The DNA of Work

Teaching old dogs new tricks

November 23, 2021 Season 1 Episode 14
The DNA of Work
Teaching old dogs new tricks
Show Notes Transcript

“If you’re a manager, then managing people is the most important thing you do" says our guest at the start of this episode, which looks at some of the things that managers can do to up their game when navigating current changes in the world of work.

Adjusting to new ways of working has been difficult for many (old dogs and new ones!),  and plenty of managers have found themselves a little adrift, lacking the fully developed skills they need to manage in a hybrid world. 

We explore some tips and approaches that can set managers and organisations on the right track.  Often it just comes down to the basics – put people first (don’t have your back to them), empathise, ask more questions (many more!) listen and communicate authentically.

And for future managers – identify potential candidates and set them up to develop their skills over time, so that when the opportunity comes, they are ready to step into the role.


AWA Host: Karen Plum

Featured guests: 

 AWA Guest details:  


AWI event – 8 December 2021 4pm UK / 11am US Eastern / 8am US Pacific

If you would like to attend, please follow this link to register: 



AWA contact: Andrew Mawson  

Advanced Workplace Associates:     


AWI contact: Brad Taylor 


Music: courtesy of  

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00:00:01 Sue Warman

I think one of the important things to do is to make a statement as an organization to say, if you're a manager, managing people is the most important thing you do. 

INTRO: Welcome to the Changing the World of Work Podcast where we provide insightful, practical content to untangle and demystify workplace change. I'm Karen Plum, director at Advanced Workplace Associates, where we combine science with nearly 30 years’ experience, helping organizations change the way they work, for the better. 

00:00:38 Karen Plum

Many organisations have realized that they need to support managers and teams during their transition to new ways of working, not just to ease the transition, but to take advantage of the opportunity to strengthen vital skills which will be beneficial, regardless of where people are working. 

We recently ran an event where we discussed ways to upskill managers in this area and I have two of the speakers with me today. Podcast regulars Philippa Hale, one of AWA’s Senior Associates in Workplace Change Management, and Brad Taylor, AWA’s Director of Consulting. Welcome to both of you, great to see you.

00:00:11 Philippa Hale

Hi Karen

00:01:13 Brad Taylor


00:01:15 Karen Plum

OK, so let's dive in. I'd love us to consider 2 perspectives while we're talking today. What can we do as managers and what organisations can do to help managers navigate this journey and acquire the skills that they need?

To get us started I wanted to play a clip from our event, where our speaker said something that I found quite powerful. So our speaker is Sue Warman, Vice President People at the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. Here's what she said. 

00:01:44 Sue Warman

I think one of the important things to do is to make a statement as an organization to say, if you're a manager, managing people is the most important thing you do. 

And I think that's a really important frame setter to say, if you don't have time to do everything, or if you have to cut some corners, don't let it be your people that are the corner you cut. Because people tend to have a mindset that's the opposite - that the tasks are more important than the people, you know, I haven't had time to do my team meetings; I haven't had time to do my appraisals, etc, and I think that whole paradigm has to be flipped on its head and managers need to be on the hook, most definitely. 

You know it's not on to have your back to your people, if you're a manager. That's not who we are as an organization, that's not good enough, and I think that's a very powerful position to take as an organization. 

00:02:30 Karen Plum

I suspect that kind of thinking and approach isn't commonplace. Do you think it's an easy position for organisations to take Philippa? 

00:02:38 Philippa Hale

No, I don't. It's possible, but it is difficult. If you're in a middle manager position, you absolutely have to know that your senior leadership team have got your back if you make those sorts of choices. 

How is it possible? I think some open and honest conversations. What can you do to not have your back to your people? I love Sue’s image because it just speaks volumes. 

00:03:00 Karen Plum

The whole thing about having your back to your people, I suppose, again, when we've got people in the office and not in the office, it becomes harder; or you have to work harder to show that you haven't got your back to your people. 

00:03:14 Brad Taylor

These sort of skills, you know, organisations often refer to them as soft skills, and they're not really soft at all. These can be very complicated, difficult things to do as a line manager where you're having to really ensure that you understand every individual in your team and that you're spending time and treating them as an individual and making time for them as Sue says rather than just thinking about the tasks that need to be done.

