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The five most important skills all line managers must master

Line managers often get overlooked as the spotlight shines on leaders at the top of organisations, but they are the linch pin at the heart of performance.

Not only do line managers matter to their direct reports, they are also relied upon by HR functions to execute L&D strategies. Increasingly stretched HR teams need line managers who are not only good, but great at managing their people if they are to retain and develop talent. But being good at development is not always easy.

When we work with line managers, time is the big pain point - and not just theirs, but their direct reports, too. They struggle to:

  • Find enough time to make development happen for their team

  • Keep track of development activities to ensure their team completes them

  • Get their direct reports engaged with their own development

It’s not only about time pressures, the importance of line managers has been heightened by the move to remote and agile working. With fewer layers of management, decisions are being made further and further down the organisation and this puts additional pressure on talent. The focus is on the line managers who are left to be good coaches to their direct reports as they take on the responsibility to develop the future generation of top talent for the organisation.

So what are the top skills line managers need to succeed in this hybrid working environment?

When you’re not sharing a physical workspace for much of the time, you miss out on those organic learning experiences - overhearing conversations as others discuss how they have solved problems. The new working world means that line managers need to master some all-important skills like never before.

In their seminal work over 20 years ago, Charan, Drotter and Noel highlight that the move from an individual contributor to first line manager is one of the most difficult transition points in a career.

This fact is as true today as it was 20 years ago because of the shift in mindset required. Successful line managers learn to deliver through others and learn to let go, at least partially, of what they used to be good at.

Charan et al define three key aspects of success for line managers:

  • Delegation: Define and assign work with an understanding of people’s strengths

  • Securing resources: Enable others to do the work through coaching, feedback, providing resources and role modelling the behaviour you want

  • Coaching: Build a relationship and trust with direct reports. Empathy, or emotional intelligence, is a key driver of success in delegation.

Skills for success

When we develop managers, we often address the 'getting things done' part but pay less attention to coaching. But, today, line managers must also be great coaches. Line managers are the development gatekeeper for their direct reports.

Employees are increasingly expected to manage their own development. We give them on-demand e-learning videos and training modules, but simply providing access to those learning experiences does not necessarily result in successful development. It is the line manager who plays a big role in shaping the development from training, and that means being a skilled coach.

Here are the five most important coaching skills and how line managers can develop them:

  1. Ensuring a commitment to a course of action. Remote-working means that line managers must be able to trust their teams to deliver work with more autonomy. Relying on a quick check in via instant message alone will not help to build that trust. Open conversations are the critical enabler here. Both line managers and team members need to be able to share concerns, voice disagreement and discuss any issues to do with the work. Without open conversations and a chance to share views, team members are less likely to buy into a piece of work and fully commit to a course of action. Trust can also be strengthened by ensuring that difficult conversations can take place without long-term repercussions. We come back to difficult conversations in point 5.

  2. Following up without disempowering. Line managers are all about delivering through others and achieving results is a key element of their jobs. When we work on fast-paced, agile projects, staying on top of deliverables becomes even more important. Follow up should not turn into micromanagement, but it’s all too easy to slip into that habit when we are relying on video calls. Finding opportunities to offer help is a great way of checking in without disempowering team members. The use of open conversations (as above) can also help here too.

  3. Giving sensitive feedback. Without knowing where they are going wrong, team members cannot improve their performance. Giving negative feedback effectively is often a skill that new managers struggle with. Nobody likes to give bad news. Many line managers that we have worked with worry about how their team member will react to the feedback. Will they become defensive, difficult or even cry? Difficult feedback is not only about the message, line managers must also pay attention to their team members’ emotions and address these, too. Giving negative feedback in a remote-working setting where the other person is not in the same room can be even more difficult, but it’s still an essential part of being a good line manager.

  4. Helping someone out of a hole. Giving someone a helping hand can be a great coaching experience for the team member or it can end up being quite disempowering. Once things have gone a little awry, it may be tempting for a new or a stretched line manager to simply take over and fix the problem. However, keeping one’s nerve and using a coaching approach and to guide the direct report through the problem not only takes skill but also a certain level of maturity. It’s by far the preferred approach if you want to ensure the team member learns from the experience and can avoid the same mistake again in the future.

  5. Having difficult conversations. While most of us want to avoid them, difficult conversations are sometimes necessary. We find that when we help line managers, and anyone else for that matter, reframing difficult conversations into ‘learning conversations’ can help them become much less daunting and also more productive.

There are a range of effective ways for line managers to develop the above skills:

Learning by doing. Giving someone early access to parts of a line manager’s responsibilities means that they have fewer new challenges to deal with once they take the step up to the role. Organisations that emphasise learning by doing and stretching people in their roles find that big job transitions come easier. A new line manager who has buddied up with new starters as an individual contributor, who has run lunch and learn sessions on their areas of expertise for colleagues or who has coached a sports team outside of work has already picked up lots of good insights and experience. All of which makes the official transition to a managerial role a lot smoother.

Personal reflections. A lot of learning takes place informally, on the job. But often these learning opportunities are missed as it’s not necessarily the situation itself but the insights that we draw from the situation that lead to development. Helping line managers to reflect on conversations with their direct reports, analysing what went well and less well can be a significant development accelerator. For this to work, however, line managers must first learn how to reflect. As with all habits, mini reflections work well to embed the habit of reflection.

Action learning groups. Bringing groups of line managers together in action learning groups can be a powerful development tool. A peer coaching approach in these groups will allow line managers to share their personal challenges and receive coaching from their peers. It develops a cohort of people who can draw on each other outside of the sessions, too. Line managers learn that they are not the only ones facing a particular issue. And having peers open their thinking through a peer coaching approach is empowering.

360 feedback. Sometimes line managers just don’t know how they are doing. Receiving insights into their strengths and areas for development can be very helpful. It can also increase an awareness that some behaviours, while well intentioned, may actually be counterproductive. For example, a new line manager may think that it is easiest and best to fix a problem themselves and see this as helpful behaviour while in reality it is perceived as micromanagement by the team.

When line managers focus on coaching and development of their team members, we see more positive attitudes, increases in desired behaviour and even greater organisational commitment.

As Bryan Hancock from McKinsey said recently: “When managers spend the majority of their time coaching and leading, we see real returns. And during COVID-19, people are starting to realize that extra manager time really makes a difference.”

Want to know more?

If you want to know more about how you can support your line managers to develop the skills they need to be successful in their roles, sign up to join our free webinar on Wednesday, 10th November at 11am (GMT).


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