Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Line managers - what are they good for?

Rachel Burnham writes: About a fortnight ago, I participated in the ‘Northern Powerhouse: People and You’ conference organised jointly by the Manchester, Merseyside and Lancashire Branches of CIPD.  The event involved a mix of speakers and facilitated discussions amongst participants – if you would like to find out more here is a link to the Storify of the event and to my blog with all the Sketchnotes I created from the speaker led sessions.

Looking back over a very busy event, what stood out for me were the keynote presentations from two very different organisations and what they had to say about line management.  These two presentations were about The Contact Company, who provide out-sourced contact centre services, based in the Merseyside area and SLH Group, which is a housing association, based in South Liverpool and winner of the Sunday Times 2015 best not-for-profit organisation to work for.

Kevin Horgan of The Contact Company spoke about how important skilled line managers are to the way they manage people in their growing organisation.  He talked about how the organisation has decided that these roles should focus on managing their teams, with other staff holding the technical expertise, so that line managers can concentrate on managing people.  In recruiting these managers, they had come to the realisation that ‘a good agent doesn’t necessarily make a good manager’.  He also talked about the importance of conversations in the way they tackle their role – ‘talent management through talking to people’.

Julie Fadden gave an inspirational talk about many features of people management in SHL Group.  Early on she made the point that ‘if you don’t sort out the leadership, you won’t be able to sort out the frontline service’.  She too spoke of the importance of conversations in managing staff – emphasising ‘honesty & integrity’ in those conversations, whether managing sickness, performance or providing feedback.  She shared many examples of these types of conversations where honest, even blunt conversations are also tempered with care.  In my view it takes not only integrity to have those kinds of conversations, but real skill on the part of the manager to be able to do this and to move away from the rule-following and tick box approach that seems to be favoured in so many organisations.  And it also requires trust from the organisation in those line managers to enable or ‘permit’ this approach to be taken.

At the lunch break, I sat beside a HR person from one of my clients and we were reflecting on what we had heard from the speakers.  We were particularly impressed with how The Contact Company had decided to focus the work of the line managers on people management, and also have separate technical experts.  Often in my experience people feel that to have career progression, they need to move into management roles, even if this doesn’t fit with their own strengths. Having separate roles, can allow organisations to benefit from making the best use of individuals’ particular strengths whether this is working with people or in a more technical role.  This echoed a positive experience that my lunch partner had had within her own organisation.  Within one of the areas of their work, two distinct career paths had been developed: one for technical specialists and one for people managers and this is working well both from a career development point of view and even more importantly from the impact on effectiveness of the day to day work.

The way that line managers’ roles are designed is a crucial component, alongside the effectiveness of their skills and the organisational culture, in determing how effective they can be.  This reminded me of hearing John Purcell speak a number of years ago about some research he had done into line management in the health service and how unrealistic were the demands placed on first line managers, with large teams to manage, plus conflicting demands in terms of direct patient care and administration.  I remember him saying that many first line managers saw management as being about the pile of paperwork that had to be completed at home, as there was never time to do it in work hours!

That is a very different picture of line management responsibilities to this people focused, conversation-holding, enabling role described above.

Yesterday, I read a blog by Sukh Pabial 'Line Managers and the Learning Conundrum', which was asking challenging questions about how those of us in L&D see our relationship with line managers.   And this made me think again, about the different expectations that are held within organisations about line managers.  About the different expectations that people in HR and in L&D roles have of line managers.  About the different expectations that are held of whether we should work together and how we should work together.

From my point of view, as an L&D professional it is wonderful to be able to work in partnership with line managers and together, to work with individuals and teams who are also taking responsibility for their own development.  And there are things we can do in L&D to build that positive partnership.  But when line managers don’t live up to this ideal, perhaps we should look more closely at what the realities of their role are and whether our expectations are realistic?

Sukh Pabial argues that we in L&D don’t have to be dependent upon having a supportive relationship with line managers and that there are many other ways we can be as effective in working directly with employees – and I agree with this. Nor is there just one model of what effective line management should look like – it will be different for different organisations and even within organisations. 

What effective line management requires is more than just developing the skills of the individuals – though this is a helpful step and a challenge in its own right that I have written about before.  It also requires organisations to be clear about the expectations for line managers, to design roles that allow line managers to be effective and for this to be within an organisational structure and culture that work together.

Returning to the ‘Northern Powerhouse: People and You’ conference, at the end of the day we had a reminder from John McGurk about some of the key challenges that we are facing in making the Northern Powerhouse a reality.  A key one of these is the lower level of productivity overall in the North compared to London and the South East.

‘… the North has an entrenched productivity problem. The UK as a whole underperforms compared to countries such as Germany, France, the Netherlands and Belgium by between 23 and 32 per cent (Dolphin and Hatfield 2015), but the North underperforms the UK’s national productivity rate by 11.1 per cent.’ (‘The State of the North2015’ IPPR North)

Effective management is one of the components of improving productivity. If we want start tackling this productivity gap, then we have to take the issue of improving line management effectiveness seriously.  And that means not just developing skills, but looking at what the expectations of managers are and developing line manager roles that work.

Rachel Burnham


Burnham L & D Consultancy helps L&D professionals update and refresh their skills.  I am particularly interested in blended learning, the uses of social media for learning, evaluation and anything that improves the impact of learning on performance. 

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