And you know, it's interesting, in my career where I've been involved with surveying of line managers and we speak to them we say, you know, you have a regular one to one with your manager? And they'll say yes, yes, and do you value it? Yes, I value a lot. And how often do you have one to ones with your own team? And then the answer is – well less frequent. 

So even though people as humans, we all like and value our line manager spending time with us, it can be difficult to ensure that as a line manager ourselves we make the time to devote it to every member of our team so that they feel that we are there, are accessible, and when they have time with us that we are clear of mind ourselves to be able to really treat them as special and to listen carefully to what they're saying and be able to focus and add value to them as an individual. 

00:04:32 Karen Plum

But I think it's also important to recognize that not all managers have developed the people skills that they need, so organisations are having to invest in helping them acquire those skills and practice them on the job, probably under quite pressured circumstances. Brad, what sort of approaches have you seen organisations adopt to address that skills gap?

00:04:55 Brad Taylor

Well, that's right, Karen, and often people can find themselves ending up in managerial roles because it's the next step in their career ladder. They reach the technical expertise they want to perhaps stay with the organization and therefore the only next position is as a line manager and without very much thought as to what without really entail and what skills are needed. And then organisations who adopt those sort of practices for very understandable reasons, can suddenly find themselves in a position where they have a cohort of managers who've never been properly trained, coached or developed, in how to do that effectively. 

But the sort of things that I have seen work well is where organisations take some form of say an Academy approach to line management. So they start thinking beforehand what are the training and development conversations and options that we can be putting in place where people can register their interests or demonstrate their interest in being a line manager one day and start working and building the skills to be able to apply for those roles successfully later on when they become available.

So that starts embedding those skills at that sort of level. But also then, as part of the ongoing succession planning and leadership development in organizations, taking cohorts of people, identifying where they are on their own particular management journey and then helping them to develop as a group to challenge one another to share learning and good practice with one another, is also a very effective way of growing management capability over time to more senior leadership roles as well. 

00:06:23 Philippa Hale

I think certainly in the UK and possibly in the US as well, from my experience, culturally we have a tendency to see management training as a little bit of a punishment because we've done something wrong and equally even coaching, which is becoming much more valuable and prevalent, but. 

00:06:41 Karen Plum

Do you mean punishment because we feel as newly appointed managers we should know what we're doing? And therefore if we need training, we haven't quite got it and we're somehow we're not measuring up?

00:06:51 Philippa Hale

That's right and I think all managers at all levels suffer from impostor syndrome. I know I do - any new project that I take on! And I think in most organisations there is an element of fear of being found out and fear of not being seen to do the right thing and fear of revealing any kind of vulnerability or weakness and any conversations around coaching, for example in organisations that don't have that kind of culture is - is this remedial? Have I done something wrong? 

Coming back to what Brad was saying, creating that culture of seeing education and learning about management as a real thing, a real science, a real discipline, a real art. 

Once you become a manager, you become a member of a community. You're not alone. It's a very lonely place managing a team. It's a very lonely place managing an organization - just difference of scale. 

I think organisations that take continual learning seriously, and as Brad said, see the community as a source of that learning. As a coach myself, an executive coach, I have peer supervision. It's part of the structure. I have a mentor, somebody I can go to and it's real, it's honest, it's a genuine connection. It isn't somebody off a list that I've been paired up with.

00:07:59 Karen Plum

Tremendously valuable support in an environment which can feel quite lonely, particularly if you're battling that impostor syndrome and trying to look like you know what you're doing. 

00:08:08 Philippa Hale

Absolutely, and if you add a blame culture onto that, you've got no good reason to take the mask off ever. If you're going to work it in a hybrid working culture, you've got to be really aware first of all, that there are masks and 2nd, how do you remove them, being a bit more honest and open and being more supportive of each other, 

00:08:25 Karen Plum

Well said. Sue also said that many managers are looking to HR to come up with a policy and a playbook so they can just kind of “do that”, because they aren't certain how to respond in some of the situations, perhaps they're feeling quite exposed and they don't want to get. It wrong here she is again. 

00:08:43 Sue Warman

I would suggest that we don't want to get overzealous with policy making. There's a lot to play out yet. Frankly, where we'll end up with Covid, so I'm encouraging within my own organization, let's just create some principles and create a sort of vibe in the organization. 

