Management that Engages

7 April 2011 Pat Wellington

Management consultant Pat Wellington explains how to create a positive team culture that delivers results.

Management is more an art than a science. Specifically, management is not just a set of behaviours that you apply the same way everywhere. Rather, it is the ability to assess an environment - and its people - and choose the right skills and applications for the specific situation.

According to a Harvard study, 85% of managers get ahead based on their ability to deal with people, while only 15% do so based on technical competence.

Your role and responsibilities as a manager

Management is about getting results, building and maintaining your team, and developing individual team members with respect to their skills, attributes and career options. Getting results means delivering your objectives, which should mean adding value and profitability to your organisation.

The manager's role is to coordinate your team's efforts to achieve individual and organisational objectives. To get such results, management means communicating a compelling (ie motivational) vision of the future. Your role is to set direction for team members and ensure that each has an individual action plan that will help them to get there.

You must also establish and maintain positive relationships with all key stakeholders to enable your team's success and by shaping and strengthening your team create long-term organisational sustainability. In summary, this means that each member of your team:

  • knows what they should be doing
  • knows where the team is headed
  • recognises when they have 'arrived'.

How do team members know they have a good manager? Firstly, good managers engage. They get to know others, they ask questions and they listen. They also act. Management and leadership are about getting team members moving and heading for a positive future with vision. This means involving others (by asking open questions that encourages thinking and creativity) and then taking action. For example, say you attend a training course. What do many managers say to you when you return to your workplace? Typically, they might ask 'How was the course?' or 'What did you learn?' A really good manager will continue and ask:

  • When will you apply what you learnt at work?'
  • 'How can I help you?'
  • 'What actions should we now take and when?'
"The manager's role is to coordinate your team's efforts to achieve individual and organisational objectives."

Being a manager is tough. Increasing productivity and adding value and profitability to your organisation's bottom line means that you may have to constantly reinvent yourself. If you don't respond quickly to market changes, your organisation may not survive. You can protect productivity and handle these changes by creating and retaining a positive team culture. You know that there's a positive team culture when all team members can speak their mind without fear. For example, when your manager asks you something, do you tell them what you really think or do you tell them what you think they would like to hear? The former is crucial to achieving high performance and realising team objectives.

There's another essential. A key responsibility of each manager is to successfully manage 360° relationships. This says that managers must influence their entire environment. When I say influence, I really mean that you influence your stakeholders to say 'yes' to you.

There's a caveat, however. In which direction should we primarily exert influence? My recommended answer is upwards. Why? Where do the ultimate decisions come from? Does a team member who says 'I'm not asking my manager anything any more since s/he can't do anything anyway' actually still have a manager? Regrettably, the answer is no.

What, then, are your responsibilities? What does it take to create a positive team culture and environment? These are varied and include the following:

Confront reality

Your first priority is to ensure your team work through the organisational and team changes that are required. Your job is to orchestrate a coordinated team effort and mobilise team members against threats to performance. You must engineer individual efforts into a unified, coherent, collective team effort. You must create a team culture and team language relevant to the job in hand. After all, your reputation is at stake. The best way to protect that reputation is to get results.

Empower yourself and take charge

"If you don't respond quickly to market changes, your organisation may not survive."

To get results you must move with authority, make decisions, act. Your team will believe in you when you take charge and make things happen. You must consciously influence all key 360° relationships and use your power (by getting others to say 'yes' to your plans and requests). You won't achieve anything without this 'power' and if you can't do anything, why are you in charge? Team members will not (honestly) follow someone they don't believe in and they won't believe in you unless you believe in yourself. Remember, if a team member makes a request that you cannot authorise, where must you go? Your role is to get your manager or senior management to say 'yes'. If you don't, why are you in charge?

Your effectiveness depends heavily on your credibility with your team members and you undermine that credibility when you wallow or waffle. Don't confuse respect with popularity. Focus on results. Ensure you solicit other people's opinions. That positions you to wield authority in an informed manner. All team members have a voice, but you ultimately have the responsibility to ensure your team or department is efficient and productive (and profitable, if pertinent).

Be disciplined

High-performance teams are disciplined. You must function as the main disciplinary agent. Start by setting high standards. Then defend them. Aim for excellence. Build pride. Keep things tightly organised. Don't allow team members to drift into old routines or habits. If you see a mistake, grasp the nettle and address it immediately. Hold team members accountable for all their assigned tasks. Keep them to their agreed timetables and deadlines. Don't be vague or fuzzy in laying down the rules, or in explaining what you want, or inconsistent in enforcing objectives. If you make as many exceptions as you do rules, you have no rules. Always be prepared to back up your words with action. Team members will listen to what you have to say, but their behaviour will be shaped by what you do. Remember that you have no more powerful way to communicate than by example.

