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Why “Connector” Managers Build Better Talent

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Sari Wilde, a managing vice president at Gartner, studied 5,000 managers and identified four different types of leaders. The surprising result is that the “always on” manager is less effective at developing employees, even though many companies encourage supervisors to give constant feedback. Instead, the “connector” manager is the most effective, because they facilitate productive interactions across the organization. Wilde explains what the best connector managers do, how to be one, and how to work for one. With Jaime Roca, Wilde wrote the book The Connector Manager: Why Some Leaders Build Exceptional Talent — and Others Don’t.

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TRANSCRIPT

CURT NICKISCH: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Curt Nickisch.

One of the best ways to achieve personal success in the modern organization is to become the type of manager that the best people want to work for.

And that manager is the one who is great at developing employees. After all, business is changing. Responsibilities are constantly shifting. Workers want to upgrade their skills.

A team of researchers at the global advisory firm Gartner wanted to know what the best managers do to develop employees in today’s busy work environment. They surveyed 5,000 managers around the world in different functions.

And they looked how successful employees of those managers are. What the researchers found is that many companies are telling managers to lavish a constant stream of feedback on their direct reports, that’s actually not working. In fact, it’s counterproductive.

The data reveal that are four main types of managers out there – and the manager giving constant feedback is not the most effective one in today’s climate.

Here to talk about the different types of managers – and which one comes out on top – is Sari Wilde. She’s a managing vice president at Gartner. And along with Jaime Roca, she wrote the book The Connector Manager: Why Some Leaders Build Exceptional Talent — and Others Don’t. Sari, thanks for being here.

SARI WILDE: Thank you so much for having me.

CURT NICKISCH: You use this term crisis of confidence as something that you saw, which is a pretty alarming term. Like, that’s a term that you hear when people feel like their government is failing them or they can’t trust institutions that are out there. What did you see and why are you using that term?

SARI WILDE: So one, when we asked leaders themselves about how equipped they feel to lead their organizations into the future, what we found was only 50 percent of those leaders answered positively which we felt was huge. I mean, historically, as we’ve looked at leader confidence levels generally in our jobs today and even as they look at the future, those numbers have always been higher so that was the first piece. The second piece was when we asked employees about how affective they are at the skills that are most critical for their jobs today and we found that nearly 70 percent of employees feel like they have not mastered the skills that they need for their jobs today.

CURT NICKISCH: Where do you think this is coming from?

SARI WILDE: We kind of boil it down to what we call three tectonic shifts. So, the first shift is what we call a big organizational shift. So these are shifts – think about reorganization, mergers and acquisitions, big culture or strategy leadership changes. These types of changes are occurring more and more frequently in organizations today.

The second piece is around the interdependency of work today. Right around 2008, around the great recession, we found that a lot of companies were delayering to cut costs, so taking out levels of middle managers. And over the last several years as the economy began to grow again, companies were not replacing that middle management layer.

So managers had to manage through more people, they had to manage overall, they had much bigger spans of control. Today what we find is the average manager has a span of about nine director ports and all of those director ports, many of them are working on cross matrix teams across geographies virtually, and it’s tough, as a manager.

And then the third piece is just really around the predictability of work today. Looking at digitalization and how that has impacted changes in skills, in goals, automation replacing a lot of types of work today, and really that, you know, work is, you know, on shorter time horizons and managers kind of have to adjust their plans and workflows a lot more frequently than ever before.

CURT NICKISCH: All right. So this is a world where managers don’t all feel super confident and confident about what they need to be doing all the time. What did you find in your research were the things that the best managers did?

SARI WILDE: So every manager falls into one of four types or approaches in how they coach and develop their employees.

CURT NICKISCH: And those types are teacher, cheerleader, always on, and connectors. Can you break those down for us?

