Management Mistakes 101: Training Tomorrow’s Leaders

Picture this; you’re a fresh-faced leader just getting to grips with your new role. Your main bugbear? One team member who is underperforming. It doesn’t matter how many SMART goals you set and performance conversations you have, over the next few months this individual fails to pull their socks up. To an experienced leader, this is a manageable problem with an obvious solution but, to a new manager, it’s terrifying.

You have no more tricks left up your sleeve, and it feels like the only option available is to terminate. Now, it might be that termination is a valid approach – even rigorous coaching has its limits – but having the confidence to know you’ve done everything you can and are justified in pulling the trigger is far beyond the experience of most new leaders. So, how do we as experienced managers ensure that those still finding their feet have the tools they need to succeed?

Training new Leaders

The head in the sand solution

We all have a tendency to opt for the easy option, and that means avoiding confrontation or tricky situations. With an underperformer and an inexperienced manager, this approach typically leads to the invention of a ‘special project’, something to keep the lacklustre colleague occupied and limit the damage they can do to team productivity. Of course, there is one other option; do nothing – and silently resent the underperformer’s presence while you do.

Neither option is conducive to the long-term success of the team, the organisation, or a developing manager. In fact, feeling powerless to improve the situation can turn new leaders into cynical, passive-aggressive, or sarcastic managers. It should come as no surprise that all these traits have a significant impact on employee morale, engagement, and productivity¹.

The unprofessional approach

Sarcasm, cynicism, and passive-aggression are all avoidance behaviours, and they’re the go-to reaction for many of us when we become overwhelmed. Needless to say, they have no place in a manager-employee relationship. Not only are they detrimental to organisational productivity¹, but they’ve also been shown to negatively impact employee engagement and job satisfaction, and increase burnout². Hardly surprising – it’s harder to trust sarcastic, cynical, or passive-aggressive leaders, many of whom will avoid giving direct critiques of work and actionable feedback³. Put simply; employees don’t know where they stand with these types of managers.

Of course, instilling the need to avoid such behaviours in a new manager is only part of the problem. Your developing leader might be able to rise above the annoyance caused by an underachiever, but what about the rest of their team? Passive-aggression is just as detrimental in a team as a leader. At an organisational level, it can slow decision making and stall execution, at a team level it hinders communication and productivity. For individuals, it causes unnecessary stress⁴.

New managers are responsible for the entire team, and they need to have the confidence to address issues like this and the skill to foster productive conflict before their first day on the job.

From theory to practice

“There is nothing so easy to learn as experience and nothing so hard to apply.”

-Josh Billings, American Humorist

Learning management theory is easy, it’s translating all those strategies into the real world that can be tricky. Those of you who caught my article on promoting high performers will know that I’m firmly of the opinion learning to become a manager takes time and practice. I’m all for an apprenticeship approach.

Letting individuals grow into management roles and develop their skills by managing freelancers or overseeing important projects means we create fewer frustrated or overwhelmed new leaders. Without an approach like the one I’m advocating, potentially good managers can be undone by the challenges of practicing leadership.

Making a manager

An apprenticeship approach requires a serious commitment to coaching and training. Budding managers need to understand just how important their role is to the long-term success of the organisation. It’s up to them to align, motivate, and inspire their teams, and they’ll need a whole new set of skills to achieve that:

  • Communication. Gone are the days of off hand comments to colleagues. New managers need to be mindful of what they are saying and the impact their opinions can have on a team. Good communication is critical to many productivity initiatives, especially delivering employee feedback, and new leaders need to learn how to win the trust and respect of their team.
  • Delegation. One of the biggest challenges for a new manager is recognising the difference between delivering results at a team level as opposed to as an individual. New leaders no longer have complete control over an outcome, and if they don’t have the support and experience to delegate, the urge to micro-manage may become too hard to fight.
  • Critical Thinking: Not a widely used skill in junior roles, many new managers need time to learn how to think strategically and identify the most productive workflows for their team. All the theory in the world won’t help them with this one; it’s a skill only experience can teach.

To sum up…

Managers – the good ones at least – are not made overnight. As senior leaders, it’s up to us to mentor promising individuals. This means creating opportunities for potential managers to lead long before they take on an official management role, and continuing to mentor and support new managers to ensure they have the support they need to excel as leaders.

What was your experience of junior management? Did you ever wish you’d had more training and support?


