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The Manager Reorg: How Today's New Workplace Requires a New Breed of Leader

The role of management has changed dramatically in the past few years. Here's how the chief people officer at UKG says organizations can help their management teams navigate this challenging new environment.

A hand watering a plant with a heart in it.

Promoting people into manager roles used to be a much simpler proposition. The traditional approach and thinking was that if someone was a subject-matter expert, companies assumed that that person would be best qualified to direct the work of people on their team. It wasn't about motivating the employees; it was about productivity and efficiency. 

But with the pandemic and all the social unrest of the last few years, the worlds of work and life have crashed into each other. And all the topics that were once considered off-limits for organizations are now part of everyday conversations among colleagues. Employees have pushed the shift, and managers, as a general rule, have never been trained and equipped to have these difficult and challenging conversations.

Because there is often no clear answer, and because those conversations often carry the risk of saying the wrong thing, managers often just shut down. They don't ask how their employees are doing and steer clear of potentially fraught topics. They just stay focused on the job. And don't forget—they are employees, too—going through the same emotional and societal challenges as their teams.

At a time when managers have plenty of reasons to step back from these challenges, organizations need them more than ever to step up and lead. Spend enough time in the HR field, and you will know that the quality of a company's managers has an outsized impact on all aspects of the organization—from business results to the development, retention and engagement levels of employees. And according to a recent study done by our team at UKG, managers have more impact on the mental health of their employees (69 percent) than those employees' primary doctors (51 percent) and therapists (41 percent)—and even the same as their spouse or partner! If anybody is stuck working for the stereotypical "brilliant jerk" of a manager, then it's almost inevitable that they are going to take that burden home to their families.

Lead or Get Out of the Way

As organizations are getting smarter about the value of a healthy culture, healthy teams, psychological safety and effective managers, the world has become exponentially more complicated, creating new challenges for managers that they never had to deal with before. With this highly complex environment, companies are scrambling to put scaffolding around their managers and trying to create clarity around the metrics for measuring manager success.

What is a leader? How do you build trust? How do you lead with vulnerability? There should also be much less tolerance now for allowing people to lead others if they're not willing to do the work that managing and leading requires. Managing is not extra work, it is the work. If you're not willing to lean in and be human and vulnerable and inclusive, then you shouldn't lead. It's a privilege to lead, and people who do not understand that should gracefully be moved out of those roles. Frontline managers have to lead with care, compassion, transparency and vulnerability, and they need to set a tone and listen and include others in decision-making and problem-solving.

If people are unwilling to do the work of managing, there are mechanisms in place to find out if people are in management roles who shouldn't be. Organizations need to truly understand how well their managers are navigating these challenges. Employees' tolerance of a bad user experience with their boss is dropping. Employees are finding ways to be heard internally and externally. They're raising their voices. Fortunately, there is a growing industry of tools and platforms for companies to know what their employees are thinking and feeling.

The better companies out there listen with intentionality and triangulate the data to get a realistic assessment of why someone might be struggling in a manager role. However, we can't let the outlier data points drive our judgment. We need to understand context within the organization, as well as look for trends and connect the dots. Did the company set the right goals and expectations for the manager? Did we teach them what good looks like? And you have to be diligent about assessing the effectiveness of all your managers and leaders. After all, you're only as good as your least good leader. Another way to say that is if you promote the jerk, then the jerk becomes your culture. If you think like that, then you're more reticent to promote or tolerate the jerk in a management role.

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Four Messages to Managers

While it can be easy to overwhelm new managers with dozens of skills they need to develop, it is important to provide them with a few ideas to guide their work. At a recent gathering of more than 200 of our VP-level-and-higher leaders, I shared with them four key messages:

First, managers need to be aware they have a "leadership shadow," and they should know what it is, how it's interpreted by employees and be intentional about creating the shadow they want. Once you're aware of your shadow, you can't become unaware. A simple example might be a manager canceling a regular check-in with a direct report. They may have the best of intentions—they fully trust that direct report and are confident about how they are prioritizing the work they have and wanted to give them the time back as a courtesy. Meanwhile, the direct report may interpret the canceled check-in as a sign of disinterest and a lack of respect for what they bring to the table. 