SARI WILDE: So let me start talking about the teacher. So this is the manager who is going to develop their employees based on their own expertise and experience. So their mantra is, I did it this way and therefore you should do it this way too. So these are the, often the people who have kind of risen up in the organization based on their own individual contributions, not necessarily because they were the greatest managers, but they were just really good at their, at their tasks or their skills.

The cheerleader is the manager who tends to take a more hands-off approach to development. So when they do provide that feedback, it tends to be very positive and empowering but they, they encourage a lot of self-development and empowering of their employees. They want employees to really learn by doing themselves.

CURT NICKISCH: Always on, explain that one.

SARI WILDE: Right. So the always on manager is the manager who always wants to be there for their employees. They have good intentions. They’re there when their employees need them. They want to be the ones who are providing that ongoing continuous coaching and feedback across a wide breadth of skills. And what was interesting about this type is that as we started to talk to a lot of human resource executives and leaders themselves, we found that many, many companies are promoting this always on kind of continuous coaching and feedback approach within their organizations. So this was, in many ways, the desired approach, not necessarily where everybody is today, but where they are trying to move towards.

SARI NICKISCH: And finally, the connector manager.

SARI WILDE: So this is the manager who provides that targeted feedback when they have the expertise but then connect their employees with others who are better suited to provide that coaching and development. So that means that they have the right skills and knowledge or expertise to provide coaching. And they’re also known for creating a trusting and transparent environment that is, that really facilitates peer-to-peer coaching and feedback.

CURT NICKISCH: Gotcha. Now you said that companies are really demanding and asking for and trying to develop always on managers. Let’s talk for a moment just about where that motivation is coming from and then, and then I want to know in your research, like, what, you know, how are those types of managers performing?

SARI WILDE: So a lot of people think that managers need to spend more time coaching. So there’s this, there’s this idea that the more time you spend coaching and developing, the more impact that you’re going to have on your employees, the more it’s going to help them. So in our research, we actually looked at the relationship between the time that managers are spending coaching and then the employee’s performance, and what we found was really interesting. We found that there’s no significant relationship between employee performance and then the manager’s time spent developing their employees.

CURT NICKISCH: I don’t, I don’t know if that’s a positive insight or a negative one.

SARI WILDE: Well, you know, it’s interesting because we talk a lot about the, the always on world that we live in today and this also, I think, contributes to the, the always on, the prevalence of the always on manager and the desire. So this idea we’ve looked at across different generations and looked at their own desires around what they want from their managers and we found that Millennials, who make up a large portion of the workforce in a lot of organizations, actually would like more coaching and feedback than other generations.

So managers feel this pressure to do more from their employees, and then a lot of human resource functions and leaders are continuing to reinforce that through these ongoing coaching and feedback initiatives. So really kind of it gets to this point that managers are feeling very overwhelmed today.

There’s actually an interesting statistic that we also looked at where we asked human resource executives how much, what percentage of time do you think that managers should spend developing their director ports? And what they said was just over a third, so 36 percent of their time. So if you think about what that translates to, that’s almost two days a week that you are spending just doing coaching and developing, so that’s a lot of time.

But then when we went and asked managers themselves how much do you actually spend, what percentage of your time, they said it’s less than 10 percent.

CURT NICKISCH: And where is the always on manager going wrong? Like, why is that model not working?

SARI WILDE: You know, a lot of us have had these managers in our careers, I know I certainly have, where you have someone who is constantly on top of you and giving you feedback on every single little thing that you do, it can feel really stifling and disengaging. And in a lot of ways, you know, you don’t grow and learn. It doesn’t give you that space to do that.

The other piece is, you know, always on managers feel like they are the expert on everything and in so many organizations, when you think about the job that employees were doing, are doing today, when their managers had that job, it looked a little different and so the manager kind of, the always on manager often assumes that they know what’s best when, in many cases, they don’t and the job has changed, they may not be close enough to it anymore, and so that’s where almost, that’s where the negative piece comes from, where they can steer employees toward the wrong path.

CURT NICKISCH: Okay. So if the connector manager is the star here, what are they actually doing to be a connector manager?

