Manager skills update

by 17 Apr 2007

In the ever-evolving role of the manager, the current skills shortage has cast leadership ability into even sharper focus. Melissa Yen looks into what some experts are saying modern-day leaders needs to include in their kit bags

The current skills shortagesthat have seen has delivered an unprecedented amount of power to employees to vote with their feet gain power in the job market in terms of their requirements,. In this climate,the need for effective leadershipto has become crucial to attracting and retaining talent.and ultimately achieve business success has intensified. Over time, organisations have come to realise the command and control leadership styles that once governed organisations no longer prevail. With so many opportunities around their staff, organisations are faced with the onerous task of engaging staff on a far deeper level than has previously been the case if they are to have any chance of keeping their more talented employees. With so much time spent at work, the modern-day employee is striving to find meaning from their daily grind. Being able to engage such staff so that they contribute fully to organisational goals and objectives is just another task being asked of managers.

Where organisations are going wrong

For too long, many work cultures have grown disillusioned with hierarchical structures that restrict managers and repress employees, according to associate professor in leadership and organisational behaviour at the Australian National University, Paul Atkins.“The biggest misconception I come across, is associated with the idea of strong leadership or the ‘hero leader’, that is, ‘the leader will save us,’ and the responsibility is ultimately passed up the line to the leader,.” says Paul Atkins, associate professor in leadership and organisational behaviour at the Australian National University.

Atkins, who also conducts executive coaching and leadership development workshops, with Kenning Associates, believes this idea is derived from employees’ need to be governed by a very clear, unambiguous and direct leader as this reduces their uncertainty and ensures that their leader knows what they are doing, which makes them feel comfortable.

“Given the complexity of modern organisations, the number of stakeholders involved, rates of change and so on, the idea of the sort of leader who knows exactly where an organisation is heading and is authoritatively directing people to get there is a huge misconception,” he says.

When a leader is authoritarian, they usually believe their own press and believe they are in control and responsible for the organisation’s performance. However, Atkins says that while leaders, executives or managers may have a big impact on performance, they are just part of the system. “I think organisations get worse at learning from their mistakes because the authoritative leader is busy trying to defendthemselves himself from any criticism whenthey’ve he’s made a mistake. These leaders are often too busy taking responsibility for things that simply aren’t their responsibility as they believe they can plot it all out by themselves without working closely with the people that are underneath them.”

In effect, Atkins believes that organisational learning is important. “The consequence of authoritarian leadership is that mistakes are penalised; and again that leads back to learning because we all make mistakes,” he says.

Atkins sees that part of the problem is that managers often value the job they have to get done over the relationships with their staff. In his view, this is the wrong way round. “If you’ve got happy employees, you’ll have happy customers; if you have happy customers, you’ll have happy shareholders. I see it in that order. You’ve got to keep your staff happy. If people are genuinely valued and appreciated, then morale is increased and their productivity improves.”

The EI approach

There has been much debate about whether leaders are made or born and whether the qualities and attributes that true leaders possess can in fact be learnt. Associate professor of leadership and organisational learning at the University of Melbourne’s faculty of education, Erica Frydenberg, believes it is a combination of both in-born qualities and learning.

Frydenberg supports the views of Daniel Goleman that the most effective leaders possess high levels ofEmotional emotionalIntelligence intelligence (EI). In Frydenberg’s view, how a leader or manager performs depends ontheir that manager’s specific role and function, as one who manages a team of three or four will have different priorities and motives to an executive of a large multi-national corporation, making it difficult to refer to leadership in a generic way.

“EmotionalIntelligence intelligence is about being effective in relationships. So whether you take it into a small or large group relationship, it’s an important element as the leader understands his feelings with regard to a certain situation, but also understands how the constituents are feeling. Sometimes it’s called being able to read the climate – knowing what people are saying, thinking, feeling and how those around you are likely to react to you.”

For Frydenberg, leadership involves the quality of being able to read others and understand themselves in dealing with situations. EI is therefore seen as a contemporary way of looking at leadership when trying to understand those who succeed in this area.“The major challenge for leaders is to understand their role, understand the objectives for the organisation and the group and being able to communicate those clearly.”

However, Frydenberg stresses that EI is not only about understanding other people, but being able to communicate information to other people effectively as well. “EI is a contemporary way of understanding the people-centred nature of our relationship,”she says.

As part of her research published in the Australian Leadership Reader, she identifies two different types of leaders: transformational and transactional. “Transformational leadership occurs when the leader stimulates interest among colleagues and inspires followers to view the world from a new perspective. They motivate others to look beyond self-interest towards interests that will benefit the group,” she writes.

In contrast, transactional leadership involves leaders who reward or discipline followers with regards to performance. These leaders emphasise work standards, assignments and task-oriented goals. However, it is transformational leaders who receive higher ratings for effectiveness and satisfaction, Frydenberg says.

“Transformational leaders are more behavioural and less emotional when dealing with stress and conflict.”The key advantages of this style include the fact that they Such leaders take responsibility for their actions,and have self-confidence and self acceptance as well as clear goals.

“There is also evidence that more democratic approaches are effective,” Frydenberg explains. “In the area where I research theories of coping, which describe our reactions to the environment, there’s a style that’s reactive and there’s a style that’s proactive. Good leaders are proactive; they anticipate and they plan, which is ultimately a feature of good leadership.”

Leader as father

Sue Prestney, a spokesperson on small to medium enterprises (SMEs) for the Institute of Chartered Accountants in Australia, has discovered that it is not unusual for owners of a SME to take on this more personal approach to their business. However, as she explains, there are both positive and negative aspects involved with this leadership style. “It’s the same as a family. You have some fathers that work on reward, some on fear and discipline and it’s the same in a business. Some are quite soft and can be too soft on their employees and then there are others who use manipulation.”

While a family atmosphere, where the leader knows each employee by name can bring about a great sense of personal belonging, loyalty and therefore a positive working culture, this can create a negative sense of dependency from employees on the leader.

“I see a lot of this in my client base, I have a lot of clients with older owners whose employees have been with them for 30 or 40 years. They really feel part of the family, the culture is imbued in them. If you’ve got that sort of culture, it permeates the whole organisation and everybody feels like they belong and they work for the common good.”

Prestney warns leaders in her article Father Figures, Charter Magazine, February 2007, “If you act as the employees’mentor, develop them and personally look after them, there is a danger they will identify you in a parental role. If you do something that is in your own interests or in the interests of the business in general, but not to the employee’s benefit, the reaction can be explosive.”

Part of the challenge in dDealing with this form of leadershiplies in means striking the right balance between a shared family culture and ensuring a professionally run business. According to Prestney, it is the informality and unstructured nature of this leadership model that causes distrust and at times a lack of control. “If you have a proper organisational chart, proper job descriptions and ensure that people are answerable to the people they should be answerable to, and performance indicators are in place, then you can have the best of both worlds,” she says.

“As businesses expand, they need to realise they will not succeed if there is only one person pulling the strings, you simply cannot grow with that sort of structure.”

What good leaders do

Increasingly, it seems that the power of relationships today works in conjunction with aspects of personality to produce effective leaders. “The old ways aren’t working – command and control isn’t working. People are looking for more meaning in their work. We’ve catered for our basic needs, and now we want more significance from what we do,” says Atkins.

He believes that one of the key skills that leaders need to develop is the capacity to understand another person’s perspective by actively being interested and questioning effectively. “I think the most effective leaders are the leaders who have developed to a point of maturity where they’re not trying to prove their ego and are willing to work more in the background to facilitate change and to facilitate the performance of others.”