Look for Character Over Competence in Picking Team Leaders
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Holmes Report

Look for Character Over Competence in Picking Team Leaders

In a volume that ought to find its way into the library of every midsize public relations firm, the authors examine how to select the right candidates to manage groups—focusing on character rather than competence.

Paul Holmes

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For as long as anyone can remember, the public relations agency business has selected its managers the same way, by taking its most productive practitioners and promoting them to roles for which they have little training and—in many cases—even less aptitude.
coverAll too often, the results are disastrous. Companies find they have lost a first rate practitioner—burdened with management responsibility and unable to devote the same time to client work—and gained a mediocre manager. As a result, countless talented professionals have resigned from senior positions at big agencies, citing a desire to get closer to the client once again, to focus on the things they do best.
Yet firms have been unable to find an alternative way of rewarding star performers, except to give them responsibility for a profit center.
The dilemma is addressed in a new book, First Among Equals, by David Maister (author of last year’s Practice What You Preach) and Patrick McKenna, a partner in Canadian consulting firm Edge International and author of Herding Cats. In a volume that ought to find its way into the library of every midsize public relations firm, the two examine how to select the right candidates to manage groups—focusing on character rather than competence—and then devote the remainder of the book to challenges specific to the professional service firm environment.
Maister and McKenna begin by conceding that professionals are unusually difficult to manage.
“Most professionals are trained to be skeptical and will almost always critically challenge any new idea,” says James Emerson, publisher of Professional Services Review, who is quoted in First Among Equals. “Getting agreement on even the smallest issues can often be tough. Because of this, it can be very difficult to get technically oriented professionals to think beyond their core competency in order to focus on the big picture.”
But the authors insist that successful professional service firms require exceptional management—a point not always conceded by practitioners, some of whom disdain “professional” managers and suggest that if firms focus on creative product and client service, profitability will take care of itself. On the contrary, say Maister and McKenna, the challenge of managing groups is one of the most important facing professional service firms of all kinds today.
Maister’s previous book, Practice What You Preach, was based on research showing that “success in professional business can be shown to come from stricter adherence to a set of standards that other groups may also advocate but do not enforce. It was also found that the key to enforcement was the skilled manager, coach, or team leader.”
It follows, then, that identifying the right individuals to take on coaching and team leadership roles is a crucial challenge. It’s also a challenge that many public relations firms fail—in part because the skills that make people successful practitioners may not be the same skills that make good managers. When top practitioners take on a management role, they take on a new role that can be difficult for people used to deriving satisfaction from their own accomplishments.
“You will need a willingness to get most of your fulfillment from the success of others,” say the authors. “Prior to becoming a group head, many people will have been asked to spend their whole working lives focusing on their own individual performance. The transition to being responsible for the performance of others is a difficult one for many to make, particularly since—in all likelihood—they still carry some client-service responsibilities.
“There is an issue here both of attitude (willingness to focus on other people and their success) and of skill (the ability to win influence over people without being domineering). Skills can be taught; attitudes are harder to change.”
Because the requirements for a management role are so strikingly different from the skills that make a successful practitioner, the way firms select managers can be a problem. Team leaders “need a special set of skills: the ability to influence other people’s emotions, feelings, attitudes and their determination,” say the authors. “Unfortunately, in many firms, these are not the criteria usually applied in selecting group leaders. All too often the most senior, the best business-getter, intellectual luminary, or financially savvy person is chosen.”
Firms also set team leaders up for failure by not giving them enough time to do the job.
“In many firms, group leaders are expected to be as fully busy on client work as anyone else in the group. As a result, they continue to view their individual performance as job one, and their coaching responsibilities as a secondary, lesser responsibility that they get to if time allows. Not surprisingly, since most professional people live busy work lives, something has to give, and that something is almost always their group leader responsibilities.”
The authors quote a group leader: “I’m doing this job on faith. The faith is that someone is going to remember at the end of the year all the time I have put into doing this job. And the faith that I’m not screwed at compensation time because I don’t have the numbers I would’ve had if I’d practiced full time.”
The real problem, the authors note, is not the group leaders but firm management. Too many firm executives say that while they understand the importance of group management they are not prepared to take any risks with the firm’s economics. They worry that if the encourage managers to coach and mentor team members, those managers will be less productive—even though coaching and mentoring rarely take a team leader away from all of his or her client service and production responsibilities.
In any case, Maister and McKenna make a compelling case that “allowing leaders time to manage can be immensely profitable for the firm, which will make more money from having a well-managed group than from having the incremental production of the group’s leader.”
But at the heart of the book is an insistence that management is less about a specific skill set and more about the ability to connect—on a human level—with many different types of people.
Maister and McKenna recognize that this might come as a shock to many professionals, since such touchy-feely skills are rarely highlighted earlier in an individual’s career. “Nowhere along the way does anyone emphasize the importance of social, interpersonal and emotional skills in determining our success in professional life. They the day arrives when we make a terrifying discovery: The world is filled with people—clients, colleagues, subordinates and superiors. And dealing with them draws upon attitudes and skills no one ever taught us.”
The authors quote the clients on what makes a good manager, and the responses are revealing:
“One important aspect of a great practice leader for me is how interested that person really is in your life,” says one. “For example, if you tell this individual about something significant that is going on in your personal life, do they follow up and find out what happened.”
Says another, “When the chips are down and it’s you against them, most people will scramble to protect their own interests. But your trusted advisor is that individual who is supportive and has some ideas or plan to help both of you, not someone who only looks to save their own butt.”
That concept of a manager as a “trusted advisor” (the title of an earlier book by Maister) is one of the central themes of the book. The authors provide several characteristic of a trusted advisor, an individual who, among other things:

