Showing all pages regarding people management.
I was twenty-two when Margaret Thatcher led the Conservative party to victory in the 1979 general election. I opposed her politics and protested against many of her reforms including the destruction of the miners and the poll tax. I never admired her and certainly never considered her a role model.
Now as I reflect on her life in politics and her legacy as the first female prime minister I remain convinced that she did nothing to further the cause of women in politics or in business. Still only 22 per cent of UK MPs are women and only 22 per cent of senior management positions are held by women. Margaret Thatcher might have demonstrated that it was possible to shatter the glass ceiling but she failed to help other women into leadership roles. In fact it is said that she was a perfect example of “Queen Bee” syndrome – she did very well and enjoyed her position of power, but she did not particularly want other women to succeed too.
However, although it pains me to say it, I appreciate some of Margaret Thatcher’s leadership qualities. She was a strong and formidable leader in a male dominated environment. And unlike many women in managerial roles she cared not a jot about her own popularity. Being liked was not Margaret Thatcher’s concern. Rather she was driven entirely by her determination to reach the top and achieve her political goals. There is some evidence to suggest that women who make it to a senior position in business are perceived as less likeable than men in the same role (see the Stanford Business School experiment where the name of an entrepreneur in a business case study was changed from Howard to Heidi and instantly became less likeable to the class of students than the male version Stanford Case Study). Women at the top are often considered to be ‘aggressive’ where males displaying the same behaviour are simply seen as “assertive” or “confident”. And this perception of successful female leaders can lead women to be over anxious about their popularity.
I am not suggesting that women should be more arrogant and insensitive in order to succeed as leaders. A certain amount of empathy and emotional intelligence is important and helps leaders to get the best out of people. And arguably, it was Margaret Thatcher’s refusal to acknowledge public opinion or to listen to those around her that caused her downfall in the end. I am not advocating the “Margaret Thatcher style of leadership”. I hated her politics and values. But perhaps women would do well to take a very small leaf from Margaret Thatcher’s – try to care a little less about what others think of you.
After running a residential weekend on Leadership Skills for some MBA students I was keen to make sure they applied their learning when they got back to work. I wanted them to commit to at least one action that would change the way they work and improve their management skills. “So what are you going to differently tomorrow?” I asked. The responses were many and various but were not specific enough for my liking.
“I’m going to try to listen more and talk less” one said. “I’m going to improve the way we make decisions in my organisation” offered another. These were encouraging resolutions but were not specific enough for my liking. Then one of the quieter members of the group said “Well from now on, whenever I am giving feedback or carrying out an appraisal, I’m going to start the conversation with ‘How do you think you did?’”. It’s a little thing, but her words made my heart sing!
The weekend course had involved a lot of group work where individuals gave feedback to each other on their performance after each exercise. At first they approached this by immediately reeling off a list of what they thought the other person did well and what they didn’t do well (sadly the emphasis was nearly always on the negatives). However, I had been encouraging them to start each feedback session with a question: “How do you think you did?”. Gradually, they got the hang of it and began to see the benefits of this approach.
There are many situations where managers are called on to comment on the performance of their staff. It could involve one of those difficult conversations where concerns about performance need to be raised. It might be part of a performance appraisal or it could just be because someone has asked you for feedback. If the feedback is positive the conversation is fairly straightforward. If not, the approach needs careful handling.
There are two main advantages of starting with the question “How do you think you did?”:
- If things have gone wrong or there are performance problems there is a good chance that the other person will talk about these problems in their response to your question. How much better is it for them to raise the issues rather than you? Immediately you have been offered a way in to a discussion about why these problems came about and how they can be addressed. Yes, I know that there are some people who will never own up to mistakes or short comings but in my experience most people are reasonably self-aware and, given the right environment, they are relatively honest.
- If the performance issues are identified and raised by the other person, rather than you, there is a much better chance of them taking responsibility for the problem and doing something about it. When a person is simply told that they’ve got something wrong, even though they might agree, they are more likely to question their manager’s judgement and go on the defensive. In this situation they will feel much less inclined to address the issues, and so improving their performance becomes an uphill battle.
Giving feedback and managing performance involves a lot more than opening the discussion with a question. But that question can make difficult conversations a whole lot easier. I loved my group member for giving herself a simple practical action that she can implement immediately at work. Just six words – “How do you think you did?” – can be surprisingly effective.
