model. This was developed by consultants Ram Charan, Stephen Drotter and Jim Noel and published in their book The Leadership Pipeline. The model is valuable because it sets out six clear stages of leadership/management and discusses the skills, attitude and behaviours needed to make each stage a success. The first stage occurs when an individual moves from managing their own workload to managing others. The final stage occurs when a group manager – someone who has been managing individual businesses within a parent company – progresses to the level of CEO. At each stage new skills need to be learned and the demands of the role become more complex. New ways of thinking are needed, along with the ability to develop an ever-broadening vision about what the company aims to achieve, both in the moment and into the future. The model helps organisations understand the level of support individuals might need when they take on these roles.
3. Be clear about managerial responsibilities
Managers have three overarching objectives. The first is to make sure their team performs well. The second is to make sure that the individuals in their team develop, and thirdly to ensure that work undertaken adds genuine value to the organisation. Pursuing the first objective often makes managers forget the second. But managers need to understand that all three objectives go hand-in-hand. High performing teams are made up of individuals who are challenged and engaged by their work, who feel valued by the company and who have been given opportunities to grow. When a manager creates an environment in which teams can work effectively and well, performance improves.
It’s vital that the senior management team clearly communicate to managers – at all levels – that a management level job is about team-building, individual development and enhancing performance. They are there just to make sure jobs are done efficiently and well. That doesn’t mean doing all the jobs themselves: falling foul of the “no one else can do it as well as me” mentality. It means building teams they trust, providing direction, delegating responsibilities, ensuring their teams and team members learn the skills they need (and that add value) and developing the relationships between the team members.