Organizational & Employee Development: Help Managers

Don’t leave managers to their own devices. Train them for greatness, and their teams will follow.

By Adrienne Fox Feb 1, 2013
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0213cover.gifThink of the manager—or, if you’re lucky, managers—who played a significant and positive role in your career. Now think of the manager—or, if you’re unlucky, managers—who made you want to quit your job every time you went to work. Usually, people come up with those names quickly.

Research underscores the stark contrast among managers. "About 40 percent of managers operate in the top

90th percentile of effectiveness, while 40 percent toil in the bottom 10th percentile of effectiveness," says management consultant Curt Coffman, senior partner at The Coffman Organization Inc. in Denver.

If more than one-third of an organization’s managers are either mediocre or just plain horrible, imagine the lost productivity, says Kent Lineback, co-author of Being the Boss: The 3 Imperatives for Becoming a Great Leader (Harvard Business Review Press, 2011).

"Managers today are no better than they were 20 or 30 years ago," Lineback says, despite decades of research and thousands of books and articles on the topic of how to improve managers’ performance.

The main cause of bad management, he says, is that no one understands what managers should do or what makes a manager great. "If HR had a clear, concise vision of what a manager’s role is in your organizations, and if HR had these conversations openly with all employees, it would elevate the role," Lineback says.

What Do Great Managers Do?

"Great managers will trump great leaders," Coffman says. "Great managers engage their people and motivate them through hope instead of fear. They collaborate with people outside of their immediate network. And they use the strengths of the individual to elevate the whole team."

Lineback spent three decades as a practicing manager and HR executive and then joined Harvard Business Review Press to study and write about managers. He co-wrote Being the Boss with Harvard Business School professor Linda Hill to dispel the mystery around what a great manager does.

Lineback explains, "Managers’ fundamental task is to influence others" through three imperatives:

Manage yourself.

Productive influence comes from people’s trust in your competence and character. "A manager can’t influence someone who doesn’t want to be influenced" by him or her, Lineback says. "To gain that power, you must possess both trustworthiness and authoritativeness. You can have authority through your title as a manager. But if you don’t have trust from your subordinates, then you might be able to coerce them into doing things, but you won’t be able to influence them. You may have earned trust from your subordinates by being their best buddy, but that doesn’t make you authoritative. So you will have engagement, but you still won’t have influence. You need both trust and authority to manage yourself effectively."

Manage your network.

Managing a network means creating relationships that exist beyond the daily work. "Identify the people and groups you need to accomplish your team’s purpose the next year or the year after that," Lineback advises. "Build the relationships you will need in the future before you need them. A lot of us don’t like to do this because it takes time, and you don’t know when it’s going to pay off or if that investment of time is going to pay off. You have to do it consciously and consistently."

Manage your team.

Effective managers ensure that their teams are working collectively for a purpose that each individual member is committed to, Lineback and Hill agree.

To stay on track, Lineback advises managers to check in with themselves daily to see how they are doing on the three imperatives. "Before every decision or action, take 10 seconds to stop and think how that decision or action is going to help manage yourself, your network or your team effectively. Then once you do it, reflect on how it helped or didn’t help," he says.

Lineback adds that managers don’t have to use these three imperatives; they can come up with their own imperatives to fit their company cultures. "It should be a short list," he stresses. "If the list is too long, you won’t remember it or you won’t use it daily."

Be Clear

Often, however, many organizations’ executivesdon’t even consider what makes a great manager and treat managing as a hobby, says Kathie Sorensen, senior partner at The Coffman Organization. "They ask managers to perform like individual contributors, and then say, ‘By the way, manage these other people.’ Managers really struggle with this, and it sends them the wrong message and the wrong set of expectations," she explains.

Lineback says it’s HR professionals’ job to communicate the expectations of managers "clearly, concisely and continuously" and that without such transparency, "managers walk around acting as if no one knows what they do or can understand what they do."

HR professionals "ought to tell everyone what managers are expected to do, including the people who report to them," Lineback says. To raise managers’ performance, "raise the expectations of the people being managed."

