Managing is knowing your people

by 05 Nov 2010

One of the best books ever written on talent management is The Talent Masters by Bill Conaty and Ram Charan (published November, 2010). The book reveals the special characteristics that separate truly effective talent management from programs that seem ok but don't have a big impact.

Conaty ran HR for GE under Jack Welch. He says Welch knew the top 600 people intimately. He knew their families, their hobbies, their preferences, their strengths and their weaknesses. That is an incredibly high number; but Conaty assures me it is accurate and it is that incredible dedication to knowing people deeply that is the secret sauce of talent management. You can have all the talent reviews and development programs and competency models you want, but unless you really know the people intimately, you won’t know who to promote, who to deploy to which job, and what development each person needs.

Knowing your people deeply

Welch had deep knowledge of the hobbies, preferences and strengths of 600 people. How many managers know that much even about their direct reports? Certainly some do, but it is by no means universal. Many managers have only a surface knowledge of their direct reports and even less about anyone a layer below.

The hypothesis I'm advancing is that knowing your people extremely well is one of the things that lies at the heart of being a good manager. We can talk about all the right things to do to motivate people or retain people or develop people, but underlying all those things should be a deep knowledge of the individual. Yes, goal setting increases performance even when you are managing strangers but think how much more effective goal setting is when you really understand what makes the individual tick. You might at a surface level know someone needs development in, say, understanding customers, but how much more effective will you be in both coaching them and directing their development if you really know their preferences and shortcoming and abilities?

The Marcus Buckingham Angle

Marcus Buckingham’s work supports this notion that knowing your people extremely well is at the core of good management. In The One Thing You Need to Know he said the one thing that made managers great is that they tuned the work to the individual's strengths. They wouldn’t just assign tasks to whoever was available but would tune the tasks, even redesign the job, so that people could use their strengths.

Conaty says that having a bunch of ‘labels’ to describe someone is not the same as knowing them. Maybe you have a list of someone's competencies or personality traits, but those should either be a starting point for further investigation or a kind of short hand summarizing all the detail you know. The same goes for results. It isn't enough to know that someone has hit their numbers, you need to know the context, how hard was it to really achieve those results and did the person tread on any organisation values in making the numbers?

To be a good manager you have to get beyond the labels and the metrics to a true understanding of a person. You get that understanding by observing them in many situations and having many genuinely candid conversations with people they work with.

What is management?

A great deal of management is getting the most out of your people; as well as preparing them to play an ever bigger role in the organisation. Whether managers know their people extremely well, or not, probably has more to do with temperament than a theory of management. What I’m proposing is that knowing your people very well is one of the foundational aspects of being a manager. Welch, who surely had more on his plate than almost any of your managers, spent 40% of his time on people issues. Perhaps your managers should do the same.

The role of HR is communicating to managers just how fundamental this is. Getting to know the people is not a matter of being sociable, it’s a matter of good management. One phrase Conaty uses that I like a lot is 'institutionalizing good judgement about people'. You want an organisation where all managers make good judgements about people; and that can't begin to happen unless managers invest a lot of their time in gathering a deep understanding of the people in the organisation.

David Creelman is CEO of Creelman Research, providing writing, research and speaking on human-capital management. He can be reached at dcreelman@creelmanresearch.com

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