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8 ways HR can help develop better managers

We reveal your HR department’s role in shaping outstanding leadership.

Attracting and retaining talent is high on every employer’s list, especially within a fast-growing company. But what about developing the talent you already have on board? Turning managers into better leaders can pay huge dividends in terms of staff engagement, attractiveness as an employer, and of course your bottom line.

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Why look to HR for leadership development?

Your HR or personnel department is uniquely positioned to support the growth and development of managerial skills among your workforce. This is because HR teams are involved with every department without being directly engaged with the day-to-day tasks of any one in particular. As a result they have the perspective to develop more of an objective view of the whole person.

HR teams also have vast experience in working with managers of all kinds, past and present, and will have considerable personal experience of what makes managers great – or not so great – at what they do.

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What is the definition of an effective manager?

Before we delve into how great managers are made, we need a definition of what an ideal manager’s role involves.

Technically, a manager is anyone who has at least one direct report. More often though, someone in a managerial job is leading a team or department of varied individuals who are simultaneously working on different tasks and projects using a range of skills. They’re juggling multiple reports with multiple priorities and concerns, as well as the big-picture status of the team as a whole.

A good manager’s primary job is to keep their team working effectively towards their goals – and in most cases, the manager will be the one setting those goals too.

They might do that by removing task-related barriers and roadblocks, for example by introducing software that makes certain jobs easier. They may need to make changes that take into account different strengths, challenges and needs in the team, such as offering more development opportunities to junior staff or arranging flexible working for someone with family commitments. Or they may do things that prevent their teams being affected by wider organizational situations – keeping them productive, functional and stable by handling issues that might otherwise fall on their shoulders.

On top of this, a manager will typically be reporting upwards on their team’s progress, and will need to be continually measuring progress against objectives, planning ahead, and making projections about future results.

With all these responsibilities in mind, here are some of the traits of a great manager:

  • Good at listening and communicating
  • Able to perceive team members’ strengths and develop them
  • An effective goal-setter
  • Good at performance management - collecting and analyzing performance data from their team
  • A strong negotiator with diplomacy and tact
  • Decisive and courageous
  • Able to motivate and inspire trust from their team

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How to help leaders thrive

Here’s how your HR department can support your goal of coaching and developing managers to become the best leaders they can be.

1. Create systems and processes that support great leadership

Even in a modern business where hierarchical structures take a back seat, most professional growth and progress is formalized through processes like promotions, appraisals and reviews, recruitment, and job applications.

These processes are the remit of HR, making it the perfect opportunity to embed the values of great leadership within them. For example, an understanding of the qualities needed for strong leadership can be baked into the recruitment process, so that people with high potential are earmarked for development from day one.

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2. Collaborate with existing leaders

HR can contribute to leadership development, but they should never be working on it single-handedly.

With a strong and current understanding of organizational goals and business strategy, an HR department is in a better position to develop the future leadership a business needs.

With that in mind, the HR department should actively develop a dialogue with leadership, about leadership. Working closely with existing leaders from across an organization, HR professionals can gather insights and feedback about the challenges teams are facing and how events in the wider industry are shaping progress – information they can ultimately feed into their management training approach.

3. Onboard new managers

Staff taking on their first management role are likely to have certain concerns about how to tackle their new challenge. HR departments can predict, anticipate and offset these kinds of concerns by offering new managers a robust onboarding process that answers questions like ‘how do I handle giving a negative review?’ or ‘can I still socialize with the team?’.

Giving new managers specific support in this way can help build their confidence in leading others for the first time. It’s also an opportunity to embed best practices and skills that will stay with them throughout their careers.

4. Run formalized leadership training programs

It’s frequently said that once someone reaches a certain level of seniority, they are promoted to management whether or not they have the skills for the job.

As well as making sure this never happens – by helping leaders select only appropriate candidates for managerial roles – HR can offer core leadership skills training to make sure skills gaps are filled before new leaders take their positions.

HR is the ideal place to develop and run a company’s management training program. The course can clearly set out the company’s idea of what good management looks like and the best practices managers are expected to follow. It can also offer practical tuition in how to build those skills using example scenarios or participant role play. A management training course can take the form of a live workshop held on a regular timetable, an online course, or a mix of the two.

5. Develop person-specific coaching plans

Just as employees come in many stripes, so do managers. While a standard management training program or onboarding process can be highly valuable for teaching and refreshing core skills, HR can also offer person-specific coaching that flexes to the individual.

This type of support addresses where a certain manager is in their career and the kind of challenges and opportunities they are facing in their team.

For example, someone who has been in management for a long time may be happy within their current team but looking to update their skills and take on a new approach to leadership. Another manager at the same level may be more focused on their career trajectory and how to move to the next level of responsibility.

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6. Offer drop-in ‘clinics’

Some managers may be too time-poor to attend a training course or coaching sessions, or may not recognize their need for these approaches. HR can still reach these people by offering lower-commitment support, such as an informal drop-in for leaders who want support on specific management issues.

7. Promote knowledge transfer across silos

HR’s cross-departmental position is one of its key strengths, offering neutrality and a clear perspective on whole-organization goals and strategies. The HR team can use this non-partisan role to help leadership development happen across departmental silos.

HR can help recommend particular resources, skills or expertise that one team can offer another, or advise on where teams can join up and collaborate on similar goals. They can also facilitate strong relationships between key people. That might mean current leaders who have potential to support one another, or even future leaders who have been earmarked for development and are likely to evolve alongside one another.

8. Lead by example

An HR department can act as a best practice example for leadership by embodying what the organization has defined as management excellence. Within a great HR department, all staff should be able to see a working model of great leadership, including behaviors like:

  • identifying and developing high potential individuals within the HR department
  • supporting the team’s overall performance through an understanding of each person’s skills, strengths and experience
  • making decisions quickly and communicating them clearly, whether or not they are popular
  • using the best tools and software to enhance the department’s analytical capability and reporting

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Sarah Fisher

Sarah Fisher is a writer and content strategist based in the UK. She writes for Qualtrics on topics like technology, marketing, research and analytics, people management, product development and branding. She enjoys working with subject matter experts and finding new angles and compelling stories hidden in data. Sarah has a special interest in UX and UX writing.

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