From the Top

Monday, September 1, 2008 - 09:50

The second annual Management Today Top Management Issues survey indicates change in managers' priorities. Chris Sheedy consults on the issues and suggests some tonic to help meet the challenges.

Over the following pages, the six top management issues identified by respondents to the recent Australian Institute of Management (AIM) Management Today Readership Survey are investigated with the help of the insights of experts and real-world situations.


The key skill that runs through the behaviours of really effective leaders is learning agility, and it's those who aren't afraid to look stupid who have the resilience to learn.

Leadership: it's the No. 1 issue on the minds of Australian managers, and it encompasses so much of what makes a business successful.

In order to continue to rise up the corporate ladder great leadership skills are essential. In order to head a productive team inspirational leadership is a must. And an organisation wishing to attract the finest staff will make their job a lot easier if they can prove their managers are excellent leaders of people.

The good news is that experts agree leadership can be taught. In fact, a future leader will be a person who actively seeks out mentoring and training in the art of leadership. But there's a lot more involved than a few hours of theory and a couple of self-improvement books. The best leaders, in fact, may inadvertently prepare themselves for the job much earlier in their careers.

"One characteristic of a leader that you would spot early in their career is a flexible working style. In other words, they're able to adapt the way they operate to what the situation needs," says Stephanie Christopher, Sales Director for SHL Australia/New Zealand, psychometric specialists and people-performance experts. "Another thing you might look for is someone who can learn from their mistakes, so they're able to adapt and change the way they operate and perhaps bring in other behaviours. They learn when something's not working for them and similarly they learn from their successes."

Twice-born leaders

Lenorë Lambert, Director of exit interview specialists Exit Info and Founder of leadership trainers Platinum Leaders, agrees that flexibility and fearlessness around failure is a vital ingredient in the make-up of a leader.

"There are some theorists who believe in the twice-born leader. That's the person who has had a really rough trot of it and has managed to turn around and become a better leader because they now have a much richer understanding of the issues.

"If you look at really outstanding leaders, while they definitely report more successes than the average manager they also report more failures. That's part of the all-important learning agility, it's the ability to fail and to learn from it."

There are four main skill sets required by a leader, Lambert says. These are analytical skills, emotional skills, creative skills and expressive skills. "If organisations really want their leaders to be inspiring hearts and minds, they need to be focusing their leadership development dollar on the skills in short supply. These are primarily the emotional and creative skills. In terms of emotional skills, one-off training events don't cut the mustard."

Emotional skills

Choice drivers that create effective leadership behaviour, Lambert says, include courage, humility, purpose, fierce resolve, trustworthiness and learning focus. Within these areas, of course, there is enormous room for leaders to personalise their own style. After all, no two leaders are the same.

"The one thing that runs through everything in the really strong leaders is learning agility. Out of 67 competencies that have been identified in great leaders there are two that most strongly predict performance and potential," Lambert says.

"One is drive for results. Then it's about learning, your willingness and ability to develop new competencies in order to deal with novel tussles.

"People who are really good at this learning agility stuff are willing to look and feel stupid. They're willing to experiment, which often involves looking and feeling stupid, because when you experiment you sometimes get it wrong.

"So there's an emotional resilience you need; that comes down to strong self-esteem. It's important not to have the belief that if you're a leader you must never get anything wrong."

Everybody has a natural and preferred way of operating in the workplace, but if they feel this is not conducive to leadership and are motivated enough and interested enough in changing, then with the right coaching or mentoring it's possible to do so, explains Christopher.

Organisational culture

Developing a culture is about ensuring your organisation is a place where the same birds flock together. And this is all about management and their recruitment habits.

Some time before business mentor John Jacob hires staff, whether it was in a past role as the manager of a 300-seat call centre or today as a senior manager in a thriving telecommunications company, he puts them through a rigorous testing process designed to reveal important signs about the candidate's attitude, goals and motivations.

This is because he understands that organisational culture, and the maintenance of that culture, is intimately connected to hiring the right people to fit and support that culture.

"In my opinion, culture starts from very simple things," says Jacob, who, as well as being a management consultant, is the Business Development Manager for Telcoinabox.

