Lowering the tax on the modern-day people manager
We all have the image of the modern-day woman depicted as juggling a laptop, diapers, a spatula, washing machine, pets and more, staunchly entrenched in our minds. The evolving role of a people manager evokes a very similar image. At first it looks easy. They have an entire team rallying to complete a series of tasks and strategies. But the role today has as many layers as an onion. It includes being empathetic, hiring and leading diverse teams, acing hybrid and remote management, communicating unpopular company stance on decisions such as where their teams work, convincing them that the pay is fair – all of this on top of work distribution, effective delivery, innovating rapidly and deeply understanding the customer.
I can guarantee there are at least thirty elements of their job expectations I have missed listing, none of them less important than the other. As someone who works with people leaders’ day in and day out, I not only empathise with their roles but am also increasingly grateful for my own status as an individual contributor. This empathy and recognition however is highly mis-calibrated amongst those best positioned to drive impact.
Earlier this month while building the plan of activities, in an enthusiasm to build the perfect version of a healthy organisation, my peer and I dumped in a series of activities we believed were critical for our senior leaders to execute over the next twelve months. Most of them are no-brainers. A good organisation leader must plan succession, should inspire their teams, communicate regularly, drive inclusion while building diverse teams, determine how geographically spread their organisation needs to be, own career conversations and promotions, analyse org health metrics on a regular basis, and focus on well-being at minimum. Where there exist gaps, they need to invest time via long drawn training programs such as those on leading with empathy and coaching skills.
We then calculated time investment per quarter for all tasks and realized that about 50% of their time would be absorbed by these activities; which felt like a fair amount. After all, they chose to be people and large organisation leaders. We did not account for 1:1 conversation, time written to write promotion documents and other peripheral tasks that don’t require HR oversight unless when going sideways.
Let’s just say the business leaders did not agree.
While all activities were considered important, given the external climate, needing to invest more time with customers, innovate and accelerate growth, investing 60% of their time on activities listed, was not something they could afford to do. Make it easier – was the ask. And scratch our head as we might, as HR leaders, we couldn’t scrap anything off that list without some heartburn.
This was not only a moment of realisation that our processes were clunky, manager dependent, lacked clear measurable outcomes, and painful, it was also recognition that ‘if not them, then who’?
Of course, this was followed by facing the inevitable truth – the answer is us. It is a problem our profession was created to solve. The solution is not to ask people managers to do more; especially when they don’t have enough hours in the day.
This isn’t a recent problem. The topic of manager tax started creating ripples of discussion when the overburdening of the role was first spotted a few years ago, but now that the tide is upon us, here are a series of bandages you can apply now while rethinking the role and the environment it exists in.
Maximising predictability, minimising surprise: The world has been shifting under our feet. If you were to add the events over the past three years, they would no doubt overshadow events from the preceding three decades put together. Human beings are creatures of habits and a constant shift translates into our bodies and minds being in a constant state of high vigilance. As much as we want managers of the future to normalise living in a world of ambiguity, it is critical to recognise that we aren’t there yet. The least we can do at this stage is maximise predictability and remove elements of surprise to the extent possible.
What does this look like in implementation? Creating a rhythm of business. Cadences are heartbeats and knowing which events take place when let’s managers come prepared. Create a yearly HR plan clearly stating which activity will be covered in which month. Once that schedule is out, block calendars. Start there. Here’s one other way I build predictability in. I meet with the leadership team for 30 minutes every week. There’s a shared document that captures what we will be reviewing that week with a section on what we’re discussing today, things to keep in mind this week and what’s upcoming. I also have a predictability on what will be covered each week. We now know that the first week, we will always discuss org health metrics, second week is always engagement scores, third week is X,Y,Z and the fourth week is reserved for adhoc topics. Of course, not everything goes per plan as urgent tasks are never far behind the corner but it helps maximise predictability and minimise surprise.
Absorbing uncertainty: the above might encourage one to double down on transparency in the name of predictability. That used to be me. However, there is one big downside that I had not accounted for. When I don’t have all the answers and pass information under the guise of ‘here’s what’s coming down the line’ without knowing the action they need to take or the impact, it creates anxiety and chaos; much akin to knowing something is coming but not knowing what. As I grow in my career I am increasingly aware that I have preview to early information and I am constantly having to make trade-offs between what needs to be shared, with who and what needs to wait for when I have greater clarity. It is time to not just ruthlessly prioritise tasks and goals but also what information flows when and where. The modern-day HR professional is also an expert in absorbing uncertainty in the pursuit of maximising predictability and minimising surprises.
While the above may sound absurdly simple, bandages at the end of the day are bandages and only help in the short term. What would the ideal state look like?
The long term vision
I came across the concept of ‘leader of work’ vs ‘leader of people’ a while ago thanks to this HBR article. Since then my tiny brain has been trying to mull the concept over. Is it really that easy to split roles and replicate what Telstra had implemented? It took me a while to connect the proposal to what already takes place in real life with squad and team leads in technology. However, as we go up the leadership chain, this distinction blurs. We can most definitely split the work and maybe ask for more heads, but in a world where heads are currently rolling at a great pace, it may be frowned upon.
It’s only by endless noodling that it hit me:
It isn’t the manager role that is broken, it is the support system around them.
We look at managers as ‘the scaling solution’. We create, they implement. They answer employee queries, own growth, delivery and well-being while entrenched in an environment that is not maximised to minimise the tax of all these activities. We don’t need to split the role or to have them trained in doing 101 things. All we need is to focus on the process, cut out the fat, create easy tools, build alternate roles that take away all non-core activities and voila – the modern-day manager is safe. They don’t have to be responsible for building diverse teams – the talent acquisition function can own that. They don’t need to own 100% of an employee’s career. They only need to own 33% with the rest split between the employee and a mentor. They don’t need to be responsible for work distribution and completion tracking or even reporting – the squad lead can do that. The solutions exist. We just haven’t laid them out in a neat pattern.
Thus, the long-term vision is this – for the next 12 months, we focus on making the job of a manager easier by changing the support system around them. We fix our arduous ancient process and beliefs. We create an environment which reduces dependency on a manager but provides employees with multiple resources/people who will help them grow. And we equip managers with information necessary to sell ideas and policies they may not personally believe in.
If you ask me why I love my job, it is because of this – because we have the power to identify head winds (even though this one is a wind we’ve already been swept by), raise alarms and usher in a revolution to ensure that the world of work we create tomorrow is not a replica of our failings from today.
How do you plan to equip your managers to thrive?
Did you enjoy this article? Look out for its sequel: how managers can sell ideas and policies they may not personally believe in.