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Talent & Leadership

How to Support and Develop Effective People Managers

So far in the Human Capital series, we’ve shared six People Systems that differentiate the most successful and nimble companies from average: their culture strategy, org design, DEI, compensation, hiring, and onboarding systems.  

With these systems in place, you can hire and retain the right people to achieve your company vision. But once those amazing humans you’ve dreamed would join your team are here, what can you do to set them up for success? How can you ensure high performance even in the midst of constant change and uncertainty? 

To answer these questions, we’ll dedicate our next series of guides to the topic of employee performance and the interdependent People Systems that support it.

We will begin the performance series with a focus on optimizing one of the highest leverage People Systems that most companies have: their managers. 

Do managers matter?

But first, let’s touch on why (and whether) this People System is important. Do managers even matter when it comes to employee performance? In a word: yes

While one-to-many People Systems, like hiring and onboarding, lay the foundation for engagement and performance across all employees, only managers are able to address the unique needs of individual employees. Managers are a scalable one-to-one People System. Not only can they provide individualized assessment and development, they also serve as the communication hub for the organization—tailoring broad org-wide messages to their teams and sharing team-level insights with company leadership.

There are successful companies who do not have managers (more on this at the end of the guide), but the vast majority of the companies we’ve studied, advised, and trained have a manager role in place and see it as an essential part of their business strategy. But while nearly everyone agrees that managers matter, few companies believe that their managers are highly effective. 

  • In fact, only 20% of employees strongly agree that their manager motivates them.
  • Bad management costs roughly $7 trillion globally every year (Wigert and Harter 2017). 

The good news is that LifeLabs Learning has spent over a decade studying what makes great managers different and how to get them the skills they need faster. (Many of LifeLabe most important findings are shared in their new book!) And together, Matt and Tania have helped hundreds of companies improve not just their managers but their management systems. In this guide, we’ll share our favorite tips so your managers can quickly become a cornerstone of your company’s high performance.

What is a manager? 

Whether or not you already have people at your company called “managers,” it’s useful to pause and truly define what a manager is (and isn’t) at your organization. In our view, the simplest purpose of a manager is to accelerate performance. If employees perform just as well or better without a manager in place, then the manager is a drain rather than a multiplier.

When management systems are set up well, managers help their teams achieve more than each individual could've done alone. 

Remember: A manager + team formula should be 1+1 = 3 (or more!). 

What’s the secret behind this management magic?

Managers can offer a personalized approach that a company as a whole cannot—especially at scale. Imagine a group of Olympic athletes training to win. Sure, they can all watch the same instructional videos and read the same guides, but nothing can compare to the impact of one-on-one and team-level coaching and feedback. 

A great coach gives them a common purpose, gets them working together as a team, and creates the structure to accelerate performance above and beyond what they’d achieve on their own.

So, what isn’t a manager?

While managers can manage goals, time, resources, and budget, it’s important to recognize that managers cannot actually effectively control people. Not only is it a universally demotivating experience to feel “managed,” but it’s also impossible to truly control people’s beliefs, actions, and outcomes.

So, great managers are not controllers but catalysts of engagement and performance. They contribute to other people’s success through influence, support, feedback, and systems-level change rather than power and authority. Given that, it should not be a manager’s job to simply tell people what to do.

While the best managers help direct and prioritize action, they do so in a developmental way, focusing on the why and how more so than the what. Their goal shouldn’t just be to ensure that work gets done but to ensure that the people doing the work have the skills, knowledge, connection, and support they need to keep doing better.

Finally, a manager is also not necessarily the de facto “best” individual contributor on the team. There is a real difference in the skills required to do the work well versus the skills to help others do the job well.

“Manager” should not be the expected next level for effective individual contributors. In fact many of the best performers prefer to spend their time on IC work rather than leading others. We see this a lot in early-stage companies. 

Pro tip: Don’t default to assuming that the only way to advance in an organization is to be a manager! Make sure you are creating equally valued career paths that recognize managers and makers as unique roles and skill sets.

How do you define a manager’s success?

Many of the issues we see with manager ineffectiveness stem from a lack of defined outcomes and standards for managers within their organization. There are countless managers who want to do a great job, but they aren’t sure what that means in practice. How can you avoid this common pitfall at your company? Here are three important steps to take:

1. Create a role description for managers

Articulate the why and how of the manager role at your company, and share it as part of hiring, onboarding, and during performance assessment conversations. 

Remember: It’s not just doing the same work as an individual contributor at a higher level. It is a different job with different skill sets and expectations. Make sure that the employees on the team can also access the role description so they understand their manager’s responsibilities and can play a part in holding them accountable. Here is a sample role description:

Title: Manager (alternative titles to consider: Sponsor, Coach, Lead, Mentor) 

Purpose: Support your team in becoming world-class in their roles.

Time allocation: Expect to allocate approximately 2-3 hours per week, per team member. 

