Business Today - - MANAGEMENT - Il­lus­tra­tion by Safia Zahid

IN A UTOPIAN cor­po­rate world, man­agers lav­ish a con­stant stream of feed­back on their direct re­ports. This is nec­es­sary, the think­ing goes, be­cause or­gan­i­sa­tions and re­spon­si­bil­i­ties are chang­ing rapidly, re­quir­ing em­ploy­ees to con­stantly up­grade their skills. In­deed, the de­sire for fre­quent dis­cus­sions about de­vel­op­ment is one rea­son many com­pa­nies are mov­ing away from an­nual per­for­mance re­views: A yearly con­ver­sa­tion isn’t enough.

In the real world, though, con­stant coach­ing is rare. Man­agers face too many de­mands and too much time pres­sure, and work­ing with sub­or­di­nates to de­velop skills tends to slip to the bot­tom of the to-do list. One sur­vey of HR lead­ers found that they ex­pect man­agers to spend 36 per cent of their time de­vel­op­ing sub­or­di­nates, but a sur­vey of man­agers showed that the ac­tual amount av­er­ages just 9 per cent – and even that may sound un­re­al­is­ti­cally high to

many direct re­ports.

It turns out that 9 per cent shouldn’t be alarm­ing, how­ever, be­cause when it comes to coach­ing, more isn’t nec­es­sar­ily bet­ter.

To un­der­stand how man­agers can do a bet­ter job of pro­vid­ing the coach­ing and de­vel­op­ment up-and-com­ing tal­ent needs, re­searchers at Gart­ner sur­veyed 7,300 em­ploy­ees and man­agers across a va­ri­ety of in­dus­tries; they fol­lowed up by in­ter­view­ing more than 100 HR ex­ec­u­tives and sur­vey­ing an­other 225. Their fo­cus: What are the best man­agers do­ing to de­velop em­ploy­ees in to­day’s busy work en­vi­ron­ment?

Af­ter cod­ing 90 vari­ables, the re­searchers iden­ti­fied four dis­tinct coach­ing pro­files:

Teacher Man­agers coach em­ploy­ees on the ba­sis of their own knowl­edge and ex­pe­ri­ence, pro­vid­ing ad­vice-ori­ented feed­back and per­son­ally di­rect­ing de­vel­op­ment. Many have ex­per­tise in tech­ni­cal fields and spent years as in­di­vid­ual con­trib­u­tors be­fore work­ing their way into man­age­rial roles.

Al­ways-on Man­agers pro­vide con­tin­ual coach­ing, stay on top of em­ploy­ees’ de­vel­op­ment, and give feed­back across a range of skills. Their be­hav­iours closely align with what HR pro­fes­sion­als typ­i­cally ide­alise. These man­agers may ap­pear to be the most ded­i­cated of the four types to up­grad­ing their em­ploy­ees’ skills – they treat it as a daily part of their job.

Con­nec­tor Man­agers give tar­geted feed­back in their ar­eas of ex­per­tise; oth­er­wise, they con­nect em­ploy­ees with oth­ers on the team or else­where in the or­gan­i­sa­tion who are bet­ter suited to the task. They spend more time than the other three types as­sess­ing the skills, needs, and in­ter­ests of their em­ploy­ees, and they recog­nise that many skills are best taught by peo­ple other than them­selves.

Cheer­leader Man­agers take a hands-off ap­proach, de­liv­er­ing pos­i­tive feed­back and putting em­ploy­ees in charge of their own de­vel­op­ment. They are avail­able and sup­port­ive, but they aren’t as proac­tive as the other types of man­agers when it comes to de­vel­op­ing em­ploy­ees’ skills.

The four types are more or less evenly dis­trib­uted within or­gan­i­sa­tions, re­gard­less of in­dus­try. The most com­mon type, Cheer­lead­ers, ac­counts for 29 per cent of man­agers, while the least com­mon, Teach­ers, ac­counts for 22 per cent. The rev­e­la­tions in the re­search re­late not to the preva­lence of the var­i­ous styles but to the im­pact each has on em­ployee per­for­mance.

The first sur­prise: Whether a man­ager spends 36 per cent or 9 per cent of her time on em­ployee de­vel­op­ment doesn’t seem to mat­ter. “There is very lit­tle cor­re­la­tion be­tween time spent coach­ing and em­ployee per­for­mance,” says Jaime Roca, one of Gart­ner’s prac­tice lead­ers for hu­man re­sources. “It’s less about the quan­tity and more about the qual­ity.”

