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How can companies produce managers better equipped to inspire and engage employees in an ever-more-competitive economy?

Thursday, June 2, 2011
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Call it a rookie mistake at best or, at worst, the sign of a bad manager. Either way, it's not good for business.

Jack (not his real name), a manager for Luxembourg-based Intelsat, the global-satellite-communications company, met with his two direct reports, Sarah and José, saying he wanted to hear their ideas about a new project.

Carrolyn Bostick, Intelsat's vice president of talent management and human resources, says Jack then made a common managerial mistake. "He asks, 'What do you think we should do?' and then he proceeds to tell them what they're going to do and oh, by the way, that he'd already cleared it with top management."

Talk about taking the wind out of a team's sails!

It's no wonder Jack made such a blunder. About 58 percent of managers in a recent CareerBuilder survey reported that they received no training on how to be a manager. For companies such as Intelsat, that's changing through manager-focused training, as well as new resources managers can call on to improve their own skills, including recent books published on the art and science of being a boss.

To paraphrase the opening lines of the Six Million Dollar Man television show: "We can rebuild bosses. We have the knowledge. We have the capability."

For Intelsat, that capability resides in its leadership excellence course for managers and supervisors. Nearly 30 percent of the company's 1,200 employees worldwide have supervisory or managerial responsibilities and all managers -- whether newly hired or promoted from within -- are required to take the course. 

Jack, Sarah and José are really actors who bring to life common manager/team dilemmas for Intelsat's management students -- and they are so well-versed in their roles that they can answer questions from the audience while staying in character. "We use interactive theater to hold a mirror up to what works and what doesn't," Bostick says. "It creates conversations about managing our resources."

Addressing how to build a better boss has become a hot topic in recent years. The challenge for companies lies in creating better bosses who drive continuous improvement, inspire loyalty, and spark employee engagement -- all with a leaner workforce and a more competitive economic environment.

While some companies, such as Intelsat and Purchase, N.Y.-based PepsiCo, have focused on improved managerial training, books on being a boss have also proliferated. Four recent books -- Good Boss, Bad Boss; Being the Boss; From Bud to Boss and You Can't Fire Everyone -- take different tacks on how to become a better boss.

All examine the challenges of being an effective, competent supervisor in today's more collaborative era. Most people yearn to work for good bosses, these authors contend, yet too many bosses are terrible managers who don't listen to their employees, fail to grasp important concepts such as sharing credit and putting the needs of their direct reports first, and are ineffective communicators.

And yet, the authors maintain, a lot of it can be fixed if bosses are given the opportunity to actually learn the art and science of being a manager.

"On the Same Page" 

To address issues such as these, and ensure that its corporate values are understood and reflected by managers, Intelsat has been cascading the leadership program from top management down to first-line supervisors throughout its global locations. The effort began about 18 months ago, and was created internally with the assistance of outside consulting firms such as the Philadelphia-based Hay Group. 

The program includes leadership-skill development, presentation training, executive coaching and classes on building business acumen. The goal, says Bostick, was to create a program to ensure "we're all on the same page about how we lead in our company."

To help managers better drive results, Intelsat stresses project management as part of the program. "People need to treat their work as a project; that it has a beginning, middle and an end, so we're teaching them project-management skills," she says. "That means understanding who the key stakeholders are, what you're trying to deliver and establishing clear milestones." 

Many bosses, both new ones and veterans alike, don't know how to manage people, according to Linda Hill and Kent Linebeck, authors of Being the Boss: The 3 Imperatives for Becoming a Great Leader. They vacillate between "I'm the boss!" and "I'm your friend!" rather than understanding that the best approach is to establish trust among your direct reports and give them clear directions and regular feedback.

Hill, the Wallace Brett Donham Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, and Linebeck, a writer and 30-year manager/executive, teamed up to distill their years of research and experience about how managers can learn to be more effective.

"If you're in a leadership role, you're expected to worry not just about today, but also to worry about tomorrow," says Hill, so managers have to learn the three imperatives covered in the book: how to manage themselves, their networks and their teams. Success comes from continually assessing progress on all three fronts.

"The way you set priorities for the future comes not just from whether or not you are a strategic thinker but whether you have the right set of relationships," Hill says. "If you haven't built the right strategic network, you are not going to have access to the insights and information of what's going on inside your company, or in the broader world.

