How to be an even better manager

What are the 50 best ways of improving your management skills? And do you have an effective checklist of all the questions you need to be on top of? In the first of our two-part mini-series, bestselling author and management expert Michael Armstrong talks to E&T.

If there's one 'How to' manual all managers should have on their shelves, it's probably 'How to be an Even Better Manager'. It's now run into several editions, with the most recent update published this year (conveniently, in time for Christmas). Covering 50 key aspects of management, it now includes eight new chapters dealing with how to achieve continuous improvement, make a business case, delight customers, manage risk, prepare a business plan and, as we await forecasts of an upturn in the global economy, how to recover from setbacks.

Author Michael Armstrong has plenty of knowledge to draw upon. His practical experience includes more than a decade as a human resources director and five years in general management. He has led consultancy assignment in the private, public and voluntary sectors, and is a Companion of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. He began as a management trainee with Rowntrees (now Nestlé) and became responsible for training at BAE Aerospace. 

"A business may have all sorts of progressive HR policies," says Armstrong, "but it is managers who have to make them work on the ground."

Achieving success is not so much a question of going on a course. It's more a question of observing and absorbing, thinking critically about your own performance and developing new skills. According to Armstrong, management can be learned. It can also be distilled from experience.

E&T: How do I manage rather than simply lead?

Michael Armstrong: Managers have to be leaders. Leaders are often, but not always, managers. Managers are concerned with achieving results by deploying all the resources required: namely people, information, plant and equipment.

Leadership focuses on the most important resource: people. It's about developing and communicating a vision, motivating people and gaining their commitment and engagement. To make the best use of your team you need to clarify its purpose and goals, ensure that its members work well together, build commitment and self-confidence and strengthen the team's collective skills and opportunities.

E&T: How can I be assertive?

MA: Assertiveness has been described as 'standing up for your own rights' in such a way that you do not violate another person's rights; and expressing your needs, wants, opinions, feelings and beliefs in direct, honest and appropriate ways. When you are assertive, you are hardly being aggressive. Assertiveness is about fighting your own corner.

E&T: How important is it to listen?

MA: People don't listen effectively because they don't concentrate or they are not interested. Concentrate on the speaker - words and body language. Respond quickly to points made and ask questions frequently to elucidate meaning; comment on points made without interrupting the flow and make notes of key points.

E&T: How do I implement coaching?

MA: The onus is on you to help your people develop their skills and levels of competence, or to appoint trainers or managers. Coaching may be informal, but is has to be planned. Coaching can only work with the willing participation of both learners and managers.

E&T: How necessary is it for a manager to be creative?

MA: Creative thinking is imaginative thinking, producing new ideas and ways of looking at things. Edward de Bono invented the phrase 'lateral thinking' - a term that has stuck and implies sideways leaps in the imagination rather than continuous progression down a logical chain of reasoning.

E&T: How do you brainstorm?

MA: Brainstorming is a useful technique for releasing ideas and cross-fertilising ideas by a group of six to eight people. A free flow of information can produce a large number of ideas, including some innovative ideas, provided no-one feels inhibited about coming up with suggestions.

E&T: How do you guarantee effective communication?

MA: Try to predict the impact of what you are going to write or say on the receiver's feelings and tailor the message to fit the receiver's vocabulary, interests and values - and prejudices. And use feedback. Talk face to face whenever possible, use direct, simple language and don't promise the earth.

E&T: How do I achieve continuous improvement?

MA: Improvement is based on building knowledge of what works and does not work, and then applying it appropriately. Top management has to provide direction. Three starting points: what are we trying to accomplish? What changes can we make that will lead to improvement; and how will we know that a change is an improvement?

E&T: How can I present a case?

MA: Presentation is vital. Start with a clear idea of what you want and stress the benefits.

Show that your case is based on thorough analysis. Anticipate counter arguments and objections. Prepare your own checklist. Have you covered all the key points you want to make and double-checked the costs of your proposals? Do you know who will be at the meeting? Prepare handouts of your case and any complicated figures. Make sure you capture attention from the start.

E&T: How do you interview effectively?

MA: A selection interview needs to provide you with answers to three key questions. Can the individual concerned do the job to the standard required? Will the individual do the job and is he or she motivated? And how will they fit into the team, and work with me? The interview should take the form of a conversation, planned, directed and controlled to achieve your aims in the time available. What had the interviewee achieved in previous posts? What can he or she bring to the new position? Probing questions are necessary in the case of doubts.

E&T: How do managers manage change?

MA: Change, it's said, is the only constant process to exist in organisations. Achieving sustainable change calls for strong commitment and visionary leadership from the top. Successful change management requires an understanding of the main types of change - how change affects individuals, the process of change and how to build commitment to change.

E&T: How should I manage conflict?