This is important. We're going to value each other for putting energy into this. So it's something around the culture you create and what it is you value. But we haven't turned to writing lots of policies because I don't think that will serve us well. 

I think better to just create some principles and then empower people to use their judgment and make decisions and then for us to sort of regularly be trading conversations around, I'm encountering this, how are we handling this elsewhere in the organization? There's a lot to land yet. So I would caution people not to resort too quickly to finalizing policies. 

00:09:33 Karen Plum

It strikes me that this could be quite a scary place to be if you're not used to making those sorts of decisions. It's important to feel the organization is going to have your back, your manager and people further up the hierarchy, if you prioritize your people over the tasks or over a target or a deadline. 

Are you seeing organisations and managers struggling with this Philippa? 

00:09:56 Philippa Hale

If managers and their teams are looking at the tasks that they have on and thinking about the people side of managing the pastoral side of managing their people as tasks that consume time and need to be scheduled in and aren't just something that you do in between the other stuff.

I think that thinking is one of the things that's led to us having back to back zoom calls from morning till night, across time zones. And I think that's possibly one of the causes of burnout. Because you're compounding possibly inaccurate estimating of the tasks that are actually needed by leaving out the time that human beings need to communicate, to connect and to therefore operate at their optimum. 

Therefore having to schedule meetings in to fix things that weren't done properly in the first place due to poor communication, due to exhaustion. 

I'm convinced 30% of the work that we do is rework or redirecting teams that weren't given a clear brief, perhaps by a manager who didn't have that clear brief. 

00:11:03 Karen Plum

Yeah, so hadn't thought it through or hadn't discussed it with them and hadn't realized that they weren't clear about what they were doing. So all comes back to that sort of communication, I guess. 

00:11:13 Philippa Hale

We are in an uncertain, confusing, complex world and therefore managers may not know the answers. And the teams may not know the answers. 

If they did find the answers to the environment as it is now, then the environment changes and so it's no longer the right answer. And so some form of peer support or team coaching or activities that involve people talking about precisely that, is time well spent. Because that keeps motivation up. It keeps confidence levels up and it keeps trust up, which of course is one of the key factors of, you know, hybrid working. 

The other thing I think is really important about the policies is that to have an optimum a minimum of structure, and in fairness to Sue she did say this, principles to give managers a little bit of structure, a boundary within which you can then be more creative. That's the paradox of creativity, isn't it? And if you've got a bit of structure, it actually gives you more confidence. 

00:12:10 Brad Taylor

I agree with what Philippa said really. I think there is a tendency with organizations to want to over codify everything and to put everything in a in a neat, tidy box and human nature just doesn't work like that really, does it? 

So I think when you think about the role of a leader is very much about, well, first of all, you're helping to regulate the level of anxiety that the system is feeling so you know your presence can dial it up and you can dial it down. 

And that's an important role to play. And secondly, it's around how are you helping the members of the team to grow as individuals, become more self-responsible with greater empowerment, more decisive around what they do. 

That’s an important part which goes to the coaching and therefore I think it's important that those principles exist, that there's that sense of a NorthStar that managers in the organization have this understanding of this is how we do things around here. This is what would be seen as acceptable and what isn't. 

And I can then interpret that in my behavior and in my interactions with the individual members of my team, so that I'm helping them to progress in that way, but also giving clear signals for them as to what’s acceptable and what's not acceptable. I've even seen staff in consultation groups say we need a policy for this. And my response has always been, I don't think you really mean that. Because it won't necessarily help. One policy won't apply to everyone consistently throughout the organization. 

There needs to be a principal or an overriding policy, which then managers can use their discretion to interpret and nuance, so that it helps the individual and it helps the members of a team to work effectively. 

00:13:53 Karen Plum

Yes, it's not a blunt instrument you beat people over the head with!

00:13:57 Philippa Hale

No, that's right. If you already have a culture of fear and blame you've probably got a lot of policies because a lot of policies have been put in place to, as Brad said, codify it and put things in boxes and stop people straying off that. 

If you are keen to move away from that, it will be a very gradual process. You cannot suddenly take the boxes away. It leads to huge anxiety and insecurity, but what you can do is, as you said, Karen, have those principles that we are going to relax the rules and give you a bit more discretion. 

