Why your strengths are your biggest barrier to becoming a better manager

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I have been helping develop better managers for more than 20 years now.  And experience has led me to the firm belief that eventually our strengths become our greatest weaknesses.

I am a very occasional and very poor golfer.  My golf bag has 12 clubs in it.

Of those 12 clubs I can hit about 6 with any degree of control.  The others are a complete lottery.  I should really take them out of the bag to avoid temptation.

So, almost whatever the situation I find myself in, I will choose a 5 or 3 wood, or an iron between 6 and 9 (inclusive).

Often I find myself in situations where these clubs won’t work.  In a bunker for example I will reach for one of the clubs that I really don’t know how to hit – my sand wedge – and hack away.  On a good day I will eventually make it to the green, where custom and practice suggest that I should reach for the putter.  Another club I have never been taught to use.

Why is it like this?

Because 15 years ago someone gave me a series of 6 golf lessons as a present.  For an hour a week for 6 weeks I stood on a plastic tee on the driving range with someone showing me how to hit an iron and eventually a wood.  An hour a week spent smacking buckets of balls into the shrubbery until a semblance of control was achieved.

Then the lesson stopped and I was invited to play a round on a course.  I stepped out onto the first tee and watched my partner hit a driver more or less down the middle.  Now I had never hit my driver in my life – but how hard could it be?  Its not that different from a 3 wood.

I actually hit the ball OK.  True it did ricochet off the roof of the clubhouse before finally ending up in the light rough 100 yards short of my partners ball. But at least I was on my way.  I vowed at that point to leave the driver in the bag until I knew how to hit it.

I scrabbled around in a hundred and a bit shots with about 6 lost balls.  But I completed a round.  The first of about 12 that I have completed over the last 15 years.

Because I can manage to scrabble around with the few clubs that I know how to hit – I have NEVER bothered to go back and learn how to hit a driver, a sand wedge or a putter.  I have also never learned what to so when the ball is lower, or higher than my feet.  I have never learned how to keep a ball low into the wind or throw it up and let the wind carry it.  I have never learned how to shape the ball right or left.  And that is what I have become a ‘better golfer’.  Because the few strengths I have got somehow get me by.

And I think many managers are the same.  If you are lucky you get a short introduction to management course when you start out.  And then you are left on your own.  Using whatever strengths you have to get by.  And when you find yourself in a context where you don’t know what you should be doing – well you just do your best and hope that before long your strengths will come back into play.

Our strengths stop us from having to learn new techniques and skills.

And if we are not careful, they trap us into mediocrity.

They can certainly stop us from getting better.

And, unless we are especially careful, we convince ourselves that this is OK.

So, we need to be honest in our self assessments, work out what it is that we need to learn to do better, and then give ourselves permission to once again do those things badly, in order that we might eventually learn to do them well.

We need to find ourselves a good teacher.  We need to find somewhere we can practice safely. And then we need to put what we learn into practice.

If you want to Be A Better Manager then please sign up using the box on the right.  

It might even help you with your golf!



Update on the Be A Better Manager Book

You may already know that for some time I have been threatening to write the book on ‘How to Be A Better Manager‘.

And I still am.

But I have been thinking a bit about what I am actually trying to achieve with writing the book, and how best to achieve that purpose.

I want to help as many people as possible to become the best managers that they can be.  To become outstanding managers in fact.

And of course I hope to make some money along the way!

Is writing a book the best way to do this?  I am not so sure.

I have also been doing a lot of research on web based learning and training delivery – and it certainly now seems affordable and practical. The last time I looked about a decade back it was still really expensive, and few people could stream high quality video.

So instead I am considering a series of videos that will build into a 6 month course designed to really accelerate your journey towards becoming an outstanding manager.  I may supplement the videos with transcripts and perhaps the occasional teleconference, webinar or good old face to face training session!

My plan is not to make the videos available all at once, but instead to release them at carefully planned intervals that will give you the chance to absorb the material from one video, try it out at work, refine it and develop your practice before the next video is released.  This way you won’t get overwhelmed with information and will be able to make a series of manageable changes to your practice over time.

