Book Excerpt

The Surprisingly Effective Impact of Becoming a Connector Manager

Business leaders, HR professionals, and others assume that an always-on management approach is best—but our research shows different

Sari Wilde
Sep 17 · 17 min read
Photo by rawpixel via Pixabay.

Above and beyond the stress managers experience in grappling with their own shifting responsibilities, they also need to respond to employees who are concerned about their skills becoming irrelevant. In fact, with the changes resulting from digitalization and organizational transformation, employees cite the need for better upskilling as their top concern. In one of our recent surveys, when we asked more than seven thousand employees throughout the world what they needed to aptly manage change, the top two responses were “need more upskilling” and “need to be able to work faster.” As technology takes further hold of companies’ workflows, artificial intelligence and new technologies are not only changing the capabilities employees need, but they are also transforming how companies operate. When we surveyed employees about the skills most critical to their success today and then asked how effective they felt at performing those same skills, 70 percent told us they haven’t mastered the skills they need for their current jobs.

All illustrations by the authors.

Stop and think about this statistic. This essentially shows that a large portion of your staff are not sufficiently equipped to be successful in their jobs. It’s critically important to prepare employees with the skills they need for today and tomorrow — we call this measure skills preparedness. Skills are the currency employees use to do their jobs and define their future roles. When employees have high skills preparedness, organizations perform better. In fact, boosting employee skills preparedness helps organizations close talent gaps with internal talent more quickly. Employees with high skills preparedness perform up to 45 percent better, display up to 51 percent more discretionary effort, and are up to 45 percent more engaged than employees with low skills preparedness.

Why does employee skills preparedness matter for managers? The snowballing effect of digitalization on work and changing employee skill needs translates into a new manager mandate: to act as a central source for upskilling employees in real time to meet current and future skill needs. Corporate communications and trainings pass through managers, making them conduits for implementing change, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that there’s one task in particular that is gaining tremendous focus in most organizations globally: providing continuous coaching and development. And this focus makes sense given how our research shows that coaching and development have more impact on an employee’s performance than other manager activities, such as good project management or strategic communication. We also find that providing feedback to employees improves their performance when employees consider and act on the feedback.

Senior executives are asking managers to coach even more to help employees and organizations keep up. In fact, when we surveyed human resources (HR) executives and asked how much managers should coach today, they estimated that they should be spending a whopping 30 percent of their time coaching and developing employees. That’s a pretty hefty ask. In a global environment characterized by everyday upheaval, can managers really be a step ahead and a measure more involved with each direct report? John Wilson, group talent and leadership manager at NFU Mutual, put it well when he expressed the challenge to us in an interview, saying, “Over time, expectations of managers have grown significantly. They are asked to lead and advocate change, run business as usual, satisfy increasing external regulation AND coach and develop their teams. So, from a manager’s perspective, understanding how best to prioritize their time is increasingly difficult.” When we looked at how much time managers actually spend coaching, it was a mere 10 percent of their time — a much different picture from what business leaders envisioned. The ask on managers to coach and develop more comes from a genuine interest in helping employees adapt to the dynamic demands of work, and enhance the overall talent and financial performance of their businesses. But the gap between the perceived amount of time managers should spend coaching and the amount of time they actually spend coaching is a problem.

To make matters worse, as firms worldwide invest significant amounts of time and money in developing managers to provide more feedback and development conversations, manager quality is actually stagnating. In fact, almost half of the managers we surveyed say they don’t have the confidence to develop the skills employees need today. Not only that, but as managers’ job expectations continue to increase, the time they have available to develop their staff declines. Fifty-five percent of managers we surveyed considered performance management too time- consuming. Not surprisingly, when we share these data points with our HR executives, they often tear into an energetic monologue around the role of the manager in developing teams and employees that generally boils down to “Well, that’s the job.” And, of course, the best business minds have understood for decades that people management takes time and attention. Here’s how the 1957 Harvard Business Review article titled “An Uneasy Look at Performance Appraisal” describes the expectation around formal performance management: “There is one unavoidable cost: the manager must spend considerably more time in implementing a [performance management] program… It is not unusual to take a couple of days to work through the initial establishment of responsibilities and goals with each individual. And a periodic appraisal may require several hours rather than the typical 20 minutes.” This expectation of manager coaching (still valid today) is compounded when we consider that with rare exceptions, people managers also have their own individual work to perform. So how do today’s managers cope with all these growing and shifting demands, and what do the most successful managers today do differently?

