Thoughts on People Management

Posted on November 9th, by Kathryn Kutchel in In the Media, Our people.

The below article was written by Taylors General Manager of Urban Development Survey, and Consulting Surveyors of Victoria Committee Member, Leo Bateman, for the October issue of Consulting Surveyors Victoria magazine.

In choosing a subject to write about, my first thought was to write about the possible changes to the Owners Corporation Act 2006, as an addendum to the CSV May Seminar panel discussion, of which I was part of.  There was more to discuss but unfortunately we ran out of time.  My second idea was to write about applications of 3D Building Envelopes (BE’s) and Design Guide Lines (DGL’s) in greenfield projects.  Surveyors have been creating Restrictions on greenfield Plans of Subdivisions incorporating BE’s and DGL’s for years.  We have now discovered that one of the Growth Area Municipalities (Whittlesea) no longer accepts them.  I’m not going into the reasons why and be critical just because the cheese has moved.  Maybe it’s time we as a profession revisited what we’ve been doing? A future collaborative discussion to look forward to.

For this article, I have decided to provide you with a light read on my thoughts on People Management (PM).  A subject that I would expect will be of more interest to a larger number of readers.  I am a husband, father, and team manager in that order.  These insights come from my work/life experiences.

You may be wondering why the false start on an unrelated topic.  The reason is that technical challenges seem to be ever-present and as technical professionals, we have a natural tendency to be drawn to them.  As a result, we become too busy to put the time and effort into our other duties often referred to as the “soft skills”.  People Management is a “soft skill” but don’t let this make you think it’s easy, as it’s not.  Also, it’s not for everyone.  Having said this, there are elements of this “soft skill” that we should all strive to master, to be more effective and happy in our lives.

Our clients want immediate answers to the technical issues to progress the project (very few jobs sail straight through without a glitch).  We generally succeed in this (and we love it) but it comes at a cost. Our people in our businesses may not be as satisfied as they could be if they are not looked after well enough.  Could this be part of the of the reason our PTA candidates are not progressing quickly enough?

What’s in it for me?   

Hopefully reading this will encourage you to look closely at yourself first, and see if there is anything that you can improve right away with respect to how you relate to people / manage people in your organisations.

People management is required everywhere and doing it well is a challenge we all face.  It would be fair to say that projects today are more challenging and fast-paced than days gone by.  Our profession is in a state of constant change in how our we measure, map, and manage data.  The two constants in this workflow are our people and our clients.  Our product is always changing.  To have a healthy business we need to be focused on our people and clients first – have a culture of “relationships first”.

Recruiters are hunting for trophies to fill top of tree roles.  They are looking for the full package in technical ability, communication, business smarts, people management skills and more.  Of these skills, great people management is the one that’s non-negotiable.  Our businesses are promoting new leaders into roles where they are being challenged with people issues.  We want to keep them.  How well are they handling these issues? How can we help them?

Let’s look at a case study

I recall a discussion in a previous life with professionals in an architectural firm in relation to a sizable project.   They were instructed to make more changes on a project that has been constantly changing since the project started.  This was due to many factors, all of which were outside the control of these professionals.    They admitted to not supporting the requested changes because the changes didn’t create a good design outcome, and they also felt these changes would not be supported by Council.  Rather than speak up, they decided to make the changes anyway.  When questioned, their reasoning was “because it’s too hard to argue, and it’s also too hard to encourage our staff to make the changes because they know it will be changing again.  We just do what is asked, as we work to deadlines”.

These are people I respected for their technical abilities and I will not be judgemental of them as individuals.  However, this behaviour challenged my core values, and I couldn’t ignore what I saw.   It’s easy to see how one can fall into this trap. It’s because we are human and we can slide when it gets too hard.

This was a confronting experience for me in seeing great technical people grappling with managing people – managing themselves, their staff, and their clients.  No matter what role we have in our business, we all engage in some form of people management.  In addition to what we know as formal (downward) management, there is also informal, yet effective upward management, as well as horizontal management.  The latter two must be done respectfully.  A good manager will listen to good logic from anyone.  Good managers appreciate upwards feedback, as they know they are less without it.

