Cast your mind back. Have you ever worked for a bad manager? Can you remember how you felt? Frustrated? Despairing? Unmotivated?
Chances are, we’ve all experienced poor management at some point in our career. Getting the right people into management roles is critical to scaling up your business. Poor management will result in dipping staff morale, sliding engagement, low levels of productivity and, ultimately, stagnation.
So what makes a fantastic manager? What are the four most important things your managers need to master?
Great managers will bring in talented new staff. Every business needs to be super careful about who it recruits. Particularly if the company is scaling quickly. Having set the culture of the company, the founding executive team often steps back and starts to lose control of the hiring process. If they’re not careful, they soon discover the company has hired people who don’t fit with the original vision and the culture has morphed into something completely different. Staggeringly, evidence from a study says that six months after hiring, only one in four new employees is meeting expectations. And very few companies do anything about the three that aren’t. This is fatal.
To grow quickly, you need to aim for at least 90% A Players in your company (the definition of A Players being the top 5-10% of available talent for a given role, salary and location). As I’ve written before, it’s important for your managers to recognise that A Players are 10x or even 100x more productive than B Players. Cognitive talents are not dispersed on a standard distribution but on a power law distribution. Guy Kawasaki, once of Apple, said, ‘A Players hire A Players and B Players hire C Players.’ It’s taken as read that all your managers are, themselves, A Players. If they’re not, they shouldn’t be managers!
Robust HR systems and a strong values proposition are vital to recruiting the A Players you need. To identify the right talent, managers need a firm understanding of the purpose and values of their company, along with a talent map and a list of clearly defined behaviours to recruit for. A Players will not be sitting around, waiting for their call. Finding and attracting them will take effort and resources.
Something I’ve used in the past is an approval process. This was an idea that I stole from Google when I was MD at Peer 1. Whenever a manager wanted to hire someone, I got them to bring me all the evidence supporting the potential new appointment. This included the Gallup Strengths Assessment, the CV, interview notes and a picture the candidate had drawn, off the cuff, to represent the one thing that motivated and inspired them. I’d then compare this with evidence that I saw every week. It was important to me that the managers seemed genuinely excited about the potential new recruit as well as whether they were right for the company.
Along with attracting A Players, your managers need the ability to move quickly to get rid of C players. At Peer 1, we had a special approach to this called our ‘Foxtrot Oscar’ bonus. £2000 for any new hire who agreed with us that it wasn’t working out in the first month. This mechanism gave new employees the incentive to tells us it wasn't working as soon as they knew they'd made a mistake in joining. (Thank you Zappos for the inspiration.) We knew the potential catastrophe of retaining employees that weren’t good fits. Ultimately, A Players in your company will know that you’ve cocked up recruitment if they meet a new hire who isn’t an A player. This will undermine their faith in management.
Always remember that your staff’s experience of work will be viewed through the lens of their team and manager. Successful managers know the importance of keeping their people positive and engaged, going to great lengths to ensure morale and happiness levels are high.
I’ll never forget one of my first managers, Ken, at Glaxo. ‘Ken’s Kamikazes’ we called ourselves and the camaraderie he fostered was such a joy. He transformed a fairly ordinary group of people into the most successful team in the company, every year. Ken insisted we started every meeting with a piece of personal good news from everyone in the team and a round of applause. Initially, I hated it. Was it really necessary? But it worked, building trust, understanding and pride. I wish he knew how much I learned from being in his team.
If your company uses a staff engagement metric like DoFriday.com, managers will have a weekly pulse and feedback on how their team’s feeling. Best practice is to review this on a weekly basis. A regular rhythm of daily huddles, weekly team meetings and one-to-ones provide ‘in the moment’ opportunities to resolve issues and take the stones out of people’s shoes. Monthly all-hands meetings, where the whole company gathers together, are occasions to give praise and celebrate achievements. They also enable managers to embed the values and behaviours of the company as a way of doling out social currency. Through positive reinforcement, they can highlight behaviours they want to see more of.
At all times, great managers will link what their team are doing this day/week/month/quarter to the company’s purpose and BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) – these should serve as a north star to ensure focus. Everyone needs to see the connection between day-to day-activity and corporate vision.
So many companies still insist on using annual appraisals. It’s so frustrating! I’ve seen smaller companies get to a certain size and decide this is some kind of rite of passage. They look at bigger firms and assume this is what they need. They really don’t. There are far better ways your managers can oversee the performance of their team.
