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Niall Gavin


Learning and Accreditation Consultant

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Leadership: the problem with managers and how to upskill them


Poor old managers. They really get it in the neck, don't they? They’ve got top-down pressure to deliver more with less, little time to translate or enthuse their own teams with the need for more, better or faster work, and still less time or encouragement for personal or professional development.

In learning and development we frequently hear how staff feel that their managers don't support them enough, don't communicate well and don’t create the space, support and opportunities for them to learn.

This often leads to staff not feeling trusted, not being valued or, conversely, feeling that they are being micromanaged.

As a result, we often fall into the trap of (fairly or unfairly) seeing managers as 'the problem' or 'the blocker'.

In doing so, we fail to question why some managers might be behaving in these ways.

Often they've been promoted into management due to their functional or technical skills, but with their people skills either lacking or insufficiently developed.

Being under pressure to deliver, they can often neglect their people.

Can we train those 'people skills' into new or existing managers? Can we teach them how to become good or better managers?

Do management development programmes work, or do some managers just have an innate leadership ability to empathise, to relate to their people, to interpret, translate and inspire them to perform as their best selves?

If so, how can we learn from them, support them better, and make everyone's working lives easier and better?

With today’s digitally enabled, flexible and mobile workforce, it's more important than ever that managers have the necessary skills to lead diverse, inter-generational teams.

Role models

Who are the teachers you remember most fondly? What were their qualities and actions that you recall?

Was it their ability to break down new concepts and information into understandable chunks, or their inspiration, enthusiasm, encouragement, and trust? Did they show a keen interest in you and your development?

I've learned to not talk about 'hard' or 'soft skills'. People stuff is 'hard', difficult, often thankless, and frequently undervalued.

You've probably never thought of them as managers, but the things we remember and admire most about them are the very qualities we seek in our workplace managers and leaders.

By the same token, the teachers that we remember least fondly are those singularly lacking in those skills. They're the ones who were big on disinterest, bullying, humiliation and/or bluster.

Core capabilities

I've been a manager in learning and development for over 20 years and have been managed by many more before, during and since that time.

I've experienced and witnessed good and less good practice from my own and others' line managers.

Along the way, I've learned to not talk about 'hard' or 'soft skills'. People stuff is 'hard', difficult, often thankless, and frequently undervalued.

It encompasses a whole range of managerial skills and competencies that need to come together to enable productive, functional and business-focused teams to deliver bottom-line outcomes.

It differentiates great managers from poor or mediocre ones.

Regardless of your industry, there are some core capabilities that all managers need, which I’ll outline below:

  • Job knowledge: by this I mean the business, financial, functional, technical and product-based knowledge that must be kept up to date and current. Managers need to ‘walk the talk’ occasionally, to share the load and demonstrate that you are still connected to this knowledge and can still do the job if required. This is about leading by example, and modeling the behavior and skills you want from your people.
  • Mentoring/coaching skills: managers need to have the ability to provide the right support people need to be able to do the job, without micro-managing them. You need to trust people to do their job, whilst ensuring their learning and development requirements are met. This is especially important if you are managing remote workers.
  • Communications skills: as a manager, you’re the bridge between leadership and the people on the ground, so you must have the ability to translate organisational plans and clarify what they mean to the team. Delegation skills are crucial, as is knowing when to get out of the way and let them get on with it.
  • Connections: it’s important for managers to stay connected with peers and experts both inside and outside of the business. Digital, social media and networking skills are critical to this nowadays.

I would also add the following management skills differentiators to this list: approachability, listening skills, empathy, kindness, courage, humility and accountability.

Teaching versus instinct

With all this in mind, one might ask how much of this can be taught in a training course, and how much must exist already within the individual?

How big a part do our instincts play in managing people, and how do we learn to trust those instincts? How much is learned by doing?

How about we be brave, show some trust and invite our own teams - our direct reports - to help us identify our shortcomings?

Can we separate out and 'train' the people skills that can/should be learned, from those that may already exist or that have the potential to be drawn out and expanded in the role?

Do management development programmes really 'see' the individual and allow them to recognise where their strengths may already lie, and focus on the gaps?

Unfortunately, many programmes offer a one-size-fits-all approach that ends up being repeated or replaced by something similar in a couple of years' time.

So whom should managers look to for their own support and learning beyond the formal?

Flip it

How about we flip it? How about we be brave, show some trust and invite our own teams - our direct reports - to help us identify our shortcomings, to lead us, coach us, teach and mentor us upwards and help us develop as managers?

Who knows us better? Who would benefit most from us improving our management skills?

That isn't 360-degree feedback. It’s delegation, trust, humility and really walking our own talk.

What do you think? Are you up for the challenge?

Interested in this topic? Read Performance management: do you need to develop your middle managers?

3 Responses

  1. Niall,
    This is the most fundamental issue in business … and has been present since the Industrial Revolution writings of Frederick Winslow Taylor where people are seen as resources. Enlightened managers treat their people as respected humans before treating them as valuable employees… it’s a subtle, though very powerful, distinction.

    1. Mark, I couldn’t agree more.
      Mark, I couldn’t agree more. It’s that differentiating quality that separates the effective from the ineffective, IMO. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. N.

  2. Hello Niall,
    Hello Niall,
    The articles content closely relates to my own experience. Therefore I can wholeheartedly agree with the squeeze on managers. If I may, I would like to suggest the importance of understanding and developing all sorts of relationships in being more effective in the role, as part of core capabilities, and helping them reflect on what part they play in great and poor relationships, similar to teachers.
    Thank you…Alan.

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Niall Gavin

Learning and Accreditation Consultant

Read more from Niall Gavin

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