The sec­ond sur­prise: Those hy­per­vig­i­lant Al­wayson Man­agers are do­ing more harm than good. “We thought that cat­e­gory would per­form the best, so this re­ally sur­prised us,” Roca says. In fact, em­ploy­ees coached by Al­ways-on Man­agers per­formed worse than those coached by the other types – and were the only cat­e­gory whose per­for­mance di­min­ished as a re­sult of coach­ing.

The re­searchers iden­ti­fied three main rea­sons for Al­ways-on Man­agers’ neg­a­tive effect on per­for­mance. First, al­though these man­agers be­lieve that more coach­ing is bet­ter, the con­tin­ual stream of feed­back they of­fer can be over­whelm­ing and detri­men­tal. (The Gart­ner team com­pares them to so-called he­li­copter par­ents, whose close over­sight ham­pers chil­dren’s abil­ity to de­velop in­de­pen­dence.) Sec­ond, be­cause they spend less time as­sess­ing what skills em­ploy­ees need to up­grade, they tend to coach on top­ics that are less rel­e­vant to em­ploy­ees’ real needs. Third, they are so fo­cussed on per­son­ally coach­ing their em­ploy­ees that they of­ten fail to recog­nise the lim­its of their own ex­per­tise, so they may try to teach skills they haven’t suf­fi­ciently mas­tered them­selves. “That last one is a killer -- the man­ager doesn’t ac­tu­ally know the so­lu­tion to what­ever the prob­lem is, and he’s es­sen­tially wing­ing it and pro­vid­ing mis­guided in­for­ma­tion,” Roca says.

When the re­searchers dove deep into the con­nec­tion be­tween coach­ing style and em­ployee per­for­mance, they found a clear win­ner: Con­nec­tors. The em­ploy­ees of these man­agers are three times as likely as sub­or­di­nates of the other types to be high per­form­ers.

To un­der­stand how Con­nec­tors work, con­sider this anal­ogy from the world of sports: A pro­fes­sional ten­nis player’s coach may be the most im­por­tant voice guid­ing the player’s de­vel­op­ment, but she may bring in other ex­perts – for strength train­ing, nutri­tion, and spe­cialised skills such as serves, lobs, and back­hands – in­stead of try­ing to teach ev­ery­thing her­self. De­spite this out­sourc­ing, the coach re­mains deeply in­volved, iden­ti­fy­ing ex­per­tise, fa­cil­i­tat­ing in­tro­duc­tions, and mon­i­tor­ing progress.

En­cour­ag­ing man­agers to adopt Con­nec­tor be­hav­iours may re­quire a shift in mind­set. “His­tor­i­cally, be­ing a man­ager is about be­ing di­rec­tive and telling peo­ple what to do,” Roca says. “Be­ing a Con­nec­tor is more about ask­ing the right ques­tions, pro­vid­ing tai­lored feed­back,

and help­ing em­ploy­ees make a con­nec­tion to a col­league who can help them.” The most dif­fi­cult part is of­ten self-knowl­edge and can­dour: Be­ing a Con­nec­tor re­quires a man­ager to recog­nise that he’s not qual­i­fied to teach a cer­tain skill and to ad­mit that de­fi­ciency to a sub­or­di­nate. “That isn’t some­thing that comes nat­u­rally,” Roca says.

To get started, the re­searchers say, man­agers should fo­cus less on the fre­quency of their de­vel­op­men­tal con­ver­sa­tions with em­ploy­ees and more on depth and qual­ity. Do you re­ally un­der­stand your em­ploy­ees’ as­pi­ra­tions and the skills needed to de­velop in that di­rec­tion? Next, in­stead of talk­ing about de­vel­op­ment only one-on-one, open the con­ver­sa­tions up to the team. En­cour­age col­leagues to coach one an­other, and point out peo­ple who have spe­cific skills that oth­ers could ben­e­fit from learn­ing. Then broaden the scope, en­cour­ag­ing sub­or­di­nates to con­nect with col­leagues across the or­gan­i­sa­tion who might help them gain skills they can’t learn from team­mates.

For em­ploy­ees, one mes­sage from this re­search is that you’re bet­ter off work­ing for a Con­nec­tor than for one of the other types. So, how can you recog­nise whether some­one is in that cat­e­gory – ide­ally be­fore ac­cept­ing a po­si­tion? Roca sug­gests ask­ing your prospec­tive boss about his coach­ing style and dis­creetly talk­ing with his cur­rent direct re­ports about how he works to up­grade sub­or­di­nates’ skills.

For man­agers and sub­or­di­nates, the re­search should re­di­rect at­ten­tion from the fre­quency of de­vel­op­men­tal con­ver­sa­tions to the qual­ity of in­ter­ac­tions and the route taken to help em­ploy­ees gain skills. Says Roca: “The big take­away is that when it comes to coach­ing em­ploy­ees, be­ing a Con­nec­tor is how you win.”

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