December 2016 | 

Better Talent Development: Advice for Managers

Better Talent Development: Advice for Managers

Former CEO of Chrysler Lee Iacocca famously said, “Management is nothing more than motivating other people.” It’s a simple adage — but just ask new managers how they’re inspiring their team and another truth emerges: motivating and engaging people is anything but easy.

Wharton Associate Professor of Management Matthew Bidwell, whose ground-breaking research on talent management is widely cited, recently shared advice for motivating subordinates and excelling in management with participants in Business Essentials for Executives. The program attracts new managers and other executives and entrepreneurs seeking to widen their general management skills. “One of the greatest challenges when you get promoted is that you are now managing people who are doing the job you were just doing,” he explains. “There is a tremendous temptation to get sucked back into that job: you know it and you’re probably better at it. But that means you end up not doing your new job.”

Bidwell says when your role changes, your behaviors must change with it. That advice may sound intuitive, but some managers fail to make the change. “You end up getting too involved and micromanaging your team. Start with the awareness of the temptation to fall back into your former role. You might not change overnight, but you can begin to avoid that pitfall.”

One of the most complicated issues involved in managing people is finding a balance. Managers need to delegate and give people autonomy and empowerment — it’s not only central to their motivation and engagement but also the only way to develop talent, according to Bidwell. But managers are also accountable for the work those people do, and are very aware that they know the job best. “That can lead to micromanagement,” he says, “which of course is in direct opposition to autonomy. That is a real tension.”

He offers three pieces of advice to would-be micromanagers: First, “Don’t make decisions yourself, but rather let others make them with your advice. Gently suggest alternatives,” (the gentler the better, he explains).

Second, understand the difference between having it done well and having it done exactly as you would do it — difficult advice to follow for people who feel the need to have total control. Controlling managers need to see their role in an organizational context, says Bidwell. “You are responsible for delivering results and expected to develop your team. If all you are doing is the former, you won’t move up in some organizations. Getting results at the cost of burning out your team and doing their job won’t get you the next promotion.”

Third, he also advises that while giving up total control, find ways to stay involved and informed. “Understand the difference between delegation and abdication of responsibility. When you delegate, make sure there is an open line of communication so you will be able to see a major problem on the horizon before it materializes.” Bidwell says one indication that you’re abdicating more than delegating is getting hit with too many “nasty surprises.”

But talent development doesn’t stop with motivation and empowerment. Giving feedback is a critical part of a manager’s role. “We all give feedback,” he says, “and we think we’re doing a good job. But no one thinks they receive good feedback.” Why the disconnect? He explains that most managers simply point out strengths and weaknesses, which is “frighteningly unhelpful. It’s threatening and just results in defensiveness, which prevents people from changing their behavior.”

Instead, he advises, point out something concrete that your team member could do differently and get better results. “This takes the focus off the person. You’re much more likely to get him or her to take action. They will hear this kind of feedback whereas strengths and weaknesses get tuned out.”

Ultimately, developing talent by motivating and empowering others is a skill that can be developed. By following Bidwell’s advice, and adapting behaviors to fit with a new role, managers can encourage their teams’ best work, keep them in the organization, and excel in their own role.