SARI WILDE: Connector managers make three connections for their employees. The employee connection, and this is really about that one-to-one connection between employees and managers where they’re really getting to know their employees at a deeper level. They’re focused on diagnosis, really understanding their motivations, their interests, their goals, their development areas in ways that we don’t see in other managers. They’re focused on asking the right kinds of questions to get underneath the surface.

The second connection is what we call the team connection, and this is the way that managers create an open and transparent environment so that team members can develop one another so that all of the coaching doesn’t have to come from the manager as the sole source. Often times you work more with your peers than you do with your manager, and your peers are closest to you and best, you know, best prepared to kind of provide that feedback. They’re there when a lot of the work gets done and sometimes, often times the manager is not.

And then the other piece is that, you know, people come in with a lot of different skill sets and a lot of times, in most organizations, those are not used and so the manager in the team connection, the connector identifies individual differences. They’re really good at embracing those, pulling those apart. They’re known to create a more inclusive team environment so that people feel respected and comfortable sharing their individual skills with one another.

And then the third connection is what we call the organization connection, and this is really all about how connectors, one, have the self-awareness to recognize that they don’t have all of the skills that their employees need and they’re also forthcoming with their employees about that, and then they help their employees navigate to find the right skills or expertise outside of themselves. And the other key there is that they’re really good at helping their employees learn from those connections. So it’s not just about delegating development to someone else, but it’s really about helping them apply the learning.

CURT NICKISCH: It sounds like they have to be pretty well networked within their organization and just know how to, you know, make connections. I mean, is there pretty strong correlation there with connector managers or how is this different from being a good networker in your company?

SARI WILDE: Yeah. And that’s a question that we get a lot and I think it’s actually one of the misconceptions about connectors is that you don’t necessarily have to have a really large network to be a good connector. It’s really almost about more resourcefulness. So it’s, you know, in a lot of instances, the connector manager is not necessarily making the connection for you from their own network, but they’re helping you figure out how would you, how would you determine or how would you get the learning that you need if they’re not able to provide it.

So a good example of this is a leader we interviewed, his name is Pranav Vora, he is the CEO of a men’s apparel company called Hugh & Crye. This is a small company, 15 employees, based in Washington DC. And Pranav had recently hired a new digital marketing manager onto his team, and he realized after some time that his marketing manager needed to improve his skills in the e-commerce space. And within their small company of 15 people, they didn’t have the skills and expertise in-house to help his employee, nor did he really have a lot of resources to pay for a lot of, you know, extra development or hire anyone new.

So he helped the employee connect to individuals outside the organization. And he helped the employee connect with some of their technology business partners, peer companies in a similar space, and even looking at customers who they had spoken with and who had expertise in that area.

So Pranav calls those individuals his benevolent outsiders. And I think the lesson that we really love from that story is that, you know, you don’t have to have a really big network within your company, and it’s also really about helping your employees to find the right connections themselves and that it doesn’t have to be coming all from your own network as a manager.

CURT NICKISCH: It seems like this approach might be scary for some managers, especially people who have been in their careers for a while, to give up control or make it seem like they don’t have the answers for things. Can it sound that way to some skeptical managers?

SARI WILDE: It could but I think the most important thing is not necessarily forget what you know, but it’s about being kind of honest about what you know. And then it’s also about really setting up the environment in the right way. So I have another example I’ll share that’s actually a really timely and personal one. It’s something, an exercise that I just did literally this morning with my own team of about 22 people and everybody is kind of split between, some of us are in our Arlington, Virginia office, we have individuals in Boston, in London, in India, and a lot of us, it’s a fairly new team so I really wanted to try, myself, to kind of build some of these connector, build some of these connector behaviors.

So I put into practice something that we wrote about in the book. It’s a practice called, each one teach one, and the idea is that everybody goes around the room and shares one skill or piece of knowledge that they’re willing to share with somebody else. So for example, we had people, everybody went around and people talked about writing skills, some people talked about, you know, graphics visualization, just for us and what we do, those are some important skills.

