Magazine article

In praise of managers

If your child is unhappy at school, I bet it’s not the principal who is the problem. It’s their teacher. And, if the culture of your company is toxic and staff turnover high, it will not be the chief executive officer (CEO) or the chair of the board that your staff name in their exit interview. It will be their manager.

We all have a horror story to share about an awful manager. Some were out of their depth; others rude; many are unfair, taking the glory for our work but blaming us when mistakes happen. Bad managers can turn a good job into nightmare, a good team into a bad one, and top performers into a puff of dust on the horizon.

In his 2015 book, Leadership BS: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time, Stanford University professor, Jeffrey Pfeffer gives it to us straight. Under the confronting heading Workplaces Are Mostly Horrible, Pfeffer writes: “Systematic data on workplace bullying reports widespread verbal abuse, shouting, berating others, and the general creation of a climate of intimidation.”

The most important decision that any board makes is the appointment of the CEO. And the CEO is responsible for appointing the company’s managers, and making sure they can do their jobs. Yet management skills in Australian companies are woeful; many have not mastered even the basics of management, such as performance monitoring, target setting and the appropriate use of incentives, according the recently published findings of the Study of Australian Leadership (SAL). Half the people who leave their jobs do so to get away from a manager, according to a 2015 Gallup Poll. And 81 per cent of the workforce is disengaged, a 2012 Right Management survey revealed.

The best leaders look after their teams before themselves

These are unpalatable facts. Our failures of leadership are more visible than failures of management. Our papers are peppered with leaders letting themselves, their shareholders, customers and employees down. But the suffering of staff and managers who are driving each other to despair, plays out behind closed doors.

We see it in statistics, but rarely do we read about the failures of managers in the paper. You may believe that your company is the exception to the rule, but how can you know for sure? The answer lies in your willingness to ask a difficult question: is my company doing everything it can to ensure our managers excel at their jobs?

In his book, Leaders Eat Last, author Simon Sinek explains that in the US military, officers eat after the enlisted men. The metaphor is clear: the best leaders look after their teams before themselves. But what is good enough for the life-and-death circumstances of the armed forces is not seen as necessary or desirable in corporate life.

In Australian companies, senior leaders spend ten times the amount of money training themselves than they do training their managers, for example. The question for the board and executive becomes: are the resources in your company fairly divided? Do the hard times fall proportionally and are benefits of the good times also shared?

According to SAL, senior leaders enjoy attending workshops and mentoring programs. They report that these make a positive difference to their abilities. However, SAL also reports that senior leaders shy away from initiatives that assess their true capabilities, such as 360-degree feedback or leadership simulation programs. The data shows that the leaders’ performance lifts only slightly as a result of leadership training. The fastest, largest gains in performance are made from training managers and frontline staff.

The question then becomes whether leadership development in your company is comfortable, or effective. Are you investing time and money training managers in how to do their job effectively? Does your company use the most effective development techniques to improve the most important leadership skills, such as your leaders’ ability to recruit and train effective managers?

Am I being too hard on leaders? Only to make a point. Leadership is important, but its importance has grown out of proportion. Management is seen as the lesser of the two roles despite the fact that leaders and managers share many skills. Pfeffer’s analysis boils down to this question: is your workplace horrible? It is a good and powerful one, and it takes courage to answer honestly.