        Seems to understand us effortlessly, and likes us

        Is consistent and dependable

        Always helps us see things from fresh perspectives

        Doesn’t try to force things on us

        Helps us think things through

        Doesn’t substitute his or her logic for ours

        Doesn’t panic or get overemotional

        Helps us think and to separate our emotion from our logic

        Criticizes us gently, lovingly

        Doesn’t pull his or her punches, can be relied on for the truth

        Is in it for the long haul, so the relationship is more important than the current issue

        Acts like a person, not someone in a role
“Most often, you will be working with highly talented people who do know what to do and how to do it, but just aren’t doing it,” say the authors.
That means the most important part of a manager’s job is understanding and motivating the people in your team. And that means earning their trust and “winning permission to coach.”
“While a coach needs many attributes and skills, one attribute dominates the list,” the authors say. “Those you are trying to influence must trust your motives. If people think you are truly trying to help them, they will listen to you; of they think you are nagging and exhorting them in order to make yourself look good, they will resist your leadership.”
Maister and McKenna downplay the role of the team leader as a visionary, or rather are skeptical of the ability of most team leaders to persuade others to follow their vision.
“We call it ‘The Moses Strategy’—going up into the mountain, receiving the word of god, bringing it back to the children of Israel, saying, ‘Here is the word of god. Get excited.’ If you remember your Bible, you may recall that even Moses had to do it twice before he could get the attention of his audience. Our point of view, based on the most effective managers we have seen, is that they don’t say, ‘Follow me!’ Instead, they say, ‘Let me help you!’”
More important are listening skills, which can be developed. Maister and McKenna are advocates of “active listening,” and provide a helpful checklist of 23 “listening habits.”
Some of the skills needed to be a good manager, like listening, can be taught—though at most PR firms, they aren’t—but others may not be teachable. According to the authors, “What is not teachable is whether a trusted advisor is viewed as honorable, honest, trustworthy, consistent, dependable, and has an interest in others. Those are not behavioral descriptors, but character descriptors.”
They point to a study conducted by Maister indicating that the most successful managers were “notable less for their beliefs and actions than for their underlying character.”
Having established the skills and attitudes needed to be a good team leader, Maister and McKenna proceed to look at some the issues involved in managing individuals: specifying performance criteria; designing the counseling process; holding counseling sessions; engaging in career planning; setting goals and creating action plans. But while they do offer plenty of practical advice, they never stray far from the theme that the ability to empathize with team members is more important than the ability to write a sound strategic plan.
When people—including managers—want to demonstrate their fairness, they often claim to treat everyone the same. But one of the most important lessons of First Among Equals is that good managers deal differently with different people.
“Some individuals might be committed to what your group is trying to achieve—that is, your strategy,” say Maister and McKenna. “They want to be part of achieving your vision and will give of themselves to achieve it… On the other hand, some people may feel a strong loyalty to the group and will go the extra mile to demonstrate their commitment to the group.
“Of course, many people are not susceptible to appeals to vision or loyalty, but among this group might be those who do feel a commitment to you…. Sad to say, some of your people do not feel this way about you… Their commitment might be to their colleagues or coworkers. They will stay late to contribute—not for you, but out of a sense of ‘being in this together….’
“Finally, there are those who don’t seem to care about the group and don’t even care about the clients. These people you can sometimes get on the hook with the challenge, ‘Bet you can’t do this.’ Such people’s commitment is to their professional pride.”
The book also provides specific guidance in dealing with two different types of problem team members: underachievers and prima donnas.
