The best managers help employees make the right connections

In a perfect world, managers would have the time, resources and ability to provide constant feedback to their teams.

After all, this is what the research shows works best when it comes to creating great cultures and effective teams. Because organizations and responsibilities are changing so quickly – and innovation seems to be on the tip of everyone’s tongue – the thinking goes that consistent feedback far outweighs traditional annual performance reviews. Indeed, research by Leadership IQ suggests that an average amount of six hours per week should be spent coaching subordinates – per employee.

The reality is that constant coaching is rare. Managers face far too many constraints to devote that much time and energy to coaching. Indeed, other research suggests that managers spend only 6% of their time developing and coaching their teams. With work demands increasingly bidding for our short attention spans, what type of manager can best develop employees in an age where coaching is needed now more than ever?

Researchers at Gartner surveyed over 7,000 employees and managers across various industries and published their findings in the Harvard Business Review. They found that five types of managerial profiles generally exist within companies:

Teacher managers coach employees from their own knowledge and experience. They are advice givers and personally direct development. Not surprisingly, managers fitting this profile have developed expertise in their fields and often have often spent years climbing the corporate ladder from hands-on employee to manager.

Always-on managers are an HR manager’s dream, and the ones that spend way more than the average 6% of their time developing their teams – perhaps too much time. Managers of this type provide continual coaching and are dedicated to the advancement of those who report to them.

Cheerleader managers take a hands-off approach. While they give feedback and direction when asked, they leave development up to the employee. They are often seen as available and supportive, but they lack the proactive approach that modern manager/employee relations demand.

Absentee managers are the ones who show up and do the work but are emotionally distant and unavailable to their teams. Usually mid-to-high performers, these managers don’t provide an ostensible threat to an organization’s well-being simply because they aren’t that visible. As a coach, they leave their team members constantly wondering just what and how to improve.

Connector managers give targeted feedback in the areas that they know well. In those that they don’t, however, they connect employees with others who do. In contrast to the other four types, connectors spend much of their coaching time assessing the skills, needs and interests of their employees, recognizing that many of these assessed needs will be outsourced to other departments and managers. Make no mistake, however. Connector managers are not delegators. The best connectors use their connections judiciously and with an eye for quality, which can only come from taking the time to truly understand – and care for – their employees’ development.

Within most organizations, all types of managers can be found – with cheerleaders representing 29% and teachers representing 22%. What was surprising about Gartner’s survey is that it didn’t matter whether a manager spent 80% or 6% of his or her time on employee development. It was the quality of time spent that mattered. The second surprise was that always-on managers – those traditionally praised for their proactive approach – are known to coach in areas beyond their area of expertise. This ended up having the opposite of the intended effect – weakening employees performance by up to 8%.

There was one clear winner with respect to the best types of managers as coaches in the Gartner study: managers as connectors.

Here’s a sports analogy to understand this type of manager. Consider an Olympic swimming coach. His or her expertise will prove invaluable when it comes to things in the water. But on dry land, the future Olympian will need physiotherapists, nutritionists, massage therapists and a whole slew of other experts to win the gold. Despite this outsourcing of relationships and knowledge – or perhaps because of it – the coach remains an invaluable resource for the Olympian as a deeply involved advocate and mentor.

Encouraging managers to become connectors can be challenging. To get started, the researchers say that managers should focus less on the frequency of their one-on-ones and more on depth and quality. Do you really understand your employees’ needs and the skills needed to develop in that direction? Then open up the one-on-ones to the team. Encourage colleagues to coach one another, and point out people who have specific skills that others could benefit from learning. Then broaden the scope, setting up connections with senior-level colleagues across the organization who might help your team gain the skills they can’t learn from their fellow teammates. To wrap it up, make your future one-on-ones about what your employees have learned from others, and how you can continue to foster those connections. 

Casey Miller (casey@sixandahalfconsulting.com), president of Six and a Half Consulting, is a leadership and team development specialist. His consultancy teaches organizations the skills needed to create motivated and inspired workplaces.