This is a question any manager should ask themselves periodically. The reason is quite simple – we have inflated expectations of our leaders yet remain stubbornly blind to our own shortcomings once we are managing and leading people. The fact is, we prefer to look up, not down.

Many leaders we meet vowed to do things differently before they were given the opportunity to lead others. Few have the tenacity and willpower to follow through once they are in the role. Businesses continue to reward work on tasks, not leadership skills and developing people. Whilst some organisations have a Balanced Scorecard or some level of leadership related KPIs, they are often given much less priority than the hard business results and are generally much harder to measure anyway.

In our coaching we have to consistently remind managers and leaders we work with how important the leadership and staff development side of their job is. Yet making the time available requires not doing other things that ‘need to get done’. The resolution of this dilemma is in understanding the return on investment related to developing people.

To understand this better, let’s examine the tension between the different priorities in a bit more detail. As a manager and leader you are primarily tasked with:

  1. Producing the required business outcomes,
  2. Contributing to the continued growth of the business, and
  3. Developing your direct reports

The last one is often quite ambiguous, it is left open if this development encompasses just their technical skills or also includes things like communication, collaboration, culture, emotional intelligence and resilience. Yet team effectiveness relies on trust, robust conversations, collaboration and commitment, which, apart from trust, doesn’t happen without investment.

So all of these investments in ‘soft skills’ are valid and will contribute to increased team effectiveness and productivity (by reducing interpersonal conflict and friction). They just don’t yield fast results. The real conflict lies in this delayed return on investment – you may have to invest 6-18 months into the team dynamic and individual team members to get to the point where the amount of time you have to invest becomes smaller than the time you save on having to do tasks (because the team is more productive). This only stacks up if:

  1. You expect to be in the job for at least 3 years, and
  2. There is a good chance that a core team will stay on over that time period

Neither condition is satisfied very often. Especially your ability to keep a core team together for 3+ years is rather remote given that around 1 in 5 Australians change their job each year.

So there is a structural impediment to investing in people and getting a high return on that investment. The flip-side of course is that individual development is either absent, reduced to technical training or ‘outsourced’ to HR. None of these scenarios make people happy in the workplace and contribute to low morale and increased staff turnover. Which in turn makes it less likely that managers are going to invest, since it is unlikely that people will stay.

We have seen this situation get worse since the GFC in 2009, as more managers have been given extra responsibilities and are now doing 1.5 or even 2 jobs. This makes it even harder to find the time and mental capacity to sustain an investment in direct reports. We have also heard more and more managers simply talk about being ‘role models’ – expecting their people to pick up what to do by watching them and answering technical questions. This is a poor substitute for coaching and developing your people.

At the moment we don’t see any structural support for changing the priorities to be more balanced between business needs and people needs. If you would like to be a better leader and really get the most out of a highly productive and committed team, you will need to make the time and investment yourself.

In the first instance, you need to understand your people – their personality, needs, wants, skill level, motivation and development opportunities. This means having a genuine interest in them as people, not resources. It requires creating the space for un-interrupted, in-depth conversations where both parties are fully present. That might initially take 2 hours or so with each person on your team.

The next step is to agree on development goals and the sequence and support required to achieve them. Here pretty much all managers we meet go wrong. Any person can only work on one personal development goal at a time. No matter if that is learning how to listen or how to ask questions in a group or how to say ‘no’ or whatever it may be. One goal at a time. Only then can they and you set up the required feedback loop to keep the person on track.

In addition to individual development goals, you should work on one team goal. If trust is good, this may be about learning how to have robust conversations in the team (the most common issue we see). If people are committed, it may be about learning how to hold each other accountable. Again, one goal only and a consistent, immediate feedback loop are required for learning.

Please forget annual performance reviews. If you have to do them, just make them a tick-box exercise. They can’t and don’t work (which has been proven through academic research). The time frame (6 or 12 months) does not match our need for timely feedback to make changes to our behaviour. Regular (monthly) meetings are much better suited to development conversations.

Of course the ‘unintended’ consequence of making this investment in your people is that they do stay. In the same way that we have clear expectations of what we want from our leaders, we usually are very good at recognising when we have such a leader as our manager. Then many people are prepared to either tie their career to your trajectory (or business) or postpone advancement to enjoy working in a productive and happy team.