"People who are good at defining the future are people who actually know how to build networks with people who are diverse, who expose them to different perspectives and who bridge them to worlds they're not normally connected with," she says. "Because only with that information can you begin to read the weak signals and the trends that you need to be responding to."

In their book, Hill and Linebeck suggest that HR should help managers by guiding them through the political culture and its players. They also counsel managers to recognize that there are two kinds of conflict: one based on ego and the other based on differing points of view. Managing the second kind well, they write, is what ultimately drives constructive change.

The Power of Self-Awareness

Beyond strategic effectiveness, many people skills are required to be a successful boss. That's a topic well-researched by Robert I. Sutton, best known for his book The No-Asshole Rule, in his latest book, Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to Be the Best and Learn from the Worst.

Inspiration came directly from the overwhelming response to The No-Asshole Rule, says Sutton, professor of management science and engineering at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif. Time and again, the "asshole" people wrote him about was usually a boss. Others inquired how they could become a better boss and learn to treat people with respect and become a better human being in general.

Sutton's goal in writing the new book was to show how great bosses differ from the mediocre, the inept or, at worst, the destructive. "It's very hard, in general, for we human beings to recognize our weaknesses," says Sutton. "In general, the more incompetent we are, the less aware we are."

The good news, he says, is that bosses can become better bosses when they're aware of their shortcomings and train themselves to adopt what he calls "the mind-set of a great boss." In his book, it's a list of characteristics that start with a balancing act he calls "[Tommy] Lasorda's law," which maintains that managing a team (athletic or otherwise) is like holding a dove in your hand. Hold it too tightly and you kill it. Hold it too loosely and you lose it. 

"People who aren't pushy enough are incredibly aware of their weaknesses and are always worrying," he says. "In fact, when I teach power and politics classes, they always sign up for them first. Those who are overbearing never sign up for them."

Sutton's observation is echoed by John Lilly, former CEO of Mozilla, makers of the Firefox web browser, and currently a venture capitalist with Greylock Partners. During the five years he spent helming Mozilla, its workforce jumped from 15 to 600 employees.

"A part of being a good manager is not ever trusting that you're a good manager," says Lilly.

Indeed, humility is a hallmark of a good boss, write Hill and Linebeck. Bosses who take personal responsibility when something goes wrong with their projects -- in essence, who take the blame -- and, conversely, who give other people credit for successes, are the most-respected bosses with the happiest teams, they write.

Says Lilly, "When I thought of myself [as a manager], as an individual contributor, I got frustrated. When you think of yourself as a main unit of work, you think of people who work with you as work resources to help with that goal. But when I began thinking of myself in terms of [being] a teacher and a guide who could help them answer questions and teach them how to do things they may not know, I [was] happier."

Boss First, Friend Second

It's never easy being the boss, and it can be especially hard when your direct reports are former co-workers. Learning consultant Kevin Eikenberry and trainer/management coach Guy Harris looked at the struggles managers have when they are promoted to supervising their former co-workers and, frequently, friends, in From Bud to Boss: Secrets to a Successful Transition to Remarkable Leadership.

Moving into the boss's chair has three key transition areas, as outlined in the book, Eikenberry says: "You go from dinner with your friend one week to having to do their performance review the next, so it's a transition of relationships. It's also a transition of skills, from when you used to be the best salesman and now you have to be the manager. The third transition is of perspective. You have to think about the world differently now that you're the boss."

Jen Wilson, vice president of human resources and loss prevention at Great Lakes Energy, a nonprofit rural electric cooperative based in Boyne, Mich., says many of her company's managers rose through the ranks and began supervising former co-workers and friends. Wilson herself experienced the transition when, at age 24, she moved from dispatcher to manager and had to supervise people who had been her peers, many of whom were older than her.

She cites flexibility and humility as the keys to her success in that role. "I didn't come in thinking I knew everything and making all sorts of changes," says Wilson. She also got some help from a colleague in the company's operations group who was willing to give her feedback that was blunt, yet constructive.

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To help ensure its managers are better equipped to guide employees in a manner consistent with the firm's values, Great Lakes got help from Eikenberry to create a cultural vision for itself that has, in turn, formed the basis of its training program for new managers.

