Managing staff

01 December 2019

This article was featured in the December 2019 - January 2020 issue of the magazine. 

Jerome Smail, freelance journalist, researches what distinguishes a good manager, setting out the experience, attributes and skills which are considered to be essential for managing staff

Payroll professionals are renowned for their dedication to the job and take pride in doing things right and to the best of their ability. This has created an industry with a clear career path where workers frequently progress through the ranks. Inevitably, then, there comes a time when the conscientious, ambitious payroller reaches a crossroads with a signpost marked ‘management’. The question that typically follows is: ‘Do I have what it takes to make the step up?’

Jazz maestro Duke Ellington once famously remarked that there are only two types of music: good and bad. The same could be said of managers. Anyone can manage people, but some do it far better than others. In fact, some managers are so bad, they end up doing more harm than good to their organisation and the employees working under them. 

Good managers, however, bring out the best in their team and inspire diligence and loyalty.

A YouGov survey commissioned by MHR last year found that 80% of employees have experienced what they consider to be poor management, or a poor manager, at least once during their career. It also found that 73% of employees who have experienced poor management or a poor manager, have considered leaving a job; and, among these, a staggering 55% actually quit their job because of bad management. Over half (58%) of respondents said managers today weren’t equipped to deal with the emotional or human side of management, with many describing managers as inexperienced, unapproachable, providing little or no constructive feedback on their performance, lacking people skills and failing to communicate effectively.

Chris Kerridge, employee engagement expert at MHR, highlights the importance of well-honed people management skills: “While managers are commonly trained in company policy and organisational processes, most don’t possess the people skills required to handle the human aspect of management and receive no training for this, which can have damaging and long-lasting repercussions when it comes to employee engagement, talent retention and wellbeing.”

...80% of employees have experienced what they consider to be poor management, or a poor manager...


So, what makes a good manager? According to Kerridge, there are some key traits: “A sign of a good manager,” he says, “is someone who is able to understand the personal and emotional needs of individuals, continually motivate them to get the best out of them but also able to demonstrate authority without causing upset and damaging productivity.”

Dianne Hoodless, CIPP board member and payroll manager for Hyperion Insurance Group, lists some more boxes to tick. “Patience would be top of my list,” she says, “not only with your customers but also your team.”

Hoodless also cites the ability to plan and prioritise workload, as well as knowing when to delegate and not overpromise. Of course, there are also more payroll-specific traits that mark out would-be managers in the industry. For example, knowledge of compliance is essential, and now that companies are moving into global markets, an understanding of how things are done in other countries also helps.

Fellow CIPP board member Liz Lay, admin and finance manager for Aldi Stores UK and Ireland, says being a payroll manager “requires the ability to be adaptable, to be able to manage change, to work to deadlines, to be a good communicator and to know your team”. She adds: “Adaptability is the key, being able to adapt your leadership style to the different requirements of both the task in hand and the team members. Each team member will have different skills and levels of experience. It is important to keep them motivated, know their strengths and weaknesses and provide opportunities for development where required and progression where possible.”

Kerridge agrees, believing that the biggest challenge in managing people is dealing with different types of personalities, egos, behaviours and emotions, as well as handling sensitive or difficult situations. “Every employee is different, and managers need to understand what drives their productivity, how they react to different situations, and recognise the impact their behaviour can have on others,” he says.

Holding regular one-to-one meetings will ensure managers properly get to know each person within their team, to learn exactly what they need and how they prefer to work.

“In difficult situations, making the effort to listen is just as valuable as providing an effective solution,” says Aimée Treasure, head of marketing at recruitment company VHR. “Managers who give their employees the space and time to express their opinions and feelings will create engagement, trust and loyalty.”

Simon Ashton, head of learning and development at consultancy Phoenix Leaders, agrees that frequent communication helps to build trust between both parties “so individuals will feel comfortable and confident approaching managers about any concerns they may have”. He adds: “The ability to articulate and clarify tasks will help establish the goals and the purpose of the team.”

In addition to being active listeners, managers should provide their team with appropriate coaching, including timely and specific feedback that is both challenging and constructive, says Ashton. “A growth mindset is invaluable in order to keep an open mind and enables managers to view mistakes as an opportunity to develop, rather than making snap judgments.”

Coach, trainer and speaker Sarah Jones emphasises the importance of flexibility “so managers can recognise exactly what leadership style is required at what moment”. Expanding on the point, she says: “When you are first working with a team, it may be effective to employ more of a directive style to ensure everyone is aware of what is expected of them and this can then be relaxed as you learn more about each other and ask for feedback and amount of direction required by each individual. 

“Similarly,” she continues, “if a challenging situation arises it can be more effective to guide others towards the solution until the worst is over. Flexibility is also really important as everyone in the workplace will learn and communicate in a different way and as a manager you should be able to adapt accordingly to support others to excel.”

