When it comes to developing your people, there’s no faster or more effective way to start than with your managers. After all, the success of managers is one of the primary indicators of success in an organization. According to one report, teams with “highly talented” managers have achieved 48% higher profitability, 22% greater productivity, and 30% better employee engagement scores than teams with less talented managers.
For that reason, empowering managers with the tools they need to develop themselves as leaders is one of the most effective ways to amplify employee engagement and performance. In this blog, we’ll take a closer look at manager development and go over three of the skills managers need to be better leaders.
The importance of soft skills in manager development
2020 has proven just how much emotional intelligence and soft skills matter in the modern workplace. During the pandemic, managers had to lead with empathy and vulnerability to successfully support their team through constant change and the seemingly endless stream of political, social, and public health crises. These soft skills were and still are essential for overcoming uncertainty, and they’re at the heart of being a great leader.
Pandemic or no pandemic, managers have always had to juggle various roles – from Empath to Hype-person to Fire Extinguisher, and beyond. Organizations looking to transform their managers into leaders must give managers the time, resources, and tools they need to develop the soft skills necessary for leading and motivating their teams.
Some companies are helping their employees develop necessary soft skills through leadership development training, workshops, digital courses, job aids, and peer coaching. Conversational micro-learning has also been a popular tool for helping busy managers practice critical skills and achieve sustained behavior change in just a few minutes per day. Whatever methods your company chooses to employ, supporting a culture of employee development through manager development can significantly improve engagement, performance, and people’s overall experience at work.
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A snapshot: 3 skills managers should master
In this blog, we’ll be highlighting just three of the soft skills managers need to be successful. Although far from exhaustive, they are among the most critical and in-demand skills, according to surveys we’ve conducted with senior organizational leaders. Below, we’ll also offer tips for developing these skills, which we’ve taken directly from Skills Coach, our conversational micro-learning tool.
When senior leaders were asked what they most wanted their managers to improve upon, their number one request was strategic thinking. Managers who have mastered strategic thinking can make better decisions in the face of uncertainty and work with their teams to set goals and develop plans to achieve them.
Tips for managers:
Add structure using gap analysis. Great managers help their teams think in concrete, measurable ways, even when things don’t seem measurable. Gap analysis asks managers and their teams to put a number to a vague concept.
By attributing a quantifiable score to a concept such as “my team’s ability to think and act strategically” and assigning the desired score, managers can more clearly see the gap between the current and ideal state. Specifically, gap analysis enables managers to create a structure for taking action by always considering: “What would move the score two points towards the ideal state?” Put another way, gap analysis creates both a reality check and a relative progress bar for managers and their teams to track changes against.
Avoid “red flag” strategic thinking mistakes by setting the “strategic context.” Strategic thinking can mean different things to different teams, so it’s crucial for managers to define their “strategic context” clearly.
Once managers have a clear picture of what strategic thinking is in the context of their team, they can also define what strategic thinking isn’t. Doing so sets managers up to identify the typical “red flag” strategic thinking mistakes their teams are most prone to making. This awareness empowers managers to help their teams avoid making these mistakes in the future.
1-on-1s are at the center of the manager-employee relationship. Usually held weekly or biweekly, 1-on-1s help build connections, establish alignment across company initiatives, and remove stumbling blocks so employees can grow. When done right, these meetings can dramatically improve performance, drive development, build trust, and increase team agility. For that reason, great leaders and effective 1-on-1s are inextricably tied together.
Tips for managers:
Boost engagement by asking CAMPS questions during 1-on-1s. In the context of 1-on-1s, CAMPS stands for certainty, autonomy, meaning, progress, and social inclusion. These five factors have been identified by LifeLabs Learning as a “brain craving” that direct reports seek. Managers can leverage 1-on-1s to fulfill their team members’ different “brain cravings” by asking the right questions.
For example, a question that would target a CAMPS craving for clarity would be: “How clear do you feel about XYZ?” or “What is your main takeaway from XYZ?” For autonomy, an example question could be: “How would you like to go about XYZ?” or “So you are owning X, and I am owning Y?”
When we interviewed senior leaders, the second most requested soft skill for managers was productivity. With better productivity skills, managers can learn to manage their workload and energy levels better to maximize output, quality delivery, and wellbeing for themselves and their teams. Furthermore, managers who have effectively mastered productivity challenges can model and encourage better productivity habits among their teams and direct reports.
Tips for managers:
Build time awareness by using precise time language. Managers can avoid misunderstandings and show respect for their team's time by using precise time language. For example, instead of saying, “Shall we move onto the last item on the agenda?” managers can say: “In our last 10 minutes, shall we move onto the last item on the agenda?
Use the MIT method for prioritization. Using the MIT method, managers write down their three “most important tasks” at the beginning or end of the day. By clearly identifying the three highest-priority tasks for the day, managers can stay disciplined, focus on what’s most important, and more easily say no to requests that would distract from their main priorities.
Improve organizational skills with a “consistent capture system” (CCS). A CCS is a reliable, go-to place to record important information (e.g., to-do items) instead of storing it in one’s memory. Managers should choose a single CCS tool and embed it in their team’s culture. Recording information in a single, reliable place frees up the minds of managers and their teams, empowering them to focus on solving problems and coming up with new ideas.
Improve focus with the Pomodoro technique. Research shows that knowledge workers are typically interrupted every 12 minutes. The Pomodoro technique trains managers to fight distractions by establishing strict periods (usually 25 minutes) of high-focus work. After 25 minutes pass, users must take a mandatory five-minute break. If the user is interrupted (or they interrupt themselves), they have to start over.
Cultivating high-impact leaders
An effective manager is much more than a taskmaster or delegator. An effective manager engages with their employees in their infinite complexity, inspires teams to do their best work, and doesn't shy away from having difficult conversations during times of disruptive change. They embody and encourage strategic thinking, empower their direct reports to feel valued and heard during 1-on-1s, and model positive productivity habits. By setting your managers up for success, you can elevate the experiences of individuals, teams, and the broader world of work.