At a recent job interview I found myself faced with the dreaded question: what are your areas for development? Essentially the inquisition interview panel were asking me “what things are you really bad at that will make us think twice about employing you?”
Of course in such a situation the worst thing to do would be to tell the truth. “I have a terrible memory”, “I sometimes say offensive things in the hope of starting conversations”, “I actually don’t understand most of the financial regulations so just bumble my way through them” – all of these may be true but are not going to help get the job.
I refused also to say the standard, tired response of “I’m a bit of a perfectionist”; that’s BS of the very lowest degree in most cases and simply screams out ‘I’M NOT CREATIVE ENOUGH TO COME UP WITH AN ORIGINAL RESPONSE’. In the end I went for my willingness to JFDI – Just-Flowering-Do-It (you can replace Flowering with other more suitable words should you feel the need to). This sometimes means I’m halfway through an exciting project before I remember that my line manager might just be interested in finding out what I’m up to.
Why do I bring this up now? Well, at a recent Senior Management Team meeting one of our Service Heads stood up to talk about the review she had conducted on her service. She went into detail about some of the things that had gone well, but then also detailed some of the things which, to put it bluntly, had gone really badly.
She presented a detailed and wide ranging set of lessons learnt as a verbal evaluation of the process. Others around the room were scribbling furiously in notepads and have since met with her to glean further details; with their own reviews underway any advice is gold-dust.
The Service Head also went on to speak about her own need to trust her staff more to deliver. Through the review process she had found that whilst more junior officers felt a need for strong leadership around most things, they actually had the skills to take responsibility for their own work on occasion, and the wherewithal to know when those occasions arose. She acknowledged that perhaps she didn’t need to be aware of every decision and sign off every e-mail before it was sent.
For a senior manager to stand up and tell a group of their peers that they made mistakes and didn’t do things as well as they might have was incredibly brave in my book. To admit that you know you are too controlling, to commit to changing your ways for the good of your team; not many would do this. Not a word of criticism was levelled at her; our Director even gave praise for her honesty.
This blog talked recently about the need to learn from failures, but this isn’t a message which needs to be restricted to those in operational roles. Senior officers and managers are just as able to make mistakes as anyone, although admittedly their mistakes often affect far more people.
I have sat through meetings where operational staff have insisted beyond all doubt that senior managers all know exactly what they are doing at all times, that they have ulterior motives and that decisions have already been made which will not be changed. It is easier to dehumanise these people and create a sense of them-and-us when it need not be the case.
Managers at all grades are only ever as good as the teams they lead. They have their own set of skills and experience which have helped them rise to trusted positions, usually heading a service or team (although perhaps that’s not always the only way they might be made use of). They know that their own job is directly affected by the performance of their staff, and rarely do anything that they know will have a detrimental impact on them. Sometimes they are forced into these situations by circumstance or others, but generally they want to succeed.
That being said, there is no magical moment when a person changes from being an ‘us’ to a ‘them’. It’s not a Kevin and Perry moment; the shoulders don’t slump and the attitude doesn’t simply appear overnight. Managers are people like you and me, with their strengths and their weaknesses. A good manager will know their own things they are good at and will maximise these; a really good manager will know their weaknesses and will do something about them too.
You may not be able to sit your manager down and as a team ask them to tell you all of the things they do badly, but you will certainly have your own ideas about how they could do things differently.
It’s times like this when I think back to one of the many sayings I live by.
There are three types of thing in the world:
Things you can control
Things you can influence
Things you have to accept
You might not be able to control your manager’s flaws, and there’s no reason you should have to accept them, so it’s worth considering things you might be able to do to influence them instead.
Going back to the starting point of that interview question, if you could ask them to identify their own areas requiring development and if they might answer “I’m a starter not a finisher” then make sure that you regularly refer back to the project plan, the goals and the milestones. If they “get too caught up in the detail” could you perhaps step back and complement them by focussing on the bigger picture. If they are “too quick to rush into decisions” then make sure that you question them and check that they are making an informed decision.
The best teams are made up of a blend of people. All of these have their strengths, their skills, their experience and their weaknesses. It’s not just your bosses job to make sure that the team works well effectively and to make sure they have all the answers; we all have our role to play.
After all, if you were in their shoes would you rather have a team of sycophants and followers or those who made sure the good of the team came first?
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