Leaders can make a much greater impact on their businesses if they spend more of their time ‘at the sharp end’, working directly with their people. To do it, they need ruthlessly to delegate, or desist from, time-consuming but relatively unproductive tasks, freeing up several more hours a week to coach and motivate employees to achieve higher performance.
It sounds so obvious. It is obvious. But far too few managers actually do it. We are talking about the most basic of leadership tasks – spending as much time as possible working closely with their direct reports and other employees for whom they are responsible. By so doing, they will have a far greater impact on performance than if they concentrate on traditional management tasks such as constructing budgets, attending meetings and writing emails, all of which absorb disproportionate amounts of time relative to their benefits. As Julian Birkinshaw, London Business School’s Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship, puts it, managers should:
"Concentrate on putting into practice things that we know work but somehow we never do – less Management 2.0, more making Management 1.0 work properly."
Birkinshaw says that the principles of sound people management are well known. They include giving employees autonomy over their work and ensuring good communication with them by their line manager, so that they are aware that what they do matters. But all too often, such basics are overlooked. His, frankly less than startling, conclusion is that, if they were adhered to, significant performance improvements will ensue.
This hypothesis is backed up by the results of a simple experiment at the Stockholm offices of the insurance company. The company changed the way one of its sales teams was managed. It ruthlessly cut down on certain tasks from the team manager’s daily routine – those regarded as likely to be unproductive in terms of the team’s performance, such as admin chores and meetings. The manager then used the time saved – an average of two hours a day – to work closely with her team of sales and customer service staff, coaching, helping and encouraging them. The outcome after three weeks was a five per cent improvement in sales performance compared with the three-week period immediately before the exercise. The sales team involved was unaware that it was involved in an experiment, strengthening this significant result. But even if team members picked up on it, and made more effort as a result, Birkinshaw argues that this fails to undermine the argument for increased management intervention.
The research points to widespread lessons for leaders everywhere. To make a real impact on your company’s performance, don’t just head straight for new management techniques – such as crowdsourcing and social media, exciting though they may be. First, consider if you’ve achieved the best balance in your basic procedures – because this is where the ‘quick wins’ lie. As Birkinshaw puts it:
“The real impact is more likely to come from doing simple and obvious things more effectively. And frontline coaching is about as simple and obvious as it gets: every company needs it, and yet most do it pretty poorly.”
Any leader can make progress in this area of their own volition, without waiting for a company-led initiative. Free up 10 hours a week and spend those hours working with your people. Hold workshops asking them what would help them to perform better. Invite top achievers to share their secrets. Coach individuals and groups in key skills. In the process, you will identify systemic issues that hold people back and achieve new procedural efficiencies. Perhaps above all, your presence and your praise will motivate your people to improve their performance, individually and as a team.
Ideas for Leaders is a free-to-access site. If you enjoy our content and find it valuable, please consider subscribing to our Developing Leaders Quarterly publication, this presents academic, business and consultant perspectives on leadership issues in a beautifully produced, small volume delivered to your desk four times a year.
For the less than the price of a coffee a week you can read over 650 summaries of research that cost universities over $1 billion to produce.
Use our Ideas to:
Speak to us on how else you can leverage this content to benefit your organization. firstname.lastname@example.org