Five things I wish I’d known as a first line manager

I remember very clearly getting my first “proper” manager role and the excitement and trepidation that came with it. It doesn’t really matter how many courses you go on, I don’t think anything ever prepares you for the realities of managing teams – the good, the bad and the indifferent. And no matter how many good and bad managers you’ve had yourself, a bit like parenting you only understand the full expectations when you’re finally in the seat. I was talking to a group of wannabe first line managers a couple of weeks ago and it made me reflect on the things I wish I’d known then.

  1. You’re a manager, not a leader. The first thing to say is that there is absolutely nothing wrong with this, being an amazing manager is something incredible to aim for. For some reason over the last few decades we’ve decided that everyone needs to be a “leader” and frankly most organisations only need a small handful of these, it is an entirely different thing. Your team will thank you more for your one to one focus and coaching more than they will another stupid mission statement or departmental strap line.
  2. Processes are a guide, not a law. Yes I know, before you say it, HR functions are probably THE WORST department for this. Processes and policies are there to help you, but nothing is going to handle the situation better than a person that knows their team, knows what they want, how they are and what is going on in their lives. Spend more time learning about that and less time following processes without context and understanding of application. Would you rather listen to a story told with knowledge and understanding, or one read from a script?
  3. Recruitment is as much about your existing teams as it is the new hire. As a rule, I generally hate recruitment but I do like shaping teams. And I’ve learnt that the two things are inextricably linked. Bringing someone new into your team should be additive in every way, not just the skills and the experience they bring but the perspective they have, the way they think about the world and how they interact. If you get it right, a new hire should increase the performance of other people in the team.
  4. Being liked and being respected are different. First line managers tend to lean in one of two directions, over steering towards formality or trying to be everyone’s friend. Neither path is the route to happiness or a good night’s sleep, the reality is a bit more nuanced. The best managers that I’ve seen don’t mind being unpopular in the short term in order to gain respect in the longer term, they don’t hide behind the rulebook or worse, “HR have said…”. They own messages that are tough and gain respect that way.
  5. No-one gets it right all the time. In most areas of life when we want to improve we rehearse, we practice, we assess our past performance and we learn. Management is absolutely no different. Bad meeting? That’s something you can learn from. Horrendous conversation? What was the point that it started to go wrong. You won’t get everything right, every day and nobody does. That’s ok, what really matters is that you take the time to reflect, to learn and to build on your past experience for the future. That’s how we all grow.

Lifelong learning

I wrote recently about the perils of organisations delegating responsibility to employees under the guise of empowerment and “individual choice”. Effectively placing every individual at jeopardy to changes in the economy, society and the organisations that they work for. The continued, pernicious rise of neoliberalism in the workplace.

Don’t have enough pension to retire? That’s what you chose.

Don’t have the healthcare provision to cover your operation? That’s what you chose.

Don’t have the skills to make you employable? That’s what you chose.

And it is this last point that I really want to focus on today. Because on one hand I hear organisations constantly talk about particular skill sets being short in supply and then at the same time I see those same organisations making people redundant. Of course, I’m not talking about the impact of Covid-19 here, which has placed so many organisations in exceptional circumstances, this is a pattern that has been ongoing for as long as I’ve been in business.

The simple answer is retraining, a concept that often invokes images of Government schemes and interventions routed in the decline of industrial cities. No mining? Don’t worry we can retrain you as a call centre operative. But of course, retraining and reskilling doesn’t have to be after an employee has ceased to be of “economic value”, in fact I’d argue that it should be significantly before then. If organisations are making people redundant because they don’t have the skills that they need for the future, that’s a failure of the organisation, not the individual.

This is where organisations need to be intervening for the good of their workforce, their communities and for society as a whole. And this is also why individualism once again falls down. You can’t expect any one employee to be able to predict the decline of their particular skill set, or indeed the speed of that decline. Because they simply don’t have the data required. But organisations do.

That’s why we need to see retraining, reskilling and lifelong learning as a fundamental part of the psychological contract, a key tenet of the leadership philosophy of our organisations. It is why the HR profession should spend as much time focusing on internally meeting future skills requirements as it does on identifying the gaps. It is why we need to make careers for life a viable option for anyone who wants it and not look down our nose at those who choose to be a one company employee.

If you’re interested in this topic, you can hear me and others talking about it on Monday 16 November at 10am as part of the CBI@10 series. You can find out more here.

Read less, talk more

Everyone I know has written a book. My social media feeds and email inbox are all full of friends, colleagues and contacts exalting their new publications. Whether it is recruitment and resourcing, learning or the latest stream – HR Disruption/Transformation/Reinvention – they’ve all got the answer to the questions you never knew you had.

And I can tell you right now, you don’t need to read them.

I’m not suggesting that reading per se is bad and I’m certainly not saying that there aren’t brilliant leadership, management and business books out there. I’m suggesting that there are a disproportionate number of titles to the needs of leaders, managers and businesses.  And I’m suggesting you’d be better off talking to your employees and colleagues, rather than reading the latest HR trope.

There are a couple of key questions you need to ask yourself based on whether the author is a practitioner or academic:

When did you do this? What were the results you experienced?

When did you research this? How was this been evidenced and peer reviewed?

Look at the vast majority of the profiles of these “authors” and you’ll see a list of the times they’ve spoken about the topic and the articles they’ve written, they’ll rarely talk about actually having done anything.

Compare this with your employees who spend all day doing the work that you’re trying to change/improve/increase. They’re in your organisation every day experiencing the environment and the culture that you are the guardian of. They’re able to give you better quality feedback on pretty much every single aspect of your organisation than a faceless hack.

So next time you’re tempted to put your hand in your pocket for the latest “must read” from some obscure publishing house, ask yourself whether your curiosity and desire to learn couldn’t be better directed towards the people all around you. They’ll certainly have better qualified answers, and you’ll save yourself money at the same time.





If it walks like a duck

The connection between self belief and outcomes can be one of the most powerful drivers of performance. When an individual or team truly believe in something, they can often deliver results greater than the sum of the parts. That’s why we often seen teams deliver incredible, unexpected outcomes – “against the odds”.

At the same time, the connection can also be one of the biggest inhibitors when we fail to see or listen to the feedback that surrounds us. Not all of our efforts will bear fruit and the ability to realise this, see where we are falling short or can improve and recorrect is critical.

That’s one the beautiful things about creating a team that operates as an open system. Open systems listen to the feedback in the external environment and respond and develop accordingly. They are, to some extents, the epitome of selfless, ego less organisations. It doesn’t mean that there isn’t the need for process or procedure, but that these are constantly developing in relation to the external environment in which they operate.

In the book “Black Box Thinking”, Matthew Syed gives a number of examples of open systems, but the one that struck me the most was the airline industry, where feedback and information is shared across companies and used to deliver improvements industry wide on all aspects of safety. When someone shares something they’ve learnt because of an incident or a near miss, you don’t hear anyone respond, “but that’s not how we do things here” or “we’ve always done it that way”, they listen and learn.

It begs the question, in our organisations how much do we really listen to the feedback that is around us and how willing are we to adapt and respond as a result? Too often we talk about the reasons why things are as they are, or why they’re too hard to change. But wouldn’t a more engaging, energetic and profitable way be to listen and address?

If we see the work that we do it and the way that we do it as an ongoing journey of improvement rather than a fixed deliverable, we can use the feedback that we hear and see as a positive means of continuing on that journey, rather than as a means to critique what we’ve just done. And from that, we will only ever see better results for everyone involved.