Conscious, Intentional and Deliberate
Line Management and why we need to take a fresh look at how we do it – Part 1
I’ve worked in education for twenty-six years including seven years as a senior leader and six years as a Headteacher and Executive Head. For the past five years I’ve worked as an executive coach, facilitator and system leader. Through my coaching I’ve had the privilege of working 1-2-1 with scores of Headteachers as well as CEOs and C-Suite Execs in the public and private sector including global companies. The benefit of working across the system is to be able to helicopter above the whirlwind and understand the recurrent themes that emerge in a variety of contexts and industries.
One such theme that seems so blatantly obvious, yet so elusive, is the importance of effective line management; the interaction based on hierarchy or responsibility that we assume is just part of becoming a leader. Our ability to influence, lead and get the best out of others is at the core of what we understand by the term. However, in my experience, it is often undertaken without any deliberate development, little conscious thought or intentional reflection and quality assurance. We assume that it is somehow an inherent skill of any leader or that it will just be learnt through the bumps and grazes of lived experience. Despite this, the stakes couldn’t be higher.
An article I read in Inc. magazine many years ago had a quote in it that leapt from the page to me:
‘Leadership at the point of delivery has the biggest impact on discretionary effort.’
In other words, your lived experience of your direct line management relationship is more important than benefits, perks, salary or the vision and charisma of the CEO/ Headteacher etc. This is huge when you consider the number of line management relationships within an organisation and the potential impact on culture. I was then reminded recently by Thahmina Begum, Executive Headteacher of the Community Schools Trust, of the 2021 Gallup global research in which it found that…
‘75% of employees who decide to leave their job, do so because of their direct line manager’.
At a time when recruitment and retention of high-quality personnel is so crucial, why are we leaving this critical relationship to chance?
It is not an inherent skill
As soon as we are promoted to a new role, we are immediately deskilled. We may have been a truly high-performer in the previous role but as soon as we are promoted, we need a whole raft of new skills to be successful, one of which is the ability to line manage and help others to perform at their very best. Those that have made that step already will be familiar with the notion of the ‘magic weekend’ (credit to @Know_Learning for this term) where somehow you are expected to have downloaded everything you need to know about leading others like Keanu Reeve’s character in the Matrix film.
We don’t test for it in recruitment
There are many things we do test for when we recruit talent for leadership roles but it is my belief that we don’t tease out, in any intentional and deliberate way, the candidate’s understanding of line management or their potential to do it effectively. I’m sure some organisations do it better than others but I don’t see it anywhere near enough and I certainly didn’t do it consciously when I was a leader.
Systems are not a substitute for line management
Templates, published agendas, agreed minutes and actions, calendared meetings etc all have a place. When designed well, they can ensure greater consistency and transparency across the board and a certain equity of experience but they can’t be seen as a substitute for effective line management training. Line management is a contact sport, it is important to focus on ‘how’ we do it not just ‘what’ we do when we meet. Who do I need to be at this moment to get the best out of the person in front of me? Am I conscious of the role I am playing? Am I truly listening for meaning and understanding rather than just waiting for an opportunity to respond? Am I agile enough to switch between styles and roles in any given meeting? This is hard but at least let’s acknowledge it is really important and that we should lean into the challenge of doing it better.
There will never be enough time
How am I supposed to do this well when neither I nor the person I’m line managing has enough quality time? This is no doubt true and I fear will ever be thus, so, if we are unlikely to be given the luxury of more of it, how can we use the precious time we have more effectively? Steve Radcliffe talks about us ‘needing relationships big enough to get the job done’ therefore I need to think consciously about every interaction I’m having with the person I’m line managing whether this is a fleeting moment in the corridor, a fifteen-minute snatched conversation or the luxury of an hour’s uninterrupted 1-2-1. Am I building trust; am I empowering you; am I communicating that you matter; am I being present; am I creating a relationship built on high challenge and high support?
Let’s be conscious about the role that I’m playing
For me, there are broadly four roles that one should fulfil as a line manager, sometimes needing to be all four in any one meeting. This is not an exhaustive list and people I’ve shared this with in the past have suggested many other roles, all of which are perfectly valid i.e., therapist, counsellor, cheerleader, salesperson etc. I’ve no doubt we probably need to be all these things and more but I also believe in simplicity over complexity, especially if we are trying to create a shared language and understanding across a large organisation. I also accept that some of the terms I use may have negative connotations – I’m open to challenge and suggestions. Crucially, I suggest, find the language that works for you in your teams/ organisations but just be sure that everyone is in agreement and uses it consistently.