The spotlight appears to be on the big four accountancy firms as they struggle to address the lack of diversity in their partnerships. The domination of white men from elite universities continues in these firms with Ernst and Young, for example, reporting that just 17% of its 549 partners are women. Clearly the people occupying senior positions in these companies ought to more closely reflect the diversity of its client organisations and society as a whole – it makes good business sense quite apart from being seen as a progressive and fair employer. Yet the pressure to address current imbalances at the top suggests that some firms are placing more priority on the achievement of diversity targets than on the quality of their partners or the inherent causes of male-dominated workplaces.
Ernst and Young has announced that, within 3 years, at least a tenth of its new partners will be black or from other ethnic minorities. It has also pledged to make at least 30 per cent of its new partner appointments women in the same time frame. Such ambitions might be impressive but are surely misguided. Where are these senior women and ethnic minority partners going to come from? We know that most women entering management roles in the city tend to leave in their thirties or fail to achieve promotion to senior levels. Maternity breaks and child care responsibilities and are part of the explanation for this but there is also evidence that corporate culture discourages women from aspiring to senior management roles. Being a partner means long hours and the high stress involved makes it difficult for women to cope with the demands of work and family. On top of this, the male-dominated, performance-driven culture is off-putting to many highly capable young women.
Any company that is serious about achieving diversity at the top needs a long term talent management strategy. The aim should be to ensure that the firm’s organisational culture and policies reflect a genuine desire to engage, develop, support and promote talent – wherever it comes from. The desire to achieve diversity at senior levels in business should be welcomed, but the problem cannot be resolved overnight. A slavish and superficial focus on targets alone suggests that the top firms are paying lip service to what is a complex and more deep-seated issue.
This week I was delighted to support and sponsor the launch of a provocative and insightful book – “How to make a million jobs” by Colin Crooks. You can order a copy here. Colin is a social entrepreneur who, in his book, challenges all of us to think differently about unemployment and its causes. His solutions are radical but not unrealistic and are based on Colin’s experiences as well as persuasive, independent evidence.
As a leadership specialist, working with corporates, professional associations and universities, it is not immediately clear why I should decide to sponsor such a book.
The main reason is that I share with the book’s author a concern about people and their development. I also believe in the capacity for people to change their attitude and behaviour and to learn new skills.
The book is full of real stories about people, young and old, who had given up all hope of finding work. They were poorly educated, lacked confidence and had few social or employability skills. When these people were offered an opportunity to work and when this was accompanied by some support and encouragement they responded positively. Many went on to better jobs and have not looked back.
The book, and my own experience, demonstrates this: that when people at work are supported and developed in the right way they tend to be good employees. They become committed, engaged, interested and keen to learn. They gain in confidence and in ambition. Of course there are always exceptions. But, in general, we know this simple statement of cause and effect to be true.
The problem is that so many employers do not have the commitment or the capability to provide the support required. The challenge for government, policy makers and anyone with an interest in this area, is to change the attitude of employers. We need to be better at getting employers to truly appreciate and realise the business benefits of developing their people. Then we need employers to be better at motivating, supporting and engaging their staff. Employers should be asking whether they and their managers are managing people effectively and providing good role models to all staff.
The people in Colin’s book were fortunate to be taken on by a good employer with good people management skills. Sadly that’s not true of all employers, and many people entering a new job do not get the support and development they need.
Developing people and changing their behaviour requires patience, and this isn’t easy in the current climate where many companies are driven by an obsession with short term results. But understanding that link: between managing people effectively and building a successful business is fundamental to good leadership. It informs everything I do and it is at the heart of Colin Crooks’ book.
There was an interesting discussion on Radio 4 this morning about the value of an MBA and whether MBA study was worth the investment. Josh Kaufman, author of ‘The Personal MBA’ argued that successful businesses are built on a few basic principles and that the greatest entrepreneurs learnt by experience, not in the classroom.
These views – that you can’t teach good leadership and that the MBA has little value – have been around for a long time. Business schools do a good job of defending their position by highlighting the scope and rigour of the MBA and its importance in terms of career progression and earning power. Still the debate rolls on.
