Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

What if Icarus had a decent manager?

These articles have been written by the second cohort of the Practice Makes Unperfect programme – a course that helps women find and finesse their public voices.

By Elizabeth Brennan, head of advertiser sales at Permutive

We all know the story of Icarus, the chap who had wings made of wax, flew too close to the sun and then drowned in the sea. It’s a tale we’re told as children when we become too confident, too sure of ourselves.

I was called Icarus once. For displaying the apparent audacity to ask for a formal promotion to the job I was already doing, a VP told me I wasn’t ready, in the same way he wasn’t ready to be CEO. The difference being, he wasn’t already doing that job.

All managers have been in a situation where talent has asked for a promotion they’re not ready for, or bemoaned that the work they’re doing is ‘below’ them. It’s easy in the frustration of the moment to be dismissive, or annoyed that they can’t see their areas of development in the same way you can. These foibles are called Blind Spots for a reason. The person sitting in front of you at that moment can’t see what you see, they don’t know what they don’t know.

The skill of a great manager is to coach their teams to find and harness the skills that make them brilliant.

Aside from it giving us warm squishy feelings to nurture future leaders, these individuals also make a phenomenal difference to the bottom line. A McKinsey study found that for complex tasks, high performers are 800% more productive than average performers. Given that a third of senior executives cite hiring talent as their largest managerial challenge you’d expect that retaining high performers already in a business would be a major priority, right?

So, why are some managers failing to help their teams be the best they possibly can? I think there are two major factors at play – time and apathy. Put simply, people need a manager that gives a shit. It takes effort and skill to coach and teach. It’s not nice or easy to tell someone that they have an irritating habit, skills gap or lack experience.

Managers who avoid giving this feedback are doing their team members and the business a disservice. This is when employees become disengaged. Sadly, there is a huge amount of disengagement in business: in a 2015 Gallup study, 50 percent of respondents revealed they were “not engaged” at work.

It takes humility and courage to coach and mentor when you know that someone in your team will be more successful than you. To quote Dr Daniel Kahneman ‘Business is more about emotions than most businesspeople care to admit.’.

Therefore, there needs to be an incentive to be a good manager. HR Technologist reported that ‘If companies truly want managers to coach their employees, then they need to recognise and reward the managers who excel at it’.

Businesses have an obligation to train managers to manage. Those who fail to do this effectively, should be moved to less people-focused positions. Not all of us are born able to lead, in the same way not all of us are born to be engineers, it’s a skill that takes years of practice.

Organisations rarely keep hold of sales staff who consistently fail to reach quotas. Sales teams look at dashboards every day to track their performance against their target, and peers. Anyone who’s falling behind is expected to go the extra mile to make up the number – because that’s their job. The same should apply – if not more – when the currency you’re dealing with is human beings.

The failure to realise the impact that decent managers can have on productivity and motivation is wasteful and costly. I’ve worked in organisations where teams have lost faith in their manager, and then they start to leave, churn goes up and retention goes down. More damaging is when staff are brave enough to speak out against a poor manager and the business fails to act. Then teams start to become jaded and contempt sets in. It’s toxic.

I implore businesses to take bad management as seriously as they take other performance failures. I don’t mean just rooting out the bullies, I mean performance-managing individuals who don’t put their people first.

If Daedalus had been a decent manager, he might have told Icaraus to do more than follow his flight path. He could have asked Icarus to help him design the wings, or taught him about the process, so that they both understood the limitations of the tools at hand. Maybe Daedalus should have flown alongside him, teaching and coaching rather than commanding him to do as he was told, and letting him fail.