What makes a great boss? Successful UK managers reveal their secrets

Great managers are crucial to business success; they help employees maximize their potential, engage their teams and create workplaces that are productive and profitable. That’s why we’ve traveled the globe to learn more about how to help managers go from good to great. From San Francisco to New York, Berlin to London, we had the pleasure of speaking with some of the most forward-thinking HR and management professionals to get their insights.

At our London panel discussion in December, we sat down with:

  • Neil Morrison, Director of Strategy, Culture and Innovation at Penguin Random House UK
  • Jess Critchlow, Learning & Development Manager at Salmon
  • John Catterfeld, Head of Software Engineering at OpenTable UK

We’ve attached a video of the event below, but here’s a quick recap of the highlights:

On what it actually means to be a great manager:

One of the most important skills of a manager is the ability to draw out potential issues and mitigate them early on. That means listening to the quieter voices, not just the people who tend to dominate the conversation. “We assume people will speak up if they’ve got something to say, and therefore if they don’t, they’ve got nothing to say,” Neil said. “Rather, we should be asking: what’s on your mind?

In addition, it’s important to be patient and not jump straight into “fix-it” mode. “So often with managers you go into solving straightaway – how do I give you the answer, how do I solve,” Neil said. “I think the ability to be curious, to ask questions, to try and seek to understand before you get to the problem solving is one of the things that separates good from average.”

Jess recommends an approach that emphasizes courage and empathy. “The managers that really makes a difference in both the organization and in their team members’ lives are the ones who have the hard conversations,” she said. “They push for things that are against the grain but they do it with empathy. So instead of ‘can you stop waving your hands around because you look stupid’ – it’s ‘you don’t look intelligent when you do that and I know you are intelligent, so I want to work with you on how you can come across in a different way.’”

John believes that when it comes to fostering open and honest communication, 1:1s are an invaluable forum. “Finding out what people are struggling with is really important,” he said. “Giving them the opportunity to speak to me, and trusting that when I speak to them, I’m giving them all the information that I can and that I’m not holding anything back.”

On how companies can encourage good management:

From a lack of development to establishing the wrong KPIs, our panelists discussed how organizations can inadvertently inhibit managers, and offered solutions on what HR can do to encourage good management. It starts with setting the right responsibilities and KPIs. Basing performance solely on project-based tasks can set the wrong incentives for leaders, so organizations must establish management-related responsibilities and KPIs to encourage and keep managers on track.

Another challenge can be an abrupt change in team structure. Often managers gain their roles by moving up in an organization’s ranks. “The help that I received is more gradual transition,” John said, referring to his own path from an engineer to the Head of Engineering. “Instead of throwing managers into the deep end from day one, give them more responsibilities over time. Any way you can transition parts of the role of being a manager is worth investigating.”

Finally, invest in developing communication skills. At Penguin Random House UK, different levels of training are offered for different levels of managers as they progress through their careers. “One of the themes is around coaching conversations,” Neil said. “Whether it’s informally or formally – the ability to ask good questions, to use insightful language and to be able to try and identify problems is crucial.”

On how to encourage feedback culture:

Whether or not employees feel comfortable giving and receiving feedback is largely dependent on their surrounding culture. So how can managers help foster a feedback-focused environment?

Start by bringing it back to a human level“It’s not just about knowing they want to be a business analyst one day; it’s I know they prefer weak tea, and I should get them one because I know they’re stressed,” Jess said. “We forget and make it this over-engineered thing. But sometimes, it is the small things that make the biggest difference.”

“By being honest about what’s going on in your life and asking about theirs; remembering their answers and wanting to know your people as people – it builds a culture of trust and makes people become comfortable in their workplace,” John added.

It’s also important for managers to reward the behavior you want to encourage. “What we sometimes do as managers is we say ‘we’re all in this together’, but what I really want is for you to get work done and not bother me with things. And I’ll reward you for being quiet instead of giving me feedback,” Jess said. “If we say we want our direct reports to ask for what they need and tell us what they think, then we also have to reward that behavior rather than unconsciously punishing it.”

On what managers can do to improve on a daily basis:

“Try to make time to just hang out,” Neil said. “Eating and drinking with people can be really powerful, particularly for building relationships. Whether it’s a glass of wine after work or lunch, the connection that comes through breaking bread and sharing with people is quite powerful.”

John recommends for managers to be conscious of the manager vs. maker schedule. “If you are a manager, your schedule is filled with meetings and you squeeze one in whenever you find time. But for the maker – someone like a software engineer, they need big chunks of free time to really get something done,” he explains. “So always try to schedule meetings with such employees first thing, just before or after lunch to accommodate their schedule.”

Jess highlights that often managers think because they get paid more, it’s solely up to them to figure out problems. “That’s not true,” she said. “Hopefully you have an HR team, or a manager or even a peer who you can bounce ideas off of. But you have to ask for what you need – whether it’s space or if you need someone to stop booking meetings for you at 3pm, you just need to do it.”

Want more tips? Check out the full panel discussion below!

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