"It starts with the way the management defines the business, it starts with the goal of the business, and in the end it's all about hiring and habits. If you hire the wrong people you are never going to be able to train them in the right habits. But if you know clearly what you're looking for and if you're not just looking at a resume, if you're looking at the person behind that resume and thinking about who you're hiring rather than what you're hiring, then you'll start to develop a better culture within the organisation that would assist your efforts to attract talent."

How then does one go about ensuring they hire the right person to fit an organisation's culture. After all, isn't everyone who applies for a job at a Virgin company going to say that they're professional but fun loving and carefree?

"You know the saying 'birds of a feather flock together'?" Jacob asks. "That's quite helpful when you're trying to develop a culture. If you find people in your culture who are doing things you like, then study them, get an idea of what they do well and what they love about working within your business. Then offer that as an opportunity when you're putting out ads. You'll find you attract the right people that way."

Once he has a candidate in his sights Jacob will set them a task before offering them a job. The task will tell him several things, including how they will come across to clients, whether they're conscious of being on time and how coachable they are.

"When we're hiring people into Telcoinabox, most are customer-service oriented, so we want to know how they're going to come across to clients," Jacob explains. "We'll do a face-to-face interview, then give them a script, send them away, give them a specific time to call in to talk to someone, and we measure them from that. Did they call on time? Did they study the script beforehand? You can tell whether or not they have or if they're reading it for the first time. That gives you a good sense of what someone's going to do once they're on board.

"The other thing we do during that phone call is ask them to make a couple of changes in the script to see if they're coachable. If they can make the changes, and if they ask good questions about the changes then it's a very good sign; and you can do that sort of test for any role and for any position."

A 'can-do' attitude

Anthony Bell's accountancy firm Bell Partners is famous in its field for shaking off the nerdy image often projected onto his industry, and his staff retention record is the envy of that industry (10 of his 16 most senior managers originally joined as university graduates). Bell agrees that culture and hiring are intrinsically connected.

Bell describes the culture within his organisation as 'can do'. What that means, he says, is that when things get difficult, or when people feel under pressure, then the situation is met with determination rather than defeat. It's this culture that has allowed Bell Partners to grow by more than 50 per cent in the past two years whilst only taking on around 10 per cent more staff.

"Within our business, the team leaders have to dedicate time and energy to develop their staff, to develop in them the attitude to embrace the vision for the firm. They must spend time making sure that every single person has that 'can-do' attitude," Bell says.

"Skill and will are both part of it. If I'm going to just pick one though, I'll take a highly willed person and we'll train the skill into them, rather than a highly skilled person who doesn't have the dedication to carry the brand."

Bell has been known to invite candidates to Friday drinks to ask staff their opinion of the person's cultural fit, and to have a chance to chat with the candidate outside of the nerve-racking environment of the job interview. He also intentionally hires young people, so that his managers are able to mould the person.

"Rather than getting a rotten apple from the barrel, I go straight to the tree," Bell says. "So generally we'll take our players straight out of university. Half the culture job is getting them in the door, then the other half is watching them really closely once they're in."

Motivating staff

Every member of a manager's team has different attitudes and motivators, which makes regular discussion important to help ensure you're meeting immediate and career needs.

"Micro-managers tread on their staff members' need for control," explains Lenorë Lambert, Director of Exit Info and Founder of Platinum Leaders, when outlining the many things that team leaders can inadvertently do wrong.

"Managers who fail to give enough praise and recognition, or worse, those who criticise people in front of others, tread on the need for esteem. One of my old bosses used the theory of 'keep them guessing' as his way of shoring up his own need for control. This trod on everyone's need for certainty, because you couldn't predict how he would react to things. Managers who give people bits of tasks, rather than responsibility for outcomes, tread on people's need for achievement."

There's a lot of damage managers can do in a typical work day, it seems, especially when it comes to staff motivation. And the motivation of staff, such a powerful tool when it's done right, is a serious concern. It came equal second, with managing organisational culture, in the top issues survey.