It is well known that I have my criticisms of the MBA and have long argued for a fundamental review of the qualification (see my article in the FT on 16 April 2012). However, despite its faults I still believe that MBA study is worth the investment (see my presentation to the City of London Business Library http://www.slideshare.net/jeanettepurcell/10-reasons-why-you-should-get-an-mba-14264411).
So while I welcome the ongoing discussion about the MBA’s future and sympathise with some of the critics of the qualification, I take issue with the argument that is has no value. In particular I do not accept the claim that you only learn how to do business by experience.
First most people’s experiences in business are limited to a single industry, sector and job role. Granted, we learn a great deal from experience, but there is no guarantee that our experiences will cover all aspects of business and management. The MBA fills those gaps in our work experience, giving us access to knowledge and skills that we wouldn’t acquire just by being ‘out there’ in business.
Second, learning by experience is only really effective if we reflect on that experience, analyse it and use it to inform our actions and behaviours in the future. MBA study provides the environment, specialist support and structure for such reflection – encouraging students to share and discuss their experiences so that experience becomes the basis for further learning and improvement.
Let’s have an honest debate about the MBA and its future. But let’s not pretend that experience is all you need in business. It’s the depth of experience and what you do with it that counts.
One of the most valuable attributes a leader or anyone in a management role can have is self awareness. With a deep and accurate understanding of yourself; your strengths, weaknesses, habits and preferences, you have the basis for becoming a great leader. Not only can you make the most of your strengths and address your failings, but you can also build a team around you that fills the gaps in your own skill set. For instance, I am aware of my tendency to get excited about new projects and my desire to get going as soon as the idea finds general support. I tend to overlook the detail at this stage and can overlook potential risks. As a Chief Executive I made sure that my top team included someone I trusted to always consider the detail and to keep my enthusiasm in check if necessary.
But self knowledge can be difficult to acquire – we are often blind to our own personality traits and don’t see what others see in us only too clearly. That’s why it is important to get feedback from people you work with in a carefully managed and anonymous way. I use 360 degree feedback quite regularly with senior managers and teams and I have seen how the results can change behaviour and improve performance. The feedback gives you better self knowledge and shows you how you are perceived by others. Such rich information not only forms a great basis for self development but also provides a tool for measuring improvement (by repeating the same feedback exercise in, say, 6-12 months time).
360 degree feedback involves the identification of a group of people who you work with whose opinions you value and trust. Normally the number of people chosen will be between 6-12. The selected group should include a good cross section of work contacts (for instance a mix of peers, managers, juniors, external clients, board members etc). Ideally you should avoid choosing only the people you like or who you know like you, but you should be confident that the feedback you receive will be constructive and helpful.
The feedback questionnaire can be designed to give general feedback on a number of management issues. Alternatively it can be specific, focused on giving some in depth feedback on an issue where the aim is to build new skills (e.g. effective communication). An independent expert should develop the questionnaire ensuring the questions are valid, clear and fair. All questionnaires are completed anonymously and returned for analysis by the independent expert who then presents the results to the people concerned in a professional and constructive way. Of course, the results might be surprising or even upsetting and so this stage must be handled sensitively. However, it is often the case that people recognise the need for improvement when presented with the evidence. They are also pleasantly surprised at positive feedback which they hadn’t expected.
There are a range of costly and sophisticated business tools used to help improve self knowledge and our understanding of the people we work with. I prefer 360 degree feedback above all of these. It’s simple, relevant and cost effective. Most importantly, it works.
A recent article by Robert Terry in the Financial Times (FT) complains that, despite the significant sums spent annually on training and development by companies, very little of what is learnt translates into improved performance in the workplace. Studies shows that only 5-20% of the learning from training has any impact on the business. Given the current obsession with measuring everything against business targets, this is puzzling if not shocking. “Surely” Terry suggests “a training industry that delivers less than 20 per cent cannot be fit for purpose.”
He is right. Much of the training delivered globally, within companies or by universities, is probably ineffectual. Yet still many organisations fail to measure the impact of training on the business and individual performance. Terry suggests that one reason for this is the lack of any participation or involvement of line managers in individual staff development. He argues that managers fail to take responsibility for the learning and development of their staff and should be held to account for the transfer of training to the workplace. Trainers should also be more concerned with the application of training and how it will benefit the business.