Amy Casciotti is HR administrator at TechSmith Corp., a screen-capture and recording software company in Okemos, Mich., with 240 employees and roughly 30 interns. She says managers should understand that authority isn’t granted with their titles.

"New managers, and even experienced managers, mistakenly believe that something more should come along with their titles," Casciotti says. "Respect is earned, not given. I tell my managers that your success as a manager is determined by how well your employees perform, how much they develop and how well you prepare them for the next opportunity. It’s not about you; it’s about the employees."

Her own transition into management was tough. "Your first instinct as a new manager is to keep doing the tasks because you have so much ownership over that previous job," she says. "It is hard to let that go, and it’s something I struggled with."

Communicating clear expectations can ease the transition. Set priorities, advises Amber Unser, SPHR, director of HR at Tecton Products LLC, a windows manufacturer in Fargo, N.D. Her 250 employees and 30 managers in two locations (Fargo and Roanoke, Va.) work in shifts 24 hours a day, seven days a week. "Everyone does better in the long run when expectations and priorities are clear," she says.

Choose Wisely

From 2003 through 2008, TechSmith’s workforce doubled every year, Casciotti recalls. During that time, she says, it was difficult to find talent with technical and management skills in the Midwest. A culture of development was born of necessity.

Casciotti soon discovered, however, that the wrong people were being promoted into people management roles. As a technology company, the business has project managers who oversee software development. Those same people were being asked to manage staff. It didn’t always work, Casciotti says.

"That was a conflict of interest because the project manager’s job is to get the software released," she says. "Because of the pressure of meeting that deadline, professional development of the staff fell off the plate. And that was because of our mixed signals. While we said development of staff was important, we rewarded the project managers based on their ability to meet the software release deadlines."

TechSmith now has both project managers and development managers for the technical functions (roughly half the employee base) and development managers for the nontechnical staff. "The 25 development managers’ sole priority—and what they are measured on—is developing staff," Casciotti explains. "We piloted this approach in one team, and it worked so well that we rolled it out to the rest of the teams. Project managers are also much happier because they weren’t ‘people people’ anyway."

TechSmith’s HR professionals have discussions with workers interested in being development managers about participating in trial runs with interns or job shadowing other managers. This allows the potential managers to see if the role is a good fit, and the HR professionals identify development needs.

"Not everyone is hard-wired to be a manager and deal with conflict and relate to people," Casciotti notes. "Many people decide for themselves that it’s not for them."

At Tecton, Unser looks for people with competence and character for management roles. "If someone has the right intent, then we can polish the edges," she says. "Each shift has its own personality, and it’s important that the right leader meshes with the culture of that team but can also drive necessary change."

Most current managers were promoted from within, Unser says, adding, "We look for people who demonstrate leadership ability naturally."

Sorensen says senior leaders often "get so obsessed with the steps it takes to become a manager" that they overlook employees who are demonstrating the behaviors of a great manager without the title. "Then we tell them to wait to become a manager because someone who has been there longer is in line first."

Continual Training

While a few noteworthy companies such as GE have a whole culture built around management style, and managers who know what is expected of them, "in most companies, senior leaders pay very little attention to developing and improving managers on a consistent basis," Lineback says. "They don’t make the connection that by paying more attention to improving managers, you get better results. That’s where HR can be vocal in drawing attention to the need for ongoing improvement of managers."

Sorensen says senior leaders forget that their direct reports need to be managed, too."Leaders need to invest time with the managers on their team and ask how their managers are developing their team members," she notes. "HR needs to get leaders and managers talking to each other."

Unser takes on this challenge at Tecton. "If I [weren’t] at the meetings constantly stressing the importance of developing our managers, our senior leaders would push this to the back burner for seemingly more-pressing, short-term numbers goals," she says.

If an employee receives development training, it’s usually in the first few months of becoming a manager, and then the person is left to his or her own devices. "After two or three years, managers settle into a pattern that gets the job done without getting fired," Lineback notes. "HR needs to follow up with those managers along the journey to help them become better influencers and better networkers and to find ways to enhance their management styles."