Alongside the videos will be a range of supporting materials including templates, aide memoirs and links to other materials to supplement your learning.

How does that sound?  Interesting?

If so then please sign up using the form on the right hand side.  I promise not to bombard you with lots of emails!

9 Ways to Be A Better Manager

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1  Value Your Role as a Manager

I meet so many apologetic managers.  Managers who really wish they weren’t. Managers who see entering management as a step towards the dark side.  The truth is that as a manager you can have a profound effect on how your staff experience their work, and how your clients experience your staff and your organisation.  Embrace this responsibility with creativity, imagination, courage and a systematic approach and you can deliver positive results all around.  See management as a necessary evil, and that is just what it will become….

2  Communicate clear performance expectations

Get REALLY clear about what you expect from the people you manage and then find ways to communicate those expectations clearly and consistently.  This is likely to include the results that you expect them to achieve in their work, but it is also likely to include some criteria for HOW the work is to be done.  For most of us it is not JUST about results, but also how those results are achieved.  I might argue that most managers spend too much time obsessing about results and not enough time creating the process, systems and cultures that allow the results to be produced.

3  Provide regular performance feedback

By ‘regular performance feedback’ I don’t mean an annual appraisal.  I mean daily, preferably more than daily, feedback that is based on what people are actually doing at work.  Appraising performance in real time, all the time. You see someone modelling values and behaviours that matter to your organisation, and you give them performance feedback.  You see someone modelling values and behaviours that undermine what your organisation is trying to achieve, and you give them good performance feedback.  Giving good performance feedback need not be a big exercise involving lots of emotion.  It should take just a few seconds of your time, and is perhaps the most powerful thing that great managers can do to improve performance.

4  Consider all relevant information when appraising performance

Annual appraisals are great.  Annual appraisals supported by quarterly mini-appraisals are even better.  Quarterly mini-appraisals supported by documented, weekly 121s better yet!  But how can you get the voice of the customer to inform the appraisal process?  What about the voices of other colleagues?  Develop a culture and systems that ensure that you have considered all the relevant information when you are appraising performance.

5  Observe staff at work

You can’t just manage people by monitoring performance data. At least, you can’t manage them well.  You might be able to prevent them slipping beneath minimum acceptable standards, but you certainly won’t be able to help them do their best work. Take the time to watch staff at work. Especially watch their interactions with colleagues and customers.  Observe the details, the mannerisms, the language patterns.  Understand how they do what they do, and help them to reflect and improve – mostly by giving them timely feedback on performance, but also by coaching them where appropriate.

6  Help staff develop self-improvement plans

You should not only expect people to ‘do their job‘ but to get better at doing their job too.  Self development is primarily their job, not yours.  Of course you stand by ready roll up your sleeves and help – but primarily the expectation is that they will be the architects of their own success.

7  Recognise and reward high performance

More often than not when I see where managers spend their time, effort and attention, it on the underwhelmers.  The staff that come in late, leave early and do as little as they can get away with while they are at work.  Now, of course underperformance has to be managed.  And managed effectively, robustly and quickly.  However you should be rewarding and attending to those that performing well.  Thanking them praising them, developing and encouraging them in whatever way you can.  Time spend recognising and rewarding high performance is likely to reward you with more high performance.  Leave it unrecognised and it is likely to whither over time….

8  Provide help, training, and guidance

This isn’t about the annual performance development plan.  This about building a culture of ‘just in time’ help, training and guidance. It is about providing role models and ensuring that everyone is looking to learn from their experience. It is about giving people the skill of self managed learning and an expectation they use them to improve performance

9  Build a working relationship

This should really be number 1 on the list, because without a working relationship you can’t manage people.  Take time to understand people and their motivations and aspirations.  Be curious about them. Don’t judge them too quickly and work out your role in helping them to do the very best work that they are capable of.  Build a 2 way relationship; where they respond to your management and leadership and you respond to their wants and needs too.  Recognise where relationships aren’t working and commit to either making them work or ending them.  Don’t let non working relationships drag on.