Treasure concurs, insisting that “adapting your management approach to each individual in your team is vital to get the best from each employee”. She adds: “The ability to tailor your management style to those with different job roles, perspectives, needs and challenges ensures every employee builds a strong relationship with their manager and fosters a diverse and inclusive environment.”

Of course, managers can’t know it all and, interestingly, vulnerability is a vital attribute to become a highly successful leader, according to Kate Turner, founder and director of Motivational Leadership. “However,” she adds, “this attribute is very often misunderstood. For instance, many believe that to be vulnerable they have to expose their innermost thoughts, or spill out their childhood secrets, but this isn’t the case at all. Rather, vulnerability is about bravery. It is about being courageous, having self-awareness and most importantly leaving our ego at the door. In addition to this, having an ability to envision and communicate what success looks like to your colleagues, and of course bring them along with you, is essential.”


...managers can’t know it all and, interestingly, vulnerability is a vital attribute to become a highly successful leader...


Jon Cowell, chief executive officer at leadership experts Edgecumbe, adds ‘humility’ and ‘integrity’ to the list of essential management attributes. He explains: “Humility protects against a feeling many managers struggle with: that they should have all the answers. This can tempt managers into a style in which they serve as the answer to their people’s problems, leading them to become overburdened and inhibiting their people from developing the autonomy and mastery which they need to develop and do their best work.” 

Integrity, meanwhile, protects against the risk that ‘power corrupts’, and is essential to building and maintaining trust. “Without the trust of their people,” says Cowell, “managers have to rely on their positional authority, which is a highly precarious basis for managing.”

So what advice would our experts give to payroll professionals looking to make the step up to management?

“Do it but make sure you have all the ‘tools in your toolbox’ to do it,” says Hoodless. “By this, I mean know your stuff and feel comfortable about being challenged on it. Qualifications are a good start and ask as many questions as you can. You will always run into someone who is difficult but knowing how to manage that to a satisfactory outcome is important.”

Lizzie Benton, culture consultant at Liberty Mind, advises: “If you are seeking to step up to management, I’d first ask yourself why? Are you looking to just increase your pay packet, or do you have a genuine desire to help and lead people? 

“Management is not suited for everyone, and unfortunately, bad managers can have a detrimental effect on team and business productivity. A good manager should be there to lead, not dictate. Read leadership books rather than ‘management’ books to get your mindset in the right place before you make the leap.”

“If you are looking to secure your first management role, you could organise a meeting with your manager to discuss your career trajectory” suggests Jones. “Showing you want to learn more about how you can improve so you can take the next step demonstrates you are proactive, and they can put you forward for any necessary training courses,” she says. “You can also put yourself forward to lead projects or team meetings to demonstrate managerial skills and to gain more experienced in a less pressured setting.”

However, Jones warns the leap can be one which is difficult for those without management experience so it is important that adequate training and guidance is provided by existing leaders, and that new managers are supported during the process and it is not just assumed they will automatically know exactly what to do. 

“People management requires a very specific set of skills, and therefore a very specific type of training is needed which should be kept separately to the procedural side,” agrees Kerridge.

You can also learn from first-hand management success stories by speaking to other managers in your company and the wider network to find out how they made the jump, suggests Treasure. “Speaking to employees about their managers will provide invaluable insight about what makes a good manager, and help you adapt this information to create your own management style,” she adds.

Cowell, meanwhile, advises that you’ll have to get used to two things: “First, you will rarely any longer feel the warm glow of achievement for yourself; you will need to learn to enjoy the rewards of seeing others succeed. Second, there will be times when you absolutely could do the job better yourself; the problem is that if you try to do it all, you won’t be able to do any of it justice.”

Instead, Cowell recommends that you try to focus on doing those things that only you can do, and if others are not doing the job well enough, you need to act to ensure someone is in place who can. “This does not mean you should expect everything to be perfect: nobody is perfect,” he says. “But don’t get tempted into covering for someone who is struggling; help them, and if they can’t get to the point where they are effective as quickly as you need them to, help them find something else to do and replace them. There is nothing more draining for a manager than a team that simply can’t do the job.”


...learn from first-hand management success stories by speaking to other managers in your company and the wider network... 


But if any payroll professionals are in two minds about making the leap into management, it’s a move Lay highly recommends. “Managing people can be a challenge as you will encounter difficult situations and resistance to change,” she says, “but it can also be very enjoyable and rewarding seeing the team working together and individuals flourish and grow. There will always be new experiences and new challenges encountered in addition to the ever-changing landscape of payroll.”

Remember, though, that being a great manager is a lifelong learning process. Ashton concludes: “Often, new managers feel that they must show the world how great they are straight away but only through experience can one recognise what works.” 

You never stop learning as a manager – but being open to new information and knowledge is a concept that will already be familiar to every payroll professional reading this. So, what’s stopping you making the leap?