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Developing your managers in a downturn


Now, more than ever, organisations need tough and determined managers, who are driven and motivated to see the business through the hard times. But how can employers ensure their managers are up to the job? John Pope has some advice.

In case you hadn't heard, the world has changed. Most businesses are feeling the pinch and cutting back 'discretionary spending'. Organisations will be expecting managers to revitalise their operations, or make changes which have long been necessary. Their managers will have to handle redundancies, tackle new problems and be much more effective, under circumstances where there is little room to manoeuvre and no money to pay for expensive mistakes.

There will be no point in saying that you are held back by masses of red tape and regulations. You will have to make changes quickly, and for that you will need tough, determined managers who are ready to cut through opposition and difficulties. You can dispense with the other sort – they will only hold you back.

"What tough managers need is a healthy diet of opportunities, challenges, responsibility and a sense of adventure as they try something new."

I hope you have these tough, determined managers. If not you will have to develop those with the potential to make difficult things happen. There will not be much time to do it; they can't be spared from their jobs for long and you can't afford expensive training. What can you do? Where can you start? Here are a few answers:

What do tough managers live on?

What tough managers need is a healthy diet of opportunities, challenges, responsibility and a sense of adventure as they try something new. It needs to be a careful diet, well-graded with the possibility of failure always present and with help available, but not so available that managers can turn over too many problems to their seniors.

This is a good time for developing managers because there will be plenty of challenges around which will provide opportunities for using skills which they learnt.

What should you have done to develop them?

The time for making sure that you had high calibre managers was before the events of the last 18 months. Perhaps you gave them some relevant training, and perhaps you even made sure that some of that learning was put into effect, though I reckon much of what managers are told on training programmes is not applied in the workplace and evaluated afterwards. You can soon find out by going through some of the performance appraisals and development reviews over a couple of years and see what happened.

Where are the managers with potential talent?

Those performance reviews should have told you which managers were ready to move on to another job to broaden experience and to give them opportunities to make new things happen, which is what a manager's job really is. As you go through those performance reviews you may discover that there are people who have been overlooked for new jobs in favour of those who were good talkers but subsequently found to be ineffective. By dipping in to your 'talent pool', probably a rather wider and shallower pool than you had expected, you should be able to find those who could work on the difficult projects which will be needed.

Have you damaged your managers beyond repair?

It is easy to undermine managers. Those who have really been ground down will not be of much use to you working on the new initiatives though they can still be a valuable source of knowledge in the working parties which will be needed. Some of them may have been shackled and the experience of working on an issue of importance to survival may be enough to revitalise them.

Is your definition of a 'good manager' quite right?

"HR can suggest who would be effective in the different project teams."

Shakespeare pointed out long ago that you need a different sort of soldier in war than in peace. Has your list of management competencies of a manager been too long? Have you favoured those who 'fit in' at the expense of those who were classed as 'a bit rough'. You may have to put to one side someone who has the qualities you need now. One major retailer, some years ago, found that out when they lost a tough, modernising chief executive, and replaced him temporarily with the finance director who had always been seen as being too old, slow and fussy but who then revitalised the business to the surprise of everyone.

What development and training will be needed?

There will be no time or money for programmes which are concerned with education and longer-term development. What there will be time for, and may be money for, will be short programmes to give managers the knowledge or skills needed for the projects and initiatives on which they will be working.

Top management has to define those initiatives and projects. HR can and should help top management in selecting those initiatives and identifying their importance to the organisation's progress. HR can, if it has the knowledge of managers' capability, suggest who would be effective in the different project teams.

What development is needed?

What will your managers have to do in these difficult times? The knowledge and skills they need will depend on the issues they will have to face. These may not be clear, but it's a fair guess that they will have to be able to:

  • Manage change quickly with not too much of the touchy-feely stuff
  • Plan and manage difficult projects in which the rules keep changing
  • Manage the reduction of the workforce such that the best people are kept
  • Improve productivity, reduce costs.

Some of them will need training, some may need a quick refresher.

How can you ensure effective development?

The principles of development are:

  • Identify what knowledge, skills, and abilities each manager will need
  • Find an opportunity where that knowledge can be applied as soon as possible
  • Brief the individual on what must be learnt, its importance and the opportunity to apply it – before that has been forgotten
  • Apply to a task of sufficient importance, correct mistakes in application
  • Provide help and feedback
  • Consolidate and move on to successively more demanding work
  • Show that higher performance or capability is recognised, and recorded.

It's a big job

Learning and development ought to be a continuous process, part of the philosophy of the organisation. Any significant event, meeting, or success should end with a brief discussion of what has been learnt which is of value and could be applied elsewhere.

I had the good fortune to work with an MD who ended every meeting, every report of a major success, and the reports of some failures, with the question: "What have we learnt from this? Where else can we apply it?" He said that continuous improvement was essential. We could learn more from successes than from failures and that it is more motivating. HR could foster this approach.

