In developing others, we succeed

“It is only as we develop others that we permanently succeed” — Harvey Samuel Firestone

I saw this quote shared on LinkedIn recently and it reminded me a lot of my time as a manager at Guardian News and Media, and in particular the last two years.

At its biggest, I managed a team of 13 people, and never fewer than 9. The team were mostly full-time, with two part-time execs and ranged in age from early 20’s to mid 50’s. I managed people starting out in their careers, with a hunger to learn, gain experience and move onwards and upwards, and those who were happy in their roles, not so keen on change and with no particular ambitions for their career. With this mix, it was a constant challenge to keep them focused and interested in their jobs and to make sure they felt valued and that they were growing.

Developing new, ambitious execs is fairly easy. There was lots to learn and several different roles to cover in the team so over time I could move them around and train them up on different products. For those who’d been there a long time and had no plans to move on, it was a bit harder. Objective-setting in appraisals often became about fine-tuning their skills and extending their ability to collaborate with others in an ever-changing organisation. I’m pleased to say that these conversations still felt positive and productive over the 7 years I managed them.

As time went on, I experienced different challenges in developing my team however. After a period of organisational renewal my team merged with another one, and my direct reports now included people who had been managed in a way that didn’t foster their independence. I suddenly found my Thursday and Friday evenings disappearing as I stayed longer at work to ensure they were supported and had someone to escalate issues to.

This became unsustainable, especially as my own circumstances changed. The challenge for me now, as their manager, was to raise their game — to foster independence, critical thinking and decision-making in people who had done their jobs, and done them well, for a long time but now needed to take more responsibility. For me to succeed as their manager I needed to develop them. Over time, I worked with them to find ways to increase their pro-activity, so problems were not mounting at the end of the day and to ensure they had plans B, C and D in place for most eventualities. Of course, I was always at the other end of a phone if required, but they grew out of needing to call me or refer every issue to me.

My other challenge came when I returned from my maternity leave. My original cover had left and a wonderfully capable exec had been promoted to a senior role to cover the remaining months. She remained in this role when I returned partially so she could cover on the one day a week when I wasn’t in the office. I wanted to come back and pick up all that my role offered, reassert myself into the job and remind everyone how good I had been and how much they missed me, but here was this new Senior Exec with a job to do too. It took a little while to find my feet but I found that I really enjoyed working with her to gain new skills.

I had put her forward for management training before I left, and this carried on after I returned. I also tried to make a point of including her in conversations, meetings and emails where I felt she could learn, whether this was technical information or a way of approaching a problem. I could see her grow in confidence and her skills-base expand.

Of course, the upside was that instead of feeling that my return would mean a step back for her and looking for a new job, we retained her. She continued to grow and learn and I gained valuable support and managed to avoid the ‘doing 5 days work in 4’ trap. Win-win.

Keeping a department ticking over is relatively straightforward but developing individuals according to their varied needs is hard. It is also incredibly satisfying and the mark of a truly successful manager.