Know your team and ensure communication flows

You can't lead by example if the team can't see you. Knowing your team means engaging with them. Look for strengths. Weaker points. Aspirations and work preferences. Experience and areas of expertise. Concerns and points of resistance. The sharper your insights into each team member, the better the odds that you'll manage more effectively.

"Don't confuse respect with popularity. Focus on results. Ensure you solicit other people's opinions."

Of course, team members are the cornerstones of team effort, so don't take anyone - especially your key people - for granted. Re-recruit them. Keep them. Ensure they're on-board emotionally. The way to do this is to give the team constant updates. Even no news is news. If you don't regularly update the team, they'll fill in the blanks themselves and you feed the rumour mill by default.

Unless you speak for yourself, somebody will speak for you. If you want certain information to stick, keep saying it. If you have to deliver a complex or difficult message, put it in writing. Since communication travels four times as fast from the top down as from the bottom up, you should put new 'pipelines' in place to carry information to you. If you know what the problems are and hear about them early enough, it is usually possible to fix them. So deputise every team member. Ask them to go looking for problems.

As well as looking for proof that changes are happening or working, also search for evidence of areas of activity where there needs to be improvement or remedial action taken. Bring your team together often. Talk. Air issues and discuss. Pool everyone's thoughts on how to resolve problems so as to keep everyone 'in the loop'. Invite argument and allow conflict. You'll end up with better solutions. Don't allow differences to be swept under the rug as they will come back to haunt the team later. You won't have a high-performance team unless you meet the tough issues head on.

Remember what Colin Powell said: "The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you stop leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help them or concluded that you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership."

"Don't allow differences to be swept under the rug as they will come back to haunt the team."

The casting of people - determining who goes, who stays and who goes where - carries a lot of weight. Put people in the right place to begin with and you won't be forced to make changes later. New challenges rewrite job descriptions. Today, start from scratch in analysing your available people assets. Approach the exercise as if all team members were 'new hires'. Check for people's adaptability. Ask yourself who is best suited for which role. If there are weak players that you must use, position them where they'll hurt the team least. Size up your team with a dispassionate, discerning eye. You can't afford to sit back and figure out your team members as the months go by. You need to make informed judgments now. If you don't trust your skills at this, or if you feel that you just can't make the time, get help.

Set a clear agenda

Team members need a clear sense of direction. How else can the team be effective? Clear priorities help team members to figure out how to spend their time. The action plan sets out the agenda with crystal-clear tactical objectives giving the team laser-like focus. Keep objectives concrete and tie them to a specific timetable. Potential resistance can be defused when your instructions are unequivocal and easily understood. Make known your commitment to them and their commitment to achieving the goals known. Tell them at the outset that they can expect some mid-course corrections. The agenda will have to be adapted as the situation demands it. But always keep it clear and communicate it constantly.

Of course, key team members can contribute to designing the team's priorities and objectives. You must consider their input. That's real delegation. The more they can shape the agenda, the more buy-in and commitment they'll show. Their ideas might also dramatically improve your sense of priorities. In the final analysis, though, you remain responsible and accountable.

Setting goals and targets

With the pace of change accelerating, many team members change their attitude towards the organisation. During times of change, which may be seen as upheaval by some, trust levels may drop, morale may slip and loyalty may wither. Stress rises. Because change is driven by market conditions you, as manager, may have little control over it. What you do have control over is taking emotional matters seriously. Strong - and often hidden - feelings influence the way team members behave.

What all this means is that your job gets harder. These emotional intangibles must not become your top priority, however. Instead, focus on problems, not symptoms. How can you build trust? Simply be trustworthy in the way that you and your team pursue your goals. Focus on results. Go for those operational improvements that are most urgently needed. Focus on those things that go straight to the bottom line or that contribute directly to competitive position. Stake out specific targets. Aim for a few - but ambitious - goals. Go for measurable gains. If you focus on fighting the causes of your team's aches and pains and get rid of root problems, watch the 'emotional' symptoms disappear.

Ensure roles and responsibilities are understood

"Be careful to avoid job overlap, since that feeds power struggles, wastes resources and frustrates those involved."