And senior leadership need to buy into that and give people the opportunity to experiment. And it might be small experiments in something safe and noncontroversial and probably not client facing. But it is a start and you start to create that culture of experimentation. You start to remove the blame culture. You start to need fewer policies. 

00:14:52 Karen Plum

Yes, and as you say, it takes a while because you're having to build up the trust that wasn't there before. OK, well now we're going to take a quick break and we'll be back after this message. 

ADVERT: As we emerge from the pandemic into the hybrid working world, what does the design of the modern workplace need to incorporate to enable effective working? How should you balance workforce needs with sustainability and cost? 

I'm Lauren Lyga, part of the Advanced Workplace Institute team, and I invite you to join our one-hour workshop on December 8th at 4:00 PM UK time / 11:00 AM US Eastern and 8:00 AM US Pacific, where we will be exploring these questions and many others associated with effective workplace design in “The Destination Workplace – designing the workplace experience for a purpose”. 

We'll be joined by AWA’s Director of Consulting and a pioneer in the new ways of working, Chris Hood and Gervais Tompkin, an expert in real estate strategy and design, and founder of Plus Gervais, LLC. 

You'll get the opportunity to hear from our panel of experts and share good practice with other attendees. So don't miss this AWI event on December 8th, the Destination Workplace - designing the workplace experience for a purpose. I look forward to seeing you there. 

00:16:14 Karen Plum

Thank you Lauren. If you're interested in attending the event that Lauren spoke about, there are details in our show notes, so please get in touch. 

So now I'd like to get your thoughts on another clip from our recent AWI event. Our colleague Lisa Whited picked up on a discussion about making offices more like home, which one of the contributors said his organization was considering? Here's what she said. 

00:16:39 Lisa Whited

I think it's also important to remember that everybody’s homes are different and the office well before COVID, only represented often a very narrow view of what an office should be. I say this a lot, but it's based on research, often based on heterosexual white male middle age, and there are many others we know that we work with. 

And, so I think it's a great opportunity when you think about what is the office going to be and how do we let everybody be comfortable, that idea of inclusivity really going above and beyond. 

We know there is code switching. People of color change their hair, change their language to fit in. We've got LGBTQ+ people - 50% remain closeted at work. There are ways to build a really, truly inclusive culture, and that's the opportunity through the conversations that you all were sharing earlier. 

00:17:31 Karen Plum

Are you seeing this type of approach getting more traction, Brad? 

00:17:34 Brad Taylor

Yes, probably not enough though, but I think it absolutely is. Again, we've been presented with such an opportunity to rethink what the workspace looks like and how the workplace is more representative of the wider diversity of people that work within an organization. 

And there were a number of things that occurred during lockdown, when you think about the Black Lives Matter, there was so much that hit organisations that they had to sort of really think carefully about and has caused a lot of reflection about how do different people show up in the workplace and what adaptations are they making to the person that they are at home? Just simply to fit in to the predominant culture within an organization. 

So I think now more than ever, organizations should be thinking about how do we really make this workplace representative of everyone? Everyone’s diverse culture, background, preferences. It's not just about ethnicity but ability, disability, neurodiversity, LGBTQ. All of those things so that people would feel like they really can be their true selves at work. 

I think it would be such a wonderful thing to be able to do. And that again takes confidence, courage. You know the ability to have honest, supportive conversations, to be able to ask questions and to help one another to work these things through. But now must be the time. 

It's much more acceptable now to talk about mental health and well being than it ever was before. Because the circumstances have presented that to us. Let's keep expanding that to inclusion and belonging as well, and line managers once again have such a critical role to play in that, both in actually doing it but role modeling and setting the tone for everyone within their team and their organization that again says these things matter. 

We’re gonna spend time talking about them. We're going to explore them. And if we get things wrong, we'll adapt, and we'll work hard to get these things right. 

00:19:47 Karen Plum

Feels like the pandemic gave us the great social experiment of working away from the office. It's now also giving us the opportunity to write a lot of the shortcomings and the ills, if you like, of the way we've been operating for a long, long time. 

I'd like to come back to the subject of managers and something that Sue said that really resonated with me. 

00:20:12 Sue Warman

We will provide you with a toolkit and training and an environment of principles, but it's incumbent on you to sometimes use your judgment within that framework. And we've got your back. And I think that's another part of the culture that's truly important.