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Why is Giving Feedback so Hard?

I recently had a meeting with a manager that I had worked with and he asked me about a challenge he was facing in putting feedback into practice.

We had worked on helping him to use both affirming and adjusting feedback.

  • Affirming feedback is given when an employee exhibits a good behaviour at work and the manager wants to show that it has been noticed, recognised and appreciated in order to increase the likelihood that the behaviour will be used again.
  • Adjusting feedback is used when the work behaviour or product is not up to organisational standards and the manager wants the employee to consider ‘what they could differently next time’.  They are looking to reduce the likelihood of the behaviour re-occurring.

Providing more affirming feedback than adjusting feedback will build a culture that is open to feedback and builds relationships that means adjusting feedback, when given, is more likely to be accepted constructively and acted upon.

This manager was fine on spotting opportunities to give adjusting feedback but was finding it much harder to find opportunities to give affirming feedback.  He was rightly worried that if he did not keep a healthy balance then his feedback would become ineffective, and he would be seen to be seen as overly critical and negative, driving the organisational culture and the moral of staff in the wrong direction

There are several reasons why some managers struggle with affirming feedback:

Many, perhaps most, managers are ‘tuned’ to look for, and sort out, problems. Good performance is taken for granted (indeed barely noticed) while any performance issues are recognised and corrected. This ‘management by exception‘ can be effective and efficient in the short term. However in the long term it leads to an unhealthy focus on performance problems and a culture where employees feel under-valued and taken for granted.  Discipline yourself to recognise, value and feedback on good work – reject the philosophy of management by exception.

Managers who are very task oriented and dominant tend to undervalue the power of affirming feedback in building relationships.  Discipline yourself to recognise and celebrate employee success with affirming feedback. You may not feel that this is helping with the task at hand – but it will help, if done well, to build a better relationship.  And this will have a direct impact on achievement in the longer term.

Some managers find it hard to recognise the kind of behaviours that should trigger affirming feedback because they have lost touch with the values, vision and mission of the organisation and their role in supporting them in practice.   If the organisation ‘values’ innovation and risk taking then it is vital that managers give affirming feedback when employee behaviours support these values.   Using affirming feedback to recognise employees who are supporting mission, vision and values and letting them know that their work is recognised and valued is important in building a performance culture and ensuring that those desired behaviours are repeated and spread.  This style of ‘appreciative management’  is incredibly effective in engendering a positive culture of performance and ensuring that organisational mission, vision and values are brought to live in day to day work. Look out for behaviours that bring mission, vision or values to life and provide affirming feedback. 

Some managers have become detached from the people management aspects of their role.  They manage task lists and performance metrics – but they don’t invest the time in seeing what their employees and team members actually do.   Tom Peters popularised the term ‘Managing by Wandering About’ – or MBWA.  If you are struggling to find examples of employee behaviour to provide the foundation for affirming feedback perhaps a little more time out of the office and working with the team might help.

There are no rigid rules on this – but most managers give way too little feedback.  Many give none at all outside of the formal performance review process.   For each report that you have you should be aiming to give on average at least 4 pieces of feedback each and every day.  Affirming feedback should outnumber adjusting feedback  in a ratio of 3 or 4:1.  If you can develop the volume of feedback that you give to this sort of level I guarantee that team performance will develop rapidly.

If you would like to use feedback to improve morale, culture and performance in your workplace then please do get in touch.

Can we learn to be more fully ourselves? The search for authentic…

Much of my work is about helping people to become better managers and leaders.

Sometimes this is about teaching new models, theories and skills.  This can help develop better managers and leaders.

But most of the time the real work of developing managers and leaders takes place at a different, higher level.

It is about helping people to be more, or even better versions, of who they really are.  To be more vulnerable and authentic in their work.  It is about the ‘emergence of identity’.  Helping people to be themselves with more skill, power and honesty.  This means working with managers and leaders on their:

  • sense of purpose,
  • sense of self, and
  • the values attitudes and beliefs that they hold that help or hinder their practice.