As part of the effort, 25 volunteers from all areas of the company were asked to develop a vision of the kind of culture they wanted to have at Great Lakes. The result was a mission statement that said the company's success "is driven by open communication, flexibility, teamwork and camaraderie, equity and respect, and achievement."

Since then, the company's HR department has developed annual surveys and training to ensure that managers understand they're expected to abide by that cultural vision. For example, Great Lakes does not do annual performance reviews because managers and their direct reports are expected to have "continual communication;" if employees haven't heard from their managers, they're encouraged to initiate a conversation, and vice versa. 

Strong values that work for a small company like Great Lakes Energy also work well for larger organizations such as PepsiCo, which has more than 285,000 employees worldwide. More than 2,700 managers at the food-and-beverage maker have been through its first-time manager program to date.

The program is focused on helping attendees attain the "mind-set of a manager" through instruction in effective time management, making tough decisions and leveraging resources at the peer level and above, says Leslie Teichgraeber, vice president of PepsiCo University, which administers the training.

Classes are supplemented with a manager "survival kit" that includes mini-lessons on interviewing skills, coaching and setting strategic direction. The learning doesn't stop after the lessons are completed -- managers continue receiving emails with links to articles and other online resources so they can continue honing their managerial skills.

"I don't think anyone becomes a good manager by osmosis," says Teichgraeber. "I think everybody needs support in that. I think the skill of being a manager has been undervalued for far too long." 

Balancing "Love" and "Money" 

Becoming a good manager, says Harvard Business School's Hill, is getting harder because expectations for business are so much higher. There's also much more diversity, with different generations and emerging markets making management training that much more important.

The wild card in training better managers is the latest generation.

"[This younger generation has] different preferences and different ways of responding to managers," says Jean Martin, executive director of the Washington-based Corporate Executive Board's Corporate Leadership Council. "They require a different style of manager."

What they need, says Martin, is a manager with the flexibility to respond to and address their particular goals and job interests. That's because this generation anticipates moving from job to job, thinks openly about radical career moves and is much more intent on actively focusing on their career plans.

"Two critical factors in our benchmark survey [entitled Becoming a Talent Champion] are that [the younger generation's] No. 1 priority is the alignment between their job and their personal interests," she says. "Most other generations considered compensation and career planning [first]. This has led innovative companies to schedule more-frequent career conversations with their employees."

Whether their direct reports are members of Gen Y or another generation, good bosses distinguish themselves through empathy and generosity. In Good Boss, Bad Boss, Sutton chronicles good bosses whose management styles are inspiring instead of stifling. He points to Bonny Simi of JetBlue, David Kelley of IDEO, A.G. Lafley of Procter & Gamble and Lenny Mendonca of McKinsey & Co. as examples.

A good boss, says Sutton, inspires people to balance "love" (aka, dignity and joy in the work) and "money" (aka performance). This is illustrated in the book by a hand-drawn illustration of a heart and a dollar sign on a see-saw made by David Kelley, CEO of IDEO, one of the most renowned design and innovation consulting firms in the world.

Kelley, says Sutton, would reward a designer who worked on a dull, frustrating yet lucrative project by letting him or her choose an inspiring, if less profitable, project the next time. Sutton says Kelley builds up "love points" so he can burn them later, if he has to.

Indeed, unselfishness is one of the cardinal rules for being an effective manager, says Fortune magazine Deputy Managing Editor Hank Gilman, who reflects on his education as a manager in his new book, You Can't Fire Everyone, and Other Lessons from an Accidental Manager, which focuses on the publishing industry but could easily apply to other creative-centric industries.

In the book, Gilman lists the "Cardinal Sins of Hiring," which include hiring someone because someone else suggests you should and not giving feedback. But the bonus sin he lists is being selfish -- of putting yourself first and employees second.

Gilman cites former Boston Globe sports editor Don Skwar as a good example of an unselfish boss. Skwar, he wrote, made certain that his top sports columnists were the stars, not him.

Much of the work managers do is behind the scenes, says Gilman: They strategize with their teams to meet the organization's priorities and support them through the process, but they don't get called off the bench too often to really show their stuff. "But when you have an important project or crisis, that's when it all really tests you and you discover if you're good or not." he says.

And that's when being a better boss can be a real lifesaver.

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