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Effective workforces require good bosses

Kerry Larkan

Australia & Hong Kong

It fascinates me that while many company heads claim people are their biggest asset, the way they manage them doesn't reflect that spirit. Why do they bother to make such statements and where do things go wrong?

Having spent over a year researching companies known for their outstanding people management skills, I have come to a few conclusions on why other organizations slip up. Four things stand out. First, many of them consider people development an expense rather than an investment. Then their executives resort to ad hoc, rather than long-term, planning. Third, key managers are not trained to deal effectively with common personnel issues. And, fourth, leaders avoid conflict or dissent instead of dealing with it openly. If not addressed properly, these factors could lead to deep-rooted problems in the workplace and have major financial implications in terms of retaining employees.

A recent survey conducted by CPA Australia suggested that poor strategy for staff retention is costing Hong Kong companies around US$10 billion a year. It also revealed that many local employers have no clear policies related to retention. Three out of five respondents even said they believed it was not a problem at all. The study also found that employees generally changed jobs more because of a dislike of the working environment than for a higher salary. The primary reasons given for moving on were a perceived dearth of opportunities and limited prospects of promotion. This inevitably led to a lack of involvement with the company's overall objectives.

My own research shows that businesses with an engaged committed workforce will return a much better result for shareholders. Businesses where people love to work also attract and retain better candidates.

Nowadays, employers with good man management, or what I refer to as a “good boss culture”, have a clear advantage. Those with well-defined strategies for managing the workforce will have a major competitive edge in the years ahead. These could include training in new skills, flexible work practices and better work-life balance. Without harnessing the diverse abilities in the workforce and developing an effective people strategy, a company is never going to make substantial improvement in its work culture or profitability. Therefore, the board or management team must be clear about a few things: where they are matters most and what to measure.

Over the past 10 years, experience has taught me that you cannot build a value-based organization without high levels of trust. Also, leaders of organizations need to earn that trust rather than just expect it from their subordinates. They can do this by involving employees more in the decision-making process and communicating their vision. This will encourage greater levels of involvement, commitment and a critical self-assessment. The more the employees are in tuned with the company's objectives, the greater the trust and the better the results. If this is achieved, it becomes easier to sustain organizational performance and thereby attract and retain the right people. Once a company understands its comparative strengths and weaknesses, it is possible to map out strategies for change.

The first step should be to ensure that employees are well aware of the company's broader plans and can identify with them. Management should, therefore, focus on regular, open communication. They should practice what they preach and thus show themselves to be “walking the talk”. Getting this right is crucial to making progress. Many organizations falter in living up to the values they proclaim. If this happens, employees tend to do no more than necessary, lack involvement and motivation, or care little about exceeding productivity targets. However, even when goals are set and understood at all levels, it is important to put some key performance measures in place. These should be clear, achievable and agreed by all parties involved. These measures are not necessarily easy to implement. If companies do not have the internal resources to effect the required changes, they can always turn to external consultants for advice and assistance. In many cases, the best way to start is by reviewing the role and responsibilities of supervisors. They are one of the main pillars of any organization, but their needs are often overlooked. They are caught between frontline staff who receive functional training and senior executives who are entrusted with leadership and management responsibilities. However, the skills required to supervise effectively have become more demanding. As companies evolve, supervisors have to learn new systems, oversee diverse teams and play a vital part in the smooth running of profitable operations. Their role is to be team leaders, managers, coaches, counselors, mentors and friends, all at the same time. As a result, they usually develop an excellent understanding of the current business and personnel issues. This makes them an essential source of information and feedback.

HR consulting companies recognize that one of the best ways of improving corporate performance is enhancing the effectiveness of supervisors through targeted training. This adds to their strengths and helps to maximize their potential, and has an almost immediate effect on the functioning of the company.

Kerry Larkan is a consultant, speaker and author who devised the concept of Good Boss ~ Bad