Kiwi Managers – Are their people skills up to scratch?

It is the dichotomy of our age that the more we replace people with technology at one level, the more essential they are at another. That’s why organisations clamber to retain and attract the best individuals. Ironically, top management frequently fails to get the best from the people they already have or recruit.

Leading, managing and motivating individuals at every level of the organisational edifice is tough stuff in today’s competitive, constantly changing and suddenly insecure world. It requires shared visions, clearly established goals, properly communicated strategies and other professionally managed processes for reviewing, evaluating and rewarding individuals.

And despite our self image of being good with people, New Zealanders are not always proficient people managers and leaders, according to some of the experts and slowly growing body of researched evidence.

Some of our inherent national characteristics may be out of sync with what is required of an effective modern manager. tendency to avoid personal confrontation for instance, means we don’t ‘front up’ to under-performers and frequently shy away from honest 360 degree performance reviews. As Trish Hall, director/consultant at Wellington-based Tall Poppies puts it: “Many of our managers think they are doing well because they are ‘nice people’ but they don’t really know how to manage people effectively.”

Slaves to the tyranny of busyness and corporate leanness, managers avoid the discipline of thinking and acting strategically and of effectively communicating strategies, when they are developed, to their line managers or further down the hierarchy. Our managers, it seems, know what they should do but all too often fail to match expectation with performance.

Managers of best performing organisations tend to ask “how well are we performing?” and “how do we know?” Benchmarking provides some external measures of how well an enterprise is doing but, according to the New Zealand Institute of Management, when it comes to measuring how well our managers perform compared with managers elsewhere there’s no readily available basis for comparison.

The most important and regular NZIM initiated management practice survey is the New Zealand Index of Human Resource Management and Organisational Effectiveness. It provides some valuable insights into and understanding of current New Zealand management practice and trends since the first survey was conducted in 1994. The survey of between 700 and 1000 Institute members measures managers’ views of management practices in their organisations, comparing actual practice with what they consider to be the ‘ideal’.

Management gap
The survey reveals significant gap between ‘ideal’ and ‘actual’ performance, and it is gap that has remained fairly constant over the six years from 1994 to 2000, according to NZIM national chairman Doug Matheson. On the basis of an “intuitive feel” and in the absence of any better benchmark, NZIM thinks that gap of 15 to 20 percent between ideal and actual would be acceptable. In most of the management practices measured the gap in New Zealand is around 30 percent.

The measures are all to do with how well managers manage, communicate with, or otherwise lead people. The survey measures perceptions of performance on 12 HR practices including:
* My organisation’s vision, mission, values, and goals should be part of the management ethos and style.
* Managers should recognise the impact of effective communication about the business on employee and organisational performance. Human resource management planning should be an integral part of the business planning process at corporate and profit centre levels.
* Managers should value the contribution an effective remuneration management system makes to organisational and individual performance.
* Managers understand how important and relevant each of these and the other surveyed ideals are to achieving best practice but, they consistently rank their performance on each of the issues between 20 and 30 percent below their perceived ideal.

Matheson is disappointed with this “management gap” and is inclined to agree with Hall and her Tall Poppies’ team that New Zealand managers are “overwhelmed” by their day-to-day workload.

Too few managers make the connection between the need to focus on better people management and the organisation’s resulting ability to achieve world-class performance and results. They understand how important people are and how much time needs to be spent working with them, but they convince themselves that they don’t have time to develop strategies, set goals, communicate objectives, regularly review performance, counsel, coach and mentor their people.

Flat out
No one denies that today’s managers are under pressure. Structures are flatter, extraneous layers of management – if they ever existed in New Zealand – have disappeared. Decision making has sped up, the marketplace environment is more competitive and technology-based real time reporting and response systems – like email – all impose on the individual manager. But managers can’t cop out by constantly screaming for “time out” while not producing pre-match plan and then sticking to it while taking part in the game.

Observers like Faiyaz Devjee, national manager of the centre for assessment of prior learning at Otago Polytech, believes many management shortcomings are skill based. Managers understand the “need to put people first” but they often do not know where to begin or how to go about it.

“If they don’t put their people first, how can they accomplish their objectives?” he asks. “Managers need to marry their strategic objectives with their people resources.” And too often managers forget that organisations need experience, much of which is lost by reengineering. Managers must understand the skill sets they have available, measure them properly and then link the individual’s skills to the organisation’s needs. Faiyaz suggests making the job fit the person rather than the other way round.

Research consistently shows that people “want to be valued”. Managing people intelligently and consistently must be driven to the top of every CEO’s priority list if he or she wants to deliver results no matter what the time and performance pressures.

An answer to management’s time and speed squeeze is the re-emergence of teams, but teams with difference, according to international HR management consultancy, the Hay Group. four year research study commissioned by Hay and undertaken in collaboration with Harvard University and the UK’s Dartmouth College has published white paper entitled “Top teams: Why some work and some do not”.

In essence the research says that the age of the go-it-alone, charismatic CEO is over and that teams at the top enable organisations to cope with the increasing complexity and need for speed in decision making and in developing and implementing strategy. “The focus on the charismatic CEO is changing,” says Helen Scotts, Hay’s Pacific Region director. “Today’s organisations must make significant and complex decisions quickly and this is not singular process.”
Scotts argues that the complexity of contemporary issues, the need for ‘buy-in’ from all the key players and the speed at which leadership and management decisions must be made will increasingly be delivered by adopting top team approach. “We are thinking about teams differently,” she adds. “We are not talking about holding hands and walking off into the sunset and feeling good.” The best teams have clear processes for assigning accountability. They reach decisions and assign individual managers to own and deliver specific parts of the decision. The leader is chosen who can deliver on the decision. Good CEOs are buying into the top team approach, according to Scotts, and organisations are recruiting CEOs who work best in team environment.

Teams at the top could, in theory,

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