Human Resources Agencies Agency Culture

‘Bin your self-help books’: How are marketers combating the scourge of bad managers?


By Sam Anderson, Network Editor

October 30, 2023 | 10 min read

Recent research has been damning about managers’ skills, training, and ethics. What can the marketing industry do to fix things? We asked leading ad execs from The Drum Network.

A life support ring on a wall

Amid reports of widespread bad management, how can execs help? / Matthew Waring via Unsplash

Recent research from the Chartered Management Institute and YouGov on bad management makes dire reading. 82% of managers, it says, are “accidental”, meaning that they have no training and fell into the role.

The bad news continues: a third of workers have quit because of poor culture, and many continue to cite discrimination and harassment.

It’s not a new issue – since at least 1969, management theorists have grappled with ideas like the Peter Principle, which declares that hierarchical organizations will tend to promote people to a level of incompetence. That particular idea was intended as satire, but it continues to strike a nerve with execs.

So: if so few are trained for management, and so many fall into it, and so many suffer from the wonky management provision that results, what can companies do to make the system less awful? We asked ten experts in people and HR how they’d manage management better.

Emma Loizidis, head of people, Fox Agency: “We need to separate people management from progression. Bad managers are often created by promoting people into management positions who either aren’t ready for them or simply don’t want them. Just because someone has held a role for a certain amount of time does not mean they are ready to be a manager. Responsibility comes in many different forms. Agencies need to move away from traditional linear progression paths and focus on creating growth avenues that don’t include people management. Focus on upskilling and supporting those who want to be managers, while identifying areas of ownership that offer the opportunity to progress in line with their skills and passions (like client management or industry consultancy) to those who don’t.”

Chelsea Hall, head of people and culture, Found: “Being a manager requires a very specific skillset, so should be assessed as specific capability and not a one-size-fits-all career progression step. The traits that make a good manager at your firm need to be clearly identified by the HR and people teams. Those promoted into managerial positions should be assessed against those traits and then regularly developed.

“Really, we need to reimagine traditional ‘ladder-like’ careers, and what ‘progression’ means. Career progression should be highly individualized, and businesses should be spending more time understanding their people’s motivations and desires – whether they want to be a manager (and why), or whether they want to be brilliant in their expertise. Employers should provide their staff with inspiring progression pathways that don’t shoehorn them into management positions when it’s not their skill set or what they want to be doing.”

Jim Vranicar, chief operating officer, Signal Theory: “We’ve all heard ‘People don’t quit companies; they quit managers’. After seeing concerning levels of turnover and low employee engagement, we decided that would not be our story. Our ‘connected manager’ training program aims to nurture our managers to understand the characteristics of connection. Arming managers with the tools needed to supervise employees is the secret to enhancing relationships with their direct reports.

“Since starting the program, our percentage of engaged employees has increased from 29% in 2015 to 81% in 2023, per our Gallup Survey results. 0% of employees are considered ‘actively disengaged’. Staff turnover has decreased from 28% in 2021 to just 9% over the last 18 months.”

Shannon Reed, vice president of accounts and operations, The Fifth: “Successful management involves coaching, mentorship, and peer collaboration. Managers should conduct 1:1 sessions for learning, growth, and teaching. These sessions thrive around a structure that allows you to focus on things going well and things that could’ve gone better, helping the manager talk through the full situation and how to have the conversation. Coaching helps set goals and improve performance. Senior mentors can help managers share their experiences and insights. Peer interactions allow the exchange of best practices, fostering skill development and team cohesion, and taking the pressure off from possibly hard conversations.”

Sammy Mansourpour, managing director, AgencyUK: “Bin those self-help management books. They all start with ‘hire a management team that’s more capable than you,’ but not one will tell you how to manage them. They’ll also tell you the key to building a successful senior team is aligning your goals – again, impossible. Unless you all live together, you’ll face different challenges at different times, and when one has a hole in their roof and wants more money to fix it, it’s unlikely the rest will agree.”

Samantha Lester, studio head, ICHI Worldwide: “A successful management style requires fluidity and flexibility, so we’ve adopted a less rigid approach to training our managers that doesn’t involve spending thousands on traditional courses.

“Work with your team to build tailored plans that cater to an individual’s strengths and ambitions. Review your company's infrastructure to see what’s in place to support managers. Do away with management speak and stick with real talk. Don’t presume people like to be managed in the same way you do. Instead of guessing, ask them. Provide managers with their own forums to seek advice, discuss ideas and approaches with peers or leaders in the business.”

Sue Knowles, chief people officer, Clickon: “It’s a mistake to think all employees’ priorities are the same. We use technology to survey and analyze how engaged our people are but that should never be the only metric. Nothing beats a personal conversation with each individual to find out what makes them tick, so they can perform at their best. Never assume you know what anyone’s motivation is. I’m regularly surprised by what is important to team members and I especially love finding out what makes our newer, younger workforce come to work with a spring in their step.”

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Kerry Hillier, head of people and culture, Roast: “The best way to manage upwards is to deal in small chunks. This tends to not require lofty ‘buy-in’, particularly from those dyed-in-the-wool old-school managers who are nervous of change and will defer to the negative rather than having an open mind. Make sure you always do your homework and have data and insights to prove the validity of your proposal. The working world has adapted post-Covid; flexibility and open minds can ensure there is positivity through the organization.”

Samuel Bloska, lead UI developer, Rawnet: “If you accept Conway’s law, the problem starts at the communication pillar. Managers require soft skills to complement their hard ones, and cultivate a communicative ethos to enact the desired structure and reduce friction (whether that's production or social). The onus on management should be to facilitate productivity, not own it.”

Monica Kulkarni, copywriter, Media Bounty: “A boss once told me I needed to be more resilient, after colleagues and I questioned his ‘start-up management’ techniques. At that point I'd managed teams for over a decade and had narrowly survived a traumatic childbirth. Oh, and I’m a brown woman. He was 25 and hadn’t ever had a job before. Resilient? Babe, look it up and you’ll find my photo.

“Good management starts at the top. The point of a manager is to get the best out their team. They can’t do that if your company culture pits people against each other. Empathy can be trained – it doesn’t mean putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. It means imagining what it’s like for others. Without empathy, you can’t support.”

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