To my mind, a quarterly rhythm with OKRs works much better than annual. Managers succeed when they directly link individual performance to quarterly goals. This gives a clear, unambiguous understanding of what every member of staff is committing to do. Get your business into a daily, weekly, monthly and quarterly cadence and managers have plenty of opportunities to give and receive feedback, assess progress and clarify objectives. Everyone will know the score in real time. It all ties up with one of the fundamental questions on the Gallup Q12 metric – ‘I know what’s expected of me at work’. When I see angst or challenges in a client’s business, it’s often because there’s no clarity of expectation and no measurement.
A manager’s job can be really insightful. If they have a regular routine of daily huddles, they’ll know what’s going on that day and be able to unblock any stucks. They can coach their team to spend time on the things that really matter and to time block their day.
As part of the 90-day rhythm, managers need to keep a quarterly talent assessment to ensure all staff are meeting expectations. The best examples I’ve seen of these are values as well as performance-based. This means they offer the opportunity to have constructive conversations about behaviour as well as operational outcomes - how staff are doing things not what they are doing. Really great frameworks for managers to have tricky conversations in a positive way.
If your company has OKRs and quarterly talent assessment in place, then staff should be able to self-measure whether they are A, B or C Players. They’ll know what their performance goals are and what they need to do to progress as part of their individual quarterly plan. At Peer 1, we developed a leadership development framework based on our values which provided managers with a great tool. It clarified expectation and gave staff an unambiguous path for progression.
I was chairing a dinner a couple of weeks ago and one of the questions suggested for debate was ‘How do I stop my organisation being a kindergarten?’ There was frustration around the table that companies were investing in training staff only to have them leave a few years later. Did they seriously prefer to have untrained staff? The idea that you might attract A Players to your organisation when you’re not offering development prospects is nonsensical. It indicates a complete lack of growth mindset. The most successful teams are headed up by managers who genuinely care about and prioritise the development of their staff.
A Players will extend their length of stay if you’re giving them something that they need. This is where a good leadership development framework can be so helpful. Managers should be coaches, regularly working with their staff to build on their strengths and minimise the impact of their backhand.
In all the companies where I’ve been MD, we’ve used the Gallup Strengths Assessment. Created by Donald Clifton, the grandfather of positive psychology, it’s based on the assumption that in high performing teams, successful people will use their strengths to get an outcome. So no more conversations about fixing weaknesses, the core of many corporate annual appraisal systems.
Because it’s so detailed and specific to the individual, the Gallup Strengths Assessment provides a vocabulary and mechanism for coaching conversations. It clarifies the way people approach similar tasks in entirely different ways according to their personal strengths. It also helps identify the things that give people energy in their work, because they’re deploying their strengths effectively. This is important. You want every one of your staff to spend their time on areas where they feel happiest and most productive. By using Gallup Strengths information, managers can make sure this happens and put together teams that complement each other.
Skills development should be at the heart of every manager’s role. Great managers will show their team the company’s future org chart and work with them to chart their direction towards a preferred destination. If staff have their eye on a future vacancy, they may need to move sideways or gain various certifications or experience. It’s the manager’s job to support them through this and motivate them with stories about the successes of other A Players. Ultimately, your company needs to create a culture of opportunity and possibility.
Managers can make or break a scale-up. As businesses grow, it’s vital to ensure managers have the skills and experience to motivate their team, strengthen their skills and channel those skills to meet corporate goals. Only then will your business achieve rapid, significant and sustainable growth.
Dominic has spent 14 years working in sales, marketing and business management within the IT sector. He has held executive positions at Peer 1 Hosting, IT Lab and Rackspace. At Peer 1 he built the UK business to £30m run rate in 5 years. He won many awards for creating a great place to work. At Rackspace Dominic built the UK company from four to 150 staff, and increased annual revenues from £595,000 to £25 million in just four years. Under his management, Rackspace was recognised as one of the most outstanding workplaces in Europe, and won several service awards for its Fanatical Support TM. Dominic has a BSc in Agricultural and Food Marketing from Newcastle and a MBA from Sheffield Business School. Dominic is also a regular public speaker on creating great places to work and achieving continuous client satisfaction and an assessor on the Sunday Times Customer Experience Awards.