¹Kessler et al., 2013. Leadership, interpersonal conflict and counterproductive work behaviour: An examination of stressor-strain process. [Abstract]. International Association for Conflict Management. 6 (3). pp. 180-190.
²Leary et al., 2013. The relationship among dysfunctional leadership dispositions, employee engagement, job satisfaction and burnout. [Abstract]. The Psychologist-Manager Journal. 16 (2). pp 112-130.
³Jones, 2012. 5 signs of passive-aggressive management: why it kills employee motivation and how to deal. Brazen.
⁴Davey, 2016. Reduce passive aggressive behaviour on your team. Harvard Business Review.

Promoting High Performers to their First Leadership Role

What does promotion mean to you? A step up the ladder, expanding your skill set, a pay rise? At some point, promotion is likely to mean a move to a management position. When hiring for management roles, senior leaders typically gravitate towards high performers, assuming those who have mastered their current role are the perfect choice for leadership. In reality, great workers don’t always make great managers, and turning your high performers into spectacular leaders requires more than a promotion.

The Challenges Facing New Leaders

New managers have to stop focusing on their own performance and become an inspiration to others, delivering results at a team or even organisational level. For many, this involves developing an entirely new skill set.

Australian Managers leadership survey

Motivation and Alignment

The ability to influence, motivate, and inspire a team is essential for managerial success¹. Without it, poor performance, disengaged individuals, and low staff retention are the inevitable result.

Managers play a pivotal role in ensuring employees are invested in their work, aligned with organisational objectives, and productive². If new managers have no understanding of employee engagement, top-down communication, or alignment strategy, they lack the tools to get the best out of their team

Need a refresher on aligning employees to organisational goals? Check out my article, Aligning People P2: The Role of the Manager.


Delivering feedback is no easy task, it’s a skill that took many of us years to master. Imagine how much more nerve-racking it is evaluating individuals who were recently peers?

With potential trust issues to navigate, little experience of goal setting or managing different personality types, providing actionable feedback is a potential minefield for new managers.

Looking for tips to master performance conversations? Check out my article on the psychology behind workplace feedback.


Tasked with succeeding at a team level, new managers have no individual control over their goals for possibly the first time in their careers. For high performers used to exceeding expectations, the desire to micro-manage is a difficult one to fight³.

Those that are comfortable delegating have yet more problems to face. With no previous management experience – and in some cases knowledge of their team – judging attainable goals and knowing which individuals are capable of delivering autonomously is all but impossible.

Planning and Organising

Critical thinking is crucial to managerial success¹, but it is not a skill that’s common in junior roles. Suddenly required to establish priorities, streamline workflows and think autonomously, many new managers struggle to identify the best strategy for success at a team level. Without these skills, new managers often feel as though they are underperforming, leading to poor team productivity at best and, at worst, an exodus of high performers.

How to Promote to Leadership

A leadership role is completely different to any other. Creating confident, able managers begins long before promotion.


Individuals with the possibility of promotion are more engaged and committed to their employer⁴. Providing management training is a great way to reward high performers, encourage loyalty, and increase managerial competency. In fact, those given developmental assignments before promotion have been shown to make much better leaders in the long run⁵.

Training can take many forms. Those of you who caught my article on managing freelancers will know I’m a big fan of facilitated learning. By providing employees with the opportunity to take on new responsibilities, you give them the freedom to develop their skills organically, solving problems and adjusting their strategy to create an approach that works for them.

Of course, self-learning has its limits, and there are situations where having someone with experience on-hand to offer advice is invaluable. Assigning a mentor to help an individual develop their managerial skills is a great way to ensure they are ready when the time comes to take on a leadership role.

Mentors are facilitators rather than instructors. They provide advice and guidance, but it is the mentee who takes responsibility for the outcome. Encouraging future managers to own a solution boosts their confidence, promotes critical thinking and encourages high performers to move from an individual ‘what do I need to accomplish’ mentality to a wider, team perspective.


Exposing potential managers to leadership situations means that, when they do make the jump, they have a thorough understanding of what is expected of them. It also gives individuals the opportunity to identify which skills they need to work on and where their strengths lie.

Enabling promising candidates to shadow other leaders is one of the best ways to deliver this perspective. Placing them in departments outside of their own offers a number of other advantages, broadening individual understanding of wider organisational goals and strengthening interdepartmental relationships.

Providing cover during a leader’s absence is another way for potential managers to hone their skills and gain much needed experience.


