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Break the Mold: A Different Approach to Building Great Managers

By Andrew Wilhelms, Senior Director, Talent Management, Twilio And Eric Thibault, Sr. Manager, Talent Management, Twilio

Andrew Wilhelms, Senior Director, Talent Management, Twilio

It’s a common refrain from business leaders, “We need better front-line leadership” and a common complaint amongst HR teams, “We need fewer bad front-line managers”. But despite years of attention and billions in investment, the problem remains and, some might argue, is actually getting worse.

More of the same is not the answer. It’s time to try something new.

The traditional approaches to leadership development go something like this: HR creates a portfolio of programs addressing an unstructured and/or unfiltered list of leadership “hot” topics (i.e. effective communication, emotional intelligence, innovation, etc.). In the more mature and sophisticated versions, the programs are based on a set of “core competencies” and sequenced to address progressive levels mastery as leaders move up in the organization.

"Based on the research, we are confident that clearly defining manager expectations and sending a strong message of accountability, will significantly increase our management muscle across the organization"

There are two main issues with this approach:

1. It does little to change managers’ priorities and generate true motivation to change
2. It implies that a single set of attributes/behaviors are needed to be a good leader

First, and most importantly, when leadership development is primarily or solely made up of training programs that exist in isolation, they do almost nothing to (re)orient leaders’ priorities and motives. Rather, these program-centric strategies “push” solutions to leaders vs. creating a demand or “pull” for the learning or tools that are tied to the job that a leader is actually trying to get done. Therefore, they have almost no chance to generate any substantive behavior change.

Second, a program-centric approach tends to imply that a single set of attributes and compliance to an already-written common playbook is the only way to be a good leader. Even a cursory look at history proves this error. Phenomenal leadership can be accomplished by people with many different attributes, personalities, styles, and tactics (McCall, 2010). A “one size fits all” approach limits experimentation and innovation and often unintentionally perpetuates unconscious biases in selection and assessment of leaders, contributing to the lack of diversity in our management ranks.

Eric Thibault, Sr. Manager, Talent Management, Twilio

We must fundamentally rethink our approach. We need to shift from Programs-First thinking to Priorities-First solutions. We propose a “Set, Measure, Teach” approach. First, define and align everyone on the most important jobs-to-be-done for a people leader (Set). Second, reinforce attention and ensure prioritization by holding managers accountable to key metrics aligned to the defined manager expectations (Measure). By orienting managers to the jobs-to-be-done and building in consequential accountability, you’ll create a demand or “pull” for manager development solutions. So lastly, support leaders in building their manager muscles by providing an ecosystem of relevant and useful tools, programs, and resources (Teach).

Set: Define Manager Expectations

Clearly defined manager expectations are the cornerstone of our front-line leadership development strategy. They create a common language for the jobs-to-be-done by managers. The framework you choose needs to be shared, simple, and stable. Senior leadership alignment on and sponsorship for the expectations and use cases is the most critical factor.

To provide an example, here are draft manager expectations for Twilio:

Measure: Hold Managers Accountable

The second most important part of our leadership development strategy is accountability. Measuring leaders against set expectations and auditing via our talent processes sends a clear signal to our leaders that they will be held accountable. Accountability requires both a top-down and bottom-up approach:

• Executive Champions: Accountability starts with our senior teams. We need these senior leaders to be the champions and reinforce the manager expectations and leadership solutions - in recurring company all-hands, in leadership meetings, and as faculty of any leadership programs.

• Manager Effectiveness Survey: We use a Manager Effectiveness survey to evaluate managers against the manager expectations. This gives us solid baseline data to measure our own progress in developing stronger managers across the organization. We are currently experimenting with a quarterly cadence. The key determinant of success is attention to and action planning based on the survey results by senior leadership teams. As one of our executives said, “There is a difference between measuring and auditing. This needs to be stronger than just measurement.”

• Manager Metrics/Dashboards: In the future, we are looking to design more in-depth manager and organizational health dashboards. Our goal is to put this data in the hands of leaders so that: 1) there is transparency in how they are being evaluated; and 2) we enable them to proactively manage their teams and address challenges before they become systemic issues.

• Business Reviews & Talent Processes: Lastly, these manager metrics/dashboards are built into QBRs, the performance process, and the Talent Review. Leaders can use this data to better inform performance conversations (i.e. coach or manage out), promotion decisions, org design, and/or succession planning. Ultimately, we want to ensure we are identifying the right leaders and building a robust, diverse leadership pipeline/bench.

Based on the research, we are confident that clearly defining manager expectations and sending a strong message of accountability will significantly increase our management muscle across the organization.

Teach: Core Manager Enablement Solutions

Effective implementation of clear expectations and transparent measurement will increase managers’ intention to lead well. Thus, the demand for quality tools and training will increase as will the effectiveness of these solutions. Our “Teach” strategy entails building a core curriculum of development solutions and an ecosystem of resources/tools aligned to the manager expectations.

Bottom line, all those great tools and programs you have are still needed and highly valuable. But the full value of them will be unlocked if they follow a Priorities-First strategy. Take the time to Set and Measure first.

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