London Business School Research Tool: Becoming a better manager 

London Business recently did research from the employees perspective and have produced the following 3 tips for better managers. The content is not owned by Engage for Success.

Becoming a better manager

Is management an easy job? Not at all. Yet, there are some things that any manager can do to become better. The path to managerial improvement starts with three steps.

1. Purpose and performance

See the world through the employee’s eyes — on a regular basis

The whole purpose of this research was to take an employee-centred perspective, so it should be no surprise that we see one of the hallmarks of an effective manager as his or her ability to put themselves in their employees’ shoes. But how to do that? Many people have seen the TV programme, Undercover Boss, in which the CEO of a company takes on a range of front-line jobs without his team members realising who their new colleague is. During this research, we interviewed Stephen Martin, CEO of the construction company, Clugston, who took part in the first series of this programme. He was genuinely moved by the experience — both because of the passion and dedication exhibited by many of the Clugston employees and because he came to realise how poorly he had understood some of their concerns. The undercover experience led him to make some important changes in how he ran the company and how he communicated with employees across the group.

Trouble is, most of us will never get a real undercover experience. So we have to find alternative ways of getting into the heads of our employees, such as:

  • Institutionalised skip-level meetings – These are an opportunity to talk directly with the two layers below you in the hierarchy. Informal brown-bag lunches with employees serve a similar function.
  • Web-enabled chat and discussion forums – CapGemini uses a microblogging tool called ‘Yammer’, which encourages top-of-mind conversations on specific topics, without regard for rank.
  • Front-line work – Tesco’s top executives spend a few days every year stacking shelves and working on the checkout.
  • Smokers’ corner – If you go outside for a cigarette (not that we recommend anyone smoke), you find yourself striking up conversation with a random slice of people at all levels in the company, typically in a much less hierarchical manner than if you bumped into them in a formal setting
  • Reverse mentoring – One of the people we interviewed for this research is a 48-year old test director at Microsoft. In a switch of the classic roles of elder-coaching-younger, a 28-year-old employee is mentoring him, primarily to make sure the boss stays up to date with the latest technology trends. Naturally, they end up discussing a wide range of issues on a much more informal basis than would normally be possible.

2. Package work

Package work — even routine work — into projects

When presenting seminars for executives, we often ask them this question: Think back to the last time you were fully engaged and motivated at work. What were the characteristics of that work? They typically come up with the sort of list we described earlier (that is, challenging work, lots of autonomy, a chance to work with good people). But, more importantly, they almost always find themselves recalling a specific and discrete project. This isn’t surprising, but it is interesting. Because it suggests that one way of making routine work more fulfilling and motivating for employees is to structure their work into a series of projects. The essence of a project is simply (a) a clear objective, (b) a deadline by which the objective needs to be reached and (c) a clear sense of who is doing the work and who is responsible.

3. Overlapping roles

Work yourself out of a job

Each level of management adds value to the one below. Well, that is the intention and the presumed logic of hierarchy in organisations. In reality, there are often overlapping roles between layers in a hierarchy, leading to disagreement and frustration. One useful way of approaching a management job is to imagine that the role won’t exist in, say, two years’ time and that your job is to train everyone so that they can do your job as well as their own. Doing that encourages you to hire and promote the best people. It forces you to question why you do certain things at all, and it inspires you to delegate many of your tasks to the people working for you.

There are no shortcuts to becoming an effective manager. We all intuitively know what good management looks like, but most of us don’t follow through on this knowledge in our day-to-day actions. What’s needed is not additional advice on what to do but, instead, some insight into how we might do it. Our research suggests that the best managers are those who adopt the discipline of looking at the world through the eyes of their employees. This provides the right mindset to structure work carefully, to communicate more effectively and to push decision-making down to the appropriate level.

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