As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, it’s vital that organizations focus on their benchmark strengths for managerial acumen. This interview with Michelle Arentz, owner of Lazarus Learning LLC, continues our exploration of best practices for businesses during the pandemic.

Why is it that many managers struggle, or even fail, in their role?

Great question! There are any number of reasons, but I’d say that the key driver behind anyone struggling in management (for which I include everything from supervisory roles right on up to the top person on your corporate hierarchy) is lack of managerial acumen in a suite of competencies required for the job. In many instances, people are promoted to management based on their ability to do a job well; they rocked a spreadsheet and so they must be management material, right? While it’s certainly true that being skilled and knowledgeable is important, when it comes to management – which can be defined as getting work done through others – one needs to have more than great tasking abilities. 

Most managers today are really doing two jobs at once: they both ‘task’ in the daily activities of whatever they do (accounting, sales, marketing, customer service etc.) and they lead and manage human beings. It’s the lack of acumen in the second part that tends to lead to the greatest pain points.

You mentioned a “suite of competencies” required for management. What would be included there?

Again, one has to go beyond the job description and expand into the human element of the role. There are any number of competencies a business may choose to use as their guideposts, but I’d say for sure you’d want to map to at least 5-6 of these, including, but not limited to: Managing and Measuring Work, Conflict Management, Motivating Others, Informing, Developing Others… all of these I draw from the Lominger© tools for competency assessment and mapping. They provide excellent resources for figuring out which ones to use, and when. More on that can be found here. From there, you can map any number of tools that will help build managerial acumen and bake it into your company’s leadership DNA.

What would you suggest as some tools and techniques to make managerial acumen part of the DNA of a given organization?

There are a number of things that can be done, big and small. Start by recognizing that we all measure what matters, so if you’re not finding ways to include measures of managerial effectiveness, you’re missing out.

  • Map elements of managerial acumen to your annual performance review, for example.
  • Assess regularly how well every person with direct reports or responsibilities for leading others does in that capacity. 
  • Use 360-degree feedback tools, to get a more robust and accurate picture of how well each manager is performing, as a manager
  • Build development programs that include learning and development opportunities geared specifically to gaining knowledge and then putting it into practice.
  • Teach them how to do a better job of interacting with others, and then measure how effectively they put that information into action.
  • Gather data and figure out who your best in-house leaders are, and what they’re doing that makes them so. 
  • Look externally for examples of leadership practices and programs that can boost your existing staff.

You mention development programs for managers. What would a good one look like?

While you want to tailor it to your company and industry, there are some basics that I’d advise including no matter what. 

  • First, tie it back to the fundamentals of the organization and how it operates. It’s not just a job title, it has a real impact to your bottom line. 
  • Reflect that value and importance by making your managerial acumen program meaningful and measurable. 
  • Spell out clearly what the “price of admission” is for being in such a role in your company.
  • What’s the benchmark from which all managers and supervisors operate? 
  • What’s your vision of the “ideal” manager/leader, and what are the gaps that have to be filled to get everyone to that goal (it can be helpful to brainstorm all the things that we hate about “bad” managers, and then look to the opposite of those behaviors and attitudes)?
  • Map all learning and activities back to those key competencies, and align those with you overall mission, values and other key indicators. A robust development program needs to clearly show how it is foundational to what happens at the company, and why it matters. 
  • Build in opportunities to put into practice what’s being learned and improved. 
  • Allow people to fail along the way, and how that will be used as a learning tool too. 
  • Consider mentoring partnerships or having upper level leaders sponsor less mature managers in their growth. It’s worth mentioning here too that there is a clear cost calculation involved when there is a lack of solid learning in an organization, as shared a while ago in the ReadSpeaker Blog. It’s the worst thing you can do, when you fail to provide training for your employees in any capacity, but especially when you leave leaders in the lurch on what’s expected of them, and how to perform essential functions of the job.

Are there any considerations for timing when it comes to promoting and developing managerial acumen?

Absolutely! Start early, before someone is even promoted to a management role. You will want to have a very proactive approach to lifting talent to the next level. As part of your regular performance assessments, you want to include opportunities for employees who show potential to get at least a taste of what may lie in store if they become supervisors or managers. What makes them a likely candidate to begin with? What are you measuring for, or against? Where will they have development opportunities and gaps to fill before moving up? 

As well, this can be really useful for weeding out employees who may have a false notion of what management truly entails; they see it as more money, a nicer workspace or other perks etc. but in reality, fail to realize the additional skills and effort required to do the job well. Getting a taste of management before being in management can be very eye-opening for all involved. 

I’ve often said that promotion can be punishment, and not just for those who are now reporting to that person! What made you a rock star before promotion will not help you now… so find a way to run a program for potential managers and start them early to have them ready with the managerial acumen necessary on their first day in the role. Otherwise, you are giving someone a job to do and then asking them to figure out how to do the job. It’s backwards, and tends to be a major reason why so many flounder and fail. We all know who they are…

That’s a good point, that it’s critical to teach the skills before asking people to perform them. Why else does it matter so much – more than ever – that managers have the necessary skills for their job?

We are operating in unusual and pretty unprecedented times, with a global pandemic and major economic shifts that nobody saw coming 6 months ago. Everyone had to pivot to some degree, trying to adjust and keep up. Managers, as leaders, are being looked to by their direct reports as the people with the answers, who must know the right direction we’re supposed to be headed in, right? If they don’t have much of a clue themselves, how can they possibly help anyone else? Even if it means, right now, that you help your managers figure out things like remote working technologies, better health and wellbeing strategies, improved verbal and written communication skills… you’re only helping, not hurting. The more (and better) prepared managers are to help themselves, the more they can also lift others around them. 

This isn’t the time to hunker down and hope it all goes away. It’s a time for action, for putting together a plan that acknowledges where your business and your managers are struggling, and then finding ways to fill those gaps. Don’t have it in-house? Buy it. Find it, figure it out, make it work. An investment in your human capital is the best one you can make. An investment in the people who are responsible for leading, molding, managing your human capital is priceless – and makes a positive impact on the bottom line.

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About Michelle Arentz

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With degrees in Communication Studies and Education, learning has been an integral part of Michelle’s life.  Having woven a career tapestry over the past 20+ years that has moved between corporate learning and development and public education, for her, it’s a calling, not just a career.  With many years’ experience in content, course, and program design and delivery, making learning engaging and meaningful is her mission.  Sharing her love of facilitating and teaching, she has reached a wide range of audiences, from high school students to manufacturing plant workers to corporate leaders, both domestically and abroad.  Now operating as an independent consultant and instructional designer in her business, Michelle blends her skills and passion for skill and knowledge advancement in the service of clients who wish to improve the life-long learning journey of themselves and their employees.

About Lazarus Learning

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Lazarus Learning LLC was inspired by Michelle’s desire to ‘breathe new life’ into learning content, resurrecting existing materials clients may have, or creating it from scratch.  Years of experience in learning and development proved that while many have great knowledge and abilities, it’s not always evident in the materials they have.   Everyone benefits when given access to enriched and engaging learning materials and experiences, and Michelle is determined to help rid the world of “death by PowerPoint” as she applies her talents to learning and development projects.