The People Manager
All posts from: February 2011
Did you hear the one about the pizza delivery driver who saved a customer’s life?
It happened in Memphis, Tennessee. Every day for the last three years an elderly woman, who lives alone, ordered a large pepperoni pizza. The pizza parlour would even prepare the woman’s order before she called!
When she went three days without placing her usual order, however, her regular delivery driver became concerned and called in to check she was ok.
Unable to get an answer, the delivery lady, Susan Guy, called the police, who broke into the house. The frail elderly customer had fallen and, unable to get up or summon help, had lost consciousness.
Now recovering in hospital, she owed her life to her regular pizza; or more accurately her regular pizza delivery driver.
My initial reaction was not that this is an example of the big society in action, but only in the USA would someone manage to prolong their life by living on pizza.
Then I thought: hold on, this is a glimpse of the future!
A future where there is no Home Help service for frail elderly people and the Meals on Wheels service has been privatised.
I was in the car with the boss. We were late for a meeting. A song came on the radio, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ “I Won’t Back Down”.
Turning up the volume he shouted: “this is one of my favourites”, and then added with bashful pride: “I think it sums up my management style”.
He was clearly unaware of his reputation for being a bit of a wuss.
Aware or not, it shows that often, leaders are people who are confident in their convictions. Effective leaders don’t often suffer self doubt - but this doesn’t also mean that they never change their minds. It is quite an important distinction.
So how do you know when to stick to your guns and when to rethink your plans?
What is the difference between a leader who is focused and one who is blinkered, one who is strong and one who is simply rigid, one who demonstrates single-minded determination and one who is stubbornly obstinate? When does that lack of self doubt become misplaced arrogance? Which voices should you listen to and which should you ignore?
Being prepared to change your mind does not make you a weak or indecisive leader. But being unable to make your mind up makes you appear indecisive and changing your mind based on whoever you spoke to last makes you weak.
People expect a leader to be explicit in what they want to see happen and prepared to give the reasoning behind their decision. People don’t have to agree with a decision but they need to understand the thinking behind it. And having heard your reasoning, they may provide you with a new piece of information which may or may not cause you to think again.
Effective leaders are the ones who can respond to a necessary change in direction by taking the best decision for those they’re in charge of - even if it means turning 180 degrees.
I don’t blame the nurses. I don’t blame the hospital managers. I don’t even blame the budget cuts for the pain and suffering inflicted on elderly patients.
It is all too tempting to try and find someone to blame for the appalling care identified in the health services ombudsman’s report.
But the thing is in the same hospitals where elderly patients suffered appalling care other patients were receiving excellent treatment.
The same nurses who were indifferent to the needs of elderly patients have proved themselves capable of providing first class care on specialists’ wards. So what’s the answer?
It might be uncomfortable for professionals to admit but the obvious explanation is ageism. An attitude towards older people that sees the incontinence, the confusion, the frailty - but not the grandparent, the husband or wife, the political activist, the person who built up their own successful business.
Why do we expect hospital staff to be any less ageist than the rest of society? The unpleasant truth is that as a society we don’t value people once they become dependent and passive and we don’t value those who care for them.
Is it any surprise if nurses think that toileting, feeding and dressing such patients doesn’t make the best use of their training and skills?
Of course to undertake these tasks in such a way as to protect the individuals’ dignity, privacy and individuality does in fact require considerable skill, training and a positive attitude to old age.
But perhaps the ombudsman’s report highlights that these essentials are missing from the training now as well as the service.
Cigarette vending machines on the cancer ward, a free bar on the liver transplant unit, McDonald’s and Burger King outlets in hospitals and fried breakfasts on offer to coronary patients.
The doctors would never stand for it. Would they?
Well, according to a leading cardiologist there is not much they can do about it.
I made up the part about the free bar and the cigarette machine, but they are no more ridiculous suggestions than the other examples of providing unhealthy food to hospital patients. Worryingly, they happen to be true.
Dr Aseen Malhotra spends his days repairing the damage to arteries and hearts caused by a poor lifestyle and an unhealthy diet. He believes hospitals should set an example of what healthy eating means.