This can be especially hard for those in management and leadership positions who mistakenly believe that their job is to be the protector. The one who carries all the baggage on their backs so that others can get on with their work.

At the heart of authenticity is the courage to be judged for who we are, and what we think, rather than our willingness to conform to the pressures and norms of our peers.  To hold an opinion lightly but with confidence.  Holding the right balance between advocating a belief while holding it open to inquiry and development.  Once we can learn to find and hold a leadership position that encourages curiosity, inquiry and challenge, the we have taken a major step to improving the culture of our workplace.

If this sounds like the kind of development that you would like to experience then please do get in touch.

And in the meantime, if you are worried that you may be experiencing just a little too much conformity in your workplace take 10 minutes to watch this video.

What Does it Mean to be a System Leader?

There is a lot of talk at the moment about being a system leader.

But what does this actually mean?

That it is not enough to ‘just’ lead an organisation or a team, but one has to make a leadership contribution to the wider system of  which that organisation, or team, is a part.

  • It is not enough for a head teacher to lead a school well, they also should make a contribution to the leadership of the wider education system.
  • It is not enough to be a good CEO of an NHS Trust.  Your leadership has to be exercised in the wider health economy – including other providers, commissioners, adult social care, children’s services and so on.

So, what is this ‘system’ in which we are expected to exert our system leadership?  How do we find its edges? How do we define our scope?  Is it more than leadership across a value chain?

I think so, yes.

Questions like this bring me to a second meaning for a ‘system leader’ – which is more about a worldview, philosophy and practice than just about expanding the dominion of our leadership.  It is about a different way of seeing and acting as a leader.

A system leader recognises that complex adaptive systems (and any system with a human being in it IS complex and adaptive) will not respond compliantly, or as we might wish or predict, to top down leadership, management by objectives or board room strategies.  They understand the need for participation across the system in shaping the future.  They know that this is best achieved by following some guidelines which they allow to shape their practice:

  • Keep the shared purpose for which the system exists up close and personal – for everyone.
  • Make sure that the purpose of the system is primary to the purpose of the units (organisations or people) that make up the system.
  • Inclusion and participation in the process are essential – but cannot be mandated.
  • Organisations and people are free to choose.  They want to associate in pursuit of purpose – but they also seek self-expression
  • Leadership works to the extent that it provides the platform for association around purpose and honours self-expression
  • That to help the system to get better at serving its purpose you must connect the system better to itself.  Especially those parts of the system that are usually excluded.
  • It is through these connections in the system, these improved relationships,  that information and innovation will flow, accelerating the rate of progress
  • Listening and building relationships are therefore the catalyst for progress – not the imposition of a blue print, policy or ‘vision’.
  • Systems shape themselves around meanings and relationships. Change the meaning and the relationships and you have changed the system.
  • That you can’t control the development of the system, as it reacts to directives but rarely obeys them.
  • We may enforce compliance – but only by paying the price in what matters most – loyalty, commitment, passion and intelligence.
  • That there is only one system.

So for me, system leadership is a very different way of leading, that is served more by humble enquiry and the facilitation of people and organisations that care than about the imposition of change.

If you would like to develop your own practice in system leadership then please sign up here:

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Listening – the foundation of leadership?

Many managers spend a lot of time worrying about how they communicate.  Often they focus on what they say and how they say it.  They tend to spend less time focussing on how well they are listening.

I was recently taught a simple mnemonic, CARE, that I find helps me to think about the quality of my listening.  You might find it helpful too.

C = Concentrate – pay them your full attention, avoid distractions, pay attention to what they are saying and not saying.

A = Assist – help them to tell their story.  Resist the temptation to say what comes to your mind until they have finished speaking.  Ask gentle questions to help them tell their story more fully

R = Rephrase – rephrase what you have heard them say and ask whether you have heard them properly.  Do they feel that you understand their perspective?

E = Empathetically Respond – now you can take your chance to share your thoughts and responses.  Make sure they are relevant, respectful and kind.

I know that in conversations I can often respond too early, keen to interrupt to share my own insights and knowledge.

