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What skills do employees look for in their managers?

13 Feb 2020 By Maureen Sumner Smith

Businesses whose workers have the greatest confidence in their boss’s people skills are the most resilient, says Maureen Sumner Smith

What makes a good leader? And what does it take to succeed in today’s business environment? Leadership theory, examples of good and poor leaders, viewpoints from the top and secret tips to success can all take up a lot of column inches in an attempt to answer this. 

Following a year that saw the collapse of companies such as Thomas Cook and Mothercare among other high street stalwarts, the question of what makes resilient leadership certainly has a sharp edge. 

Our annual Organisational Resilience Index looks at the ability of organisations around the world to adapt to change, across a whole range of factors – from technology to employee skills to leadership – to understand what is driving the health of businesses. 

Looking at the results of our latest Index, which polls 800 global business decision-makers including HR directors and managers, it appears that some new leadership trends are emerging. According to the people we spoke to, the top skill they want to see from their chief executive is the ability to instil adaptive capacity throughout the organisation, ensuring it is resilient to the volatility of today’s business environment.

In fact, this adaptability is now more important than pure financial management skills. Crucially, those respondents who have a greater confidence in their senior manager’s people skills come from the healthiest organisations in terms of resilience and financial performance.

For those of us already in management and leadership positions, this begs a question: Having worked our way up in previous years, are our people skills up to the demands of the modern workplace? The best way of judging your own resilience against changing conditions is to stop looking backwards into your own past, and instead benchmark yourself against your peers – and your employees. It’s worth seeking the views of your teams, and measuring staff engagement to see how you are faring. 

The most resilient leadership teams are eager to learn from their own and others’ experience to minimise problems and grasp opportunities as they arise. Establishing strong peer-to-peer networking and knowledge sharing across the business is key; you must display humility and be open to the views and opinions of all. In this way, everyone benefits from the experience of overcoming a challenge, and acts resiliently – not because they’ve been told to, but because ‘it’s the way we do things around here’.

What’s clear from our Index is that being able to establish a clear sense of direction across the workforce and to attract the next generation is vital. There’s a clear correlation between those teams who are able to adapt to changing market conditions, and those who have leaders that are able to engage and attract talent.

Turbulent political and economic conditions, from Beijing to Boston, appear to have weakened the confidence of many business leaders to look for and grasp opportunities. Past failures to predict and cope with economic shocks encourage reactive, short-term mind-sets that value security over opportunity. I would urge you to consider the consequences of such caution turning into dangerous inaction. Aside from missing opportunities, such thinking creates further challenges in recruitment and retention, and undermines colleague engagement.

From our research, a clear narrative appears: respondents around the world are united in a desire for leaders who are inclusive and consultative, not simply dictating rules to be followed. Leaders who take this approach are also more likely to be creating a resilient organisation with the ability to adapt and survive amongst changing market conditions. 

It’s no coincidence that what employees are asking for corresponds with market success, as you will be creating a workplace where people feel able to contribute all their ideas, experiences and skills.

I believe that resilient leaders recognise the value of investing in a culture that breeds a clear strategic purpose, alongside the tactical freedom of providing teams with the trust and opportunity to plot the optimum route in tough times. Today’s business environment requires coaches rather than commanders at the top.

Maureen Sumner Smith is chief operating officer for EMEA at BSI

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