In an article in the Observer, he says patients deserve to be served fresh, healthy food that is cooked on site not frozen and reheated, cheap but not nutritious.
Some places can do it like the Royal Brompton Trust in London so why not everywhere?
He suggests the best way to achieve this would be one menu across the whole NHS.
And while they are at it, Dr Malhotra says vending machines selling chocolate, crisps and fizzy drinks should be banned from hospital grounds. If they can do it in schools…
The dismissal of two well known sports commentators from their high paid TV jobs serves as a timely reminder about the issues of discrimination and bullying in work situations.
But just as bullying and racism are present in the workplace, so too are those who watch it happen - and do nothing.
Often those present know instinctively what’s happening is not right, yet they do nothing to stop it. Why? Is it fear that they too will become a target for the bullies or is it that they feel powerless in the face of the prevailing ward/office/staff room culture?
We are not talking here about physical abuse, overt racism or inappropriate sexual behaviour. We are talking about the office “banter”, the sexist joke, the insensitive remark about a disabled person, the ageist assumption or the inappropriate reference to a person’s sexuality.
If you’re the only woman, the only Muslim or the only disabled person in the team, if you’re new to the office, the most junior member of the team or if your line manager appears to collude with this behaviour, a reluctance to challenge is certainly understandable.
Staff on equality and diversity courses have spoken about their concern that they will be dismissed by colleagues as being too “PC” [politically correct] and oversensitive, or labelled “difficult” by their manager and accused of seeing offence where none was intended.
An organisation that states everyone is responsible for equality and diversity needs to teach people how to challenge appropriately, to challenge without damaging your career prospects or ending in no one talking to you in the canteen/staff room.
At the same time, as we raise people’s awareness and instill a personal responsibility we must prepare people for retuning to the reality of their workplace.
As part of taking the equality message to a large group of front line staff, an organisation I worked for ran conferences which involve workshops and a theatre group. A play they produced takes a typical work situation and uses it to illustrate discrimination, prejudice, myths and stereotypes in the workplace.
When we briefed the actors we deliberately chose a setting that none of the audience worked in, because we did not want people to get distracted by challenging the accuracy of the action, nor did we want people to think we were saying this type of behaviour was typical of their workplace.
The play is set in an old people’s home and is about the induction of a new member of staff by a colleague who has worked at the home for years. She has some rather negative attitudes to older people and is preoccupied with not “catching anything” from the residents.
Our new member of staff meanwhile is a male in a predominantly female environment. He is also east European, providing plenty of scope for the actors to explore attitudes to non-British workers.
As a new member of staff, “Illich” has concerns about the care practice in the home and the attitude of staff to the elderly residents but he quickly learns that he is not expected to question the actions of experienced staff.
The manager of the home calls him into her office to ask him how his first day has been, where he tries, unsuccessfully, to raise his concerns. Illich remains in character to ask the audience how he should challenge both staff and the manager.
Illich meets with the manager at the end of his first week and intends to challenge her about what’s going on in the home but struggles as he is on his probationary period and can’t afford to lose this job.
The audience are asked to stop the action at any point and advise him what to do and say. Despite a large audience of over one hundred participation is high and people get really involved.
And, unsurprisingly, the feedback was excellent.
It can be very boring doing interviews. Interview days start early and end late as you try to see as many candidates as possible. The public sector’s strict adherence to equal opportunity best practice means all candidates do the same presentation and are asked the same questions.
(To avoid death by Powerpoint I banned it and said a flip chart would be available if required. The idea was to make candidates look and talk to us rather than read, at high speed, their slides.)
In any case, you still have to listen carefully and take detailed notes because each question is scored and if your scoring is challenged at some point then you will need to refer to your notes. Plus if you’re giving feedback to unsuccessful candidates you need to say which questions they did not answer well by referring to what they said.
So you don’t just have to listen to the answers to your own questions but to everyone else’s as well. This requires a lot of concentration.
Towards the end of the day your brain starts to go numb. You are in need of a comfort break but you’re running late. You pray for someone to do something different with the presentation. You realise you are in danger of giving bonus points to those who keep their answers short.