So sometimes a manager will make a decision within that framework that you might wish they hadn't. And it becomes a learning point, and you talk it through, etc. 

You know, that's just the risk you take when you're not following a recipe card and that's why managers feel a bit exposed, but we need managers to be comfortable taking balanced judgment calls and we need to create a safe environment for them to do that.  

And that's the conversation we're having absolutely right now in our organization. Remember, I work for a professional body for accountants - they're looking for an absolute answer and I'm saying “it depends”! 

00:21:03 Karen Plum

For many organisations used to setting targets, expecting them to be met, and now we're moving into that more sort of murky territory, moving away from the more command and control approach that so many have been operating in, and now we're asking managers to make much more use of their discretion. 

Does that feel like scary territory to you, Philippa?

00:21:25 Philippa Hale

Yes, it does, because we as managers are targeted and we have objectives and we're measured and you know, we might get a percentage of the pot allocated to bonuses, or we might not. Because we're in a system that perpetrates and encourages us to focus on quite artificial objectives, in that way. 

It's a big ask to ask managers and whole organization cultures to shift into a more systemic approach to looking at how they're operating and what they're creating and what they're producing. 

00:22:00 Brad Taylor

There's a legacy culture of some kind that we're battling against here. In that the managers often think, now I'm a manager, I've got to have all the answers to everything and scramble around trying to prove that they have the answers or talk about having the answers. 

But also I think it's very easy for people in the team to think, well, you're my manager, what can I learn from you? And that creates additional pressure on that line manager - oh my gosh, this person wants to learn something from me. What have I got to teach? 

And that ties into all the impostor syndrome stuff we spoke about earlier on as well, that goes hand in hand with that. And I think we've got to create managers and leaders who are so much more comfortable with just asking questions and listening and helping the individuals in their team just to explore and to grow. 

To enable managers just to pause just for a moment and be very clear about actually where does the problem lie? You know who has the problem here and how can you help that person think through the problem and get to the answers without taking on the problem yourself and trying to solve it all for them and in the same instance completely disempowering that person.

You know if you over function they're going to under function and then don't expect that to change anytime soon unless you change your own behavior. 

00:23:21 Karen Plum

Just to finish off. If there was one thing you'd advised managers to do more of, even if they're already doing it to some degree, what would it be? 

00:23:30 Brad Taylor

So many things! I think it would be spend more time asking the person how they are and genuinely mean it. So you know when you have your one to one with that individual, just take time at the outset: How are you? How are your family? 

Because that does mean so much to people, I think being able to feel comfortable to open up and talk about what's going on in your world, know that you're going to be listened to and then your line manager’s got you back and is there to support you and work through all the other things. The other things will fall in place if you can get that relationship piece right. 

00:24:02 Karen Plum

Yes, and as I heard somebody say today - showing vulnerability builds trust, not the other way around. So show your vulnerability first, that will build trust. 

You don't have to be vulnerable, but you know, as a manager you need to ask the question as you say, and then listen to the answer. 

00:24:22 Brad Taylor

We’re all human, and just be comfortable with that. 

00:24:23 Karen Plum

And then have that dialogue. 

So, Phillippa just one thing. 

00:24:28 Philippa Hale

I'm going to use the same word as Brad in a different context, ask. Ask, don't tell. And that applies to the task work as well. If your team asks you how you do something, ask them how they suggest you do it. Don't tell ‘em. 

00:24:43 Karen Plum

So if you adopt that one strategy, you won't get in your own way and you won't get in their way. 

00:24:49 Philippa Hale

That's it. 

00:24:49 Karen Plum

You'll keep batting it back to them to encourage deeper thinking. From them and empower them. Wonderful! 

I think those are really great ideas and I think that's a good place to finish. So thank you very much, Philippa and Brad, for coming on the show and sharing all of your wonderful thoughts and expertise with us today. 

00:25:09 Brad Taylor

Thanks Karen. 

00:25:10 Philippa Hale

You're very welcome, thanks Karen. 

00:25:12 Karen Plum

And that's it for this episode. See you next time. 

CLOSE: Thank you for listening to this episode of the Changing the World of Work Podcast. Please follow or like the show so you don't miss any of our content. You can find more information on this episode in our show notes, including a link to the AWA website, if you'd like to know more about us. Hope to see you next time. Goodbye.