Accountabilities:

  • Foster and model a culture that shows a dedication to our values and results in engagement, team diversity, a sense of belonging, ongoing learning, and high performance.
  • Coach team members to solve challenges, identify priorities, and increase productivity.
  • Encourage and support deliberate development through coaching, feedback, training, recommending resources, and making introductions to others.
  • Ask for feedback on how you can better support your team members.
  • Assess team member performance. When needed, launch performance improvement plans and termination assessments by contacting your HR Business Partner.
  • Communicate company-wide priorities and help team members set and track relevant goals.
  • Provide clarity on role responsibilities, processes, and policies. Serve as the first point of contact for all questions and issues pertaining to their role.
  • Hold regularly scheduled one-on-one meetings (do not cancel unless you are on PTO) to monitor and help increase engagement and remove roadblocks.
  • Provide insights and recommendations to the executive team and your HR Business Partner on what’s working well and what can be improved on an organizational level.

Pro tip: Your role description can also be a good opportunity to clarify the scope of your managers’ authority. One of the biggest pitfalls companies fall into is centralizing too much power within the manager role—expecting them to make hiring, firing, compensation, vacation, and promotion decisions without checks and balances. 

The result? Employees fear or distrust the very person who can best act as their ally and advocate. It’s no surprise that a recent study found that 88% of people say they’re relieved when their manager is out sick (Leone  2020)! But building trust, connection, and a sense of psychological safety, where people can take risks and ask questions, may be the most important thing a manager can do. 

To increase the odds of this type of high-performing environment being possible, make sure that high-stakes decisions about an individual’s career are never made by one person alone.

For example, a good rule to implement is to have two people agree to performance decisions (especially hiring and termination), with a third evaluator available as a tie breaker. This is an important way to reduce bias. 

Remember: 360-degree assessments can be a valuable way to collect feedback and reduce individual bias. We'll talk more about how to use these (and how not to) in our upcoming performance assessment guide.

2. Establish success metrics

Aside from a role description, it’s important to define success for managers in a way that’s measurable rather than subjective. Remember that managers are often responsible for others’ success more than their own. How will you know a manager is doing great work? What will help alert them and their manager if there are gaps in their performance? Below are sample success metrics to consider adding to your role description:

X% of team members are meeting their success metrics at any given time or have an active performance improvement plan in place. 

  • Why this metric? Quality is what sets us apart! And our role metrics create space for performance variability, so the aim here is excellence but not perfection.

X% of team/department goals are reached every quarter. 

  • Why this metric? Ultimately what matters is our ability to set and achieve the goals that bring us closer and closer to our vision and mission as a company.

X% completion rate and on-time-rate of manager responsibilities (e.g., one-on-one, observations, performance reviews, quarterly planning).

  • Why this metric? While managers can’t take total responsibility for their team’s performance and engagement, we can take responsibility for delivering on our commitments -- these are the things we have full control over.

X% of team members agree or strongly agree with each of the following engagement survey questions, as measured in our quarterly survey:

  • I know what is expected of me at work.
  • I have the resources I need to do my work well.
  • At work, I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day.
  • In the last seven days, my manager has recognized me for doing good work.
  • My manager seems to care about me as a person.
  • My manager encourages my development at work.
  • When I share my thoughts with my manager, my opinions seem to count.
  • In the last month, my manager has talked to me about my progress at work.
  • In the last three months, I’ve had opportunities to learn and grow.

Why these metrics? Gallup’s global research has found that these questions are significant predictors of overall engagement and performance.

While the measures we listed here can all be useful, take the time to decide which metrics operationalize your definition of success. Other metrics to consider include speed, retention, customer satisfaction, manager self-assessment, and manager 180- or 360-degree assessment (as evaluated by the manager’s team and manager). 

Pro tip: Whatever metrics you choose, start small. Two metrics consistently tracked will yield better focus and outcomes than many messy metrics. 

3. Articulate manager standards

The final piece of the manager clarity puzzle is going beyond role descriptions and metrics and actually articulating behavioral expectations. Think of these as a small, specific set of manager standards. For example—will you require all managers to hold weekly one-on-one meetings? Will you ask that all teams do quarterly planning? If so, take out the guesswork by making these expectations explicit! 

When LifeLabs first started studying and training managers, they assumed they’d want a great deal of autonomy in how they did their role. And while that’s generally true, it was surprising to discover that the most confident, calm, and effective managers worked in companies that had several non-negotiable behavioral norms. Not only do these manager standards reduce performance gaps across teams, they also allow inexperienced managers to rapidly accelerate up the learning curve. 

To create your company’s manager standards, check out this sample from LifeLabs Learning, based on our research on what differentiates great managers. 

What skills matter most?

Having effective manager systems in place will go a long way in setting up your managers (and thus your entire company) for success. But just as you wouldn’t throw an engineer into a job without requiring that they know your programming stack, it would be irresponsible to throw a manager into their role without equipping them with the right leadership skill stack. But what skills matter most and how do you help your team achieve manager mastery fast?