The Research

At the same time, we reflected on how the acquisition affected our coaching responsibilities. For Jaime’s part, he went from managing several teams to managing a large business that required a new set of collaboration and communication skills. For Sari’s, she also began managing more diverse employees throughout different continents with a variety of backgrounds, skill profiles, and career aspirations.

Managing employees effectively really is harder in today’s work landscape. Our next step was to test the conventional wisdom of what it means to be a manager. The central question in our research was, What are the best managers doing to develop employees in today’s workplace?

After assembling the research, we embarked on an extensive study. We needed a large, global, diverse data set to uncover insights that had the promise of transcending industry, geography, and manager tenure. As part of that, we launched surveys of more than nine thousand employees and managers worldwide, representing eighteen different functions working in twenty-five industries in six different regions. Our survey goal was to assess manager approaches to employee development (for example, frequency and quality of these coaching interactions) and to determine their impact on employee performance. We define performance at Gartner as the outcomes employees achieve by doing their individual tasks and assignments, by contributing to others’ work, and by using the contributions of others. We call this measure enterprise employee contribution.

Part of the objective for the surveys was to collect as much quantitative and qualitative information as we could around

  • Manager perspectives on the work environment, including how they spend their time, their spans of control, and their development interactions
  • Employee perspectives on their own development and the effectiveness of their manager across common development activities, and
  • Business leader perspectives (from more than two hundred public and private sector organizations) on organizational characteristics, budgets and priorities, performance management strategies, expectations and development support for managers

While our survey made it clear that managers are tasked with too many different asks, we decided to focus our survey analysis on what managers actually do when they are coaching. To analyze these activities, the team ran several statistical analyses across eighty-nine manager behaviors to develop their staff in an attempt to identify different approaches to management. We tested how often managers meet with employees, what they do during their conversations, the type of advice they provide, and many more activities.

What we found was surprising. The survey didn’t just tell us that some managers are vaguely ‘good’ while others generally fall short. Rather, it surfaced distinct manager behaviors that we could broadly categorize into four different types of managers, each with a different impact on their employees’ performance. This was the first major conclusion from our research: every manager at any level falls into one of four distinct profiles. Think of these types as the dominant approaches managers take when they coach and provide feedback to their staff. There is a continuum between the manager types: individual managers may fall into one type or another, depending on context. However, what we found in our analysis of the data and interviews is that every manager has one dominant approach that they apply most consistently, almost naturally.

Fascinated to learn more, we dug deeper into the data to get to know the manager types. The more we analyzed our data, the more we felt like sculptors chipping away at stone to reveal the fully formed figures. As we got to know these four manager types better, another key finding surfaced for us: all four occur in almost equal measure, in near perfect fourths, across industries, geographies, and workplace demographics such as generations. Each type of manager is someone (or many people) you know, and more important, one of these types is you.

The Four Manager Types

Figure 2: The Four Manager Types

1. Teacher

TEACHER: A manager who develops employees through personal expertise and experience, provides advice-oriented feedback, and directs employee development.

When Tim Che* signed on as a software developer at a relatively small but rapidly growing technology company in Seattle in the early 2000s, he was genuinely eager to wake up and go to work each morning. Che’s passion for solving user challenges in his programming brought him to great early success with the firm, especially as he lived through a boom in his particular sub-industry. Over the past fifteen years, Che has worked in a fast-paced, agile team development environment, and the team has excelled at creating flawless user-experience designs.

*We employ pseudonyms for certain names to protect individuals’ personal and professional information.

When Che reflects on his accelerated career path, he points to his technical excellence as the primary reason for his continued success. He even suspects that this passion for creating vibrant and highly functional app interfaces was one of the core reasons for his promotion to team manager two years ago, sharing that “when I got promoted to lead my (now) team of eight developers, I think my boss really saw me as the rising star developer on the team. I had the technical abilities to create flawless app elements, and she wanted me to bring my peers up to the same standard that I held in my own work.”

