If I were to hazard a guess, I would guesstimate that about one manager in 30 actually demonstrates any real leadership skill. This isn’t to say they’re incapable of leading—I simply mean that they’ve never really thought much at all about the act of leadership itself. As I’ve written before, they manage the work and not the people. But of course you can’t really manage work. You can talk like you do, but you can’t turn that blabber into a verb.
Where you see this most often is with sales teams. I’m often brought in by a manager to help them realise more potential from their sales employees, but 95% of my success comes from making the manager more conscious about how counter-productive they are, rather than any changes to the actual employees under that manager. Saying to someone, you sold $40,000 of product last month, I want you to sell $43,000 this month is not management. That’s target-setting and you might as well get a computer to automate that process because it is thoroughly meaningless—and yet it’s what 99.9% of sales teams focus on. The numbers are pulled out of the manager’s ass and they simply amount to the manager habitually saying to the employee at the start of each month: MORE!
Let’s just think about this for a moment. I was talking to an excellent top sales performer at a company recently and she noted in a group session with her managers that the targets were meaningless to anyone who had done the job for more than about a year. After 12 months of repeatedly saying MORE! the employee just tunes it out. If you’ve been selling for 5 years, you’ve heard this stupid plea on the 1st of every month 60 times in a row. You might as well just email them a link to an audio recording that slots in a new digital number every month that is +X of whatever they did last month.
If they really wanted to get an employee’s attention and see some change, they should talk to someone and say, “Hey, you know what? You’ve been an excellent salesperson for X number of years. Your numbers have steadily grown year after year. You’ve proven yourself and I want to show you that I appreciate that growth and the effort that it took to achieve it. So this month I made your target lower. Take a bit more time this month and do some things for yourself. Family time, fun, recreation a hobby—whatever. Go invest in yourself and next month we’ll get back at it hard. I need you to pull at least a decent number so my boss doesn’t chastise me, but otherwise let’s create a bit of space for you. You’ve earned it.”
I’ve asked a lot of sales teams what affect that would have and they have universally responded to it super-positively. The few places that had actually implemented it often saw the numbers go up anyway on the “lax month” because the employee was more relaxed and less stressed, so they used their energy more efficiently.
Similarly, you can’t manage time. Time is nearly irrelevant. I recall seeing an email from a manager that I know zero thought went into. It was ridiculously simplistic. It wasn’t chosen as a strategy from a competition of other ideas, it was just a knee-jerk reaction to some event, (with the emphasis on the jerk). The manager was a truly decent guy that I actually quite liked, and the fellow was bright, but that didn’t make the decision smart.
The email suggested that any employee who was even one minute late should text their boss or they should not even bother showing up. Of course, to say to a salesperson to not show up is to say, don’t earn any money for your important bills. How important did this guy think one minute is? He would make all sorts of lame arguments about principle but if he had to debate it with me in front of people he would realise there wasn’t anything principled about his decision at all. Another manager could easily create better performance with a smarter strategy.
The guy had an MBA, but everyone teaching it was an academic who’d never been in a senior position, and even if they had, they’re far more likely to be one of the 29 bad managers, not the one good one. Which shows you can go to school to learn data but in practice you still either have an unconscious manager or a conscious one and only the latter makes people better, and the latter one would never send such a useless, silly and entirely counter-productive email. The reaction to it by the manager’s staff was universally a drop in respect for the him because he had so clearly shown disrespect for their lives and the money those lives need to function in a healthy way.
It was petty, punitive and what bothered me most about it was that it had zero chance of causing that sales team to be more effective and in fact it did the exact opposite. It took people’s heads out of the game. They spend half their time gossiping about how bad their boss was. Yes, it’s much more professional and much more likely to be a promotable person if they show up on time and demonstrate respect for their co-workers so it does have real value, but there isn’t much worth in being rigid about flawless precise timing.
Respect for clients and co-workers (including the managers) has a huge impact. So asking them to leave home an extra 20 minutes early every single day on the off chance they’ll get caught in bad traffic on one of them—that just means work is eating even further into people’s lives and that never pays off because people are starting to choose jobs based on who respects their lives outside of work. And even after all of those reasons, where I live texting and driving is illegal, so that manager’s request was essentially a demand to break the law or make no money. Nice guy, but dumb dumb dumb decision that never held anyway.
Great managers treat all employees as what they are—individuals. They each have their strengths and weaknesses relative to the job, and each has their own fluctuating life challenges. Telling some guy with Irritable Bowel Syndrome or a sick child at home that they can’t make money because of 1/60th of a clock tick is meaningless, thoughtless and potentially cruel. The better manager would tailor everyone’s schedules to their natural rhythms and circumstances and then they would be working with the employee’s nature rather than subjecting them to the tyranny of a clock. Seriously. That one minute late decision still stands out as one of the most counter-productive things I’ve ever seen in 30 years of learning and teaching management.
Bad bosses will lead by title. They’ll point to their sales record as proof then know what to do when that is almost entirely irrelevant to their staff. The hockey strategies used by a long-armed 6’5” winger are not applicable to a 5’9” speedster with quick hands. Again, that’s unconscious management. Thinking that someone else should just mimic you is arrogant and meaningless. You coach to people’s strengths you don’t try to whip them all into the same person. The meticulous customer service focused person cannot be managed the same as the cold-hearted money-motivated one. They can both be maximized to excellent effect, but not by just broadcasting arbitrary uniform demands from the professional equivalent of a bullhorn.
If you took an action as a manager and you didn’t think of five other choices before choosing that one as the best choice, then you know you’re an unconscious manager. That’s the vast majority of you. The good things is, anyone can become conscious. You just have to spend a bit of time extrapolating out what the impacts of each choice might be, and then select the one that looks like it will take you the farthest. How well you’ll do will depend on how well you understand how people work. Regardless you’ll still be wrong plenty of times. But doing it the unconscious way you’ll hardly ever be lucky enough to have your personal opinion line up with what’s best.
Don’t think a degree or success in a job qualifies you to lead. It absolutely doesn’t. Understanding people well enough to know how to motivate them as individuals does. So spend less time on rules and targets and penalties and more on learning about what personally inspires each of your staff. Do that and you’ll find they not only perform better than their competitors, but you’ll save yourself a ton in Human Resources costs. And—oh yeah—you’ll actually enjoy your own work day more too. And after all, that is half of your waking life.
Following a serious childhood brain injury Scott McPherson unwittingly spent his entire life meditating on the concepts of thought, consciousness, reality and the self. This made him as strange to others as they were to him. Seeing the self-harm people created with their own overthinking, Scott dedicated part of his life to helping others live with greater awareness. He is currently a writer, speaker and mindfulness instructor based in Edmonton, AB, where he finds it strange to write about himself in the third person.