Motivated staff increase productivity, stay longer in their jobs, overcome hurdles, find ways around problems more easily and also attract other staff to the organisation (think Google, or Virgin brands). Unmotivated staff, on the other hand, create a drain on an organisation's time and funds. So what lessons should be learnt by today's managers?

"There are a few things that come up time and again in exit interviews," Lambert says. "The first is that the person was simply not interested in the job. Another is that the person's manager didn't discuss career progress with the staff member frequently enough, and a third is that the manager didn't ensure the staff member was doing work that was suitably challenging.

"I suspect some of the current thinking on not discussing a staff member's advancement opportunities comes from the feeling that if the manager doesn't bring it up then the staff member won't ask to be promoted. Therefore the manager can keep them in the role longer. But then, of course, the person ends up leaving."

Some managers claim there are few chances for advancement within their organisation, so it's no use discussing such a thing with staff. But Lambert says that is a mistake, as even the most restrictive structures allow for sideways movement, which can offer new challenges and a greater chance of promotion further down the track.

"When we say 'career advancement' we often think that there may be no ladder to climb. Yet what we know well from research in the leadership space is that the most powerful developers or the most powerful career paths are zigzag career paths, where you don't just go straight up. You'll do sideways moves where you might move across into a different function. These are the most powerful pathways in terms of advancement because you're challenged in different ways by these various different roles," Lambert says.

Of course, it's no secret to any manager that every member of their team has different motivators, different attitudes and varying levels of commitment to the job, but this is exactly where regular discussions are vital, rather than waiting for the annual performance review. "The ideal practice is to have a conversation with them (your staff) about how often they want to discuss career progression and work challenges."

Shelley Barrett, Founder and CEO of ModelCo, says a great deal of her time is spent motivating staff or figuring out how to do so. A recent off-site was all about getting to know each staff member as an individual. This type of information is vital for staff members to work effectively together.

"Being in a fast-paced environment, everyone is expected to work at 100 per cent, and occasionally you've got people who crash because someone's more of a cautious type, or someone is more strategic. I'm the sort of person who makes decisions on the spot but I need to learn how to manage all the other types of personalities," Barrett says.

Finally, it is vital for managers to act as coaches, Lambert says, to always pass on knowledge that upskills and empowers their staff.

"Because they're often not assisted in the transition into management, many people think, 'I'm a manager now, so I've got to behave different'. But a lot of good management is about remembering to be a human being, to be real with people and to draw on their own experiences as employees. Good managers excel at developing other people."

Personal development

Managers should be wary of complacency about themselves. Personal development is an ongoing commitment that requires plenty of honesty, hard work and innovation.

At least once a month Anthony Bell, CEO of accounting firm Bell Partners, ensures he gets out of the office to hear another business leader, or corporate expert, speak. His personal reading material is only ever made up of autobiographies of organisational leaders or of other non-fiction, business-based literature. And at the end of meetings with CEOs of major companies, especially those he counts as clients, he'll often ask them to stick around and chat for five minutes to find out how they got where they are, or how to solve a specific problem.

Despite the fact that he's running a fast-growing, highly awarded and profitable business, Bell is always keen to develop his own talents further. He has implemented major training processes for all of his staff, from his most senior people downwards, and he's also ensuring that he himself is subject to constant further personal development.

"As a company manager you need to refresh your ideas and learn about what other people have done within their organisations," Bell says. "I've got real-life mentors, some of whom are also my clients. I rely on these guys to keep me on the straight and narrow. A lot of them have achieved far more than I have and I rely on their expertise."

Personal development is something that is often tacked on, almost an afterthought. But many great managers are making personal development a part of their work week, meshing it into their usual working days and recognising its importance in their performance and future growth.

Continuous learning

Damian Kay, Founder and Managing Director of Telcoinabox (which is expecting to achieve around $30 million in turnover this year), found that when he left the corporate world to start his own company the thing he missed the most was the regular training courses he was sent on as a senior manager.

"That was one of the biggest downsides," he says. "In corporate life I'd regularly been sent on courses – everything from better public speaking to better time management. After five years out of that world I was cutting some really big deals and growing my own business but I wasn't learning anything new."