As a leadership development specialist I take this issue very seriously and have long been promoting various approaches which help to ensure that companies and individuals get a return on their investment in training and development. First let’s look at business schools and the MBA – generally considered to be the leading international business qualification. I am a strong advocate of the MBA, but, despite the considerable cost of tuition, there is surprisingly little evaluation of how the qualification benefits business or its impact on individual performance. Many employers express the concern that MBA training is too divorced from the reality of business. Some are also reluctant to sponsor employees to take an MBA because of the risk that, once qualified, their employee will be off to find a higher paid job with better prospects. Many companies attempt to manage this risk by ‘tying in’ the employee with a contract requiring them to stay with the company for a certain period after qualifying. Well, it may stop them leaving but does this restraining order really help employers to get the most out of their highly qualified senior staff?
To be sure of a better payback, employers need to take a more considered approach to MBA sponsorship. I have always encouraged employers to address the following questions. Which employees would you select to support through their MBA training and why? How can the business get the best return from investing in MBA training? What are your long term plans for the development and progression of your most talented employees? While these employees are training, or when they are qualified, what new opportunities and challenges are you able to offer them? How will their new learning be applied in order to benefit the business? Dealing with these questions will not only keep senior staff motivated and engaged but will also help to ensure that employers realise the full value of MBA training.
Then there is workplace or corporate training. How do we improve the transfer of learning in this context? It’s true that some managers are too ready to shirk their responsibility for staff development, turning to HR to solve their performance problems with the wave of a wand or the provision of a 2 day training course. When I am asked to provide management and leadership training I spend some time during the planning stage with the CEO, line managers or ideally the management team. The aim is to get an understanding of the business, the people, the challenges they face and any specific performance problems so that I can make what I deliver as relevant and meaningful as possible. I want them to see my participation as an intervention in their company’s business process, picking up on what is already going on and developing ideas and actions for implementation in the future. It is essential to get the manager’s or CEO’s commitment to deal with any follow up and to support further development after my input. That way the training and development doesn’t end when I walk away.
Measuring the impact of training on business performance isn’t easy. But with a considered approach to staff development, the involvement of managers and input from trainers who are concerned with the application of learning, the returns can be considerable.
I heard the term ‘imposter syndrome’ for the first time today. It described a situation I recognised immediately and have often talked and written about – and I was fascinated to hear that the situation has a formal definition. The term popped up during an interview with one of the world’s leading astronomers – Dame Jocelyn Bell-Burnell – on Radio 4 this morning. She described how she pursued a career in astrophysics in the 1960s, struggling to achieve recognition in an entirely male dominated field. She applied for a PhD post at Cambridge University not expecting to get in and, when her application was accepted, she was very surprised. Jocelyn Bell-Burnell remembers her first year at Cambridge as a very daunting experience. She felt she didn’t deserve to be there and, in her interview, talks about ‘imposter syndrome’ as a way of describing her feelings. To paraphrase Jocelyn’s explanation of the syndrome : it is experienced by people, mostly women, who lack confidence and who believe that the success they have achieved is the result of some terrible mistake. The feeling involves a nagging fear that at some point the mistake will be uncovered, revealing the person as an undeserving imposter.
This feeling will resonate with many women and, perhaps, some men. To some extent I experienced it myself when I was first promoted to a senior management position. Despite the rigorous selection process, I couldn’t help wondering whether I got there by luck or by somehow pretending to my seniors that I had got what it takes. My older sister, a successful occupational therapist and academic, has told me that she occasionally felt like a fraud in her job. She half expected someone to tap her on the back one day and say “sorry, we’ve just realised you’re not up to this job and you’ve been getting away with it for too long”. When I am coaching women in senior roles it is not unusual for them to express feelings of doubt about their ability to do their job. They are also quick to tell me why they are probably not capable of progressing any further. I rarely encounter a man expressing the same reservations.
Women who suffer from this lack of confidence are often their own worst enemies. They fail to aim high, underrate their own capabilities and do themselves down in front of others. I am not suggesting that women should learn how to be more arrogant – it is often the sincerity and honesty of women leaders that earns them respect, trust and success at the top. Rather I wish that women would believe more in themselves, acknowledge their strengths and realise the positive impact they have in business. I can well understand Jocelyn Bell-Burnell suffering from ‘imposter syndrome’ in the scientific field in the 1960s. It shouldn’t still be happening today.