Lineback adds that many professions require continuing education for employees to remain certified because practices change or improve, or people get rusty. Yet "managers aren’t retrained on a continuing basis on being great managers," he says.

Susan Heathfield, a management and organization development consultant and editor of, holds monthly sessions with all managers at TechSmith to keep up their skills. She uses these sessions to offer managerial lessons, tools and coaching. Instead of force-feeding new managers a rigid training course on a random topic, she takes cues from the managers about what they are currently experiencing in order to develop their skills. This approach of "hiding the peas in the mashed potatoes" is more effective because it becomes a dialogue, is relevant and can be put into practice right away.

Internal training can take many forms, Heathfield says. Managers can form book groups to discuss management books or attend brown-bag lunches led by HR or other managers. Recently, a TechSmith employee came up with the idea of sponsoring an "Everyone Conference" called EvCon, modeled after the software company development staff’s annual development conference, or DevCon. Instead of discussing topics related to software development, any employee could give a presentation on any subject he or she wanted to discuss or in which he or she was an expert.

EvCon was held last August. TechSmith shut down the business for one day, except for customer service. That department had to remain open, but agents could attend the event in shifts. Sessions were videotaped for those who were unable to attend. Topics ranged from management books someone had found useful to managing conflict to explaining a particular job. "It was a huge hit, and we plan to make it an annual event," Casciotti says.

Course Corrections

It can take a long time to recognize that a manager is struggling, especially if HR professionals are relying solely on semi-annual performance reviews or turnover metrics. Heathfield says regular meetings between HR professionals and managers help reveal those who are struggling or in the wrong role.

In those cases, removing the individual from the management ranks gracefully becomes a tricky proposition. Don’t "burn the bridge," Coffman says. "HR needs to make it easy for them to go back to the job they loved and performed so well in before management" without being penalized.

Tecton takes the mystery out of being a manager by giving people opportunities to job shadow or to manage when others are on vacation. "If we get someone who does really well, we can support him to get to that level," Unser says. "And, also, if they try it and don’t like it, then there’s no embarrassment of being ‘demoted.’ "

Grooming New Managers

When it comes to developing new managers, a combination of internal, on-the-job training and external training works best. But many HR professionals overlook critical internal training for new managers.

Understanding what is expected of managers within the context of the organization's culture can mean the difference between being great and being horrible, says Susan Heathfield, a management and organization development consultant and editor of "No one can teach the manager about your culture better than you can. It's best for HR professionals, well-respected managers or a consultant who has worked in your culture for many years to do the manager training," she says.

Together with cultural training for new managers at client organizations, Heathfield also brings the new managers together on a regular basis, in a kind of support group, to discuss problems they face as managers and to learn best practices from one another. "If you combine new managers with senior leaders, the new managers will not feel comfortable asking questions or admitting to challenges with their teams," she explains.

External training can be beneficial because it exposes managers to best practices from other organizations and progressive thinking from instructors, Heathfield adds.

Teri Hollingsworth, vice president of human resource services at the Hospital Association of Southern California in Los Angeles, provides external new-manager training for employees at the association's 180 member hospitals. LEAD Academy is a monthly 12-module training course.

Before developing the academy, "We heard from member organizations, especially the smaller ones, that they needed help solving the problem of training managers," Hollingsworth recalls. "It's the typical story of people who come up through the ranks and don't have formal training on being an effective manager."

Hollingsworth says managers like learning from other managers in the hospital industry and they share best practices. "They appreciate the safe environment of sharing challenges without their bosses or anyone from their organizations in the room," she adds.

Kathie Sorensen, senior partner at management consulting firm The Coffman Organization, says that sometimes the training new managers receive sends the wrong message: "We promote someone out of a team who has built great relationships with his team members, and we say, 'Now that you're a manager, you need to be more distant with your employees.' Many people have a natural instinct for being good managers, but we coach that instinct out of them."

—Adrienne Fox

The author, a contributing editor and former managing editor of

HR Magazine, is based in Alexandria, Va.
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