Other people literally, you know, shared their baking skills outside of work, skills that they use as well. And there’s something that I found where, just how people started to loosen up, like, the more people started to share, and we kind of tracked these online. And my ask to everyone on the team is, take a look at these skills and over the next couple of months, if one of these skills is one of your own development areas, set up a meeting, set up a 30-minute session with that person who has that skill and, you know, help each other.

And it’s really simple. It’s something that, you know, I think, as you said, people can sometimes feel intimidated by this idea or feel like, you know, people aren’t going to see me as the manager or the leader, but the truth is that the leader has to play a very active role in creating this kind of environment to create, it has to set the right tone and really kind of set up that idea of sharing because not everyone is going to initially feel comfortable doing that. But by setting an example, that’s kind of, we believe it’s one of the first steps.

CURT NICKISCH: How does this change the role of your peers at an organization when you have a connector manager?

SARI WILDE: We have found that when on teams that have connector managers, they tend to be a lot more trusting, they tend to be a lot more open with each other. Even on teams that are naturally competitive, so if you have sales teams, you know, they’re all competing for the same kinds of incentives, a great connector sales manager can orchestrate the right kind of environment where they may be setting up shared objectives so that, you know, you don’t achieve, you don’t get your goals unless everybody else, or you help someone else hit their goals. You tend to see team dynamics that are more healthy. They’re – connector managers tend to be a lot more comfortable and confident talking about tough issues. We see that in that one-to-one employee connection and also in that team connection it becomes important as well.

CURT NICKISCH: And then what does having a connector manager mean to you as an employee? Like how do your interactions or how does your job change if you, if you have a connector manager as opposed to an always on manager?

SARI WILDE: You tend to feel a sense of empowerment. I think the other thing that we do see for the big result is that employee performance improves when you have a connector manager. So you are able to get coaching, the right coaching and guidance that you need more quickly than a lot of these other types, than the always on manager. You make more connections across organizations within your teams.

In many cases, it also means that employees need to be more upfront about what they need. So they need to, you know, to help their connector managers get them the right support. Both roles are – they’re very active, as I mentioned, kind of in creating those connections and environments. And the employees also have an important role to play there.

CURT NICKISCH: To play devil’s advocate here, is there a risk that having this type of manager can annoy you? You know, do some workers, especially, so let’s say you are a Millennial and you’re expecting constant feedback and you’re asking for it all the time.

Is there a danger that you’ll have the perception that your boss doesn’t have the expertise or know what to do and just goes around trying to, like, pass you off on other people and try to make connections and collaborations happen without actually, you know, pointing you in the right direction themselves?

SARI WILDE: Yeah. Well, you know, I think in actuality, you know, most people are not getting that level of coaching that, you know, that we talked about earlier that Millennials seem to desire. And the thing that’s great about the connector is that you actually are getting more feedback, it’s just not all coming from one person.

The connector provides, what we call, we say, the first thing is they provide targeted coaching and feedback when they have the expertise, when they’re there to experience your, your work, they are the right person and they do that and they do that well.

But they ensure that you actually do get more coaching and guidance than a lot of the other manager types because they are making those connections and they’re not just doing it in the instances where, when they’re there and where they can help.

So, you know, I think for the employees who feel like it’s just about delegation, in a lot of those instances, you actually have a cheerleader rather than a connector. Because the cheerleader, cheerleaders are the ones that tend to delegate. So, go talk to this person, they can help you, and then you never have a conversation again about it.

Whereas the connector is, will say, go talk to this person. We talk about warm up and cool down routines that the connector does before they’re making that connection, so they’re preparing you to have, around, kind of, what are the goals of these conversations. There’s a lot more precision about what are we trying to get out of it.