This acronym reminds me to let them fully tell their story first.  To really listen, knowing that when the time is right I will find better words with which to empathetically respond.

Of course there are many other ways to listen….

Thinking About Writing the ‘Be A Better Manager’ Book

I have been wanting to write a book about what I have learned and teach about management for too long now!  The closest that I have got is a kind of outline/proposal which I am sharing with you here.

I’d be really interested to know:

  1. whether you might find it a useful book, useful enough to buy a copy
  2. what might make it better for you – different content perhaps
  3. what if anything I should drop…

I’d also really appreciate any advice regarding self publishing  or more traditional routes…..feel free to use the comments!

Be A Better Manager – Synopsis

Many people every year are promoted into management positions on the basis of their competence at doing the job of the people that they are being asked to manage. So good nurses become nurse managers, good salespeople become sales managers and good teachers become school administrators. This book will provide practical support to people making the transition to management , or already in management but looking to improve their own effectiveness.

Chapter Headings

What Makes an Outstanding Manager?

An outstanding manager knows how to help others to do their best work. This requires a set of skills, behaviours and attitudes that this book will teach. How to manage your own learning to become an outstanding manager. The importance of courage, experience and judgement.

Working Relationships

The difference between working relationships that work and working relationships that don’t! Working relationship as the pre-requisite for effective management. How to develop working relationships. How to repair relationships that are not working. Without a working relationship management becomes impossible. Managing overwhelmers, underwhelmers and whelmers.

Feedback and the Outstanding Manager

Feedback as information that helps to change behaviour. To get more of the behaviours that work and less of the behaviours that don’t. Feedback as a fundamental management tool and one that has to be used with power and skill. The importance of courage in sharing feedback. Contrast feedback with praise, thanks and criticism. Feedback in a hyperlinked world!

Getting Great Feedback

The focus of most managers is on improving the behaviours of others. The outstanding manager focuses on improving their own behaviours . The importance of an obsession with getting feedback. How to make it easy for people to give you feedback that you can use.

Giving Great Feedback

Understanding the behaviours that create or destroy value in your workplace. What do you need more of? Less of? Recognising labels (professional, unprofessional, caring, lazy) and how they can be used to provide feedback that will change behaviours and build working relationships rather than damage them. Using feedback to get more of the behaviours that create value. Using feedback to reduce behaviours that destroy value. How to give feedback to your boss too!

Manager as Talent Coach

Feedback is the answer to most of our performance management challenges. But sometimes it does not work because the person giving the feedback does not have the knowledge, skills or desire to change their behaviours. This is when managers have to be an effective coach. How to set up and manage a coaching contract including goals and milestones to improve performance.  How to coach every member of your team, all the time, without being overwhelmed.


Empowering others to develop their careers, take on new responsibilities and work at the leading edge of their abilities, retain talented people who might otherwise outgrow their jobs and create as much value as possible.  How to delegate successfully and avoid the trap of ‘its quicker to do it myself and I’ll do it better anyway’.

Time and Priority Management

The impossibility of managing time and the possibility and practicality of managing priorities. How to use the 168 hours in every week to achieve the things that matter most to you, your loved ones and your career.

Managing Different Personalities

This chapter will help you tailor your management behaviours to work well with a range of personality types. It will help you to recognise different types of personality and to change your approach accordingly for maximum effect.  If there were such a thing as ‘difficult people’ this chapter will give ideas about how to manage them effectively.

Putting it All Together – a month by month guide to becoming an Outstanding Manager

There is way too much information here to act on all at once. This chapter will provide an action plan spread over 12 months that will allow the reader to develop themselves in a logical progression to become and outstanding manager, making changes to their practice on a month by month basis that will allow them to learn and embed new skills before moving on to the next stage.

Possible additional chapters

Recruiting People

Managing Redundancies

Managing Innovation

Managing and Leading – not being ‘The Sticky Middle’

Managing Strategy

On Becoming an Outstanding Manager

To become an outstanding manager is not as hard as you might expect because, to be frank, the competition is not up to much!