Like Che, Teacher managers develop employees based on their own expertise and experience, providing advice-oriented feedback and directing their employees’ development. They were often star individual contributors themselves before they became managers, and they carry a legacy of deep subject-matter knowledge with them into management. In this way, Teacher managers like Che continually create and re-create their own legacies, leaving behind a bit of themselves with each employee they manage.

2. Always On

ALWAYS ON: A manager who provides continuous, frequent coaching, drives employees’ development, and gives feedback across a breadth of skills.

For Maya Coles, a project leader at a major design firm, the Always On manager type holds true. She is dedicated to her team, constantly thinking about ways she can help each employee and provide answers to challenges that arise. As an example, during one critical initiative, Coles spent considerable time and energy giving the team ongoing advice and direction. The project involved numerous moving parts, from the design of a prototype to conducting market research, and the creation of a product line that would launch a whole new business unit for the organization. Because the project was so broad, members of Coles’s team had diverse and varying skill sets — some beyond Coles’s own capabilities.

As the project unfolded, even when she didn’t have technical expertise, Coles was able to see across the team as well as into each employee’s work, and she saw herself as the best source of ongoing feedback and coaching. While Coles’s method was certainly more time and energy intensive than her peers’ coaching methods, she was compelled to put as much of herself into her team’s performance as possible. This was a new endeavor for everyone, so Coles wanted to serve as the “rock” for the team. As she puts it, “My plan of attack: simply give employees the necessary, continuous feedback to guide their development to specific areas.”

Coles’s approach reflects the frequent, informal feedback style that best characterizes the Always On manager. With change as the only constant, continuous feedback can provide grounding insights and help employees make necessary course corrections. By providing this ongoing informal feedback and coaching to their employees, Always On managers share an intense focus on and commitment to helping their employees grow and improve at work. Always On managers are similar to Teachers in that they drive employee development themselves — they are a primary and recurrent source of support for their direct reports, bringing continuity to the table.

3. Connector

CONNECTOR: A manager who introduces employees to other people for coaching and development and creates a positive team environment while providing targeted feedback to employees.

Brianne Hoffman, a team manager in the digital marketing department of a global luxury goods company, is an example of a Connector manager. Having started her career at the company within its New York City department store as a beauty counter clerk, Hoffman has had an interesting and diversified career trajectory. Eventually working her way up through the sales function and even completing a brief stint abroad, she made the switch to marketing just five years ago and was quickly promoted into team management. Hoffman is well known for her creative campaign ideas and her ability to execute, but she considers herself a new entrant into the digital marketing space.

Hoffman’s is a self-described “constant newcomer” who readily admits “I don’t know” when employees ask questions that go beyond the scope of her knowledge or skill set. Hoffman knows when she’s not the best source of expertise for her digital marketing team, and she is careful to focus her feedback and coaching within her wheelhouse: understanding the firm’s customers. In the cases where Hoffman feels less well positioned to coach or advise, she turns inward to the rest of the organization and makes coaching connections for her employees. She knows from personal experience just how much knowledge and expertise lie across the firm. We see Connectors regularly leveraging employees on the team for peer-to-peer development and cultivating trust on their teams to create more skill-sharing opportunities, just as Hoffman does.

4. Cheerleader

CHEERLEADER: A manager who takes a hands-off approach to development, gives empowering positive feedback, and enables employees to take development into their own hands.

The Cheerleader manager type is exemplified by Jack Cecil, the team leader overseeing several teams of corporate recruiters at a FinTech company based in the UK. While other leaders (like Teachers and Always On) might obsess over the details of overseeing such an important arm of the firm, Cecil’s laid-back Cheerleader approach means that he encourages his teams from the sidelines. Cecil believes they will thrive despite (or perhaps because of) his hands-off coaching approach. After all, his teams of recruiters are measured against their “time to fill” (or the number of days it takes them to find a qualified candidate for a position), so Cecil knows they are extrinsically motivated to perform.