The good news is that there is a small set of essential manager skills. Think of these skills as the primary colors. While there is a small set of them, they mix together to create an infinite array of other skills—helping managers tackle any challenges that come their way. LifeLabs Learning has studied what makes great managers different from average, and found these eight core skills rise to the top again and again: 

  1. Coaching: Ask questions, help people think clearly, encourage independent problem-solving
  2. Feedback: Give praise and recognition, articulate and help close skill and performance gaps
  3. Productivity: Help set and track goals, improve work effectiveness and efficiency 
  4. Effective one-on-ones: Develop relationships, eliminate obstacles, catch engagement issues early, address individual needs, help people feel heard and valued, build a sense of belonging
  5. Strategic thinking: Create strategic alignment, anticipate and mitigate risks, involve the right people at the right times, show people how their daily tasks link up to organizational goals
  6. Meetings: Ensure all voices are heard, catalyze creative thinking, facilitate high quality decision-making, run engaging and productive meetings  
  7. Leading change: Earn buy-in, ensure adoption, help people stay nimble and resilient 
  8. People development: Anticipate skill gaps on the team, support individual development plans, encourage job crafting, build a team of complementary strengths  

Like any other skill, these leadership skills need to be developed deliberately. The best manager development systems include a variety of learning tactics like: 

  • live training
  • peer mentoring
  • self-led digital learning
  • manager communities via meetups or even just Slack channels 

Don’t fall into the common trap of treating learning as a one-time “event.” Just as you’d never expect to become a great pianist after one piano lesson, don’t expect your managers to become excellent after one onboarding session. Instead, offer systematic opportunities to practice on an ongoing basis.

Bonus: Exploring other leadership models

While the manager system is the most popular leadership model, there are several others you may wish to consider as inspiration for your organization:

Team management: This model organizes work into distinct teams or “pods” where management responsibilities are shared across all team members. Typically, these teams meet weekly or biweekly to review their results or metrics, celebrate wins, give one another feedback, and set goals. 

Self-management: In this model, no one holds manager responsibilities. Instead employees are all asked to hold themselves and each other accountable for results. To request terminations or promotions, individuals gather decision-making peer committees. 

Rotating roles: In a rotating model, managers serve a 6-to 12-month term, then pass on their responsibilities to another member of the team. These responsibilities can be rotated based on team election, volunteering, or simply random order.

Split roles: With this model, each employee is assigned two points of contact rather than one. Typically, one individual assesses performance while the other supports development. Another version of this model is a centralized manager role along with an internal coach

Takeaways & next steps

Managers can accelerate performance and serve as an essential communication hub for your organization. But most managers are not set up for success—leading to disengagement, productivity loss, and low performance.

The best managers lead through influence rather than authority, catalyzing great results rather than attempting to control people’s actions.

Remember: While everyone can learn to be a better manager, not everyone should be a manager as a de facto part of their career progression. For best results, build paths for individual contributors and people leaders to progress within your organization.

  • Invest in your managers’ success by building a clear and scalable management system including a role description, success metrics, and explicit manager standards.
  • To build trust & psychological safety and reduce bias, share managerial authority in high stakes areas (like hiring, compensation, and terminations) by distributing decision-making across multiple people.
  • Create a deliberate development system to help managers master these eight core leadership skills: coaching, feedback, productivity, effective one-on-ones, strategic thinking, meetings, leading change, people development.
  • Explore various leadership models, drawing on inspiration from different companies, to find the model that works best for your organization.

What to do first:

Start by taking stock of your current managers. 

  • Have you set them up for success? 
  • Are they achieving the results you want? 

If nothing else, carve out the time to build (or clarity) your management role description and success metrics to make your implicit expectations explicit.

Pro tip: Help your managers develop even faster with “The Leader Lab: Core Skills to Become a Great Manager Faster,” the new book by LifeLabs Learning Co-founders Tania Luna and LeeAnn Renninger, Ph.D.

If you pre-order your copy before Sept. 11, 2021, you’ll unlock a big discount and secure a spot to an exclusive virtual event with the authors in October! Pre-order now, and take $15 off for yourself and your team!

Meet the Authors

Matt Hoffman

Matt is the Partner and Head of Talent at M13. He works closely with our founders, coaching them on how to build up and scale their organizations—everything from recruiting the best talent to building healthy and high-performing cultures with a strong operating foundation to support the organizational growth.
Tania is the co-CEO at LifeLabs Learning. She is also a psychology researcher, leadership trainer, and co-author of the book Surprise: Embrace the Unpredictable & Engineer the Unexpected. 

Tania Luna

Tania is the co-CEO of Lifelabs Learning. She is also a psychology researcher, leadership trainer, and co-author of the book, "The Leader Lab: Core Skills to Become a Great Manager Faster."
Tania is the co-CEO at LifeLabs Learning. She is also a psychology researcher, leadership trainer, and co-author of the book Surprise: Embrace the Unpredictable & Engineer the Unexpected. 

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