Open discussions of employees’ long-term goals, strengths and weaknesses feature highly in all the best performance management systems. If, with experience of management, individuals are still keen to move up, then place them in a team leader or junior management role. If, however, an individual decides leadership is not suited to them, help them expand their role to make the best use of their strengths and skills.

Don’t forget, even with the appropriate groundwork, a promotion does not create a leader. New managers need ongoing coaching and development from senior staff to help them succeed in their new roles⁵. Check out my article on the seven skills all exceptional leaders need for an in-depth look at what it takes to make a manager.

To Sum Up…

Leadership is not a natural progression; it takes time, training, and support to turn high performers into fantastic managers.

What did your career progression look like? Feel free to share your experiences, I’d love to hear your take on management training and progression.


¹Muller and Turner, 2010. Leadership competency profiles of successful project
managers. International Journal of Project Management, 28. pp. 437- 448.

²Cartwright and Holmes, 2006. The meaning of work: the challenge of regaining employee engagement and reducing cynicism. Human Resource Management Review, 16. pp. 199 – 208.

³White, 2010. The micro-management disease: symptoms, diagnosis and cure. Public Personnel Management, 39 (1).

⁴Kosteas, 2011. Job satisfaction and promotions. Cleveland State University (Thesis).

⁵Dragoni et al., 2009. Understanding managerial development: integrating developmental assignments, learning orientation, and access to developmental opportunities in predicting managerial competencies. Academy of Management Journal, 52 (4), pp. 731-743.

Clinton vs. Trump: Two Alternative Approaches to People Management

From FBI investigations to opinion polls and some unfortunate word choices, American Presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are filling the column inches and keeping the world’s media on its toes. One article caught my attention last month and sparked more than a little curiosity about how they each run their campaigns. I’m not talking about the merchandise-laden tour buses and charged debates, but the experts, aids, and volunteers bustling about behind the scenes.

In 2012, Ann Marie Habershaw – the COO behind Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign –  revealed that hiring practices among staffers were, at best, ad hoc. She was responding to a Tweet from Nathaniel Koloc, then CEO of recruitment firm Rework. She told him that department heads often make hiring decisions on the fly, and campaigns are inevitably run by friends of friends and talent sourced through word-of-mouth.

As though to prove her point, three years later, Habershaw mentioned Koloc to Clinton’s deputy COO, who called to offer him the position of Director of Talent Acquisition and Development on the Hillary for America campaign. That makes Clinton’s outfit the first major political campaign to have a role dedicated to people management and talent sourcing¹. An interesting move, don’t you think?

Which got me thinking, what can we learn about people management from these two very different candidates?


25 seconds in, learning from criticism. 3.29, expressing her opinion and identifying problems without micromanaging the solution. 5 mins in, importance of compromise for progress.

Team and Hiring Style

The first female nominee is known for her close inner-circle. Many of the major players on her staff have been with her since she was First Lady, and she has retained a number of employees from her time at the State Department – not to mention some notable names from both husband Bill’s and President Obama’s campaigns².

This tried and tested team have proven they can handle anything a Presidential election might throw at them, but Hillary has also future-proofed her staff. Her established team is joined by new hires with more contemporary skill sets, like Marlon Marshall, who is known for his alternative approach and willingness to operate contrary to established Washington precedent². Interestingly, it’s an attitude mirrored by campaign manager Robby Mook, who worked with Clinton on her 2008 campaign.


The thousands of work emails now available to the public reveal a lot about Clinton’s character and how it translates to her management style.

Performance-oriented Clinton is happy to circumvent time consuming, official procedures when she judges them irrelevant. For example, when waiting to receive a statement which lacked any sensitive information but had been classified top secret, she instructed the sender to simply email it directly (and against protocol), ensuring the document was available there and then without delay.³

“Take criticism seriously, but not personally. If there is truth or merit in the criticism, try to learn from it. Otherwise, let it roll right off you.”4

Source: Huffington Post

Management Style

There may be no better way to define Clinton’s management style than with her own phrase, ‘smart power’. It encapsulates the need to learn and adapt to new situations in pursuit of the best possible outcome⁵. A practice reflected in her team, who embody a mixture of experienced and unconventional thinking.

Throughout her public career, Clinton has championed training and skills development.

In a primary debate in 2007, she advised against contracting out government jobs, an expansion of her 2006 idea to form a ‘public service academy’. Much like a military academy, this theoretical institute would train civil servants for free in exchange for a set number of years work. It’s a management approach that offers benefits at both an individual and organisational level, the organisation in this case being the USA⁶.

