10 tips for developing a great people management practice

During my research into management and leadership development in the UK, I came across statistics that are, quite frankly, embarrassing.

One statistic is particularly alarming, and is the start of a string of woefully inadequate numbers from pre-management to senior leadership development. This statistic is that a staggering 82%¹ of organisations do nothing to identify and develop potential people managers. This essentially means that the vast majority of first line managers receive no preparation for what is arguably one of the most important roles in any business: the motivation, development and performance management of customer facing employees.

Granted, development for first line managers, once in post, then sees some improvement, but not much. Taking all the levels of management into consideration, 72%² of organisations say they are struggling to find managers internally that have the necessary skills to perform well in role. This is seriously holding back UK Plc’s performance, according to a recent paper published by the Department for Business Innovation and Skills³.

Assuming you are working for an organisation that doesn’t provide adequate management development, what can you do to kick-start your own management journey?

1. Read, lots.

A core element of your ongoing professional development has got to be reading academic and practitioner books, papers and articles. It is amazing how many managers have never read a management book, or if they have, its because their manager has asked them to, or it was a requirement for a training course.

Read from a critical viewpoint. Understand that “best practice” is only a perspective, not the proven, one and only way to approach something. Take what works for you and leave the rest.

Create both breadth and depth in your reading. Don’t just read the popular management “how to” books. Branch out into anything that takes your interest and that might hold insights into how human beings tick, how they work together and what motivates them. From How to Win Friends and Influence People (published in 1936) to What Makes a High Performance Organization (published in September 2012), read, read and read some more.

2. Look for role models.

Who in your organisation is already doing what you want to do? Who is getting the recognition you want? Assuming the recognition is for the right reasons (often it isn’t), observe this person closely. What do they do? How do they do it? How do they behave? How do they “show up for work”, both physically and mentally?

Ask to shadow this person. Look, listen and make notes. Don’t mimic too much though. Be your own person, borrowing those traits and techniques that suit your personal style and character. No one wants to see a copy-cat. They want to see someone who knows their own mind and who demonstrates the desired behaviours and abilities. Above all else, be authentic.

3. Know your strengths.

Knowing what you are good at and in what circumstances those strengths can be used to great effect, is perhaps one of the most important insights to develop. It is an ongoing journey of discovery as you age, gain experience and your strengths evolve over time.

Ask for feedback from colleagues and your line manager. Look outside of work to where some strengths might be evident and that you might want to put to use at work. There are plenty of capability and character “tests” available. Your organisation may provide some of these for free. Check out the L&D or HR section of your intranet. Take a look at Now, Discover your Strengths by Marcus Buckingham. Buy the book and you gain free access to an online Strengths Finder assessment.

On the point of strengths, keep focused on these whilst mitigating your weaknesses. Don’t become obsessed with developing weaknesses into strengths. You can’t be great at everything. Look for your signature strengths and make sure that your weaknesses are developed to the point that they are not fatal to your progress. Knowing your strengths and weaknesses is always the starting point. As I stated earlier, it is also an ongoing journey of discovery.

A critical point to note here is whether you have what it takes to be an effective people manager. Not everyone does. If you don’t, accept it and look to develop your technical specialism. Many organisations are now seeing the need to create career paths for their non-people managers. Take advantage of this new insight and don’t subject yourself and those you might lead to sub-standard management. Not only is it a painful experience for all involved, it will be perpetuating the viscous cycle of poor management that is damaging UK Plc’s performance.

4. Develop a professional people management practice.

Understand that people management is a professional practice as much as the technical specialism you have developed as a non-people manager. This is the fundamental mindset shift that needs to take root in most of our organisations in order for people manager development to be taken more seriously. Once you become a people manager, you have two professional practices to develop and nurture.

Once you see yourself as a professional, with a living, breathing people management practice, you start to see the need for a healthy focus on its development. The people you lead are not resources to be managed, they are clients looking to you for development, direction, meaning and motivation.

Grab opportunities to attend training events, workshops, seminars and conferences. If your organisation doesn’t fund these development opportunities, find ways to attend within your means. Many are free and those that require a payment can repay you many times over during your career. Think investment for the long term.