MA: Conflict is inevitable in organisations because objectives, values and needs of groups and individuals don't always coincide. Disagreements should come out into the open - the only way that issues can be explored and conflicts resolved. The three principal ways of resolving inter-group conflict are peaceful co-existence, compromise or problem solving.

E&T: How can I manage a crisis?

MA: Crisis management situations happen in any organisation - whether an unwanted takeover bid, collapse in foreign exchange rate, product failure, sudden loss of a key executive, fire or flood. Crisis management is not a quick-fix solution. It entails identifying, studying and forecasting crisis issues and defining specific ways of preventing or coping with crisis.

E&T: How do I manage risk?

MA: Risk can be purely financial - investment, or regulatory or political or due to negligence. You can have too many eggs in one basket if your sales are made to one or two customers who suddenly go elsewhere. Risks destroyed Barings and Enron. Assess all your risks - commercial, political, economic, technological, legal or natural disasters such as fire or flood, and ways to minimise them. Insure against such risks as a major customer becoming insolvent.

E&T: How do I manage stress?

MA: Today's pressures and challenges - whether due to achieving performance, meeting deadlines or coping with excessive workloads or family responsibilities - cause increased stress levels. Organisations can develop
work-life balance policies, including flexible working hours. Managing your own stress is as important as trying to manage stress in others.

E&T: How do I manage my time effectively?

MA: The first thing to do is to find out where there is scope for improving your use of time, starting with your job, its objectives and the tasks involved, and secondly how to leave yourself sufficient free time. The best way to analyse time is to keep a diary for two or three weeks.

E&T: How can I delight my customers?

MA: A delighted customer is one that is completely satisfied with a product or service from the viewpoint of quality, value for money, reliability and the level of customer service provided. To delight customers you have to meet or exceed their expectations under each of these headings. A delighted customer will continue to purchase from you. Loyal customers buy more and buy more regularly.

E&T: How do we make emotional intelligence matter?

MA: Emotional intelligence is about managing our emotions and those of others. To succeed, it's not enough to have technical ability and a high IQ - emotional intelligence is an important ingredient in leadership.

Four components of emotional intelligence are self-management, self-awareness, social awareness and social skills. Proficiency in managing relationships and building networks are needed to get the desired results from others and reach personal goals.

E&T: How can I manage (achieve) performance?

MA: Relying on other people involves defining expectations, managing and monitoring performance and reviewing performance formally at periodic intervals, at least once or twice yearly. Be prepared, work to a clear structure, create the right atmosphere and provide good feedback.

E&T: How do I manage under-performance?

MA: Does poor performance occur? Lack of skills or motivation to achieve results? Poor performance can also result from poor leadership and from systems variation. It is important therefore to analyse the causes of poor performance, and to take steps to improve skills, change behaviour, provide more support, jointly develop abilities and, if necessary, redesign the job.

E&T: How should I prepare a business plan?

MA: A decent business plan is especially important if you want to attract investment. Such a plan has to include financial projections and profit forecasts, but also business background, proposals, market information and prospects, operations and risk assessment.

E&T: How do I participate in effective meetings?

MA: Meetings are the bane of business life - often a waste of time but unavoidable, while often seeming to produce little in the way of concrete decisions. The key is to prepare thoroughly and make your points clearly and appoint a chair that can control the meeting and get the best out of it.

Outside work it's important to meet people who may be helpful, to share knowledge. Networking can lead to new contacts, clients, alliances, and shared interests. It helps to have a clear understanding of why you want to network: do you want to exchange information, form an alliance or simply gain support for a forthcoming project?

E&T: How do I get to grips with office politics?

MA: Office politics can seriously harm the effectiveness of the organisation. The signs include backbiting, buck-passing, secret meetings, feuds, paper or email wars, snide comments and criticism, excessive and counter productive lobbying, and the forming of cabals.

Make sure that you understand that office politicians have a hidden influence on the way things work and the way things are done. If you want to get on, a degree of political sensitivity is desirable - if you know what's going on you can know what pressure to exert.

E&T: How do you prioritise?

MA: Prioritisation is vital - or you will never deal with all the demands on your time. List all the things you have to do, broken down into regular duties, special requests and self-generated work. Classify each item on the list according to its significance, importance of the person requesting the work, the urgency of the task, scope for extending deadlines and time needed to complete. Then assess time available, priorities and final schedule of priorities.

E&T: How do I go about troubleshooting?

MA: Sometimes things go wrong and the onus is on you to put them right. Take a lesson from management consultants. Analyse the present situation, develop alternative solutions to the problem; assess costs and benefits and method of proceeding and timescale.

The most important task at the planning stage is to define the problem, clarify objectives and terms of reference. Once you know the problem, define what you want done and prepare terms of reference for all those concerned.

To be continued…

Michael Armstrong's books have sold over half a million copies and have been translated into 17 languages. 'How to be an even better manager (7th edition)' is published by Kogan Page. Visit [new window].

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