5 things employees want from managers: A holiday wish list

5 things employees want from managers: A holiday wish list

People would love to see these behavior changes from leaders

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December 05, 2018

We’re entering a time of year that’s all about giving. For many of us, though, in this time of disruption, the best gift we could get would be a workplace that’s just a little better in certain ways. 

Gleaned from Korn Ferry’s work this year helping organizations tackle the digital journey, here are five items we’d put on the wish list for leaders and managers all over the world:

1. We wish you’d acknowledge that our work and our jobs don’t match up

How many of us are doing the same thing at work we were doing a year ago? Shockingly few. Responsibilities have shifted dramatically – often moving in the direction of a greater number of accountabilities in leaner teams, and less clarity on any given day or any given project. But as work gets less and less defined – and more profuse in an always-connected environment – leaders often seem to be managing from old-fashioned job descriptions. Acknowledging that burdens have shifted – and become greater, and less clear – is the first step toward a productive dialogue about how work actually works today.


2. We wish you’d rethink not only how you measure us, but also what you’re measuring

Managers grab for the data that’s easily available – and that’s usually the least interesting information about how we actually do our jobs.


It’s not just that our jobs have changed: It’s that you’re always asking us to change how we do them – collaborate better, break down silos, move nimbly to delight fickle customers. But what you ask us to do and what you measure us on doesn’t match up – for instance, individual revenue targets damp down collaboration, and KPIs around decision quality thwart experimentation. Who wants to test and learn when neither testing nor learning is what you’re measured on … and when every test may cause your metrics to actually suffer?

Worse yet, the rise of a new wave of data-driven management has created more brute force measurements, rather than more sophisticated ways of looking at the world. Managers grab for the data that’s easily available – and that’s usually the least interesting information about how we’re actually doing our jobs.


[ Read our related story Digital transformation: Are you using outdated IT metrics? ]

3. We wish you’d stop talking about culture and do something about it

We’d like you to make those tough calls!

There’s no shortage of awareness that culture needs to shift across a wide array of organizations (and as Adam Grant wryly notes, no shortage of companies obsessing about their own questionably unique cultures!) We hear all of the rhetoric … but often see breathtakingly little action. Maybe this is because real cultural change involves making some tough calls: changes in what people get paid for, or changes in how leaders convey even the most basic information. The dirty little secret is … we’d like you to make those tough calls! It’s far better to see things change in ways that might be a little uncomfortable than to sit in constant stasis, anticipating change that never comes and wallowing in mild but perpetual disappointment. We’re ready to tear down the culture posters and see things get real. 


4. We wish you’d think less about our skills and more about our capabilities

Now, make no mistake – the world is dealing with skills gaps of all kinds. We’re not saying skills aren’t important. But – any given set of skills can be very short-lived! We want you to look at our fundamental capabilities and think about whether we are the right employee for the future. Because honestly – many more of us have the right capabilities than the exact right skills right now. And the research shows that certain capabilities – like learning agility – position us amazingly well for the next few disruptions. So look at the whole person … not just a few keywords in the resume or the job description. You’ll get closer to the results you want – and we’ll get to grow in the ways that are important to us.


5. Finally – we wish you’d REALLY pause and reflect

Elevate above the day-to-day grind and look at the red threads drawing our working world together.

Is your Outlook calendar a solid brick wall? That’s a problem. It’s not that it causes you to lack time to throw around ideas with us, or react to our concerns, or just learn more about what we’re doing … although those are all issues. It’s that we want you to spend more time with yourself – reflecting, introspecting, being thoughtful even as the world moves faster. As my colleague Kevin Cashman notes, “The Pause Principle” explains why we get our best ideas in the shower – the human brain does its best work when it’s not trying to do anything at all. We want you to do nothing and get inspired – to elevate above the day-to-day grind and see the red threads drawing our working world together. If that takes entering a fake meeting in your calendar every week just to get a moment to yourself, we’re all for it.


How to start

Leaders may see this list and think – wow – that’s daunting – any one of those items seems like so much more than I can accomplish. So here are a few pieces of meta-advice that will make implementing any of the above wish list items a little easier:

  • Try a pilot. In the digital era, pilots are heavily in vogue. So if you want to make any sort of shift – from measured to radical – the time has never been better to launch a pilot and see where it goes. 

  • Let some junior folks tell you how it’s done. One interesting facet of today’s Millennial and Gen Z employees – because of the heavy levels of information-sharing prompted by technology, as well as the more diverse array of career paths being chosen by this group, they are often rich storehouses of information about what business practices look like across different environments. Ask them what goes on at their friends’ workplaces – you may be surprised at what you learn. 


  • Make a list of what you would do if fear wasn’t in the equation – then work backward through the small steps to get there, or at least partly there. Would you speak truth to power? Would you take a six-month sabbatical to rediscover your purpose? Would you erase your team’s job titles?

Define the biggest, hairiest, most audacious goals and then work backward, looking at each of the small steps that ladder up to getting there. If you can visualize the journey, your path to action is that much more straightforward – and your employees’ wish list items are that much closer to being granted!


[ Get more lessons learned from Melissa Swift about how to pace digital change. Read The digital transformation trap: Don't ignore the marathon for the sprints. ]

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Melissa Swift leads Korn Ferry’s Digital Advisory for North America and Global Accounts. In this role, she partners with clients to understand their deepest human capital challenges in the digital arena, and to address those challenges in novel and comprehensive ways spanning from strategy execution and job design to leadership development and culture shaping.  She has worked in North America, Europe, and Asia, and spends time in industries ranging from financial services and life sciences to consumer and industrial.

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