Instead of accepting that this was the way things were going to be, Kay put aside every Monday morning to read management and self-improvement books. He joined an institute of company directors and also, last year, took on a business coach as a mentor, and every Friday morning was put aside for meetings with the coach, John Jacob (also interviewed for this series of stories).

"I have always operated on gut instinct, and I have trusted that because I've known it's innately right," Kay says. "But I wanted to understand the reasoning behind that decision-making. I wanted to dissect it and know it as something other than gut instinct. John helped me understand that, and every Friday we'd meet and talk about the business, about the goals, and about how to manage things to create outcomes."

Learning from others

Kay has also put himself through training programs, whether they deal with pure accountancy or capital raising, and is constantly planning his next round of personal development. Like Bell, he also takes every opportunity within his job to learn all he can from others, both within and outside his organisation.

"For instance, tomorrow I've got a four-hour meeting with venture capitalists and I don't need the money," Kay says, "so I'm using them to better understand what their industry is all about and how it works. To start to learn I'll ask a million questions during the meeting; I already have my questions mapped out, the things I will need to ask to help me better understand the equity market. I have no intentions of following through, but they approached me so I thought I might as well do it."

Bell and Kay agree it's vital for any manager, before making a personal development plan, to ensure they are aware of their own strengths and weaknesses.

Kay used his mentor to help find out where he was lacking, and he also completed psychometric-type questionnaires to identify where work was needed.

Bell relies on his mentors within other organisations, as well as trusted colleagues ("I have a few go-to people who will always tell me the truth no matter what it is I want to hear," he smiles) to tell him what he's doing well and what could do with a little training.

Work/life balance

While there is no one-size-fits-all formula for work/life balance, consideration for it must figure prominently in smart HR strategy.

In a recent interview for Virgin Blue Voyeur magazine, Luke Bayliss, who with business partner James Miller, founded and now manages the very fast growing Sumo Salad franchise, admits what many managers have secretly known for years: that spending a lot of time in the office isn't necessarily a bad thing.

"We've really embraced the culture that we've created within the business, and our health has improved drastically as a result," he says. "We're trying to maintain a good work/life balance, but having said that we still do six days a week in the office, 10–12 hours a day."

As long as one enjoys their job and is challenged by it then it's often as good as any hobby, but still most managers feel that their work/life balance is nowhere near where it should be.

Dr Lindsay McMillan is Chief Executive of Converge International, an organisation that works with client companies to identify and manage factors that put employees at risk. He says that as we're now experiencing almost full employment a far greater emphasis has, and will be, placed on work/life balance.

"Our research has found that when people choose a job they now put just as much importance on work/life balance as they do on salary, and this phenomenon is only just beginning," Dr McMillan says. "What's occurred is that work now is about task, not time. The proliferation of mobile telephones, BlackBerries and laptops means your employer has 24/7, 360-degree access to you.

"But are people interested in staying back in the office because they love their work? I don't think so. I think it's more around the task, it's around performance and it's around getting a job done, whether you're in the office or at home."

Flexibility when needed

So does that mean that as long as we're engaged within the task for which we have responsibility, we'll be happy with our work/life balance? Not a chance, Dr McMillan says, it's more complicated than that.

We Australians understand work/life balance to mean flexibility, and whether we utilise that flexibility or not is possibly unimportant. What is important is the opportunity to utilise it if we feel the need. This could be flexibility of working hours, flexibility of location or flexibility of management.

If a worker feels there is a lack of flexibility then they will be far more likely to leave their job or will, at least, become less productive. For those who feel they are reaching this stage, Dr McMillan says it's time to develop a new relationship with their manager.

"You need the flexibility to say to your manager, 'My life's out of whack and I need to do something about it'. That mutual flexibility is vital," he says.
"A big issue about work/life balance is around trust. If you've got a trust that works between you and your manager then it will be much easier. You need to sit down and simply ask the question or make a statement that maybe your performance or your tasks or your objectives are being overwhelmed.

"Or you may have a personal issue that's confronting you for which you can work out a solution in conjunction with your manager. It's all a part of the new generation of openness and transparency the corporate world is trying to engender across leadership, managers and employees."