Defining Principles

  • Compromising
  • Manages to strengths
  • Performance orientated


On being detail orientated (1 min 32 in), 2.50 attitude to employee performance.

Team and Hiring Style

The Republican nominee launched his bid for The Oval with a very small team. Including long-time advisors Roger Stone and Corey Lewandowski, his initial staff had little political experience and were later joined by communications and foreign policy teams that, again, consisted of strategists and consultants with little or no experience in the political arena⁷. Trump opted for those he knew and trusted from his years in industry rather than new faces or unknown experts.

However, as the election gained momentum, Trump’s hiring policy changed in response to the developing needs of the campaign. Established political consultant Paul Manafort came on board, bringing with him over 30 years experience in presidential politics. At the same time, those in Trump’s team with political backgrounds were promoted, and the campaign strategy took on a more traditional approach, with Manafort introducing teleprompters and speechwriters⁷.


Intuitively driven, Trump is not a manager bound to the status quo. He is known to base his hiring decisions on gut reactions, and places greater emphasis on potential than experience.⁸ It’s a focus reflected in his initial campaign team, picked for their skills rather than their experience in the political world.

“Management is an art that is very important to me. Having leadership skills and employees that love their work is one of the great joys of life.”

Source: Sullivan and Costa, 2016. In campaign chaos, Trump shows his management style. The Washington Post.

Management Style

As a manager, Trump has high expectations. He leads by example, working around the clock and expecting his employees to do the same⁸. He also cultivates a competitive environment, actively encouraging rivalries even amongst high-level employees like Manafort and Lewandowski⁹ (those of you looking for another approach to aligning employees with organisational outcomes might want to check out my recent article, Aligning People: A Leader’s Greatest Challenge).

Trump has a well-founded belief in his abilities, appears very resilient to criticism, and is confident that his approach is the best.ⁱ⁰ He doesn’t delegate big decisions and takes personal responsibility for the outcome of projects in all fields⁹. It’s an exhausting style of management, and not one many could successfully emulate, but it is fantastic for achieving huge successes and is the reason he can deliver on projects that would be unattainable to other managers.

The best example of this is his campaign, which has taken him from a candidate with no elected experience –– not even running experience – to a nominee; a victory that has only been achieved by a handful of men, most notably Herbert Hoover and William Howard Taft¹¹. In the light of this success, his claim that he is a quick learner¹² seems well founded; and clearly he expects the same from those around him. When the campaign hit a snag in March, it was Lewandowski who hired Manafort and his company of politically savvy aids to put it back on track¹³, demonstrating a penchant for agile learning in Team Trump, with senior staff continually assessing performance, identifying missteps, and adjusting their strategy in response.

Defining Principles

  • Intuitive
  • Hierarchical
  • Performance orientated

To sum up…

Trump’s experience in industry and Clinton’s decades in Washington have created two very different managers with two very different approaches, but they both have two values in common: performance and agile learning. Only time will tell which management style is the best suited to the political arena but I, for one, cannot wait to see the outcome.

What are your thoughts on these two approaches? How would they translate to your organisation?


¹Krueger, 2016. How the Hillary Clinton campaign built a staff as diverse as America. Fast Company.
² Anon. 2016. Hillary Clinton presidential campaign staff and advisors, 2016.Ballotpedia.
³ Klapper and Lee, 2016.What we learned from 52,000 pages of Hillary Clinton’s emails. PBS.
⁴ Sanghoe, 2015. 5 important leadership lessons from Hillary Clinton. Huffington Post.
⁵ Shambaugh, 2010. Leadership secrets of Hillary Clinton. Forbes.
⁶Katz, 2015. What a Hillary Clinton presidency would mean for the federal workforce. Government Executive.
⁷ Anon. 2016. Donald Trump presidential campaign staff and advisors, 2016. Ballotpedia.
⁸Kruse, 2016. The executive Mr Trump. Politico Magazine.
⁹Sullivan and Costa, 2016. In campaign chaos, Trump shows his management style. The Washington Post.
ⁱ⁰Gaskell, 2016. 4 Leadership lessons from Trump. Forbes.
¹¹Raunch, 2015. Amateurs in the Oval Office. The Atlantic.
¹²Dickerson, 2016. How fast does Donald Trump learn? CBS News.
¹³Moussa and Newberry, 2016. What we can learn from Donald Trump’s campaign reboot. London School of Economics (US Centre).

