Three Critical Practices for Managers in this Moment

Let’s help managers answer today’s call for network-savvy leadership.

They say the presidency doesn’t change people so much as reveal who they are.

The same can be said for the pandemic and managers at all levels.

We’ve heard plenty about how COVID and a slew of other crises over the past two years have transformed how we work. That’s certainly true. But when it comes to leadership, the disruption has also exposed and intensified challenges managers have been wrestling with for many years.

In essence, the pandemic has forced organizations and managers to put more attention than ever on questions such as:

  • How do we orchestrate distributed teams effectively?
  • What role do managers play in the increasingly networked nature of teams and organizations?
  • How do managers help their teams become more agile and successful in our more dynamic and interconnected work world?

These are tricky questions. It’s no wonder manager burn-out jumped 78 percent at the start of COVID. But I believe there are good solutions to these problems. Research—some dating to before the pandemic and some hot off the presses—points to wise approaches and best practices.

For starters, we need to update our notions about work teams and how we regard managers. We are now operating in organizations that are rapidly moving away from traditional, fixed hierarchies centered on functional silos. Instead, work is increasingly done in teams that cross functions and form and dissolve quickly based on rapidly changing goals and needs. As a result, employees are on many more teams―twice as many as they were five years ago.

In effect, organizations are becoming networks of networks. These include connections and affiliations that extend outside the walls of the business to create eco-systems of contractors, vendors, suppliers, and partners. What’s more, even before the pandemic, teams were becoming increasingly distributed—often with members spanning time zones if not countries and continents.

What does all this mean for managers? For decades, top performers were promoted to management roles, where they directed work and served as an expert resource for junior members of their department or team. This top-down boss role is becoming obsolete. Managers in a networked, distributed world are more coaches motivating and developing team members than generals issuing commands to the troops. More facilitators of effective collaboration than masters teaching apprentices.

Another manager metaphor that has fit for the last 5 to 10 years is that of an orchestra leader coordinating talented musicians. This task becomes especially difficult when the different players are spread across the country, stressed out about a deadly pandemic, and reflecting on the meaning of their work more than ever. Nearly two-thirds of US-based employees surveyed by McKinsey said that COVID-19 has caused them to reflect on their purpose in life.

So what are managers to do? Much of the guidance and wisdom has to do with leading with compassion, clear communication, and clarity of purpose.  As the authors of a recent Harvard Business Review article put it, “it’s less important to see what employees are doing and more important to understand how they feel.”

There’s heightened need for frequent check-ins and ad-hoc meetings, even if they are virtual. “The geographic reality of working with a distributed team necessitates a more intentional approach to communication,” Forbes contributor Geoffrey Michener writes.

It’s even possible to blend communications about the personal and professional to good effect. Giving middle managers themselves space to talk about the range of their burdens can help ease their minds. “Private conversations about your workload plus public conversations about your [company] priorities really help with the stress level,” says Brian Elliott, VP of the Future Forum, a consortium launched by communications tool Slack to help companies reimagine work.

A less-discussed set of management skills that I believe is also vitally important has to do with what scholars Inga Carboni and Rob Cross call “collaborative practices.” In a report that came out in mid-2020, Carboni and Cross identified three critical strategies for leaders seeking to foster agile, successful teams.

The research—funded by my organization, the Innovation Resource Center for Human Resources (IRC4HR)—involved interviews with more than a hundred high-performing leaders. The conclusion? Managers ought to pay attention to internal network structure, relational content, and external ecosystem.

The details:

  1. Optimize Your Team’s lnternal Network Structure. The patterns of interactions in teams matter. A lot. Among the ways to make those patterns healthy and effective are:
    1. Manage the “center” of the team to prevent cliques, reward collaboration, and identify influential members.
    2. Integrate the “edge” of the team to incorporate newcomers, engage remote workers, and ensure high-performers are available to help others.
    3. Minimize silos by facilitating connectivity and preventing subgroups.
    4. Generate agility by engaging key contributors and reducing workloads.
  2. Build Quality Relationships Within Your Team. A positive structure is important but not enough. The content of the connections in your team also is vital. To foster high-quality bonds, take these steps:
    1. Cultivate awareness of team expertise.
    2. Build up trust, energy, and purpose.
    3. Discourage difficult team members from undermining morale.
    4. Combat risk-averse beliefs and behaviors.
    5. Minimize stressors on team members.
  3. Proactively Shape Your Team’s External Ecosystem. A striking finding from Rob and Inga is that effective leaders spend up to 60 percent of their time managing external relationships. That’s how vital it is in today’s interconnected work environment. Some key tactics to improve your team’s external stakeholder ties include:
    1. Shape the nature of the work that comes into the team. Actively “source” and design the team’s tasks, obtain resources, and engage influencers early.
    2. Drive innovation, efficiency, and engagement. Reach out to leaders in similar roles, stimulate innovation by locating complementary expertise, and help team members connect to others in the enterprise.

If you’re intrigued by any or all of the three critical practices and the steps to achieve them, check out the full paper. It not only offers details on all the points above, but includes compelling stories that breathe life into these vital strategies.

Perhaps most important, though, is that we all move away from old models of teamwork and management. The stakes are high that we notice the new networked nature of teams and work. As Inga and Rob put it in their paper: “people are more dispersed and needing of leadership and guidance more than ever.”

There’s a flip side of that coin. The pandemic has made plain that we need to help managers answer the call of the people they lead. Let’s help leaders at every level gain the skills that will enable their people and organizations to thrive.

Jodi Starkman is Executive Director of the Innovation Resource Center for Human Resources.