I’m going to break the discussion into three parts.

1. Managing Yourself

You must be able to manage yourself well first before you can effectively manage others.  I would hope that we all accept that we are not perfect, not always right and can learn from others.  The secret to managing yourself well lies a deep desire to be better today than you were yesterday.  You can achieve this by doing a lot of reading and learning from experts, or you can try giving yourself “reflection time” to learn from your own experiences. Think about yesterday and how you could have performed better if you had the chance again.  You can also seek validation of your thoughts from either your manager, peers, or family, as appropriate.  It’s good practice to be your own critic, but don’t be super critical of yourself as everyone has strengths and weaknesses.  I know I’m good at shooting clay targets on a good day but I’m hopeless at karaoke.  Hopefully, you are generally playing to your strengths in your role.  Be true to yourself and respect yourself, your achievements, and live and die by your core values.

Looking after yourself first

You’ve all heard this before, but I’ll say it again, you do yourself a huge favour if you keep fit, eat well, and get good sleep.  To be balanced, you need to participate in your community and volunteer your time in community building aspects you care about.  Make the time to enjoy your passions, enjoy your friendships and enjoy good laughs.  You can only be the best version of yourself when you are happy and whole.

We all have good intentions but some of us get distracted easily.  How do we stay on task?

For me, I stay on task by following the directions set by the business.   Everyone in a team must follow the lead set by the business and bring their best effort to the workplace every day.  There is something else that happens within a team environment. That is, being inspired by others.  I always try and make a point of telling a person when I’m impressed with their work.  I love seeing excellence from others, and I follow that lead, no matter who it is.  As a small example, I took inspiration from one of our engineers recently.  He did nothing more than stand there in his suit – he looked the part.  It wasn’t just the suit that impressed me, it was the mature professional attitude that went with it.  The next day there I was in my suit (not joking).  We work under a lot of pressure and sometimes we get flat and tired, which is perfectly normal.  But thankfully there is often someone around us that, unknown to them, have the power to lift us through their special qualities.  These people are role models and leaders.

I am very much focused on self-assessment.  I admit to making people management mistakes in the past.  Things that I have done directly or let happen in a manager’s role that I wished I’d done differently.  I think of past examples of where I may have been too harsh on subordinates and in turn affected their confidence in some way.  Better to have coached them along to find the right solution themselves as opposed to expressing disappointment at the original mistake they made, allowing them the opportunity to learn from their mistake.  We can often learn more from our mistakes than our successes.

How are we as people managers viewed?

Always remember that as a manager, people are watching you, especially when you are under pressure.  How do you react under pressure?  People managers need to be very much aware of this.  Firstly, you are unlikely to react well unless you have looked after yourself in the ways described above.  Best advice is to try and be calm and positive in the moment, and be fully aware of yourself and how you are acting in this moment. Learn the art to balance the serious with the light hearted in difficult circumstances.  You always need to be flexible and considered in your approach.  Try to be firm but fair, and try not to avoid the difficult conversations with people.  Best to have these face to face when required.

2. Managing Staff

At Taylors, we refer to “staff” as “team members” and they are everything to our business.  Language is important, as it can influence the way people feel.  In our case, “team members” promotes inclusiveness, whereas “staff” could be viewed as creating a “them and us” mentality.

How can you build confidence in people? 

For a people manager, the aim is to build confidence in people through personal and professional development opportunities.  This will allow people to step out of their comfort zone and experience challenging activities.  You can build confidence in people by always acknowledging a job well done and being positive in the way you coach people.  Give them a challenge (delegate), but be sure to show them how to succeed, and then celebrate their success.  In delegating, you will still need an appropriate number of mentoring check in points to ensure your mentee is on the right path to success.  Correct implementation will lead to a quality workforce with a strong business culture of retention and regeneration – qualities of business excellence.  