Aligning People: A Leader’s Greatest Challenge

Part I: Understanding the Obstacles

Aligning people

Today’s working environment is an entirely different beast to any that’s gone before. We have more generations in the workforce and a greater focus on life choices, travel and experience. Personal status is no longer determined by job role, and it’s vogue to hate work.

Add to that our (relatively) recent economic woes and the uncertainty of the job market, and it’s little wonder alignment is a thorn in the side of leaders up and down the country. So, what are the alignment challenges facing leaders, and how can we overcome them?

1. Mind The Generation Gap

For the first time in history, we have multiple generations in the workforce. Millennials are working alongside Generation X’s and more than a few hierarchical Baby Boomers, many nearing retirement age. In this one-size-fits-one environment, any approach to alignment must consider the motivations and needs of each of these groups.

Baby Boomers

These guys are work oriented. They are motivated by wealth and rank, define success by hours logged, and believe in working their way up the corporate ladder. Baby Boomers are committed to their organisation and often serve long tenures in one company2. Most significantly for business, they actively avoid confrontation and will often prioritise process over results3.

Generation X

In direct contrast to the generation above them, Xs favour a ‘hands off’ management approach. Technologically literate, this group have an aversion to risk, can be sceptical of management and are happy to consider lateral progression over the traditional ‘upwards’ promotion².

Caught between progressive Millennials and traditional Baby Boomers, Gen X is a useful workforce intermediary. Baby Boomers labelled them ‘slackers’, in reality, they are the pioneers of the work-life balance4. Most telling of all, their flexibility and excellent communication skills mean that both Baby Boomers and Millennials consider this group the best at generating revenue and managing teams1.


Now the dominant generation in the workforce1, Millennials boast technical skills that surpass either of the generations before them. They distrust bureaucracy, hop willingly between jobs, and will sacrifice income for a better work-life balance2. Digital natives, they expect instant access to learning and information — a point of contention between this group and Baby Boomers, who respect the traditional, ‘top-down’ distribution of information1.

Millennials infographic

2. Everyone Hates Work, Right?

We’ve seen a huge change in social attitudes to the workplace over the last 30 years. Women are entering the workforce in increasing numbers, more and more Australians are working from home, and a whopping 38% of Millennials work freelance. But that isn’t the only change.

TV shows regularly depict the soul-crushing tedium of the 9-5 (think Simpsons and The Office), while the internet is littered with ‘Happy Friday’ memes designed to reinforce the monotony of working life. Pop culture has painted such a negative view of work that it’s now commonplace to hate your job. With the world telling us to live for the weekend and endure the week, leaders are facing an uphill struggle to convince employees they have an essential role to play in a rewarding environment.

3. Money, Money, Money

Independent and relatively wealthy, Generation Xs can afford to pursue career changes. They are flexible enough to think laterally, and will likely avoid or leave roles they don’t enjoy. At the other end of the scale, Millennials are less financially secure and display a greater level of flexibility, with many freelancing alongside their day jobs. Unlike Baby Boomers, both generations are less financially reliant on a single employer, and require more than simply a paycheque to commit long-term.

This, coupled with the disruption introduced by innovative technologies and the turbulence of the financial market, has served to decrease the average employee tenure6. Workers no longer commit entire careers to one organisation, and many will hold roles in multiple industries before they retire7. A reaction to boom and bust cycles, and the resulting redundancies, mergers and acquisitions, these behaviours mean that alignment strategies must be robust enough to handle staff turnover while addressing underlying issues surrounding engagement and productivity.

4. You’re How Old?!

Baby Boomers were hit hardest by the recession, experiencing the most redundancies, pay cuts and investment losses. The resulting financial insecurity will mean many continue to work long after retirement age5.

While a longer tenure benefits employers — we retain essential skills and knowledge — it poses a significant threat to engagement. Working beyond retirement can result in an (understandable) negativity towards work. As the workplace becomes more Millennial orientated, and the first Generation Zs make an appearance, ensuring Baby Boomers feel included and valued will present one of the biggest challenges for alignment.

Millennials value mentors infographic

To Sum Up…

Aligning every worker to a broader organisational purpose offers advantages across the board. But alignment is a target that’s becoming increasingly difficult to hit, with workplace disruption making aligning employees to organisational goals more challenging than ever. Luckily, we have the answers to meeting these challenges in Part II. Stay tuned!



