Managing People

Friday, April 1, 2011 - 08:26

In 2011, the key people skills managers need remain constant, whatever industry you are in. By Karalyn Brown

It's 2011 and Australia has significant parts of its economy moving at two speeds. If you're looking to expand, you'll be looking at ways to retain key staff as talent shortages bite. If you're still struggling you're probably considering how to ask an already stretched and tired team to do more with less.

No matter what sector you're in, the fundamentals of good people-management skills are the same. Management Today asks three expert leaders about the top people skills needed in 2011 and beyond.

No matter your business position, think engagement

Engagement advisers Aon Hewitt found in 2009's tough economic conditions that employers with the highest engagement experienced revenue growth of 22 per cent, compared to 11 per cent growth in other organisations.

Elsewhere, employee management consultants Gallup found engagement actually increases innovation. Their research revealed 59 per cent of engaged workers agreed that their current job "brings out [their] most creative ideas". But only 3 per cent of actively disengaged employees strongly agreed that their current job brings out their most creative ideas.

So what does that research mean for leaders?

"The person with the biggest impact on engagement is the leader," says Anthony Sork, Managing Director of leadership consultants, SorkHC.

"With the economy picking up last year we saw the first wave of people have the confidence to move," he says. "The people you may have retained through the GFC and beyond will now start to become restless as more job opportunities emerge."

For expanding businesses, it's worthwhile keeping in mind how engaged employees attract others. Hewitt research also shows the impact of engagement on employee referrals. For their most engaging employers in 2009, 83 per cent of their staff said: "given the opportunity, I tell others great things about working here".

Tip: Look for ways to objectively measure the impact of your manager through climate surveys. Don't lose that discipline, even if you're all 'too busy'.

Engaging managers use flexible communication

"Leadership is how you take a group of people and communicate in a way that is meaningful to the audience," says Larry Howard, Group Manager Service Delivery and Infrastructure at Origin Energy.

"As you mature in your career, the challenge is that you end up with a diverse workforce; you need to tailor your message to a diverse group of people."

Sork suggests high-performing teams have a high level of diversity. Leaders will only succeed if they abandon a one-size-fits-all communication style.

"A manager needs to bring out the best in each of their people," he says. "They need to be flexible and fit the team, rather than the other way around."

Tip: Understand what your team will 'hear' before you send out any message; particularly the difficult conversations around cutbacks or restructures.

Engaging managers build trust

Trust can't be won just by saying 'trust me'. People don't buy it, says Howard. You need a couple of things, he says. "A high level of integrity to say I am wrong and mean it.

If you make a bad call and you act with integrity, people will trust you enough to trust your next call."

Strong leaders need to be behaviourally self-aware says Sork. He cites studies that show only one-third of people have any level of awareness of how others perceive them. "Be self-aware, aware of your social impact and self-regulate your behaviour," Sork says. "Strong leadership comes from the discipline of emotional intelligence."

Tom Skotidas is Head of Marketing and Business Development at First Rate, an online marketing agency. "Inspirational leadership is where a manager displays high competency in what they are asking staff to do," he says. "That competency is not necessarily about technical expertise, but knowing what competencies are required to perform each role effectively."

Tip: A workforce that trusts you when you're making hard decisions about restructures is one that will better understand the decisions you're making, even if they don't agree with them.

Engaging managers are honest about hard work

For many organisations, and predating the GFC, structural change within the Australian economy has meant more hard work for many people.

"Work/life balance is now heavily tipped towards work," says Howard. People will accept that if you acknowledge it, he says. When he asks his team to work harder, he balances this with trust. Where Origin Energy have asked employees to answer evening emails with BlackBerries and iPhones, they've opened up social time at work with Facebook and social media.

Tip: Give trust around work flexibility and you'll receive hard work in return.

Do not make rigid judgements based on generational differences

There's always been publicity around generational differences, but the jury is still out on whether there are any true distinctions. That probably means stereotyping is fraught.

"There's no such thing as a generational template that applies to one person," says Sork. "The generational hard data is worth understanding. To turn around and say that differences in your behaviour are attributed to your date of birth is dangerous."

Skotidas suggests that some of generation Y may have a stronger sense of entitlement and display less 'blind loyalty' than the older generation, but the differences he's noticed are small.

Howard, however, does see generational differences in his team. He says younger people are much more mobile. To hold them, his organisation needs a value proposition beyond money. He noticed that each generation had a different reaction to the fallout from the GFC.

"We saw older people concerned. Those 40-plus were worried about their jobs," he says. "Younger people saw it more positively. They showed more resilience."

Tip: When talking careers, treat employees as individuals, who will all have had a difference experience.

How to manage disgruntled employees

For employers post-GFC, how to win back their employees' trust is one big question that's emerged. There are many workers around who feel hard done by with cutbacks and restructures, or who have been burnt out by all the long hours.

Sork suggests if things are extreme, it may be better for both parties to cut their losses.

"If an employee's trust is completely eroded and they are just there for the pay cheque, then it's very difficult for an organisation to recover," he says. "That's all the more reason to develop an engaging leadership."

Case Study

Tom Skotidas, Head of Marketing and Business Development at First Rate, has led teams of business developers, account managers, and marketers since

1997. He describes his own leadership style as fairly directive.

"You can consult to a point, but you do need a demarcation line where you will give clear directives," he says. "Even experienced staff can derail themselves without the occasional intervention. I've seen star performers without senior guidance concentrate on micro-activities that make them busy but not productive."

Skotidas says his leadership style works for him as he is aware of how it affects his teams. He makes it clear that anyone can approach him if he's upset them. "Taking feedback from your staff requires heavy duty EQ," he says. "In my opinion, the best managers feel an internal compulsion to go to their team and ask them, 'how am I doing?'."

During the GFC, First Rate was fortunate to experience growth. The challenge has been to find experienced people. "We've tried to create an environment in which our people feel that they are learning so much, that they'd be crazy to leave."