At Taylors, there are ongoing opportunities for team members to participate in either industry involvement or pro-bono projects both domestically and abroad.  This is part of our commitment to our Social and Corporate Responsibility, which allows us to use our unique skills for the benefit of industry and community.  Our people come away better off for it, and they bring home invaluable positive messages to the rest of the business.

As a people manager, what focus should I have every day?

Communication is key, always be communicating with your people to create a culture of engagement.

Key to being a good people manager is the ability to be able to empower people how to think for themselves.  Show them how to think logically and allow them to back their judgements.  Ask them to come to you with their solutions, not the other way around. You will need to let them take some risks, which may result in mistakes being made.  When this happens, they must undertake their own damage control under your supervision.  The end goal in PM is to get the very best out of an individual.  Look to extract the leadership potential out of those that have this quality and teach them how to develop their leadership abilities.  Successors must be targeted and trained up.  A business must be continually grooming those next in line to step up, as it takes time.

A constant challenge for any business is to train and retain. Education and training should be viewed as an enjoyable task.  It is a joyful and rewarding experience to see the progression of a young professional.  A great investment of your time on someone’s son or daughter – young people starting out with hopes and dreams.  Think of how much you would appreciate the time and effort someone else chooses to put into your children or other young people close to you.  How good would that make you feel?

Your efforts should be unconditional.  Hopefully, the people you help develop will stay in your business and in turn pass on the training to others.  Some will move on, and hopefully grow and develop even further.  When we lose fine people from our businesses, people that have been with us for a long time, we feel sad, but at the same time, we should feel very proud of how we have helped shape them and know they are better for it.

Personal Development Plans

At Taylors, we create a Personal Development Plan (PDP) for each team member year to year.  The aim is to have each team member play a part in assisting the business objectives by completing tasks outside their normal roles, which align with their strengths.  It could be in relation to writing new workflows and procedures for example. While it may appear hard to find time to do this work, we are committed in this initiative, as it teaches everyone to get into the habit of juggling work responsibilities with some form of extra business activity or wider industry involvement.

The success of this PDP program is dependent on a sense of common goal and the respect for the teamwork required to achieve it.

Good culture makes it easy

A professional workplace should be a challenging environment.  The business requires us to step up and perform.  A culture of respecting the abilities of team members and celebrating success helps make people management in this space easier and more enjoyable.  With a supportive culture in place, we would expect the team environment to be a happy and fun one too.

3. Managing Clients

Client centricity is at the heart of a good workplace culture.  Having the client topmost of mind is key.  Every team member working on the project must understand the client’s business, appreciate the value of the client to the business, and understand the expectation of excellence from the client.  Employees must be encouraged to “own the task” and contribute their part with passion.

A people manager must find ways to connect the worker with the client to form a respectful relationship to enable the “ownership of task”.  Ways of making your project teams known to your clients would be through attendance at meetings and functions.  Aim to take along a “second” to your meetings, as a grooming strategy.  This is essential when you think about it.

It’s our job to lead our clients.  To listen to them and understand the commercial outcomes they are seeking to achieve. They can’t tell us how to do our job on a technical level.  We use our expertise and our resources to deliver their end goal, preferably on time and on budget.  We proactively advise them of the options and our recommendations.  If they chose not to accept our recommendations we must respect that decision, support it, and deliver what they want (if it does not go against our core values).  We must remain in control of our consulting and manage our clients with firmness and fairness, as we would do with our own people, based on mutual respect.

It’s imperative that we respect and only ever speak positively of our clients, no matter how demanding or unreasonable some may think they appear (let’s not pretend this doesn’t exist).  The “walls have ears” and negativity is poisonous to a workplace culture.  We must fall in love with our clients to have a healthy and successful business.

Closing Comments

  • Great people management in a business is non-negotiable
  • People management is a difficult but rewarding job
  • Check in with your people managers. Are they on task?
  • Lead with a “relationships first culture”

Be true to yourself and be truly grateful for the opportunities you have.  Keep it in perspective, try your hardest and hopefully it will be enjoyable.

Life is good!