What is a lack of management skills costing the UK?

Most managers have the technical skills for their roles, but need more support in managing people. /Juice/REX Shutterstock

A dearth of leadership and management skills is harming the UK’s potential to increase productivity, argues City & Guilds chief executive Chris Jones. But how can we turn this around? 

Productivity is a big buzzword at the moment. But while UK productivity showed small signs of growth towards the end of 2015, it’s still around 20 percentage points less than the rest of the G7 economies.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that businesses and government alike are all talking about tackling the productivity puzzle.

The challenge is, where to begin? Is it about getting people into work and cutting unemployment? Is it about helping young people get the skills they need for work? What about following the likes of Sweden and France and cutting working hours or restricting after-work emails? All have been subject to speculation and discussion over the past several months.

But, I think there is one area that hasn’t been explored enough – and it is very simply, boring, good ole’ management. We need to make sure people have the right skills to be productive. Our managers are essential to making that happen.

However, the latest UKCES Employer Skills Survey found that while 58% of employers said management and leadership skills are lacking, only 37% of employers are investing in management training – even though employers’ training budgets have increased by £2.4bn since 2013.

Multiple personalities

We expect managers to possess a whole range of skills. They have to be team players, translators, fire-fighters, strategists, mentors, problem solvers…the list goes on.

But how many people are born with all of these qualities? Sure, there are the prodigies to whom some of these skills come naturally, but they are few and far between. (A clue, if you think you are one of these, you probably aren’t).

In reality, it takes time to develop these skills, and often requires both on-the-job experience and training and development programmes.

First things first: what do we mean by “manager”? It’s a phrase often conflated with “leader”. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a manager is “a person responsible for controlling or administering an organisation or group of staff,” while a leader is “the person who leads or commands a group, organisation or country”.

The definitions are different, but subtly so. Essentially, leaders have the vision, and bring people along with them. Managers are there to make sure the job gets done to achieve that vision in the first place. My view is these aren’t mutually exclusive – good senior managers are both leaders and managers.

The problem is that while poor leadership is noticeable, poor management it easier to keep under the surface. Ultimately, work will still usually get done under poor management; it just will be slower, lower-quality and more expensive. And so the true costs of poor management emerge.

Technically able

It’s safe to say that most managers have the right technical expertise for their roles; the likelihood is that they’ve progressed up the career ladder and developed new technical skills along the way.

The real skills gap is in those all-important people management skills. At a time when automation and remote working is becoming the norm, businesses need to act now.

Even though the media would have us believe that robots will take over most of our jobs, there are some human skills that simply cannot be replaced by machines. I’m talking about personable skills; the ability to empathise with and engage staff, so they can perform to a high standard.

The ability to tackle poor performance or difficult behaviour is something that also cannot be automated. Big picture inspiration is important for leadership – but its management’s job to translate that into reality.

Three ways to make changes

There are a number of ways that businesses can develop their managers – including their people management skills. Here are just a few recommendations that can make a real difference:

1. Get people qualified: Qualifications are a great way of helping individuals develop the necessary skills, knowledge and personal abilities that great managers need.

High-quality qualifications can’t be earned overnight. But the breadth of skills they provide are well worth the investment of time and money.

2. Provide face-to-face training: A good line manager relationship, based on trust, is central to engaging and motivating employees.The challenge is building those relationships in the first place.

There are practical training programmes available to empower managers, such as 5 Conversations by the Oxford Group, which can build managers’ confidence to have authentic, worthwhile conversations.

3. Recognise and share best practice: As the UKCES survey showed, only 37% of businesses invest in management training – meaning a whopping 63% don’t.

Those of us who recognise its importance should inspire others to follow our lead. As well as sharing examples of best practice, there are a number of programmes that recognise businesses who are doing it well.

City & Guilds Group recently launched a new awards programme – the Princess Royal Training Awards – to celebrate businesses who see tangible benefits from investing in training.

The bottom line is: good managers are essential to business success. But they aren’t born; they need to be developed and nurtured, and businesses have a responsibility to help that process along the way.

If we want the UK’s productivity, growth and global competitiveness to increase, it’s time to tackle the management skills gap, once and for all.

Chris Jones

About Chris Jones

Chris Jones is chief executive of the City & Guilds Group.
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