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Pivot

Only Managers Should Be Managers!

In our last Pivot, we discussed research that suggests we might be best to have a qualified teacher as the leader of our early childhood centre. That research presented a fairly compelling argument. Now we look at the other side – what could possibly be the case against teachers?


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This Pivot: We look at reasons why a professional manager may be a better choice than a teacher to lead a centre.

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In our last Pivot, we discussed research that implied we might be best to have a qualified teacher as the leader of our early childhood centre.

The research suggested that people with high levels of technical skill achieve better outcomes for their teams (they studied Formula One racing teams, NBA basketball coaches and university chancellors). We also learned from additional large-scale research (35,000 people), that staff wellbeing was greatest when a supervisor could do an employee’s job, had worked his or her way up inside the organisation and/or had high levels of technical competence.

What could possibly be the case against this proposition?

According to Google…

Google is renowned for its approach to managing staff. In fact, they have employees whose sole job is to keep other employees happy and productive.

There are a lot of perks for people working at Google:

  • Free breakfast, lunch and dinner with organic food prepared by a chef
  • Free health and dental
  • Free haircuts
  • Free dry cleaning
  • Subsidised massages
  • Gyms and swimming pools
  • Hybrid car subsidies
  • Nap pods
  • Video games, foosball and ping pong
  • On-site physicians
  • Death benefits

Google don’t provide these perks to staff just to be nice folk; Google have a solid reputation for basing everything they do off data. They have researched and implemented what makes employees happy, and their results speak for themselves. Google consistently ranks as the best company to work for in America (and has done so for 6 years running; 8 times out of the last 11 years!).

Keeping staff happy is not the only thing Google has researched. Back in 2009 they began a project to determine what makes a good boss. They analysed performance reviews, feedback surveys and nominations for top manager awards (10,000 observations in all) and from that research they revealed, in 2011, the Eight Habits of Highly Effective Google Managers.

Technical skills make the list, but it came in last!

Here are their eight traits in order (taken from the link above):

  1. Be a good coach. Provide specific, constructive feedback, balancing negative and positive. Hold one-on-one meetings and present solutions to problems tailored to the employee’s strengths.
  2. Empower your team and don’t micro-manage. Give freedom to employees while still being available for advice. Provide ‘stretch’ assignments to help staff tackle big problems.
  3. Express interest in employees’ success and well-being. See employees as people, with lives outside of work. Make new staff feel welcome, help ease the transition.
  4. Be productive and results-oriented. Focus on what the team should achieve and how employees can help achieve it. Help the team prioritise work, and make decisions to remove roadblocks.
  5. Be a good communicator and listen to your team. Make communication two-way: both listen and share. Hold meetings with the whole team and be specific about the team’s goals. Encourage open dialogue and listen to the questions and concerns of employees.
  6. Help employees with career development.
  7. Have a clear vision and strategy for the team. Keep the team focused on goals and strategy, even amid turmoil. Involve the team in setting and evolving the team’s vision, goals and progress.
  8. Have key technical skills to help advise the team. Roll up sleeves and work side-by-side with team, when needed. Understand the specific challenges of the work.

Google concluded that what employees valued most was:

  • an even-keeled boss who made time for one-on-one meetings;
  • who helped people puzzle through problems by asking questions, not dictating answers; and
  • who took an interest in employees’ lives and careers.

Google’s Laszlo Bock, vice president for People Operations, explained their conclusions in a New York Times article, Google’s Quest to Build a Better Boss:

“In the Google context, we’d always believed that to be a manager, particularly on the engineering side, you needed to be as deep or deeper a technical expert than the people who work for you,” Mr. Bock says. “It turns out that that’s absolutely the least important thing. It’s important, but pales in comparison. Much more important is just making that connection and being accessible.”

So, Google see ‘technical’ expertise (in our case we can read that as 'teaching' expertise) as an important factor in making a good manager, but it only just scraped into their list.

