A New Manager’s Guide to Leading a Team – (Part 1 – Are you one of them or one of us?)

Woolwich Tunnel

One of the most common discussion points from talking to managers on our corporate development programmes is around dealing with being ‘the meat in the sandwich’. They are under downward pressure to ‘get people performing’, ‘or to get things sorted’ and upward pressure to support their teams against the senior management ‘They’. ‘They’ cannot be serious; ‘They’ don’t really understand what’s going on etc.

In this ‘organisational no mans land’ you as a manager need to be very careful about defining and managing your role. Are you one of ‘them’ or one of ‘us?’ Not maintaining a clear position can make you look incompetent to your superiors and/or weak to your teams.

  • How should you position yourself?
  • Change Management
  • Representing the company for good or bad

How should you position yourself?

Simply as a communication conduit seems one of the safest. At least this enables you to deal with any negative response by saying ‘hey don’t shoot me, I’m only the messenger’. The problem with this approach is it makes your role an essentially passive one. Management might as well have sent the change by email. When teams hear their leader pass on information in a way that absolves that leader of responsibility, you can bet you are not viewed as a leader, more like a corporate mouthpiece.

Change Management

The key question superiors have in their minds when they ask you to implement change is ‘Can you carry your team on this issue?’ There is a change in policy, strategy or tactics, ‘can you get your team quickly committed (not just compliant) to these new ways of working?’

If you are going to do more than pass on the information, the major mental hurdle you need to overcome is to do with integrity. Do you personally believe in this change of plan? If you do, that’s fine, you can then sell it with conviction, look your team in the eye and carry the argument. But what if you don’t believe in it? In this position it is critical that firstly you argue the case behind closed doors with your manager(s). If they can be persuaded to change, great, if not you have a judgement call to make. If it is something very serious to your personal value set where you believe the line has been crossed and you are compromised, then you may have to consider your position. More likely, it’s something you can live with, but disagree on. Now leadership must be demonstrated, you must sell it as if you are committed to it. Be prepared for the direct challenge ‘OK boss, we understand we have to do it, but can I ask (perhaps off the record), what do you really think of the idea?.’ An integrity test. Do you stay true to your personal feelings and (again perhaps off the record) tell your team what you really think? Or (with conviction) promote the company line?

Representing the company for good or bad

Given the previously covered two points, you promote the company line. If you do anything else you will look weak. Siding with your team against the company line is always a bad idea in the medium term. You are representing the company for good or bad; as a manager that is what you are employed to do. Working hard behind the scenes to change things for the better is great, but with your team, whatever the outcome, you always support the line. When one manager in a client of ours worked hard at this but finally resigned over several large issues (one ethical), it came as no surprise to her team, not because she had been always joining their side of the argument, but because they knew she was a person of principle. This view developed not from somebody that always supported them, they often disagreed, but was somebody they ‘always trusted and respected’ – their words not ours.

It is not a manager’s job to be liked or to be feared, but to be effective. Effectiveness means success, and everybody likes being successful. When a manager delivers personal, team and company-wide success, from a values-based perspective, respect and credibility will follow.

If your team are clear about the way you behave towards them, what about your superiors? In our experience the way managers are treated is by no means uniform. Passive, survival based managers are given a lot less discretion than managers who always have a strongly argued point of view, based on a coherent approach to how they communicate with their teams. Realpolitik and values based leadership should not be viewed as mutually exclusive. Pragmatism and ethics can co-exist, as long as the manager has a clear perspective on where their ‘values line’ is. In dealing with managers, organisations (almost unconsciously) work out where that line is and respect it. This means the manager gets treated accordingly, as somebody that needs to be dealt with professionally, who will push back, but always will adopt company responsibility and be accountable for carrying their team. Somebody definitely worth having around.

Another thing the manager does is challenge the concept of ‘they’ or ‘the company’. This lazy behaviour is a way of displacing responsibility for what is going on. The first thing a manager would say to a team who talked in this way is, ‘please understand, I am one of the ‘they’, in the same way as you are too. Inclusiveness undermines low ownership, and encourages high accountability. We is where the mind-set should be focused.

You cannot be the meat in the sandwich if there is no distinction between where the bread ends and the filling starts.