Second, I share with them a simple analogy of "left foot, right foot." The left foot refers to your subject-matter expertise. Your right foot is the enterprise mindset. Start with your right foot when striving to understand how to make the best decision or strategy for your team. Do you understand the context of the business, the enterprise, the customer? Do you understand how the various functions go after the various challenges, and how your team fits into the broader context? If you don't understand the bigger picture first, don't lean on your left foot. Remember, you must seek to understand with your right foot first and then dive deeper as it relates to the impact on your team—your "left foot."  This approach is effective at every level.

Third is about the importance of embracing a growth mindset. Managers at all levels—and all employees, in fact—should adopt a growth mindset. If you do that, it unlocks so much productive energy, and gives permission to frontline managers to be imperfect. It acknowledges that we are all learning. That vulnerability can be hard, because managers rightly assume they were promoted into the role because they're great and they deliver the goods. But to be great and grow their team, they've got to be vulnerable as a manager, which may be antithetical to how they thought they should act. So you've got to change the paradigm and shift their mindset really early on in their career.

Finally, you need to be a leader for all. How do you build trust, vulnerability and appreciation for everyone on your team? Do you understand the value of inclusion? How do you ensure that hidden voices are heard? The skill of pattern recognition, while important in many contexts, can also be problematic while hiring and managing people, because we often use our pattern-spotting abilities to reduce risk. For example, that's why people think they should hire from the same schools. That approach worked in the past, so why not continue doing the same thing? There's natural angst with change, but managers have to seek out people and perspectives that may challenge their pattern thinking. This "challenge" will help everyone get smarter in the dialogue.

Those are the big points I convey, but we are also focused on more tactical shifts. In performance reviews, for example, managers are required to explicitly ask for feedback from their direct reports on how they can help them be more effective. What should they do more of, less of, differently? Am I available to you? Am I recognizing you? Am I appreciating you? Do you think I understand your impact? And then capture that in writing so there's more accountability. Those topics can be revisited over time to ensure the manager is delivering on what the employee asked for.

The Risk of Reluctant or 'Accidental' Managers

We also want to make sure our managers, in fact, really want to be managers.

To find out if our future leaders understand what it takes, we have an "If you're thinking about being a manager" course. We provide a realistic picture of what leading others entails at our company, including hiring, firing, performance reviews, compensation decisions, having tough conversations, dealing with budget constraints, etc.

We remind them over and over that it's a privilege to lead, and that they must be ready to lean in, learn, listen and be as transparent and vulnerable as they can be. As said before, leading is the work, and these are the things bosses need to do on their journey to build trust. If they're passionate about doing that work, we coach them on how to let their own boss know that they want to move into a manager role. Once people start on the path, we provide tools, coaching and templates to help them be an effective manager.

But managing people can't be a side hobby. That's why we make sure there is an individual-contributor track in the company for people who don't want to be managers in order to move up. Because we don't want reluctant managers who are doing it because they see it as the only route to move up and earn more money.

We also want to avoid the "accidental manager" phenomenon. They typically are effective influencers, they're good to their people, and they have vision for where we're going and how we can get there. And they end up in manager roles because the organization turned to them at one point and said, "Look, we had a reorg and someone left. Can you be the interim leader?" And then this accidental leader becomes the leader over time.

But if you leave that accidental leader in this position and they don't ever really warm to the role and its responsibilities, you actually create harm for them. Some people just don't want to lead others, and so as an organization, how do you know who those people are?

In every organization, you'll have accidental leaders who are waiting to be rescued. How do you find them? That can be hard, because employees often love them. They're doing the company a favor, but managing and leading is not their passion, and they're losing joy over time.

As much as the manager role represents a greater challenge and carries more responsibility, I think the job can be more attractive now than it's ever been. The reason is that people now have a certain freedom to be perfectly imperfect.

As a first-time manager, you can be more confident that you're going to get some training and some scaffolding. You're going to get help and guidance, and you can also seek input from your team about what they need from you. We're also in an environment now of co-creation. Inclusive behavior means that nobody has to have all the answers as you navigate the road map. Instead, questions become your best friends.

So being vulnerable, and being comfortable not knowing everything, being imperfect, and having a growth mindset should put managers at ease. Before it was more of a fixed mindset environment, where you were expected to step into the role and instantly perform at a high level. As a manager now, you can fail fast and iterate and learn. That's exciting for anyone who understands the privilege and responsibilities of managing and leading others.  

Pat Wadors is the chief people officer at UKG, a global HCM technology company. She has also served on the board of directors for several prominent technology companies.


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