Don’t read this if you have a hangover

February 20th 2012

Apparently recent research called Lessons for leaders from the people who Matter undertaken by Harris Interactive found that employees from across the globe think that one third of their bosses are ineffective, lack empathy and have poor leadership skills. What’s more, it states that employees would rather suffer a bad hangover, do housework or look at their credit card bill than sit through a performance discussion with their boss. Why?  Because such a meeting will leave them with a big dent in their personal self-esteem.
The research also reported how employees would double their performance if they were working for their ‘best ever’ boss; scary statistics were quoted such as how an increase in motivation can go from 11% to 98% and high performance from 5% to 94% if employees had a really good boss.

Naturally enough, some employees (45%) said they could do a better job than their boss but they did not want to be a manager. (Too much stress, responsibility and pressure.) At the same time, 2 out every 5 employees left because of their manager. What really grieved these employees was managers failing to ask for ideas and input, limited work-related conversations and insufficient feedback on their performance leading to poor employee engagement.

In another quite separate report, the attributes of those leaders who consider themselves ‘truly gifted’ (despite being at the helm of failing companies) were identified as:

  • They see themselves and their companies as dominating their environments, not simply responding to developments in those environments;
  • They identify so completely with the company that there is no clear boundary between their personal interests and corporate interests;
  • They seem to have all the answers, often dazzling people with the speed and decisiveness with which they can deal with challenging issues;
  • They make sure that everyone is 100% behind them, ruthlessly eliminating anyone who might undermine their efforts;
  • They are consummate company spokespersons, often devoting the largest portion of their efforts to managing and developing the company image;
  • They treat intimidatingly difficult obstacles as temporary impediments to be removed or overcome;
  • They never hesitate to return to the strategies and tactics that made them and their companies successful in the first.

Right! So how do we act on all of this to make sure everyone is happy at work, successful and performing to the best of their abilities?

As someone who wrote a book on leadership in 2009, as an attempt to understand its complexities, I have a great deal of sympathy for those brave souls who decided to go for management jobs. This in part is why we are always looking for ways to improve leadership at LEYF, from the perspectives of both managers and staff.  And the issue is even more crucial when you consider the children at the mercy of our abilities everyday. (Well led Early Years settings lead to better outcomes for all children, hence our ambition to build a better future for London’s children.)

Either way, such research is always a good wake-up call (like when the mystery shopper comes calling). And so finding it makes the fact we are putting real effort into getting leadership right at LEYF even more reassuring – with a plan to roll out improved performance management systems to help managers lead and motivate their staff, whilst also trying hard to improve communication.

Of course, as a boss, I have sympathy with leaders and managers: it is a tough job, and quite a different one to being a nursery officer or teacher. So I am keen to move away from the traditional vertical approach to promotion, which often means staying on long enough to end up managing the setting by default.  This is simply the wrong approach, since being a manager is a completely different job. Luckily for me, our managers respond well to the challenge of how to lead the fabulous LEYF curriculum, while running their nursery as a social enterprise. It’s a tough call.

I think our plan for LEYF leadership teams is the only way to go. Being a leader at the top of a pyramid is a lonely place, listening to the groaning of the Pharaoh ghosts trapped in their sarcophagus and with no one to talk to (not even Harrison Ford). As a CEO, I know this and I am grateful to have a supportive team who can be kind and helpful, but who also love to bring me back to reality. (Well, they try anyway!)

In my optimistic way, I would take a punt that leadership and management is much more successful at LEYF than this report would suggest. But at the same time, we can only keep it good if we keep our eye on the ball – keep engaging with staff and remember how easy it is for them to begin to feel disengaged.

For those who know me, it won’t surprise you to know that I obsess about LEYF all the time, as I want to ensure we give the highest and best quality to our children, staff and parents. For me, thinking, talking, listening, researching and praising are the watchwords of LEYF leadership. No one wants staff to leave because they dislike their managers. Instead, I want to make sure any LEYF staff that do leave retain warm and positive memories of their time with us, and so continue to promote what we do as they become the next leaders in their field.

(For those of you looking for further reading on the subject of happiness, you may find this report from the Young Foundation worth a look.)