Recent news coverage about phone hacking by journalists raises more questions about the moral responsibility of leaders. In fact this news item, coming after a succession of scandals involving financial institutions and corrupt MPs, will ensure that the debate around business ethics and corporate responsibility will continue for some time.
I am intrigued by Rebekah Brooks’ statement that she had “no knowledge” of the phone hacking taking place at the News of the World when she was in charge of the paper. It might be argued that leaders of large complex organisations can’t be expected to know everything. Max Clifford, probably the UK’s best known publicist, came to the defence of Ms Brooks saying she may not have known every detail about day to day goings on in the company. To some extent this is true. We all know of disastrous bosses who attempt to micro manage, not trusting managers to get on with the job and attempting to control everything. Such an approach to leadership just doesn’t work. As a boss you can’t know and do it all – without effective delegation and trust the business simply won’t move forward. Furthermore, staff working for a control freak will quickly lose any commitment or motivation to do a good job.
So where do you draw the line? How can leaders make it their business to know what’s going on in their organisation while at the same time allowing others the right amount of discretion and autonomy? Well, there are many ways of keeping your ear to the ground so that you don’t lose touch with the day to day: regular meetings and chats with staff (formal and informal); asking questions now and again, especially when something doesn’t ‘feel right’; being quite clear with others about what you do and don’t need to know; effective communication processes; and so on.
But a more fundamental solution lies in the articulation and communication of values and then firmly embedding these in the organisation. Responsible management involves a commitment to transparency and honesty. Leaders should be clear about their own values, their expectations of others and preferred ways of working. I have worked with businesses where staff are actively involved in the identification and communication of values – it’s not always possible but it’s the best way of getting ‘buy in’ and real commitment. Once established, these values become central to everything the business does, from the way customers are treated to the recruitment and promotion of staff. Clear values help to inform decision-making. Where risky or controversial decisions are concerned, reference to values can often help identify the ‘right’ solution.
I don’t know whether Rebekah Brooks or News Corporation have ever given a thought to their values or moral code. Somehow I doubt it. If they had, they wouldn’t be in such a mess now. More importantly many people, including Milly Dowler’s family, might have been saved so much unnecessary distress.
Recently I completed a project for a highly respected financial company, renowned for its innovative approaches to staff development, engagement and communication. The company had made a significant investment in a new project which involved some risk and uncertainty but was nevertheless considered essential for the company’s survival in a competitive market. When I became involved the project was faltering. Unease was growing about the likelihood of achieving success or, at least, of making any return on the investment to date. On the surface there were a number of explanations for the anxieties. Staff changes in key areas had led to some lack of continuity, feedback from some of the first trials had not been entirely positive, and there was a realisation that more investment would be required to achieve the original vision. With no prospect of income from the project in the short term, there was a fear that the company had bitten off more than it could chew.
My task was to get the project back on track with a plan for the short and long term and recommendations for addressing the financial concerns. This is the sort of challenge I love! It involves elements of change management, strategic review, market analysis and financial planning and all of those issues came into play here. However, looking back on my experience as a consultant for this company, I am convinced that the most important success factor in this project was in fact communication. As I began to understand the context and to unearth some of the underlying issues affecting the project’s progress, it became clear to me that the expertise, the ideas, the information required to get things moving were right there in the company. But communication had broken down, information was not being shared, grievances were being allowed to fester and confidence was fading. I am not blaming the company for this – even the best organisations find that, in some situations, established practices for ensuring good communication just don’t work. In these circumstances it sometimes helps to bring in an ‘outsider’ to find out what’s going on, get people round the table and encourage them to start talking again. In this project I didn’t need to provide all the answers, the people I spoke to had a good idea of what had to be done. All I did was to listen to views and ideas, co-ordinate the required actions and provide a structure and a plan for the way forward. The result was a more energised, optimistic team with a clear understanding of what was going to happen over the next 2-3 years. The vision was once again achievable.
Good communication is undeniably important in business. It sounds so elementary, I wonder why so many organisation still fail to get it right. If my experience with a company that knows how to do things well is anything to go by, I fear for the others.
Jeanette has over 20 years experience in management and was Chief Executive of AMBA for 7 years. She has worked in both the commercial and public sectors. Having completed her MBA (with distinction) at the Cass Business School, Jeanette was asked to join the school's academic team as a Visiting Lecturer in Organisational Behaviour... [read more]
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