Is line management damaging your employer brand by accident?

Written by
Neil Harrison

24 Dec 2015

24 Dec 2015 • by Neil Harrison

A brief tale of two managers

Let’s take the happily evolving story of Alistair Cook, the current captain of the England men’s test side. A staggeringly successful opening batsman, perhaps less easy on the eye than with the statistician, it is hard to argue with his achievements. Given his success, his elevation to captaincy came as scant surprise, even if he had very little, if any, previous exposure to such a role. The result? A stubborn refusal to take risks, to do things differently, to take on board the ideas of others. So far, so predictable. Until today, that is. The team’s most recent series saw Cook innovate, take chances, seek the counsel of previous incumbents and to generally surprise. Hats off, then, to a manager with the confidence and backing to evolve.

A less uplifting tale involves one Jose Mourinho. Over the course of two spells with Chelsea and other stellar names in Porto, Inter Milan and Real Madrid, his career has known only success. However, just 16 games into the current season, Mr Mourinho finds himself with time on (and P45 in) his hands. Despite his natural savviness and intelligence, the dressing room he has just vacated has been increasingly characterised by rancour, player revolt, splits and divisions. The result? Chelsea at the wrong end of the table and Jose looking for a new employer.

For a role that can be so hugely influential, it is common for people to fall into management. Even today, people become managers largely because this represents the only identifiable means of rewarding people’s functional expertise and achievement. Let’s distract, seems to be the thought process, great digital professionals, talented marketers, inspirational HR specialists, even able left handed batsmen, by recognising their successes and asking them to do something for which they will have received little or no backing and preparation. And, in doing so, compromise the effectiveness of what has made them so successful in the first place.

This despite there being so much, in terms of productivity, tenure, discretionary effort, employee advocacy, output and team success, that can be squarely attributed to a manager and their impact. 

Management and employer brand what's the link?

A fascinating piece of research from the London School of Economics, and referenced recently in the Economist, suggested that 80% of bosses are ‘accidental managers’ – people who are promoted into the role with no relevant training. The LSE interviewed 14,000 employees as part of the research and, to extend the sporting metaphor, ‘The UK is not in the premier league’, trailing in somewhere below the US, Japan and Germany. However, there are signs of an enthusiasm to address such gaps with the launch of the Chartered Management Degree Apprenticeship which was developed with a series of major employers, higher education and the CMI. The government too realises the importance of such an initiative and has committed to paying for two thirds of the cost of this initiative.

But in terms of today’s levels of employee engagement and an organisation’s clearly associated employer brand, how important is this? Plenty, according to Gallup. Playing very much to productivity and retention, Gallup puts typical enterprise wide employee engagement at just 30%, a figure which has not moved significantly despite the amount of attention the subject generates today. More relevantly, Gallup suggests there is a 70% engagement variance between great teams and the not so great. Accenture puts this variance at an even more polar 80%.

Let's just consider that again. There is a 70% difference in engagement levels between teams with great managers and those with less than stellar performers in such roles.

For TMP, there is a massive correlation between the quality of line management and the quality of your employer brand. These are the people who represent the point of delivery of your employer brand internally.

The effect of a good relationship between line managers and employers

Key engagement related questions, such as ‘Do I get listened to here? Do I feel inspired? Do I get operational freedom? Can I fulfil my ambitions? Do I know what’s going on here? Do I share the values of this team and organisation?’ are answered in the relationship employees have with their line managers.

With all the debate that tends to rage around the ownership of the employer brand – does it sit with marketing/HR/resourcing/the C suite – do we too often lose sight of who is delivering the employer brand every day and through every internal people interaction? Or indeed, not delivering it.

Do your line managers – vital employer brand conduits – know the responsibility they have for your employer brand? Do they see the point, purpose and outputs of delivering it? Do they grasp its relation to advocacy and the external influence on your employer brand? What sorts of barriers do they come across in attempting to deliver the employer brand internally – and to what extent are they prepared for such barriers? 

If your employer brand and the EVP that predicates it speaks to empowerment, enablement, investment, space, trust, whatever, then it is your line management cadre who are responsible for delivering the essence of this to you employee base. And a lot of me suspects that this might come as something of a surprise to many such managers.

Successful and effective management has the closest possible relationship with a happy dressing room (I am going to go out on a limb and assume that Alistair Cook’s recent post Ashes win dressing room was a fairly positive environment) rather than one filled with friction, dissension and under-performance.

It is also hugely warming to understand that more and more investment is going into preparing people for the demands and challenges of people management. But if there remains debate around whether such investment merits the cost involved, then the implications and impact of poor management on an organisation’s employer brand should heavily influence such debate.

And with UK unemployment at just 5.2%, the lowest figure for a decade, half a million more people in the workforce than a year previously and APSCo suggesting that UK recruiters now have 6% more jobs to fill, I’d suggest this wasn’t an ideal moment in time to find yourself with a damaged employer brand.

If many of your senior people remain managers by accident, perhaps it's no surprise your employer brand shows signs of breaking down.