Making a change

Kieren Dell, CEO of Majestic Cinemas on the north coast of NSW, is one of those people who upped sticks and left rather than putting up with the effects his job was having on his life. He was very well known within the financial services industry, for which he still consults, but Dell's 15 years in corporate life in Sydney was spent "working long hours, paying a big mortgage, travelling too much and never seeing my kids."

His solution, at the age of 35, was to move his family to the NSW north coast and work from home as a consultant, which was a great success. "I made the same sort of money working a third of the hours and that was quite relaxing. Then I needed more of an intellectual challenge, so I bought a new business where I'm my own boss, my wife works with me and I can still spend time with my girls."

Achieving outcomes

Specific goals and clearly defined strategies are not empty mantras. Used effectively, this planning can power a business to greater achievements by demanding the best from individuals working to make it happen.

Damian Kay's business, Telcoinabox, the only telecommunications franchise in Australia, is in a major growth phase. For instance, one of the defined goals for the next financial year is to grow turnover by $15–20 million, a major lift from this financial year's numbers, which are around $30 million. Another objective is to have launched the business in the UK and New Zealand by the end of this year.

Compared to the average business that simply expects organic growth, Kay's goals are lofty indeed. But he and his Business Development Manager John Jacob (who Kay originally hired as his business mentor), are working methodically and systematically towards those objectives to ensure success.

The process involves the use of the business purpose, defined in a vision statement or mission statement, to assist in making decisions about which outcomes and objectives are of highest priority, and to then turn each objective into a realistic plan.

"We've got some very specific strategies," Jacob says. "The first thing is to make sure the company has a defined purpose. We use that purpose to filter our decisions. When we set objectives we only ever set three major goals, which break down into a tremendous number of projects. Then we take those projects and break them down into 'essential' steps and 'potential' steps. Essential are things that absolutely have to be done. Potential are things that could be helpful. By doing it this way we make sure people use their brains in the planning process, which rarely happens because people get stuck in habits."

Each major objective, Kay explains, is defined by a 90-day project plan. Physically, this is a 30-page document that defines the objective and the reasoning behind the objective, such as where it fits into the bigger picture. It also outlines which staff members and outside experts must be involved, and clearly defines actions, milestones and checkpoints. Each action is given a high, medium or low priority rating so that distractions and interruptions (known within Telcoinabox as a 'plus') can be slotted into the process without taking people's eyes off the prize.

"If someone interrupts you and needs you to change something in a project, as happens all the time within organisations, that is a plus to the project, or a plus to your day or a plus to your time," Jacob explains. "That plus is measured against the priorities already placed on the planned tasks and you have to agree with that person as to where that plus fits in. Does it take priority over the high, over the medium or over the low priority that you're working on?"

Better outcomes

By putting these plans in place the staff of Telcoinabox have been able to accomplish a lot more than they previously would have. The most impressive result of this process, Jacob says, is that when a person can accomplish two to three planned tasks a day, and by the end of the week they might accomplish 15 actions towards a project, it raises their confidence. They know where their work fits in, they know what they have achieved, and they feel very good about it.

"We call it high-definition communication," Jacob says. "If you come to me and you're going to give me something new to do, then you also have to speak with me for a minute and make sure that it absolutely fits in over one of my other priorities.

"Our communication becomes a lot better and it also gives me the opportunity to say, 'No, that doesn't fit in'. If I do say this then you're not going to walk away feeling sour about the conversation; you'll completely understand the decision because you're working within the same system."

Of course, management of such a process includes regular checking in to ensure everybody involved knows where others are up to. Kay says every Tuesday morning, from 8.30am to 10.30am, a staff meeting is held. Kay has also had a digital portal built so that team leaders can log their process into the system and Kay can see, via the portal, exactly where his various teams are in terms of project completion.

For Kay this 90-day plan system is a brilliant way to ensure goals are met and, as a manager, it means he can keep track of progress rather than be forced to have blind faith that a job will be done.

"This system allows me to plan what to do, delegate or discard," he says. "By prioritising I am able to work out what I must do myself. Anything that won't fit into the 90 days is discarded. It's the perfect way to remove distractions."