Many people are given managerial roles because of their technical competence in the role they will be managing.  So excellent nurses become managers of nurses.  High performing sales people become sales managers.  Good bar staff become bar managers.  Sometimes such a strategy works, but more often it does not, because managing people doing a job is a very different proposition from doing the job.

So, if it is not very hard to be an outstanding manager, what does it take?


Managers have to have the courage to say things that they might find difficult or unfamiliar.  To praise when it is deserved and to challenge when it is required.  Managers have to say and do things that can feel awkward. They need to be brave enough to start some difficult conversations and skilful enough to end them well too!


Managers need to have the confidence to get the job done. They have to believe that they are equipped to deal with the situations that they face, both psychologically and technically.  They have to believe in themselves as a manager, and be confident in their position.


Although managers have to deal effectively with a bewildering range of situations, I believe that there is a relatively small set of core skills or tools that need to be learned to deal with most of them.  These include:

  1. Building working relationships
  2. Giving and getting feedback that works
  3. Coaching and developing people
  4. Delegating, and
  5. Managing priorities

These are the managerial ‘Big 5′.  If you can learn to do these 5 things well, and use them frequently and consistently with everyone that you manage, then you will be an outstanding manager.  Many books have been written on each of these ‘Big 5′ and you can spend a lifetime learning about each of them. However for each of them competence can be acquired quite quickly by learning a few basics and then practicing them consistently.  Once managers have acquired a basic proficiency in the ‘Big 5′ then in my experience they soon acquire the confidence and courage that they need.

Get Better

Outstanding managers have a way of ensuring that they get better at their job.  They manage their own learning and are continually developing their management practice.  While it may take just a few months to become an outstanding manager it can take a professional life time to become the best manager that you can be!

Managing in The Matrix

There was perhaps a time when the vast majority of managers would just have to worry about managing their team, their ‘direct reports’.  For most of us this is no longer true with lots of time being spent managing:

  • horizontally with peers inside and outside the organisation
  • managing up, frequently in matrix organisations, to more than one boss on more than one project
  • customers, suppliers, regulators/inspectors and others touched by our work

Once again in such complex organisational settings the ‘Big 5′ are our friends and using them consistently and systematically will ensure that we are seen to be an outstanding manager.




Can Compassion be Learned?

I spend a fair bit of my time working with managers  and leaders in the NHS and the challenge of delivering compassionate and efficient healthcare is never far from the table. A lot of time and energy can be spent discussing whether compassion can be taught or whether it is an inherent attribute that has to be recruited for and then nurtured.  I am not sure that such discussions are necessarily helpful and prefer to take a very pragmatic and simple approach to working with managers who wish to develop more compassionate care.

The starting point for me is to simplify the debate on what we mean by ‘compassion’ in order to allow practical action to be taken.  In my pragmatic world ‘compassionate’ is just a label that we attach to some episodes of care and not to others.  Indeed some care we might label ‘hard hearted’, ‘mean’ or ‘uncaring’ .  In this pragmatic world these are not innate human qualities but labels that we apply to episodes of care  because of certain characteristics of that caring episode that we notice and use to form a judgement leading to the label.

If we can isolate these characteristics or behaviours then we can use the standard managerial tools of feedback and praise to make sure we get more of the compassionate behaviours that we want and fewer of the hard hearted, uncaring and mean behaviours that we don’t.

Am I enabling managers to teach compassion with this approach? Or am I simply teaching them to use good management practice to get the kind of care delivered that they want?

Well to be honest I am not sure that I am too worried about that debate.  And I am not sure that patients are that worried either.

My next one day workshop on Compassionate Management in the NHS takes place at Salford University School of Nursing and Midwifery on 18th October 2013.


NB Although this post talks about developing compassion in care settings the same approach works for any quality that you are trying to develop in any workplace.  So whether you are looking for  ‘professionalism’, ‘precision’, ‘effective cross selling’, ‘creativity’ or ‘innovation’ the same process of going from labels to the behaviours that drive those labels and then the effective use of feedback to encourage the right behaviours will work for you.