1Bursch. 2014. Managing the multigenerational workplace. UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School.

2Dowd-Higgins. 2013. How to play together in the multi-generational sandbox at work. Huffington Post.

3Murphy. 2007. Leading a Multigenerational Workforce. AARP.

4American Management Association. 2014. Leading the four generations at work.

5Laham. 2015. Peace, love and no retirement in sight: why so many baby boomers must keep working.Huffington Post.

6Bidwell. 2013. What happened to long-term employment? The role of worker power and environmental turbulence in explaining declines in worker tenure. Organization Science

7PWC. 2014. Millennials at work: reshaping the workplace. PWC.

A Sensible Discussion about Autonomy

Organisations continue to look at increasing the autonomy of competent employees to reduce unnecessary bureaucracy or enable greater personal discretion over when, where and how they perform their role. In both instances, measurable improvements are expected in employee alignment with organisational goals and an individual’s productivity.

Autonomy has its benefits and challenges and so in this article, I’ll use independent research and my leadership experience of over 20 years to discuss a sensible approach to autonomy.

A sensible discussion about Autonomy

What is Autonomy?

Simply put, autonomy is allowing staff to determine what actions should be taken and when, and where and how they produce their work.

In a recent blog, Work and Happiness[1], I described how happiness in the workplace depends on employees feeling a sense of purpose, community, and respect as a valuable and contributing member of their organisation.

Companies that empower their staff experience greater employee engagement and increased performance against goals and key performance indicators as a direct result of employees feeling a greater sense of ownership and accountability. In contrast, people with little freedom in how they perform their role can become disengaged, and companies can see productivity and job satisfaction suffer.

Is Autonomy on the Rise?

All indications show empowerment is an essential ingredient in creating and maintaining a productive and rewarding workplace: but is it increasing? According to AON’s 2015 Trends in Global Employee Engagement Report,[2] “The overall work experience is deteriorating – particularly regarding enablement, autonomy, and the sense of accomplishment.”

AON’s survey analyses many factors that directly affect employee engagement including autonomy. In both the US and Europe, their data show drops in autonomy between 5% and 6% between 2013 and 2014. In Australia, autonomy increased by 3% over the same period. So what can Australian employers do to continue that trend and reap the benefits of this valuable management tool?

When and Where Autonomy Works

For some occupations, autonomy can be limited. A retail employee may have discretion in the manner in which they greet their customers, but you certainly won’t be letting them take their cash drawer home at night to balance and reconcile.

In contrast someone in product development who designs new or improves existing products or services could have flexibility regarding how they go about those processes. They can use their discretion on where and how to focus their efforts rather than following a set of strictly-defined instructions or workflow models.


The most important factor to consider when determining autonomy is the experience and level of competency in the role. Competency levels define a level of skill and mastery. Low skill and mastery mean less autonomy and more direction: more skill and mastery mean less direction and more autonomy.

Determining how and where to provide autonomy requires careful consideration. In addition to the dictates of the position, autonomy is highly dependent on the employee’s individual strengths and weaknesses.

Experience and level of competency


Benefit or Detriment?

Can autonomy work in your firm? Research indicates that autonomy works best in stable organisations, where employees can perform their function with a high level of independence.

Organisations may fear that an autonomous employee pool will result in lower productivity, but a recent study shows the opposite may be true. A survey[3] by Nicholas Bloom, Professor of Economics at Stanford University, and Co-Director of the Productivity, Innovation and Entrepreneurship Program at the National Bureau of Economic Research, followed a group of employees at China’s Ctrip, one of the country’s largest travel agents. Staff members were given the option to work their call center jobs from home. The surprising results: compared to the control group who stayed in the office, the productivity of the Work from Home Group increased by 13 percent and attrition was 50 percent lower than their work-in-the-office counterparts. The ability to simply control “where” the work was performed had a positive effect on employee performance as well as retention.

Implementing Autonomy

Shifting to a more autonomous structure can be challenging, particularly where there are a long-established hierarchy and strictly defined roles. Structural change can cause individuals to feel their level of responsibility or status is being eroded, particularly if those under their direction are being granted more independence.

Empathize with those managers, certainly, but explain that as autonomy increases across the organisation, the control they relinquish could lead to greater independence for themselves. Most managerial staff have the responsibility to perform their tasks in addition to directing others. With less need to micromanage staff, their ability to focus on their productivity can increase. Communicating openly about why change is happening and how it aligns with organisational goals is paramount.