5. Develop a reflective practice.

Once you see the professional nature of your people management practice, you can understand the need for continuous professional development (CPD). At its core, this CPD is about learning how to reflect on one’s own thinking, behaviours and impact in the world. It is never taking anything for granted and always being curious as to the nature of your relationships and the “what” and the “how” of your successes and failures.

A reflective practice is NOT about attending workshops, reading articles and ticking boxes to show someone you have spent a minimum number of hours gathering new knowledge.  The value in this knowledge is only released in the activity of putting it into practice. A reflective practitioner spends time, every day, reflecting on their impact, reframing their thinking and refocussing their subsequent activities. Attending workshops and reading are important, but only if your living, breathing, evolving practice is developed as a result.

You might want to take a look at a previous post on the reflect, reframe and refocus framework.

6. Have a go

You don’t have to wait to be promoted to have a go at people management, or to take your people management practice to the next level. Volunteer to lead projects or teams. Deputise for your line manager. Use out-of-work activities to try out your people management and leadership skills.

Remember that you do not need to be in a formally recognised people management role in order to manage or lead people. You might be a call handler in a contact centre. What opportunities arise to manage and lead? What about organising the office party, acting as a subject matter expert for a new product launch or coaching and mentoring others?

7. Find a mentor.

A mentor is someone who has been there and has the t-shirt to prove it. Find someone who you respect and is respected by your organisation. The relationship doesn’t have to be formal, with regular meetings. It can be adhoc, as and when you need advice. Either way, the value to be derived from the mentoring will be based on the strength of relationship and trust between both parties.

8. Use a coach.

A coach is able to help you find answers and plan activities to achieve your goals. They don’t have to be a specialist in your line of work, but this can help.

If your organisation doesn’t provide coaching support, ask a colleague or your line manager. Make sure they know how to coach. They don’t need formal qualifications but they do need at least a basic knowledge of coaching processes and an empathy for others’ emotional journeys. Coaching is as much an art as it is a science. You will know when it feels right and when it is time to move on to a new relationship. Trust your instincts.

9. Network, network, network.

Never stop networking. It is the life blood of any professional practice. It brings fresh opportunities to help others and in return seek help. If you are nervous about networking then go to a workshop to learn the techniques and build confidence. There are plenty of these events all year round organised by various bodies. Take advantage of them to give networking a go and not only will you be learning new skills, you’ll be networking whilst you learn.

Get some business cards printed. These can cost as little a £20.00 and only need to have your name and contact details on them. If your organisation provides them, all the better. It’s staggering how many networking events I’ve been to where people don’t have business cards. I know that contact details can be exchanged with a simple text these days, but that doesn’t seem to be the norm just yet. There seems to be something satisfying and ritualistic about the exchange of “gifts” when two people say hello and exchange business cards. Don’t leave home without them.

9. Join professional bodies and specialist interest groups

A great way to network and keep up to date with the latest thinking and trends in your professions (technical and people management) is to join professional bodies or specialist interest groups.

For people management in the UK, the professional bodies that stand out are the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, the Chartered Management Institute and the Institute of Leadership and Management. If you are reading widely, as recommended in point 1. above, you may want to look wider than these to institutions such as the British Psychological Society. If you run your own business, or are in a senior employed position, there is the Institute of Directors.

LinkedIn provides plenty of forums and discussion groups, as do many personal or business blogs.

10. Teach others

It is often said that if you want to know your subject well, you should teach it to others. I agree. I have practiced this often and always gain a deeper understanding of both my knowledge and also where the gaps are. It is this wish to teach others, combined with the success I was having in my people management practice, that first got me interested in the wider field of people and organisation development.

There is much you can do to develop your professional practice as a people manager, whether you are looking for your first supervisory role or looking to climb further up the ladder. Grasp every opportunity to learn new skills, listen to new ideas and challenge your current thinking. UK Plc is not yet geared up to offer this support to you as a matter of course, so, unless you’re lucky, you’ll have to be a self-starter. Develop a hunger for knowledge and challenge. Remember, there is always someone out there who has been there and got the scars to prove it. Seek support, ask questions and be forever curious.

¹Institute of Leadership and Management: The Leadership and Talent Pipeline 2012
²Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development: Learning & Talent Development 2012
³Department for Business Innovation & Skills: Leadership & Management in the UK – The key to sustainable growth

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