As far as underachievers are concerned, the issue is rarely one of competence.
“A common mistake in dealing with underperformance is rushing to talk to the under performer without pausing to consider why he or she is under performing,” say the authors, who asked a meeting of group leaders to identify the most common reasons for performance problems. At the top of the list were personal issues: trouble at home or other personal problems; burnout and loss of enthusiasm; quality of life choice—lack of desire to devote more energy to or time to the business; and insecurity due to changes in the external or internal environment.
According to Maister and McKenna, “The reason people are not performing is rarely because they don’t know what to do. Nor is it that they don’t want to do it. The incentives to do it are probably there. If they aren’t doing what they should, it is probably due to something deeply personal in their lives. The only way to find out what it is, and to deal with it, is to talk about it.”
Because performance problems usually have more to do with confidence than competence, “If you’re going to make a difference, your task of turning an unproductive persona around is often to help him or her find some meaning in what they (and your group) do,” say the authors. “If the issues are loss of enthusiasm for the firm’s work, and/or personal issues, then you need to help the individual rediscover the energy, excitement, passion in the group’s work.”
As for prima donnas, Maister and McKenna acknowledge that creative professionals are not the easiest people to lead—indeed, they have both built successful careers around that fact. But they recognize that firms need to find a way to manage the most difficult employees, who can also be among the most productive.
“Every firm needs prima donnas,” they say. “They can be the drivers of change, and ask the tough firm questions that most people think but few voice. By having mavericks who provoke a direct and frank dialogue on tough issues, the group is usually better off… They only problem is that, in some cases, your firm may be paying dearly to retain people like this. Men and women of high achievement can sometimes insist stubbornly on having their own way, and can often be contemptuous of others. In many cases, no one else wants to work with them.”
The first piece of advice the authors give for dealing with prima donnas is to focus on behavior, not personality. In tackling problems, managers need to focus on specific situations that illustrate the behavior they are concerned about; explain why it concerns them; listen the individual’s explanation for the behavior; and help the individual understand how improved behavior will improve his or her career.
Other chapters deal with issues of team (rather than individual) coaching: clarifying group goals; developing your group’s rules of membership; building team trust; selecting the right challenge; energizing group meetings; giving recognition; resolving interpersonal conflicts; and dealing with crises. There is also a strong section on measuring group results. These sections balance practical advice—including plenty of checklists—with constant reminders that how managers do things is as important as what they do.
Ultimately, Maister and McKenna make the case that managing groups is financially rewarding to both the individuals involved and the firm.
In Practice What You Preach, Maister made a compelling argument that the most profitable professional service firms are those that have group managers dedicated to bringing out the best in those around them, and in First Among Equals he and McKenna argue that winning the trust of colleagues, and helping them win the trust of their clients, makes individual managers more valuable to their firms.
“But the reason for wanting to perform this challenging role are not all selfish,” the authors insist. “There is also the comfort and satisfaction that comes from knowing you have made a difference in people’s lives. That you have helped them accomplish more than they ever dreamed they could. That you helped people understand themselves more deeply and more accurately, and helped them find a path in professional life that would play to their special strengths.
“It gives you a chance to put your head on your pillow and say: I made a difference in someone’s life today. It doesn’t happen every day, but when it does, it is deeply fulfilling.”

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