I think that a large number of businesses succeed or fail based on leadership. Sure, you have to have a good product and a market strategy but I think that too many businesses underestimate the value of great leadership. Managers are rarely chosen based on their ability to manage and companies tend to put a handcuff on their ability to effectively lead. I’d like to take this time to share a few stories that illustrate these fundamental flaws while at the same time providing you with some insights on how you can improve managerial performance at your company.
First, let’s get this managers vs. leaders debate out of the way. There are those that will argue that the simple use of the term managers automatically puts us behind the 8-ball. They would suggest that we don’t need to manage people; we need to lead them. I would argue that we’re all grown ups here and if you can’t do your job because the person you report to is called a manager instead of a leader or a coach, the problem is you. Grow up. Now, this is not to suggest that I think that manager is a better word than leader nor is it to suggest that I believe that the ability to lead is less important than the ability to manage. But we’ve been using these words for a long time and there’s just no need for a verbiage change now. We need to change what people do, not what people are called and no, I don’t think one will automatically lead to the other. Rant over.
If you take a survey of employees and talk to them about what the worst quality is in their manager, something that will often come up is consistency or lack thereof. I think that most anything can be overcome if you just know what to expect. Let me give you an example. I worked for a number of years for a national retail office supply chain. I worked in every department in the store from paper to electronics to furniture. They were a great company to work for at that point in my life. The pay was ok. The benefits were ok. The work was ok. There was nothing spectacular about it but a steady job is a steady job for a kid right out of high school. The only thing I had an issue with was management. And there was one manager worse than most. For the purpose of this conversation, let’s call him Gary (mostly because that was his real name).
Gary was a very nice guy. He knew the company inside and out. He was great with metrics. He knew the departments. He was great. Except when it came to managing his staff. He was the first guy to make a joke and get everyone laughing but he was also the first guy to tell you that you needed to be more serious and get to work. He would regularly initiate conversations that were totally unrelated to work ranging from video games to fantasy sports and then would come down hard on you if you were having a conversation that wasn’t directly work related. Consistency. It’s key. Gary knew how to have fun but he didn’t know when to have fun and you NEVER knew when you were supposed to have fun, which meant that most of the time you just never had any fun. This led to poor team chemistry, worse team morale and subpar team performance. Gary’s teams were successful in spite or him, rarely because of him.
You don’t have to be a nice guy as a manager. You just have to be consistent. People have to know where they stand with you. I’ve worked for managers that were downright mean. I would NEVER in a million years have a casual conversation with them and I would ever grab a drink or some dinner with them, as I sometimes did with Gary. But they were good managers because everyone knew what was expected of them. Most people would rather work for someone who is consistent over someone who is nice. Sure, at first nice seems nice. Obviously. But you will quickly yearn for the slave driver.
The second thing that is important when talking about good managers are clear expectations. This is almost directly related to consistency and yet it’s just different enough to warrant its own conversation. Great managers understand that when employees know what is expected of them, they will meet or exceed those expectations. No one likes to fail. But many businesses fail to establish clear and concise goals for their employees and managers fail to adequately provide their team with any guidance on the matter.
I worked for many years as a manager and trainer at a call center. Now before you go off on a tangent about call centers, let me assure you that I’ve heard everything you’re going to say before. No, it was not the most rewarding job in the world. Yes, you were sort of treated like cattle. Yes, I’m glad I don’t work at a call center anymore. But much like that other job, it worked. I don’t have the same feelings of absolute anger and rage that seen to haunt most former call center employees. However this may be because I spent a very short portion of my call center career as a front line employee. In any case, if there is one thing that call centers get right, it’s expectations.
No business that I’ve ever been associated with is as data driven as the call center industry. Everything is measured, everything is quantified and every employee is made aware, at all times, what is expected of them and where they stand. Those expectations may not always be realistic but they’re made clear. The use of scorecards allows employees to see how effective they are and their general ranking in this regard. Now in many cases these numbers don’t effectively tell the story but good managers know this, understand this and respond. For example, the employee on my team with the longest Average Handle Time (the average amount of time spent on a call) also typically had the best first call resolution and best customer service survey results. They sacrificed that particular number because they understood that it was a part of the puzzle. And they understood that because it was made clear to them.
Managers are not always to blame. Managers are, in many ways, the victims of a system that has been built wrong from the ground up. There’s been a lot said about it by people a lot more experienced than me so I won’t go overboard but the basic point is that the way we acquire or promote individuals as managers is fundamentally flawed. We take people that do a great job at something and promote them until they’re in a position that is so far removed from what they’re good at that they cease to become effective. Most companies promote people until they’re one step above the highest job they’re capable of completing. What do I mean? Let’s go back to the call center.
The people that do the best job on the phone, talking to customers and taking care of their concerns are the people that are promoted quickly into positions where they no longer talk to customers. Let’s say for example that they’re moved into a coaching role. Now they’re responsible for helping others develop their skills to be on par with their own. That’s not too bad. They’re still directly impacting customer service through support but they are no longer doing the thing that they do best and if they were truly great on the phones, which they likely were to receive this promotion, they’re no longer doing what they do best.
But it gets worse. Next, they’re promoted to a team manager position. They’re now responsible for managing the schedule, performance and overall job satisfaction for a team of phone representatives. They’re even further removed from the thing they do best. They receive, at best, rudimentary training in order to understand the tools and metrics that they will now be responsible for working with. They’re mired in administrative tasks and may well be over their head. THIS is how businesses have worked…for generations. Promote people until they’re not doing what they’re good at and they’re not good at what they’re doing. One of my favorite books is Let My People Go Surfing by Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard. In it he says that if someone was really good at something, such as machining climbing equipment, you don’t make them the foreman, you pay them what they’re worth to be a great machinist and you hire someone who’s a great foreman to be a great foreman. The skill sets are not the same and honestly not even that closely related.
Whether you’re the CEO of a company or a team leader of a small firm, you need to understand that leadership is challenging. It’s not something that just comes. You have to work at it. You can become a better leader but in order to do so, you need to understand that consistency and clear expectations are keys to success in leadership. And if your job is to define and determine what leadership looks like in your company, make sure that you understand the importance of the right people in the right positions.