Will we ever solve the “People Manager Problem”?

“Time is a flat circle”

Rustin Cohle – True Detective1

If I had to pick the most common total rewards challenge that I have encountered with clients over the years, I would struggle to find anything as commonplace as the role of the people manager. Specifically the challenges of selecting people who are willing and able to perform in these roles, and providing them with the support, tools, and training to be effective in these roles.

We all know intuitively that people managers are critical. Many of us have experienced working under good and bad managers, and recognize how important this is to our own happiness and productivity. In studies and surveys, people managers are a recurring theme when it comes to employee engagement such as this Gallup study which found that the quality of people managers account for approximately 70% of the variance in employee engagement.

Separately a SHRM study found that 84% of US workers say poorly trained managers create a lot of unnecessary work and stress.

As always, Peter Drucker was well ahead of the curve on this one. Nearly 70 years ago, Drucker published The Practice of Management, probably the first book to address the importance of management and treat the concept of management as a distinct and important responsibility. This was the world’s introduction to “Management By Objectives” and the acronym “MBO” is still in use on a daily basis the world over (often in entirely the wrong sense).

“The job of developing tomorrow’s managers is both too big and too important to be considered a special activity. Its performance depends on all factors in the managing of managers: the organization of a man’s job and his relationship to his superior and his subordinates; the spirit of the organization; and its organizational structure”

Peter Drucker – The Practice of Management (1954)

And yet, the “People Manager Problem” persists. So often, managerial responsibilities are used as a “reward” for high performance, or based on tenure and not on managerial capabilities or even on an individual’s desire to be a people manager. Despite Dual Career Ladders being far more common than they were in 1954, the role of people manager remains stubbornly linked to the concept of career progress.

That isn’t to say that no one is getting this right. Many successful companies do focus heavily on people management, both in terms of talent, and training, investing heavily in curricula that enable people to be better managers. However, particularly in fast growing organizations (but also in many larger organizations), this type of work often falls to the back of the queue, superseded by short-term needs around hiring, pay, and promotions. I get it – there are always fires to be put out, immediate staffing needs to fulfill, people to be kept happy but while these are important, it all counts for nothing in the long run if good workers regularly end up miserable and leave. Take a quick peruse of some mid- to late-stage VC-backed companies on Glassdoor, and you’ll likely see many comments along the lines of “micro-managers”, “inability to retain high quality leadership”, “inexperienced managers” etc. All of this is a function of fast growth combined with a lack of thoughtfulness around the role of the People Manager.

“No amount of special manager-development activities will, for instance, develop tomorrow’s managers in an organization that focuses on weakness and fears strength, or in one that scorns integrity and character”

Peter Drucker – The Practice of Management (1954)

“So what’s the solution?” I hear you ask…

Well, it certainly isn’t easy and requires an organization-wide effort from the top down but here are a few ideas to start with:

Firstly, we need to make sure that the idea of career progress is not intertwined with having direct reports. I have heard feedback first hand, from engineers in companies with a dual career track, that they took on reports in order to advance their careers. Having a dual career track is not a panacea to dispel these deep-rooted assumptions about one’s career prospects – that pretty slide (you know the one) just isn’t enough. This can be a major cultural shift and leadership should be reminding and reinforcing at every opportunity, the concept of dual career tracks, celebrating the success of senior individual contributors, and giving those people a seat at the leadership table as an example of the importance of technical leadership.

Then we need to think very carefully about our talent needs. The skills of being a good people manager such as the ability to lead from behind, accomplish tasks through others, deliver feedback, performance management etc. are fundamentally different from the technical know how that is required to advance as an individual contributor. Internal leveling guides, as well as competency frameworks, and talent profiles should be clear about what is expected of these roles, and we should be on the look out, internally and externally, for individuals with an interest in building these skillsets.

“The enterprise cannot therefore be a mechanical assemblage of resources. To make an enterprise out of resources it is not enough to put them together in logical order and then to throw the switch of capital”

Peter Drucker – The Practice of Management (1954)

Then we come to training – Surely one of the most overlooked opportunities for increased efficiency and productivity, and not just on the topic of people managers. In my experience many people managers want to be better people managers. So assuming we have people that want to be in these roles, and want to learn, it all comes down to providing that opportunity.

“The all too common case of the management that produces great economic results as long as it runs the company but leaves behind nothing but a burned-out and rapidly sinking hulk is an example of irresponsible managerial action through failure to balance present and future.”

Peter Drucker – The Practice of Management (1954)

Which brings me to the process of developing a Management Training Curriculum…

If I were hired as a people leader, this would be top of my list – whether its developing from scratch or building on what’s already there. Not only does it help with the problems discussed above, it provides opportunities for camaraderie and development within the people team itself, allowing colleagues to develop their own knowledge, work closely with peers, as well as developing softer skills by delivering presentations and hosting workshops.

The wealth of data to support the importance of this initiative should be enough to convince even the most stubborn executive that we should invest in this area. But where to start?

Personally, I like to approach this from the perspective of the employee lifecycle in order to build out a full curriculum. To me, every junction point is an opportunity to build out a module containing live training, role play opportunities, take away materials, and FAQs. Below I have mapped out my view on what this could look like with possible training modules aligned to each stage:

Now this certainly isn’t exhaustive, nor would it apply in the same way to every company, but these are many of the areas that I believe are important and frequently overlooked and I offer this up as a starting point to anyone thinking about this pursuing this initiative.

But let’s say you have all this neatly organized into folders with a quarterly schedule of manager training off-sites. Does the fun stop there? Absolutely not…

As businesses adapt to changing norms in the working world, this set of materials should naturally evolve. Additionally, as we hear feedback from managers on pain points and new unforeseen issues, it is our job to continue to evolve this set of resources. When delivering these materials, we should constantly be looking for ways to improve and make the process as engaging and enjoyable as possible.

My job is to help companies build happier and more productive workforces where everybody wins. My sincere hope is that this topic gets far more attention over the coming years, particularly as managers are asked to do more with less, dealing with constantly changing demands in changing work environments and economic conditions leading to additional stress.

There were so many quotes to choose from in this book that are staggeringly relevant to the challenges a business faces today. I highly recommend picking up a copy:

Disclosure: Some of the links above are affiliate links. This means that, at zero cost to you, I will earn an affiliate commission if you click through the link and finalize a purchase.

1Yes, I know Nietzsche coined the expression but Rust is just way cooler – I doubt Friedrich ever sat around making figurines out of Lone Star cans, while recounting detective stories in a smooth Texan accent…

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