People on interview panels do watch TV and sometimes it would be nice to mimic Simon Cowell’s X Factor approach and say: “I am going to stop you there, we’ve heard enough”, especially when a candidate who couldn’t think of the answer hoped if they talked for long enough they would eventually hit on the right words.
Whilst the candidates can do all this - keep their answers short and relevant, speak slowly, maintain eye contact and even crack a smile - they can only answer the questions you ask. So it is up to the interview panel to come up with ways of making it livelier.
I deliberately didn’t say “entertaining” because I am not suggesting using a talent show format where the chair comments on the outcome of the assessment centre tasks in the style of The Apprentice’s Alan Sugar: “Well, you claim to be good with figures but you made a right mess of that didn’t you!”
In fact, after a recent episode I could no longer ask candidates “tell me why I should appoint you?”, because it sounds too much like Lord Sugar’s “tell me why I shouldn’t fire you” - which invariably gets the most grovelling, cringe-inducing responses.
In terms of the format, then, how about giving a choice of presentation topics? That way each candidate doesn’t choose the same one. After all this is more about communications skills than knowledge since there is only so much you can get into a 10-minute presentation.
How about a question that allows the candidate to talk about their experience and their achievement? Then encourage the panel to ask supplementary questions to probe this.
Finally tell the candidate at the beginning of the interview how many questions they will be asked and how long the interview will last, making it clear you intend to stick rigidly to the time and it is up to them to manage it.
What happens if your department doesn’t make the savings? What if the ambitious efficiency targets turn out to be hopelessly unrealistic?
What if the savings plans turn out to be undeliverable? What if it’s all a lot messier, a lot more complicated and takes a lot more time than assumed? Do you have a plan B?
Of course you may not be around to deliver it since a plan B often starts with the sacking of the architect of plan A. The chances of survival, yours and the department’s, will be increased if there is a well worked out back up plan to be referred to at the same time as giving the bad news that plan A needs to be changed.
Unfortunately as this is likely to happen half way through the financial year, it is going to need to be pretty dramatic because it has a lot less time to be delivered.
Furthermore, who exactly should know about the existence of plan B?
The timing will be sensitive because if people get wind of it too early they will assume you have no confidence in the original plan, the plan you sold to the chief executive and members. If your staff get the idea you don’t think it is deliverable then it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
On the other hand, of course, you don’t want to give the impression this is something cobbled together at the last minute to try and save your skin.
But plan B usually consists of the options in plan A that were discarded as too radical, too painful or politically unacceptable. As such it might well be in your head and not written down - allowing, for example, the head of communications to brief the media that there is no plan B.
Which might cause confusion when there’s a necessary and dramatic switch to it further down the line…
Ambitious managers are like sharks. They need to keep moving or they die.
This is why they change jobs so frequently. Eighteen months is not too short a time, and three years is more than long enough in one job.
Managers on their way up are expected to be dynamic and energetic and the evidence of this is the amount of change they introduce.
If you want to get ahead you have to be dedicated and hard working to give the appearance of being very active, whether or not all this activity leads to any measurable improvements.
Restructuring is an excellent way of demonstrating big changes and for creating a huge amount of activity. This, of course, is the equivalent of shifting the office furniture around. After much discussion and a few sweaty hours things look different.
The opportunity may even have been used to have ‘a bit of a clear out’ but nothing has really changed. A few people may had changed seats; one or two may have a slightly different view out the window, but the reasons given for change - greater efficiency and a better way of doing things - are not much in evidence.
Leaders are judged by their ability to make change happen and managers by their enthusiasm for change. Change is very much on the current agenda, driven by the demands of making budget savings; and what better way to make those savings than by a management restructuring?
But will the latest management restructuring make the savings claimed? Will this be enough or will most of the saving still have to come from services cuts?
Will the costs of management early retirements and voluntary redundancies make this an expensive exercise? Will the disruption to services caused by distracted managers and the loss of management expertise be justified by improved services?
Ambitious managers won’t hang around to find out the answers to these questions.