Google's Three Pitfalls for Managers

1. Difficulty making the transition to team leader.

  • Fantastic individual performers are promoted to manager without the necessary skills to lead
  • People hired from outside often don’t understand the specific ways of the company

2. Lack of a consistent approach to performance management and career development.

  • Not helping employees understand what the organisation wants
  • Not coaching employees on how they can develop and stretch
  • Not being proactive: waiting for the employees to come to them

3. Spending too little time on managing and communicating.

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According to Gallup…

In Why Great Managers Are So Rare, Gallup conducted their own world-wide research into employee engagement. In that research they found that:

  • employee engagement determines how well an organisation performs;
  • employee engagement is very low worldwide (13% worldwide are engaged); and
  • employee engagement is at least 70% determined by how good the manager is at their job.

(Gallup have studied “hundreds of organisations and measured the engagement of 27 million employees and more than 2.5 million work units over the past two decades”, so their findings have substantial research behind them.)

The research leads to a rather troubling conclusion: that the cause of stunningly low employee engagement around the world is the poor performance of managers (they claim that organisations currently fail to choose the right person to be manager 82% of the time).

“When Gallup asked U.S. managers why they believed they were hired for their current role, they commonly cited their success in a previous non-managerial role or their tenure in their company or field.”

“Being a successful programmer, salesperson, or engineer, for example, is no guarantee that someone will be adept at managing others. […] Most companies promote workers into managerial positions because they seemingly deserve it, rather than have the talent for it. This practice doesn't work.”

Gallup's research suggests that the way the majority of organisations choose a manager today is wrong. That considering their technical skill, length of service, or success in a previous position is the reason so many managers underperform, and why so many employees are disengaged at work. Rather, Gallup claim that when organisations hire managers based on their innate talent to manage the organisation gains a significant competitive advantage.

And what are those talents?

  • The ability to motivate every employee to act, and to engage employees with a compelling mission and vision.
  • The assertiveness to drive outcomes along with the ability to overcome adversity and resistance.
  • An ability to create a culture of clear accountability.
  • The ability to build relationships that create trust, open dialogue and full transparency.
  • The ability to make decisions based on productivity, not politics.

Noticeably absent from the list is an ability to help employees fulfil their technical duties.

(We should note here that Gallup do charge for their analytics-based hiring service, so they may not be completely impartial!)

Gallup found that the people with these talents are relatively rare. Only one person in 10 has the right talents (notice they say talents, not skills) to be a good manager, and a further two people in 10 have talents that are capable of being developed and refined with coaching and professional development.

Gallup go on to say:

“…when companies can increase their number of talented managers and double the rate of engaged employees, they achieve, on average, 147% higher earnings per share than their competition.”

“For too long, companies have wasted time, energy, and resources hiring the wrong managers and then attempting to train them to be who they're not. Nothing fixes the wrong pick.”

The Winner Is?

With volumes of research on both sides of this issue, it looks like we can take our pick of which team we personally wish to support.

It does seem reasonable to conclude that technical expertise plays at least some part in the ability of a leader to manage specialist staff and to get the best from them, but it is probably not the primary (and certainly not the only) factor that we should be considering when selecting a leader.

It is likely that many of the traits needed to be a good manager are characteristics and talents that are built in to an individual’s personality, and which are very hard to identify or measure (or explain or justify to others).

It’s the easy option to promote based on a person’s technical expertise, but in doing so we can end up transitioning a valuable staff member from skilled specialist to unskilled manager.

Food for Thought…

  • Research tells us that technical skills are important in a manager. Research also tells us that technical skills are not important in a manager!
  • Technically skilled managers may get better results than unskilled managers (if all other things are equal).
  • Technical skills probably rate below people skills in importance.
  • Much of a good manager’s ability may come from innate, impossible to learn talents.
  • The ability to manage people well is not something we should assume in a technically competent staff member.

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