It was long time ago – in my first management role – that I finally happened upon a lesson which has been with me ever since.  Management is an activity and not a status. Who knew?

What is that activity? More importantly, perhaps, how does anyone know if they’re doing it well or badly or not at all?

Well the activity is deceptively complex. It is: “to enable people to do – willingly and well – those things which needed to be done.”

Let’s unpack that statement. ‘Enable’ suggests a kind of flexibility, equipping the team’s members with the skills, resources, including time, and direction to do things and then getting out of their way, giving them the space to do a good job.  ‘Willingly’ talks about motivation – from why this is necessary to the wider enterprise to the benefits for the individual.  ‘Well’ means a common understanding of what good looks like – the standards required in terms of quality, quantity, cost or time. These are – or should be – the key measures used across all organisations. ‘Things which need to be done’ necessarily involves communication, ensuring everyone knows the immediate priorities, the direction of travel and the longer term goals.

This was a revelation to me and – I suspect – to many newly promoted managers. It was only when I was called to account at the weekly management meeting – a truly terrifying experience for the new manager who is barely on top of their brief – that I realised I was actually supposed to do something beyond swanning around looking important.

The skills took a lot longer to develop than the awareness of what was expected and needed. That said, ‘knowing what I didn’t know’ was the first and fundamental foundation stone of a learning journey I am still engaged on.

I was fortunate that I had a mentor – a leader who not only walked the talk but talked it as well. Working alongside this experienced manager, I became aware that I needed to monitor. Taking time to check on results and performance and observing each individual’s relationships with the rest of the team. As a former team member, it meant looking objectively at the work of others in pursuit of a shared goal. It created a lifetime’s commitment to finding things out before proposing action.

From gathering an understanding of the team’s collective capability and the appropriate standards we needed to meet, I then needed to take action to develop others, either individually or collectively; with external support or through less formal methods. However it was done, though, it became very clear, very quickly that continually improving my team’s capability was not a job I could handover but one for which any team leader worthy of the name takes full responsibility.

I also needed to build that team, ensure a sense of purpose and a focus on the mission and vision of the organisation.

Finally, I needed to inspirecombining clear and accurate communication with motivation.

So how are these skills developed? For one thing, they are skills and so practice and feedback is required. I can be told about as many theories as you can imagine, but I have to do things and then I have to reflect on what worked, what didn’t and what needs to be different in the future. Without that bridge between theory and practice there will be no skill development.

I was fortunate. I had a leader who took a hands-on approach to building my skills as a member of his team. I was involved in what I would subsequently come to know as a blended programme. I was sent on external courses (the same course which every manager in the organisation had also been required to attend, ensuring a common vocabulary at least). I was given books to read. I was given specific tasks to undertake which were stretching and difficult. I was sent to meetings and to observe others just to find out how they did things, and most importantly, I had a regular development discussion with my manager. During these meetings, he never told me anything. He simply asked. If pushed for an opinion he might suggest things I could do, but I was the one who set the goals and targets.

After these meetings, when I returned to my office one floor down, a memo was waiting for me. It detailed all the goals and objectives to which I had just agreed. All the action points and timescales were outlined. The date and time of our next meeting was in bold, 12pt.

In this pre-email age, there had been no time for his PA to type up the document and have it delivered since the end of our discussion.

Now that was a real leadership skill!

Robin Hoyle has been a trainer, learning designer and consultant for the past 28 years and is now Senior Consultant with Learnworks Ltd.  

He is the Chair of the World of Learning Conference, September 30th to October 1st at the NEC, Birmingham.