Long Read: Eight lessons from 2020s CMgrs of the year

Monday 17 August 2020
Here's the best advice from CMI’s Chartered Manager of the Year Award shortlist, which always offers lessons in best practice for managers on every level
Eight Lessons on a paper among school supplies

You may have already met CMI’s Chartered Managers of the Year for 2020. We had so many high-quality candidates put forward, with so many examples of excellent leadership, that we’re sharing their best advice and learnings from their careers.

1. Tech people aren’t always the best choice to lead your tech project

The most technically savvy people aren’t necessarily the best choices to make sure digital transformation stick. Instead, those who were most curious about the technology and the most willing to learn would deliver the most engagement. “They don’t necessarily have to be experts, but they have to want to go out and learn, play and experiment. It’s not a typical corporate approach, says CMgr of the year Manisha Mistry. “It has more in common with early-years education, learning through play.”

By opening her initiative up for people to come forward voluntarily, Mistry had accelerated the speed of the change on her project for Rolls Royce. Mistry and her team then focused on supporting their tech champions, including sponsorship for the champions and celebrating their achievements within their regions. “People want a sense of reward in what they’re doing. It makes them proud, and then you start to see more digital-first behaviours develop off the back of that,” Mistry says.

2. Culture change requires assertiveness around people

When Dalton Leong set about creating a more collaborative culture at the Children’s Trust, a lot of the change came down to finding the right people. Leong’s biggest challenge was filling the role of finance director. He describes it as the toughest hiring challenge of his career. It took several failed attempts to find the right fit for the role before he found the right person.

By that point, an interim FD had been appointed to the role. Some people in the leadership team were lobbying for them to stay on. Leong stuck to his guns. “When I look back, what was particularly pleasing was my resilience in the face of pressure; knowing I hadn’t got it right yet, but not giving up. Now we’re reaping the rewards.”

With the right people in place, the organisation started to thrive. The culture is now more open and collaborative and the organisation is financially sustainable. “Leadership is largely about creating a strong team around you, being clear and assertive about your expectations and, most importantly, doing it in an ethical way,” Leong says.

3. Take serious time for reflection

Grant Campbell is very precise in his reflections. He types them out, reviews them and rewrites them until he’s happy with their accuracy and depth. His previous reflections informed his work at Huddersfield University as he tried to create some of the most distinctive chemical engineering courses in the country.

Writing out his thoughts helps Campbell hone his skills. “I find I can only teach by writing my own textbook first,” he explains. “Not a long textbook, but a booklet that I give out to the students. They’re quite wordy, because I’m going through my thought processes, but the students like them because they take them through the thought processes as well.”

4. To build relationships, really listen

While streamlining and digitising the estates helpdesk at Solent University, one of Debbie Carless’s first big challenges was to repair a strained relationship between estates and IT. It stemmed from unresolved issues that had arisen during the last facilities management software update. The first meeting was tense, but Carless soon won them round by really listening to what they had to say.

“My strongest instinct is always to fix a problem. That’s always right at the front of my mind. But my experience has taught me that I should never assume I have the answer to fixing it. That needs to be drawn out from a good bit of understanding, which comes from listening to all the people involved.”

5. Detoxifying a culture starts with honesty

As the new headmaster of Glengormley High School, Ricky Massey had to detoxify the school’s culture and improve its reputation. Now at the other end of a spectacular turnaround, Massey recommends that managers looking to detoxify a culture should be open and honest with staff. “When you’re honest with [people], trust them with the truth and give them a vision of improvement, they will come with you.”

One of the best ways to develop a good culture, says Massey, is to create a space where staff are empowered to understand and develop their strengths. “People think it’s easier to motivate people in the private sector because you can give them more money, but in my experience, that makes no difference. What definitely works is investing in staff’s CPD, and providing the right challenges and support mechanisms to encourage their development.”

6. A ‘new team’ doesn’t necessarily mean new hires

As Jenny Taylor created several new roles as part of the process of becoming an apprenticeship employer-provider, she looked to fill them all internally. To do this effectively, you need to have a good understanding of your team’s strengths, weaknesses and potential.

Often, you will need to encourage individuals to step up for a role – they will not necessarily do it themselves. “For example, for the new quality management role, some members of the team didn’t feel they had the confidence to do that, even if I thought they would be perfect.”

7. Adapt your communication for different age groups on your team

Different age groups listen and communicate differently, you should utilise different communication styles for each one, according to Paul Hughes CMgr MCMI. The 50-plus age group on his team was most resistant to change. Hughes encouraged those who had bought into his vision to encourage the more sceptical members of the team.

Hughes uses what he calls “positive manipulation” to win hearts and minds and encourage people to do what’s needed. “You have to take quite a charismatic approach. They’ve got to believe in you as an individual, and they’ve got to believe in the direction you want to take the organisation.”

8. Make time to make a difference

As a big advocate of strong mental health, wellbeing and social value policies, Sarah Gardner approached her MD at Coalo and asked if she could write the strategies, making a strong business case for why it was necessary. “I’m all about trying to improve things,” she says. “Whether it’s a work situation, a company, a project or people’s lives.”

Gardner also ran awareness days and training for staff to ensure it was properly implemented, drawing on her previous experience in project and change management. She then moved onto other projects, helping to shape Coalo’s corporate strategy, working on its rebranding, redesigning the website and managing the company’s marketing. She really advocates making your time count. “If there’s a purpose, I find the time for it. I get up early in the mornings. I look for opportunities to work and try not to waste any time.”

To learn even more leadership lessons, why not check out the winner of the CMI Management Book of the Year award?

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