Many years ago I had a wonderful job title, Assistant to the Chief Executive; it was shorthand for someone he sent to help businesses where things were not going well. To my surprise I discovered the root cause of most problems was limited to a small number of people who were, invariably, the senior managers. One such assignment was to coach and mentor a young man 9 months into his first Chief Executive role. We all thought he was doing OK, asking all the right questions of us when needed, but my Boss said ‘he is not waving but drowning’ and so began the most important learning of my leadership life.
What’s the problem Peter?
Peter was a product of our Graduate Program with a fearsome reputation of achievement, but now he looked drained and exhausted. I asked what had gone well; and not so well. He said whilst he was delighted with the technical knowledge of his management team; their pace, particularly with people issues, was a real problem. “We have people who spend far too much time at the water cooler, or just wandering around; and some whose behaviour and attitude is completely unacceptable. Their managers do not confront these issues and would seemingly prefer to do anything other than fix the people problems. When I have questioned my direct reports about the competence of these failing managers a common response is yes, more work needed; but they are mostly OK; it’s very frustrating”
We agreed that employee engagement and performance management were the unique responsibility of managers, no one else can be held accountable. What we needed was a plan.
What’s the solution?
After much discussion we thought there were three key first actions;
Ensure determination to create a fit for purpose management team was displayed by all senior leaders. They were to be role models of acceptable behaviour and competence; creators of a culture that was intolerant of managers that could not manage at their current level of responsibility.
Second; Think Vilfredo Pareto and the 80–20 rule, the law of the vital few. The daily output of 80% of employees is shaped by the competence and behaviour of the 20%. Invest disproportionately in the managers.
Third; Equip managers with a process and tool to ensure review meetings are just that, agenda and records; not just a chat or catch up. A structured meeting; where feedback is given and received with promises made by either party recorded….and discussed again next time.
We agreed the most valued gift one human can give another is of their time; everything else can be bought. We had to evidence the worth and importance of every employee to the business by ensuring meaningful one to one engagement between them and their manager. For all to engage each must be given individual time with their manager, starting at the very top. We recognised for some managers this was their worst nightmare; time with people that scared them, or they did not like. We could already hear them saying; “A formal catch up, what a waste of time; besides I talk to them every day already, and I have other things that are more pressing”.
There we have it…the first tap on the pipework of communication and engagement rusted solid. Why do they say this? What is to be done?