Don’t assume all employees want greater autonomy: for some autonomy may result in deeper engagement and better performance in their role. Others may not enjoy the additional responsibility or may believe they lack appropriate skills.

Considerations when Implementing Autonomy

When introducing greater autonomy, I suggest a holistic approach: a necessary organisational support including learning and development should be provided.

Employee performance and comfort should be reviewed throughout the process as it unfolds. If adjustments are necessary, they can be incremental and easier to manage than an entire revamping or dismissal of the program. The key is to monitor how the process rolls out at each phase, so corrections can be made before they become problematic.

Conversely, if autonomy is not successful, there must be consideration given to rescinding this benefit if needed. Any reduction should be managed carefully. The employee must be given the reason for the shift with a high level of sensitivity. If autonomy is not successful because of business-related factors, rather than negative performance, candor and transparency are key to retaining productivity in the wake of removing autonomy.


Employee autonomy can be a double-edged sword. Too little can lead to staff members who feel their talents are unrecognized, their capabilities are minimized, and they are being micromanaged. Frustration and disengagement can result which invariably cause lower productivity. Too much autonomy can translate into an organisation that is highly busy but low on productivity. And, as non-directed employees work against each other, rather than moving in the same direction, anarchy can be the result.

Using autonomy responsibly, by role, competency, and skill level requires thoughtful consideration to reap the maximum benefits. For roles that require greater independence, I believe it’s imperative that learning needs be considered when increasing autonomy, along with well-defined expectations in place for the employee.

A careful review of the benefits to the company and the employee must be monitored on an ongoing basis, and thoughtful consideration must occur when removing or reducing autonomy if needed.

A prosperous balance can lie in an individualized mix of both empowerment and traditional management styles. Using autonomy successfully is a result of being aware of the needs of the company and the employee, and assuring that the level of independence enhances, rather than diminishes, engagement and productivity.


  1. Cognology, 2016 Work and Happiness
  1. Aon/Hewitt, 2015 Trends in Global  Employee Engagement
  1. Roberts and Bloom, 2016 A Working from Home Experiment Shows High Performers Like It Better


Why new managers should always start by managing freelancers

Learning how to manage is difficult. Overnight, you’re given responsibility for a bunch of people and somehow you need to deliver a result. It’s stressful, scary and can end in failure – for the manager, the project or both.

I don’t think the process needs to be this difficult. There’s only a few skills – though I admit some will want to differ – that you need to be an effective manager of people. And all of these skills can be learnt and honed very effectively through managing small-scale projects with freelancers. With more freelancers in the economy than ever before, there’s plenty of opportunity.

What is the role of a manager?

At the core of a manager’s responsibilities is helping their employees to learn.

Employee learning is critical, because fundamentally every business result happens as a consequence of employees learning and refining their behaviour over time. Happy customers, financial results and high performance are all consequences of successful managers facilitating employee learning.

Put simply, you cannot be an effective manager if you can’t help your employees learn. (Or, if you can’t facilitate learning, you will be an ineffective manager).

As a result, the critical success factor for a new manager is how quickly they can build the skills to help their team learn effectively.

How do you help others learn?

Facilitating learning doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to ‘teach’. But it does mean that you must partner with employees to foster, and even drive their learning. Doing this requires two things:

  1. Setting expectations, and
  2. Giving feedback

When you break it down, this two-part ‘expectations / feedback’ process (repeated frequently over time) sits at the heart of all employee learning.

The learning loop and process

So in terms of skills, the first two things that a new manager needs to learn are:

  1. How to set good expectations, that are easily understood and actioned; and
  2. How to give good feedback, to make sure that expectations (and relative performance) are understood

In my view, an A1, gold-medal way to learn these two skills is through managing freelancers on small projects.

Why freelancing is such an effective tool for teaching managers how to drive learning

In order to deliver a successful outcome with a freelancer, you must set clear expectations and provide frequent feedback. Because there’s no broader context, the success of the entire project is contingent on the manager’s ability to communicate expectations that can be well-understood, and feedback on the project deliverables. Put another way:

If the project manager fails to set good expectations (that are easily understood and actioned) – then the project will fail.

If the project manager fails to provides good feedback (that make clear actual performance versus set expectations) – then the project will fail.