And then you go and have the right conversation and then you come back and the connector manager is the one that says, okay, what did we learn, how do we, how are we then going to apply that to do our jobs better? So it’s still a very active role, it’s just a slight, you’re focusing your time in different places.

CURT NICKISCH: Gotcha. It sounds like there’s a lot of momentum and inertia at organizations towards the always on manager model and so it may be really difficult to get your organization to change how it approaches that or what kind of managers are promoted and rewarded and cultivated at their company. So if you are a manager or you are an employee who is looking to work for, you know, a connector manager or wants to work for a connector manager because they know that that is a successful model, how do you push for it and how do you, how do you get it to happen? What would you tell a friend who came up to you and said, well that’s not how we do things at my company?

SARI WILDE: It depends on, I guess, how much influence you have in the organization. If it’s someone who just, you know, I want a connector manager, I’m looking for someone who is a connector. So what we found in our research is about 25 percent of the population are connectors, and that cuts across all industries, functions, you, there are a number of connectors in a lot of organizations.

And so even if, you know, employees don’t always have control around who their manager is, it’s about finding projects under those individuals. We see employees who look for mentors who are connectors. There are things as an employee that you can do, even if you’re stuck with that always on manager or a different manager type, to work more closely with connectors because they do exist in all, in all organizations.

You mentioned this continued focus from organizations around the always on approach and as you start to dig into it, the truth is that about 22 percent or so of managers are actually always on. So that’s not a huge percentage but a lot of the push from organizations comes from this belief that, well managers aren’t really doing anything today, so we’re just trying to get them to do something. And they go all the way to this other extreme of, you’re not giving enough coaching and we want you to do it all the time continuously.

CURT NICKISCH: And what they’re basically saying is, we want you to be sometimes on.

SARI WILDE: Right, right, right. Exactly. And I think as we work with organizations on the connector approach, you know, it doesn’t have to be doing nothing to doing always on, you know, by taking the connector, there are some, a lot of kind of small behavioral changes that a lot of either cheerleader managers, teachers, or even always on managers can take to change their approach.

CURT NICKISCH: So if someone listening to this realizes, oh no, I’m a cheerleader manager, or I’m a teacher manager and that’s not going to fly anymore, or I am always on and I know that that’s not working, what can they do to try to make this transition to become a connector manager themselves?

SARI WILDE: Some of that is going to depend on your starting place. So if you’re, for example, if you’re an always on manager and your tendency as an always on manager is going to be just to coach, so regardless of whether your employees are necessarily asking for coaching or whether they need it, they’re going to provide feedback and coach. And so there, what we would advise is, think about asking questions rather than just providing feedback and coaching.

So this is, we talk about overinvesting in diagnosis, and we have a number of, we actually have a tool in the book that’s called the most powerful connector questions, so some specific questions that can help you kind of really get underneath what makes your employees tick, what their needs are, what their interests are. So that’s the first thing.

If you’re more on the cheerleader side, then you’re going to have to lean in a little bit more and be a more active leader or coach. So for example, on the organization connection, instead of just, you know, suggesting that your employee connect with someone and then often times the cheerleader will kind of forget about it and assume that development took place, they will do their, what we call warm up and cool down routine.

So before the conversation, spend a little bit of time working with the employee and prepping them for the conversation, setting clear goals. And then the most important thing is the reflection afterwards and helping them understand, you know, what did you learn, how can we then apply that, and making sure that that application is happening.

CURT NICKISCH: It’s been really great to talk about this. It’s cool research and we’re glad to share it with our audience. Thanks for coming on the show to talk about it.

SARI WILDE: Great. Thank you so much for having me.

NICKISCH: That’s Sari Wilde. She’s a managing vice president at Gartner and a co-author of the book, The Connector Manager: Why Some Leaders Build Exceptional Talent — and Others Don’t.

This episode was produced by Mary Dooe. We get technical help from Rob Eckhardt. Adam Buchholz is our audio product manager. Thanks for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. I’m Curt Nickisch.



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