Ensure team members know what you expect from them. Don't leave them to figure things out on their own. Get rid of role ambiguity. Nail down every team member's responsibilities with clarity, precision and attention to detail.

There must be no question regarding where one job stops and the next one starts. Leave no blur regarding the responsibilities each team member is supposed to shoulder. Figure out precisely what needs to be done and who's going to do which part of it, and communicate your plan. Give every team member a brief job description.

State your expectations regarding standards of performance. Describe the chain of command in the team. Outline each person's spending limits, decision-making authority and reporting requirements.

Everyone will be best served if you put this information down in writing. Check to make sure that each team member understands the team's (whole) set-up and how it fits together. Be careful to avoid job overlap, since that feeds power struggles, wastes resources and frustrates those involved. When explaining to team members what to do also specify what they should not do. Differentiate between crucial tasks and peripheral, low-priority activities. Spell out what needs to be accomplished in each position and for what each team member will be held accountable. Once you have done this, pay attention to what team members are doing. Keep everyone on track. If you see something going wrong, fix it immediately.

Be urgent

The team manager's role is to energise the team, mobilise it and to keep additional change from choking off its energy. You need to show a strong sense of urgency. What do your work habits say to the team? What about your personal productivity? Does your behaviour show a burning job commitment? Without a sense of urgency you can't function as the pivotal influence around which the team can coalesce. Like it or not, you're the example that team members take their cue from. Keep the pressure on for productivity.

Inertia is your big enemy. Set tight deadlines. Push for quicker decisions. Operate with a bias for action. Let everybody know that you will be tolerant of honest mistakes, but intolerant of inaction and inertia. Praise those who are energetic. Nip at the heels of those who drag their feet. Instead of patiently planning and preparing, just get going. Move immediately to get results.

Compliment and praise

Reward, reward and reward good performance. The intangible rewards you have to offer are limitless and include:

  • words of encouragement
  • compliments
  • empathy and understanding
  • a note of appreciation or a sincere thank you
  • stopping to share a coffee, or taking a team member to lunch
  • giving team members special assignments or more decision-making authority
  • asking about the family
  • celebrating small victories
  • soliciting opinions and suggestions
  • listening, really listening
  • a smile or a warm handshake or pat on the back
  • taking someone into your confidence
  • asking team members for help, which is gratifying because it validates one's worth.

Caring takes time. It requires that you pay attention to what's happening. Create a supportive team environment - nurture - and watch it bring out the best in people. Show approval and see how it arms the team. When you affirm, you empower. People feel safer, valued and more optimistic. Trust levels increase. Team members are more creative and engage their talents more fully. If you make every member of the team feel special, you'll end up with a very special team.

Point your team in one direction

Teams need to know where they're going. Team members perform best when they unite with a keen sense of mission, knowing they're heading somewhere special. If the aiming point is clear and the vision is compelling, it draws the team together and pulls them forward.

Concentrate on making the vision a cause. Teams get fired up about crusades and not about 'strategic plans'. Give the team a sense of purpose that captures their imagination and encourages them to close ranks.

Coordinate team effort by concretely explaining to the team the specific results the team is expected to achieve. You must believe in what the team is doing. If not, how can you defend it, sell it and turn the vision into reality? True leaders, true visionaries, do everything to control events. Team managers must become true leaders. True leaders are driven by a vision, every team member must be part of that vision, and that vision must encompass the individual visions of every team member. In addition, nothing leads to disillusionment more quickly if the team feels it cannot change or implement what it is supposed to change. 'I have a dream!' was Martin Luther King's message. He certainly had a dream and by pulling out the essence and distilling it into a few clear, crisp paragraphs, he told everyone prepared to listen the essence of his dream. This dream was underpinned by a great, overarching, simplicity: 'make Americans equal'.

Like most of the best visions, his was simple. Simplicity has the benefit of being easily communicated and remembered. Team visions, too, must be simple and describe what the team is supposed to achieve in the given time span.

Pay attention to process

High-performance teams always pay attention to process. This is your team's internal machinery of how it goes about its business. All managers should focus attention on process. What's going on inside the team? Analyse its effectiveness. Determine what's missing, what's getting in the way, what needs to change. Regularly stop the team in its tracks. Call a halt long enough to let the team hold a mirror up to itself. Process analysis is as simple as saying:

  • 'Let's look at what's going on now.'
  • 'How do you feel about that?'
  • 'Let's analyse how we're working together as a team.'