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Great managers know the fine art of turning talent into lasting performance

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This series of articles is written directed at managers and senior executives who aspire to become leaders one fine day. So, we decided to talk about managers in the following four weeks – what they should know, what they should do and the four keys they should possess to open the door to join the leadership league. 
You already know what great managers do. But I wonder whether you really know how they do it. 
So, let’s begin. How do great managers release the potential energy of their people? How do they select a person, set expectations and then motivate and develop each and every one of their employees? 
Conventional wisdom has led us all astray. Yes, today’s business pressures are more intense, the changes snap fast. Yes, companies need self-reliant employees and aggressive leaders. But all this does not diminish the importance of managers. On the contrary, in turbulent times the manager is more important than ever. 
Why? Because managers play a vital and distinct role, a role that charismatic leaders and self-directed teams are incapable of playing. The manager role is to reach inside each employee and release his unique talents into performance. This role is best played one employee at a time: one manager asking questions of, listening to and working with one employee. Multiplied a thousand-fold, this one-by-one-by-one role is the company’s power supply. In times of great change, it is this role that makes the company robust - robust enough to stay focused when needed, yet robust enough to flex without breaking. 
In this sense, the manager role is the ‘catalyst’ role. As with all catalysts, the manager’s function is to speed up the reaction between two substances, thus creating the desired end product. Specifically, the manager creates performance in each employee by speeding up the reaction between the employee’s talents and the company’s goals and between the employee’s talents and the 
customers’ needs. 
No doubt, in today’s slimmed-down business world, most of these managers also shoulder other responsibilities: they are expected to be subject matter experts, individual superstars and sometimes, leaders in their own right. 
These are important roles, which great managers execute with varying styles and degrees of success. But when it comes to the manager aspect of their responsibilities, great managers all excel at this 
‘catalyst’ role.

 
Manager’s role
There are six questions which will provide the detail for the manager’s catalyst role.
1. Do I know what is expected of me at work? 
2. Do I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work right? 
3. At work, do I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day? 
4. In the last seven days, have I received recognition or good work? 
5. Does my supervisor or someone at work seem to care about me as a person? 
6. Is there someone at work who encourages my development? 
Four activities
To warrant positive answers to these questions from his employees, a manager must be able to do four activities extremely well: 
1. Select a person, 
2. Set expectations, 
3. Motivate the person, 
4. Develop the person. 
These four activities are the manager’s most important responsibilities. You might have all the vision, charisma and intelligence in the world but if you cannot perform these four activities well, you will never excel as a manager. 
I. To secure ‘Strongly Agree’ responses to the question ‘At work, do I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day?’ you must know how to select a person. This sounds straightforward but to do it well demands clear headedness. Most important, you must know how much of a person you can change. You must know the difference between talent, skills 
and knowledge.
You must know which of these can be taught and which can only be hired in. You must know how to ask the kinds of questions that can cut through a candidate’s desire to impress and so reveal his true talents. If you don’t know how to do these things, you will always struggle as a manager. Cursed with poorly cast employees, all your efforts to motivate and develop will 
be diminished. 
II. If you want ‘Strongly Agree’ responses to the questions ‘Do I know what is expected of me at work?’ and ‘Do I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work right?’ you must be able to set accurate performance expectations. This activity encompasses more than simple goal setting. You must be able to keep the person focused on performance today, no matter how tempting it is to stare at the changes massing over the horizon. You must know on which parts of a job you will enforce conformity and on which parts you will encourage your employee to exercise her own style. You must be able to balance today’s need for standardization and efficiency with a similarly pressing need for flair and originality. If you don’t know how to set these kinds of performance expectations, you will always be off balance, lurching haphazardly between enforcing too many rules and enduring too 
much chaos. 
Ill. ‘Strongly Agree’ responses to the questions ‘In the last seven days, have I received recognition and praise for good work?’ and ‘Does my supervisor, or someone at work, seem to care about me?’ are driven by your ability to motivate each employee. As a manager, you have only one thing to invest: your time. Whom you spend it with, and how you spend it with him, determines your success as a manager. So, should you spend more time with your best people or your strugglers? Should you help a person fix his weaknesses or should you focus on his strengths? Can you ever give someone too much praise? If so, when? If not, why not? You must be able to answer these questions if you are to excel at helping each employee excel. 
IV. ‘Does my supervisor or someone at work, seem to care about me?’ is also driven by your ability to develop the employee, as is the question ‘Is there someone at work who encourages my development?’ When an employee comes up to you and asks the inevitable ‘Where do I go from here? Can you help me grow?’ you need to know what to say. Should you help each person get promoted? If you tell her to attend some training classes and pay her dues, is that the right thing to say? Perhaps you feel as though you are too close to your people. Can you ever get too close to them? What happens if you have to terminate someone you have come to care about? What do you owe your people, anyway? Your answers to all of these questions will guide you as you try to set up each person for success, both in the current role and beyond. 
Select a person, set expectations, motivate the person and develop the person: these are the four core activities of the ‘catalyst’ role. If a company’s managers are unable to play this role well, then no matter how sophisticated its systems or how inspirational its leaders, the company will slowly start to disintegrate.

 


Conventional wisdom
When it comes to a manager’s four core activities, conventional wisdom is ‘digging in the wrong place’. Its advice is close, very close. But when you look through the eyes of great managers you realize that each element ever so slightly, but so significantly, misses the mark. 
Conventional wisdom encourages you to  
select a person ... based on his experience, intelligence and determination. 
set expectations ... by defining the 
right steps. 
motivate the person ... by helping him identify and overcome his weaknesses.
develop the person ... by helping him learn and get promoted.
On the surface, there seems to be nothing wrong with this advice. In fact, many managers and many companies follow it devoutly. As we proceed, we will discuss how effective these four activities. 
(Lionel Wijesiri is a retired corporate director counting three decades of senior management experience. He is now an independent consultant and a freelance journalist. He may be contacted on lionwije@live.com) 

 

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