Cheerleader managers take a more passive path to development, focusing on providing positive encouragement and allow- ing their direct reports to learn by doing. In Cecil’s instance, he reasons that recruitment specialists thrive on customer interface: they learn something new in every conversation they have with a prospective candidate. That’s certainly how he himself became a great recruiter. Moreover, as the FinTech industry evolves rapidly, Cecil’s own expertise will quickly go out of date.

Cecil is known for inspiring his team without micromanaging them. When he holds team meetings or has one-on-one employee conversations, he sets a tone that empowers and encourages his teams. Overall, Cheerleaders take a positive and hands-off approach to coaching and development.

A Classic Horse Race

When we presented the four types of managers to business leaders and asked them which type they were aiming to build in their organizations, the Always On (Maya Coles’s) approach rose to the top. In fact, in our survey of human resources executives, a majority of respondents told us they were investing in driving manager-led “continuous and frequent” coaching and feedback at their firms.

Beyond internal manager trainings, this strategy also permeates recruitment approaches as executives look for managers with Always On attributes. Scanning job descriptions for manager positions in the United States to understand the top skills companies were recruiting for yielded some intriguing trends. Our analysis of all job descriptions across industries and management levels in the United States between 2016 and 2018 found that the market need for “leadership and coaching” increased by more than 15 percent with an emphasis on providing continuous feedback and development. This preference was reinforced by employees themselves.

With a growing percentage of millennial employees in a diversifying workforce, employees today broadly call for more manager guidance, not less. Our research shows that new generations of employees are asking for more feedback — one millennial encapsulates the idea like this: “It’s important for me to be in touch with my manager, getting frequent guidance and coaching on my work and career.” But the call for more coaching and development feedback goes beyond millennials to apply to a large portion of today’s overall workforce. Deloitte Human Capital Trends confirms that “regular feedback empowers people to reset goals continuously, change projects and feel rewarded for their work, not just their job.”

The message we heard from business leaders, HR professionals, and junior staff was clear: The Always On approach leads to better management and the best employee performance outcomes. But was this impression backed up by our research? As we analyzed the data from employees and managers, a different story began to emerge. Pitting the employee performance of those coached by Cheerleader, Teacher, Connector, and Always On manager types against each other yielded two very surprising conclusions that were counter to our own hypotheses, shown in the data in the figure:

Figure 3: Manager Types by Employee Performance Impact

Conclusion 1: Always on Managers Don’t Boost Employee Performance — They Degrade It

Why is this conclusion good news? Well, for those of you who are Always On types, it’s likely that you’re both stressed out by the amount of work it takes to manage people and frustrated that it never feels as if you’re doing enough. You can stop! For the rest of you, this is even better news. Your organization may be asking you to coach more frequently and on a broader range of topics, but you don’t have to follow that mandate. And you shouldn’t — because it’s failing. The constant pressure organizations put on managers to “do more” is actually getting them less.

Conclusion 2: The Connector Wins… by a Mile

One type of manager emerges from the data as best by far for improving employee performance: the Connector manager. The Connector has an outsize impact on employee performance, boosting it by as much as 26 percent and more than tripling the likelihood that an employee will be a high performer. This means that Connector managers provide better support to their employees in their day-to-day tasks and actually help them grow their future career potential. They still perform the same core coaching activities as other managers, but they prioritize the rest of their coaching time differently. What Connectors have in common are a set of leadership qualities that enable them to make three essential connections for their staff: the employee, team, and organization connections. These connections will serve as the foundation for the rest of this book.

Connectors personalize development to suit employee needs and interests. They focus on understanding a person’s needs, inspiring two-way development dialogues to get underneath surface-level behaviors. This ensures that they are providing targeted development at the right times for the right skill needs. Moreover, Connectors understand that sometimes they are best suited to provide feedback and coaching, and at other times, they’re not. In those instances they connect their employees to others, whether on the team or across the organization. However, Connectors don’t just pair up employees with a colleague or mentor and wish them well — they ensure employees learn from their connections.

Becoming a Connector Manager

Found in business, education, non-profits, and government, Connectors ultimately attain new performance heights and unleash underutilized talents.

From The Connector Manager: Why Some Leaders Build Exceptional Talent—and Others Don’t
By Jaime Roca and Sari Wilde, published by Portfolio, an imprint of the Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

Sari Wilde

Written by

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

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