#1 Winter 2014

Blind faith: tackling the root of poor leadership

Leaders are often hampered by their lack of skills and tools to do the job. We need to remove the handicap and make sure that managers, especially first-time managers, are properly prepared for their roles.

South Africans have become so used to hearing about mismanagement at senior levels of local and national government. While there may be many reasons for this, a lack of training plays a major role. In October 2013, The Star wrote that onethird of all municipal officers, chief financial officers and supply chain managers do not have the right skills for the job.

According to the Institute of Municipal Finance Officers president Louise Muller, this was quoted as one of the main reasons why municipalities were not achieving clean audits. She said up to 73% of the positions of municipal manager, chief financial officer and supply chain manager were not filled.

And a lack of clean audits is not the only negative outcome. The Institute for Security Studies recently said there are at least five protests a day in South Africa – most of these reflecting public frustration around poor service delivery, the lack of water, electricity outages, poor roads, the prevalence of pit latrines, unemployment and poverty.

The sad reality is that without skilled staff with the appropriate skills, no organisation, company, municipality nor any corporate or government institution can be expected to succeed. But pushing people into vacant positions is not the answer. People need to be appointed following proper screenings of qualifications and relevant job experience. And it is not just at senior levels that the work needs to happen. First-time managers also need to be prepared for their new positions.

All too often we find brilliant doctors and nurses appointed to management positions at hospitals where they suddenly face paper emergencies and fiscal traumas they were not trained to deal with. A skilled engineer is not necessarily a skilled manager and cannot be expected to run a municipality based on years of experience in industry, for instance. Without proper management skills no new manager can be expected to fulfil their duties properly.

This is not just an error that government makes – the private and non-profit sectors also neglect their managers. A Gallup poll surveying over one million Americans found that the biggest reason why people leave their jobs is due to a bad boss or direct supervisor. “People leave managers, not companies… In the end, turnover is mostly a manager issue,” Gallup stated. It also revealed that poorly managed work groups were about 50% less productive and 44% less profitable than wellmanaged groups. And Aol estimates that bad bosses cost the US economy around $360 million a year in lost productivity – saying their studies show 65% of people would take a new boss over a pay raise.

Managers need to be experts at managing relationships with various stakeholders and need to be able to be masters of communication. It is absolutely vital that they are able to operate confidently and securely, and are assured of their own competencies and abilities. An insecure manager is a bad manager, unable to delegate properly, control and motivate his team and ensure that the right work is done by the right people. Simply put – a good manager can mean the difference between your business/ municipality/organisation being a sinking ship or a dream boat.

First-time managers in particular need to have some kind of explanation of what is expected of them. Too often we find new managers absolutely overwhelmed by their new appointment, shocked into immobility by the perceived magnitude of the task ahead, daunted by the responsibility and accountability bestowed upon them.

One of the most important things a new manager must learn is how to act with confidence, to learn how to communicate and how to trust others to do the job well. This involves learning how to manage oneself and finding out how to communicate with others. This means a lot of reflection and introspection.

There are many management courses on offer and they provide valuable skills to managers at all levels. Some may dismiss these sorts of skills as “soft” and hardly vital to managing a successful working environment. But according to Fortune magazine the five key skills for success in the workplace are communication, time management, networking, perspective, and delegation.

These are skills that are not taught at school and are not even addressed at tertiary level unless you are specifically studying in communication, psychology or business fields. Only specific business courses teach students how to apply these skills in actual practical working conditions.

The time out of the office also gives participants time to think, to do important group work, and to talk to others in similar or related fields, which means sharing knowledge and expanding experiences. It is absolutely invaluable from a networking perspective and results in priceless group and peer learning.

Times are hard, economies are under pressure and politics puts an additional strain on all levels of business and governance, both at local and national and even international level. In times of added stress, equipping new managers with the necessary skills becomes more important than ever. There are very few companies, municipalities, businesses or organisations that can afford to have an unskilled manager at the helm. The cost of upskilling managers – starting at the lowest rung of the ladder – should be weighed against the enormous price that is paid when important departments, vital business sections and in some cases, even provincial governments, fall apart.

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