- Supervisor – at times, my role as a line manager, is to ensure that we are doing what we said we were going to do. Are we aware of deadlines and are they being met? Is the work meeting the mutually agreed standard and does it meet expectations? What is the data telling us? How do we know we are putting our energy in the right direction? What progress are we making towards our agreed objectives? This role is probably higher challenge but it need not only be one-way and top down. It shouldn’t be aggressive but should recognise that some people really feed off this type of line management. By ‘telling me what I need to be focusing on and holding me to account for it’ you can actually build psychological safety. Let’s just make sure we are being explicit about it.
- Mentor – Based on my experience, potentially from time spent in a similar role or context, what advice and guidance can I give you that may help you to shortcut your learning and growth? When I had a similar experience to the challenge you are facing, this is what worked for me and these are the most frequent mistakes that people make. Again, by being explicit about when we are working in this space, we can make it safe for people to be vulnerable and ask for help. But also, I can be mindful that I’m not disempowering the person by making sure I’m checking in about whether this advice is helpful to them right now. We must also recognise our limitations i.e.; I may have been a middle leader before but I wasn’t a Head of Science and therefore I need to seek to understand what advice is transferrable and what isn’t. It’s a dialogue and it is co-constructed.
- Consultant – This is where I come in and do it for you. You may ask me for help because this situation feels new or outside your comfort zone or because you’ve reached the end of all the options currently at your disposal and the challenge still remains. Or, perhaps you are just at risk of buckling under the weight of the role for whatever reason. In this space, my role is to step in and lead that meeting with that difficult colleague for you, or make that challenging phone call or to help compile this report before the looming deadline. There may be occasions when I recognise the need to move into this consultant space because I am worried that you don’t yet have the experience or skills to be successful but I invite myself in and I’m explicit about why I believe this is the right, short-term approach to take. Crucially, you sit alongside me whilst I do the ‘thing’. Next time, I will sit alongside you whilst you do it and then, if necessary, I can help you prepare for subsequent challenges but you are now leading it on your own with me in the background to call upon for advice if you need it. My role here is to relieve the short-term pressure but to ultimately empower and build the skills and confidence for you to do it on your own.
- Coach – We all know the power of coaching as an investment in the long-term growth and development of the people we work with. It takes more time; it takes more preparation to do it well and it is focused on sustained growth. In this space I create the conditions and space for you to surface your thinking, be vulnerable and through asking great questions I can challenge and stimulate your thinking. I’m not going to attempt to reduce the skills of coaching into one small paragraph in a blog but we shouldn’t assume that we all have a shared understanding of what a coaching approach looks like. Talk about it, create a shared approach for your context and then invest in training people to do it well. In my experience, some people who believe they are good coaches, spend more time in mentor or consultant mode.
Conscious, Intentional and Deliberate (C.I.D)
This is a leadership model I have developed which seems to land well with people I work with and can be applied to line management equally well.
‘The first step is to become aware; to pay attention.’ – Dr Jean Kilbourne
Conscious – Our approach to line management is something that is synonymous with the way we run our organisations and leadership structures. There is a real possibility that we sleepwalk into the way that it lives and breathes within our workplace without giving it any conscious thought. The first step for any leader is to be conscious about it in the first place. Find the time to think about it, reflect on it and notice it. Just doing this stage alone is an important step forward. It will encourage you to interrogate the status quo.
Intentional – Now that I’m thinking about it, am I motivated to do something about it? Am I willing to carve out the time or bandwidth in meetings or professional learning slots to dive into line management and discuss how we could do it better? How will we measure the impact and what will be the signifiers of us doing it well?
Deliberate – Thinking about it and talking about it is worthwhile but we only get traction once we can identify the everyday behaviours that leaders in this organisation are going to buy into and deliver on. For our context, what are the agreed ways of doing this here? The more explicit, the better and then we can be clear with all parties about the way we do things around here.
C.I.D. Leadership is a transferrable lens and framework for all aspects of leadership, not just line management but that is for another time and another blog. In Part 2 of this blog I will attempt to offer some practical suggestions about how we can address some of the key challenges of time, training, recruitment and induction but this is a collaborative piece of thinking. It has been great that some of you have already reached out to share thoughts, ideas and strategies that work in your contexts – let’s see if we can use the ‘hive mind’ of education to make it better.