John Pope has been a management consultant for 40 years and has worked to improve the development and performance of managers and management teams at all levels for most of his career. He can be contacted at [email protected]

7 Responses

  1. Not what I said,
    Dear John, Stephen, I am sorry that I did not make my point clearly enough. I certainly did not suggest that human aspects of managing redundancy or change should be dispensed with. What I did say, on the topic of the development managers might need in facing up to these new times, is that they must be able to manage change quickly and that any development shoul ‘not have too much of the soft stuff’. Some businesses have wallowed in it. The world has changed and changes must be made quickly and effectively. Get the changes over and done with – don’t spend ages agonising over them as so often happens. Have consultation, show consideration by all means but not at the expense of having effective clear plans. Big changes must be managed as projects – rigorously.

  2. Laziness or just ignorance?
    I think the words “touchy-feely stuff” speak for themselves. It is really a case of the managers can’t be bothered to show care for the people they are supposed to be managing.

    No wonder redundancies are necessary with managers like that!

    People are very sharp, they know what the score is today. Do they want to work for an organisation that cares about them do you think? I mean work, not just turn up.

    In the UK we accept ridiculously low levels of performance as the norm – we just get more people. And then blame them for not delivering on the job!

    Hard decisions are needed sometimes. Do it well and your people will support you and try harder after a brief mourning.

    Now is not too late to discover how to make your people WANT TO and GIVE their best.

    The country, the people and the organisations can no longer afford bad managers.

    Develop their people skills now!

  3. Managing Change with or without Touchy Feely
    It is understandable that many people in HR are going to be “offended” by the thought of doing without the touchy feely stuff, after all they have committed their life to looking after the people.
    It is also understandable that Directors of any business going through an extreme downturn are having to put the bottom line and any necessary changes ahead of the “TF stuff”, as speed is of the essence if jobs are to be saved.
    So herein lies the dilemma.
    It is of course correct that any change management must involve the people. You only have to look at changes in the NHS computer systems to see that by not involving the people the systems fail.
    The answer is of course clear objective management based on business facts with clear objective communication through management to the people involved.
    If managers are skilled at communication then the time frames can be managed to be a short as possible. If staff are given the facts that urgent change is required then they have the choice to go with it or not.
    Those that fight change under such extreme conditions will be the ones that put themselves in the frame for redundancy.
    Those who try to help will be recognised as valued employees. The problem is getting managers to motivate staff to contribute to future of the business.
    Training will not achieve this in the short term. Managing people is a skill built up over time. Most leaders have this skill, many managers do not.
    This is a time for leaders – for hard decisions that are designed to protect the staff, and for reciprocal support from the staff who are best placed to make sure that everything that can be done is done.
    Fairness is the key – no one likes change but if we understand the decisions to be fair – then it becomes palatable. If the leaders protect themselves at the expense of the employees then this becomes obvious to all concerned. Real teamwork is required for survival.

  4. Thanks for the clarification, John
    I appreciate your comments and see your point more clearly.


  5. Touchy-feely stuff
    I agree entirely that managers should treat their people as humans and understand their concerns, and especially so at difficult times. I made my comment when writing about managing the change. I have seen far too much touchy-feely stuff included in writings and programmes on managing change. I have seen far too little emphasis on the importance of managing change as a project. The ‘Resistance to Change’ factor often comes from the bad experiences people have had when being subjected to badly managed change. The touchy-feely stuff does not help at all if the changes have not been well thought about, planned and made to happen fast. Of course you have to consider peoples views and feelings but the changes have to be made, made quickly and well, not strung out.

  6. When the going gets tough, the tough get ‘soft’

    I agree with a lot of what you say, John except I share the concern about the 'touchy feely' stuff. It's often the 'touchy feely' stuff that gets people through times like this and helps them remain productive and motivated.

    One of the issues that I believe business faces at present is the recognition that staff are a business' greatest asset and staff are human.

    For me in recent years, the concentration solely on the 'bottom line' and efficiencies, which are all very well and understandable at one level, has dehumanised business and that's one of the reasons I have so many clients in my stress management business.

    People need to feel valued, respected and heard and often all that takes is a little courtesy, time and consideration. The benefits are a more motivated and productive workforce.

    I've just written a piece in my latest newsletter on managing staff through challenging times. If any Training Zone Members would like a copy, please contact me on annie at breathingspaceforbusiness dot com.

  7. It depends what you mean by “touchy-feely”
    I was troubled by your comment about the touchy-feely stuff. I worked in a Co. that changed from over 100,000 employees in the UK to under 5,000. (That’s not a mis-print – one hundred k to 5k). In many of the changes we had to take tough decisions – closing large factories, for instance, is no-one’s idea of fun. However, the best of the line-managers carrying out the big changes always remembered that once decisions had been made, and they had to be made with some degree of urgency in some of our businesses, the impact of the decisions were on hundreds or thousands of individuals. The best managers did the best that they could for each of those individuals. Those who operated with callous disregard for the impacted individuals did not manage the change so well.

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