Developing your managers in a downturn

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Now, more than ever, organizations need tough and determined managers, who are driven and motivated to see the business through the hard times. But how can employers ensure their managers are up to the job? Management consultant John Pope has some advice.

In case you hadn't heard, the world has changed. Most businesses are feeling the pinch and cutting back 'discretionary spending.' Organizations will be expecting managers to revitalize their operations, or make changes which have long been necessary. Their managers will have to handle redundancies, tackle new problems, and be much more effective, under circumstances where there is little room to maneuver and no money to pay for expensive mistakes.

There will be no point in saying that you are held back by masses of red tape and regulations. You will have to make changes quickly, and for that you will need tough, determined managers who are ready to cut through opposition and difficulties. You can dispense with the other sort – they will only hold you back.

I hope you have these tough, determined managers. If not you will have to develop those with the potential to make difficult things happen. There will not be much time to do it; they can't be spared from their jobs for long and you can't afford expensive training. What can you do? Where can you start? Here are a few answers:

What do tough managers live on?

What tough managers need is a healthy diet of opportunities, challenges, responsibility, and a sense of adventure as they try something new. It needs to be a careful diet, well-graded with the possibility of failure always present and with help available, but not so available that managers can turn over too many problems to their seniors.

This is a good time for developing managers because there will be plenty of challenges around which will provide opportunities for using skills which they learnt.

What should you have done to develop them?

The time for making sure that you had high caliber managers was before the events of the last 18 months. Perhaps you gave them some relevant training, and perhaps you even made sure that some of that learning was put into effect, though I reckon much of what managers are told on training programs is not applied in the workplace and evaluated afterwards. You can soon find out by going through some of the performance appraisals and development reviews over a couple of years and see what happened.

Where are the managers with potential talent?

Those performance reviews should have told you which managers were ready to move on to another job to broaden experience and to give them opportunities to make new things happen, which is what a manager's job really is. As you go through those performance reviews you may discover that there are people who have been overlooked for new jobs in favor of those who were good talkers but subsequently found to be ineffective. By dipping in to your 'talent pool,' probably a rather wider and shallower pool than you had expected, you should be able to find those who could work on the difficult projects which will be needed.

Have you damaged your managers beyond repair?

It is easy to undermine managers. Those who have really been ground down will not be of much use to you working on the new initiatives though they can still be a valuable source of knowledge in the working parties which will be needed. Some of them may have been shackled and the experience of working on an issue of importance to survival may be enough to revitalize them.

Is your definition of a 'good manager' quite right?

Shakespeare pointed out long ago that you need a different sort of soldier in war than in peace. Has your list of management competencies of a manager been too long? Have you favored those who 'fit in' at the expense of those who were classed as 'a bit rough?' You may have to put to one side someone who has the qualities you need now. One major retailer, some years ago, found that out when they lost a tough, modernizing chief executive, and replaced him temporarily with the finance director who had always been seen as being too old, slow, and fussy but who then revitalized the business to the surprise of everyone.

What development and training will be needed?

There will be no time or money for programs which are concerned with education and longer-term development. What there will be time for, and may be money for, will be short programs to give managers the knowledge or skills needed for the projects and initiatives on which they will be working.

Top management has to define those initiatives and projects. HR can and should help top management in selecting those initiatives and identifying their importance to the organization's progress. HR can, if it has the knowledge of managers' capability, suggest who would be effective in the different project teams.

What development is needed?

What will your managers have to do in these difficult times? The knowledge and skills they need will depend on the issues they will have to face. These may not be clear, but it's a fair guess that they will have to be able to:

  • Manage change quickly with not too much of the touchy-feely stuff
  • Plan and manage difficult projects in which the rules keep changing
  • Manage the reduction of the workforce such that the best people are kept
  • Improve productivity, reduce costs.

Some of them will need training, some may need a quick refresher.

How can you ensure effective development?

The principles of development are:

  • Identify what knowledge, skills, and abilities each manager will need
  • Find an opportunity where that knowledge can be applied as soon as possible
  • Brief the individual on what must be learnt, its importance and the opportunity to apply it – before that has been forgotten
  • Apply to a task of sufficient importance, correct mistakes in application
  • Provide help and feedback
  • Consolidate and move on to successively more demanding work
  • Show that higher performance or capability is recognized, and recorded.

It's a big job

Learning and development ought to be a continuous process, part of the philosophy of the organization. Any significant event, meeting, or success should end with a brief discussion of what has been learnt which is of value and could be applied elsewhere.

I had the good fortune to work with an MD who ended every meeting, every report of a major success, and the reports of some failures, with the question: "What have we learnt from this? Where else can we apply it?" He said that continuous improvement was essential. We could learn more from successes than from failures and that it is more motivating. HR could foster this approach.

About the author
John Pope has been a management consultant for 40 years and has worked to improve the development and performance of managers and management teams at all levels for most of his career. He can be contacted at [email protected]

This article originally appeared on our sister site, HRZone.

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