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Kieran Hearty

How to Eat the Elephant in the Room


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Why understanding leadership chasms will restore the reputation and value of managers


It’s tough at the top, and harder to get there. Before you plant a flag and celebrate your successful climb to HR Director, how would you feel if your reputation and value to the organisation had both plummeted into a black hole on the way up?

I call this a ‘leadership chasm’, and ask HR to take note because HR are frequently perceived as ‘the cobbler’s children’ when it comes to being role-models for strong management and leadership practices.

In HR and L&D work, particularly when you look at talent management and developing the leadership pipeline in large organisations, you just love your diagrams. When you draw a typical career trajectory it’s usually a straight line between the bottom-left and top-right corners of a flip chart.

If you treat the line as a centile scale between zero and 100%, it’s a handy estimate for you to use to describe the relative value we all provide to an organisation on each stage of our journey from worker to leader.

1. Worker: By becoming highly competent and delivering good results your value can rise towards 25%

2. Manager: By investing time in coaching and developing your team their improved collective performance grows your value towards 50%

CHASM 1: Failure to make a successful transition from worker to manager causes your value to plummet meaning you now contribute less than you did as a worker.

3. Leader: If you make this transition successfully your value rises towards 75% and beyond as the strategic scope and scale of your responsibility grows, along with the impact you have on the performance of a larger group of people.

CHASM 2: Failure to make a successful transition from manager (or worker) to leader also causes your value to plummet and in the worst cases it will damage the value of many others in the organisation.

First CHASM: Failed Transition from Worker to Manager

Reputations decline in stages, the first of which is when a new manager fails to make a proper transition into the role. How often have HR supported new manager selection based uniquely on task expertise and effort? A recent Gallup survey concluded that 82% of managers are ‘wrongly appointed’. It scares me that HR probably sanctioned or sourced most of these appointments. Can we fix this?.

How many managers neglect their primary responsibility, which is the output of their team, and instead prioritise their output? Inability to delegate becomes massively expensive as they work longer and harder, trying to control the work of everybody. They cannot physically do this, so productivity plummets.

Red warning lights should be flashing in HR as managers become more stressed and exhausted by these futile efforts. They lack the time to provide badly needed individual support to team members, who fail to master their responsibilities or develop badly needed new skills. Behaviour towards team members may also decline, which impacts engagement and morale as well as productivity. 

How HR can help managers successfully leap the FIRST CHASM

  1. Shape attitudes. Be explicit in defining the manager role and expectations.
  2. Write the job description.  Formalise the new responsibilities on paper.
  3. Invert the pyramid.  Help managers appreciate the value of serving their team.
  4. Teach delegation. The more they can ‘let go’ the higher the team’s output.
  5. Coaching. Ensure each team member has everything they need to succeed.
  6. Development. Invest time in properly training all managers.
  7. Hold accountable. Remove poor managers. The damage is too great.

Second CHASM: Failed Transition from Manager (or Worker) to Leader

There are two levels to this chasm, the deepest of which is occupied by leaders who failed to leap the first chasm, but somehow continued their upward progression. Many frustrated HR colleagues have seen leaders who have followed this very path, successful for them but a disaster for the organisation.

Successful managers demonstrate some leadership potential, but once again, they may need to ‘let go’ of a lot of their tactical focus in order to be more strategic. A manager makes decisions that affect their team, and their output, but a leader makes decisions that will affect the company’s future. Is HR doing enough to support this?

Output remains important, because it is the work that is done by people that will make or break all strategic decisions. One difference is that whereas the role of each manager should be to serve their team, the role of each leader is to serve their managers.  The leader who says; ‘I have a thousand people working for me’, is probably very misaligned…

How HR can help leaders successfully leap the SECOND CHASM

  1. Shape attitudes. The role has changed again.
  2. Encourage strategic focus. Let go of tactical work.
  3. Create a coaching culture. A high-value strategic imperative.
  4. Promote mentoring. Great leaders are great talent-spotters.
  5. Encourage leaders to teach. Help them share their wisdom with audiences.
  6. Promote ‘servant leadership’. Help create an ‘inverted pyramid’ mentality.
  7. Encourage communications. Great leaders inform and energise others.

The opportunity for HR is compelling if you are first to leap the leadership chasm because it will be a lot easier to help the rest of the business to follow. HR is often accused of being too ‘transactional’ and not strategic. This is one strategy that will yield a huge return.

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Kieran Hearty


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