How do you prolong the torture that is ‘the interview process’?
Try telling the candidates that you will let them know by the weekend, and then don’t.
You are having a problem chasing up a reference for the candidate you want to offer the job to. Friday turns out to be unexpectedly hectic and there simply wasn’t time to ring everyone. You didn’t think through the implications of making all those phone calls and frankly it has been a long day at the end of a long week and the last thing you want to do is ring people up to tell them they haven’t got a job. What’s the betting they will want to know why? Some will hide their disappointment better than others and some will want instant feedback. You could ring up the successful candidate - that’s always a pleasure. It would be a good ending to your week and make their weekend. You could ring the unsuccessful candidates on Monday or get HR or one of the secretaries to send out a standard ‘thank you for attending interview but on this occasion you have been unsuccessful’ letter.
You could do any of those things, but here is why you shouldn’t:
- You said you would contact them by the weekend, and they understood that to be by phone.
- If they don’t hear by Friday evening they will fear the worst but still hope that there is some other reason why you have not called. They will spend the whole weekend thinking about it, trying to convince themselves that they are still in with a chance.
- It’s bad enough not getting the job, but after all that effort just to get a standard letter. What about feedback?
- You may have interviewed some very capable candidates who may be not right for this job at this time but are certainly someone for the future. How will they know unless you have that conversation?
- If there is an internal candidate they are going to continue to work for you at least in the short term, so it makes sense to keep a good working relationship.
- You just never know. Your professional paths may well cross again and your personal and professional reputation, and that of your organisation, will be enhanced by the courteous and sensitive approach you take. The opposite is also true.
Planning for interviews involves more than just drawing up an interview schedule. Leave sufficient time after the last interview for the panel to make their decision. Don’t assume it will be clear cut; there may have to be time for debating the merits of individual candidates, plus you need to be able to give helpful feedback to the unsuccessful candidates so you need to agree on their strengths and weaknesses.
Ideally, ring people at home that evening - much easier than trying to get hold of people at work. People always know what they are going to say to the successful candidate but what are you going to say to the unsuccessful candidates? After all, you don’t want them to feel the whole process has been a complete waste of their time and you certainly don’t want them to feel it was a fix. They are less likely to feel either of these if you ring them when you said you would.
After savage budget cuts public sector organisations will look very different.They will require a very different type of manager.
New smaller organisations will have fewer staff and a lot fewer managers. Fewer managers means greater spans of responsibility. Managers will find themselves responsible for a very broad range of services in which they have no professional background and no technical expertise. They will have to rely on their management skills and be enthusiastic delegators.
The job you are doing now will not be the job you are doing in two or three years’ time. The pace of change is getting faster and managers need to be equipped to keep up.
To equip managers for an uncertain future we will need to change the emphasis from professional expertise to management competence. The new public sector will require all managers to have a set of core management competencies that include managing finance, managing information, managing equipment and buildings and, most significantly, managing people.
When it comes to managing people all managers will be expected to show leadership skills, to take responsibility and be able to inspire their staff.
Managers’ people skills are even more relevant in a harsh financial climate when they are required to do more with less, to increase their spans of responsibility, to negotiate new ways of working and to keep partners on board when their instincts are to retreat to their core business.
This type of manager requires a management development programme that aims to develop generic managers, people with transferable management skills, people who have the confidence and ability to move from one service to another, people who are equipped for a fast changing and uncertain future. Yet there will be no big training budget for expensive management development and a new public sector cannot afford to invest in training for only the few - it needs all its managers equipped for the future.
This means managers and aspiring managers will have to take a lot more responsibility for their own development. We can expect to see a growth in the use of management learning sets and mentoring to explore a range of typical management issues, to think about how their behaviour affects others and to identify the type of management behaviour their organisation is seeking to encourage.
Management development will be less about acquiring qualifications and more about the benefits to the organisation, less academic and more focused on life as a manager at a time of budget cuts, services reductions and redundancies. The aim will be to get mangers thinking and talking about how you keep staff motivated, how you keep customers satisfied and how you will develop as a manager in the new climate of austerity and uncertainty.