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A Job Lot Part 2

Nuggets of wisdom for the world of management.


I started my first proper job at Oxfam in the Eighties. Many years later my own children have started in the world of work. This has made me reflect on what I have learnt (and often failed to act on) in terms of management and people during that time.

One over-riding thing that I have learnt is that being intelligent and being good at getting degrees are only a (very) small part of the picture. It’s being human, being efficient, being reliable, making things happen, and being proactive that are much more important for success in the workplace. Let me put that another way; it certainly isn’t always the most highly educated people who succeed in the world of work. Sadly Society’s focus on exams and degrees often means that we (inadvertently) work against diversity, inclusion and equality by focusing on things that don’t always matter for success.

This report is in two parts, and this is part 2. This first is all about general advice, probably more useful to people new to the world of work. This, the second part is specifically about advice on managing people and organisations.

Survival in the world of management

Listen first, talk second

Of the people management mistakes I have made; most have been when I talked too much and listened too little. As a new manager, one poor woman dissolved into tears in front of me, fed up that I was telling her what she had spent ages trying to tell me. The first job of a manager is to listen to their staff member and understand where they are coming from. One wise manager I had, told me that it was no bad thing to spend the first month in a new job just listening to what people want.

A few years ago, there was a brilliant programme in which Gerry Robinson tried to fix the NHS. His core skill was to ask people at the frontline of clinical care how they would make things better. Nine times of out ten, they had great ideas. The CEO’s role was simply to put them into practice.

Clear boundaries, consistency and affirmation go a long way

My first manager at Oxfam was supreme. We discussed things and she told me what she wanted me to do and by when. She crushed my fingers in a vice when I went and did things without keeping her in the loop, and she told me when she thought I was doing a good job (or a bad one, as I vividly remember). She didn’t change her mind. She didn’t dither. She put things in writing if she thought it useful and we met regularly to discuss my progress.

Years later, I discovered that these three attributes were the same that all the books said were central to good parenting. OK, so she just used the same techniques on me that she did on her kids, but it worked.

Shouting at people is rarely productive

Sometimes the temptation to shout at somebody is very strong – well that’s what I find. Almost every time I have shouted at somebody, it’s backfired and I have regretted it. Strangely, people just aren’t motivated by being shouted at, or bollocked. They don’t come to work with a spring in their step, after being shouted at.

It’s only productive on the dog (and that’s probably because the dog can’t give feedback on what I’m like to work with). So as satisfying as a good shout is, it’s a bad idea. If you must let off steam, take up boxing.

Turn commands into delegation and empowerment

My first manager at Oxfam didn’t just stay the same. As she began to see that I could deliver, she shifted styles so that I was left more to set my own agenda and goals and then agree them with her. She empowered me to get on with the stuff that needed doing, but she also chivvied me on the areas where I hadn’t made progress (payroll giving admin was one area I seem to remember!).

So rather than just telling me what to do, she coached and empowered me to manage my own work and challenges. That variable style of work remains just as powerful today. If you have people who can make it happen – let them fly (more of this in the excellent ‘One minute manager meets the monkey’!).

Bosses are scary

When I was a little 3rd former at school, the 6th formers were the biggest and scariest people in the world. When I became a 6th former, I thought everything had changed as we were all so nice and approachable. Of course it was rubbish. 6th formers were as scary as ever. The same is true of a manager and their teams, particularly if there are several layers between individuals. The reason this matters is that it’s very easy to think of oneself as easy going and approachable as a manager, while those who work for you could well be thinking the opposite.

One manager told me they had an ‘open door’ policy. What they neglected to say was their office was along a long corridor, up some stairs and past their secretary. Bosses have the power and the position, the confidence and the swagger. It’s always best to assume that staff will be a bit reluctant to say what they think and that they’ll need to be encouraged to speak honestly about their views in one to ones. They will need to be sure their manager can listen and can be trusted.

Bosses rarely have a complete view of someone’s performance

In my working life, I have been caught out on numerous occasions by assuming that my view of a member of staff was the same as everybody else’s. Indeed, this problem can be made even worse when, for whatever reason, I want to hear good (or bad) things about somebody to confirm my view of the world.