The success or failure of the freelance project provides an immediate feedback mechanism for the new manager. In a relatively safe and quarantined learning environment, the new manager can see the consequences of feedback and expectation setting for learning and project delivery.

In conclusion

At the simplest level, to manage means you must be able to bring out the best performance in others, and drive learning in those around you to do so. In teaching someone how to manage, you must first teach them how to facilitate learning.

As I’ve mentioned in this article, teaching emerging managers how to drive learning is extremely effective when they are managing freelancers on small projects. To deliver the project, new managers must learn how to drive learning through the expectations / feedback loop. It’s an investment that you’ll see pay off for the rest of their management career.

Have you used freelance projects to teach new managers how to drive learning? I’d love to hear about your experiences. Jump into the comments below or join the conversation on Twitter (@cognology).

Jon Windust

Jon Windust is the CEO at Cognology – Talent management software for the future of work. Over 250 Australian businesses use Cognology to power cutting-edge talent strategy. You can follow Jon on Twitter or LinkedIn.

To build exceptional leaders, focus on these seven skills

The skills required for leadership don’t change through your career

We do a lot of work with Cognology clients in identifying the competencies that leaders require to succeed. It’s fascinating work. And through this process, I also get to hear a lot of assumptions about what people think it takes to succeed as a leader.

One of the most common assumptions is that as leaders progress through their career they need to develop a dramatically different set of leadership skills. After all, they’ll be taking on bigger and more varied projects. And they’ll be responsible for more and more people.

But this just isn’t the case. Whether you’re leading one person, or 100,000, the skills required are remarkably similar. Recent research into key competencies for leadership published by Harvard Business Review shows this. The study surveyed thousands of HR and business professionals on the skills leaders needed at each stage of their career. And the results were surprisingly consistent, regardless of the level of leadership.

The seven skills you’ll need with you at all times.

From the 332,860 people surveyed in the study, seven skills were picked almost twice as often as the remaining nine. So I don’t take up too much of your time (I could talk about these things all day!) I’ll give you some of my thoughts on the top seven skills:

  • Inspires and motivates others: this one’s a no brainer. How could you lead without being inspiring and motivational? If people look up to you and believe in you then they’re more likely to follow you.
  • Displays high integrity and honesty: again, fairly intuitive. If you work hard and apply yourself then the truth is all you need. How can you be a leader without being honest?
  • Solves problems and analyzes issues: how well can you think on your feet and solve problems on the spot? Are you able to analyze issues and stop them from becoming problems?
  • Drives for results: you want your results to be able to speak for themselves. Are you able to bring a project home and get the results required?
  • Communicates powerfully and prolifically: some argue that you can make anything happen if you just communicate the right way. How well can you articulate your ideas so people understand what your big goals are?
  • Collaborates and promotes teamwork: You’re the one bringing everyone together and making sure delivery works smoothly. How well can you can you work with others and get a team to work for you?
  • Builds relationships: your ability to build rapport with others. Can you find a way to connect and engage with other people?

You’ll find that these skills are complimentary to each other. Develop one and you’ll typically improve in other areas too. Think about how well you can solve problems when you drive for results. Your ability to inspire others is dependent on how well you can communicate.

Why you need to introduce all new and potential leaders to these skills.

Do you have an employee on the cusp of becoming an effective leader? Review these key competencies and see where they need improvement.

Break the requirements for the position down to its simple elements. Treat these key competencies as if they were the desired outputs for a project. They may already have these skills, but are they at the level they need to be?

In our own article on the importance of competencies, we use the example of the difference between the ability to craft a pitch for a Public Relations Assistant and a Public Relations Manager.

An assistant must be able to craft a pitch, in that they understand what is required to craft one, but a manager must be able to craft one that is engaging and compelling. The same skill is required, but at a higher level.

Use these skills for ongoing development, feedback, and coaching.

Recognition of these skills is essential for development. It becomes easier to assess the skills that employees need when you can put them into objective terms.

Using these skills you can almost predict which employees will advance, based on the leadership skills they possess at the moment.

This removes the guesswork out of training employees in areas they need improvement. Once you can articulate the areas an employee is lacking in, you can help plan, manage and coach for the development required.

Do you agree with this list of key competencies? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the competencies required for leadership in your organisation. Jump into the comments below and let’s get the conversation going.

Photo Credit: Sara&Joachim&Mebe Used under license CC BY-SA 2.0,_Namibia-2.jpg