The worst situation I had to deal with as a person’s manager came to light when the team asked when the next review of their team leader was. When their assessments came back, they were damning. As this part of the organisation was several hours travel from my office, I wanted to hear good things. I wanted to filter in the good news and filter out the bad. It was only the (absolutely anonymous) reviews that jolted me to my senses. Getting the complete view of somebody is critical to being able to manage them and their work.

Improving poor performance is rarely easy

The single most difficult thing I have had to do as a manager is to improve the performance of an under-performing employee. If I look back, I would say I have only succeeded in about half of the (admittedly limited) times it has been necessary. Often at the heart of the problem is the lack of chemistry between employee and manager, like a marriage where a couple no longer or never gelled.

Improving performance requires the basics to be right: clarity about what is wanted, consistency in praising good performance and picking up poor performance, then clear boundaries about what is and what isn’t expected of somebody. The additional feature I would add is that putting things in writing becomes 10 times more important when the management relationship is strained. Both sides can filter and interpret far too easily if everything is verbal. If in doubt, make sure it’s put in writing. I never cease to be amazed how two people can come out of the same conversation with completely different recollections.

Just to be even more sobering, I am aware of only one situation where somebody was managed out of an organisation for their poor performance from start to finish. For all the right reasons (it’s more humane) and often the wrong reasons (it ducks the issue), people are usually made redundant, moved sideways, harassed or restructured out of a role where they under-performed.

There are few big decisions in work

I am an avid reader of Harvard Business Review (HBR). No month is complete without reading it. However, it is a kind of management porn, where everything is more strategic and more complex than the real world and where the good companies thrive due to their endless cleverness and corporate brilliance. It presents an artificially enhanced and unrealistic view of the world, where managers make big decisions every day.

My experience is that the world of management is 95% mundane and 5% big decisions. Most working lives are not filled with big strategic decisions, but thousands of tiny tactical ones. There may only be four really big decisions that need making each year (the impact of which will be felt several years later) and perhaps one a month with its impact hitting a year later. The challenges are how to recognise those big decisions that need making, making them and putting them into practice. It’s also too easy for the supposed clarity of a decision to melt into a brown plasticine mess a few weeks or months later.

Restructuring should be like the Olympics

I have seen inside some organisations where management seems to have been replaced by endless restructuring. No sooner has one restructure finished, then the next one begins. The bigger the organisation, the more that restructures seem to be a way of life. I have to say that very few restructures deliver what was promised in the pre-restructure propaganda. Many are necessary for cost-cutting or to meet changing organisational needs. It’s worth remembering that the impact on staff, often whether or not their jobs actually change, is usually immense. So restructures should be like the Olympics; infrequent with clear gaps between them and taking the form of short bursts of high activity with gold medals for anybody who survives!

Forget strategy and think priorities

Most organisations struggle to do strategy. Away days are easy. Chunky documents with great goals and over-arching objectives are a pushover. Turning all that energy and those documents into living, breathing, everyday reality is really hard. Strategy which helps people across the organisation make decisions and understand the organisation’s direction is worth its weight in gold. The problem is that great strategy gets bogged down in the day to day. People start to argue about what strategy is, or they make opportunistic decisions.

The best way I have come up with to help drive an organisation’s strategy is to ask the simple question, “How do we want the organisation to be different in 3 years’ time and what do we need to do to get there?” Once those questions are answered, the next step is to use regular meetings to ask “what have we done in the last quarter that gets us closer to where we want to be?” These kinds of processes make it easier to move an organisation in the right direction – but only a bit! The rest is hard work.

And decide what needs to be stopped or reduced too…

The flip side of the need to prioritise is the need to also stop doing things. Many charities I know are masters of the fudged decision; the grand strategic priorities are let down because the organisation tries to do more and more things, but never stops doing anything. It’s no good having five top strategic priorities if your last five are all still being worked on, because that means there are then ten overall and any prioritisation is diluted.

This failure to stop doing things, even where they are inherent in the decisions about priorities, badly weakens any new strategic plan. It happens because trustees waiver or lose their nerve. Users protest. CEOs sit on the fence. Long-serving staff face redundancy. All too often, what should be a clear decision to move in a particular direction and prioritise new things is muddled by a failure to stop doing things.

Originally written in 2014 and updated and revised in 2022

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