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What Makes A Good Line Manager?

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…and why are they key for team retention?

How to find and retain the right people for your agency has become a science in itself. Pre-pandemic the retention discussion revolved around who has the coolest offices, the cutest office dogs, the best free food vans, and the most exciting clients. During and after the pandemic, there was a huge push for more flexibility, remote working, and working for agencies that positively impact the planet and stakeholders. All of the above have now become normal, and expected.

When I started working in the agency world 13 years ago, we had none of the above, but I worked for an agency owner who allowed me to experiment and progress, and a line manager who completely trusted me and enabled me to carve my own progression routes within the business. This brings me to the topic of this article. Has the employee retention narrative of the last 3-5 years shifted so much towards new and emerging trends like ‘working remotely’ that we are forgetting about one never-changing critical factor that will enable agencies to hold on to their teams? The critical factor I’m talking about is your line manager.

Your people managers and key for people retention.

I am basing this on my experience of growing my own department from 0 – 100 people, having reviewed many staff exit interviews and engagement data, and working with a variety of agency types and sizes as a consultant.

Environmental factors will no doubt continue to drive changes and push agencies to adapt to the changing demands of their workforce. One consistent and persistent, never-changing, factor for people retention is the ability of your managers to keep their teams engaged. If this is true, then why are so many agencies still promoting subject matter experts with no skills in people management, into manager roles?

Let’s answer this, and some other, questions:  

  1. Importance of developing subject matter experts into people managers

Most agencies promote subject matter experts into manager roles throughout their growth lifecycle. The key reasons are:

  • They are trusted and valued members of the team with a proven track record of doing great technical and client work.
  • They have been in the agency the longest and therefore deserve it most.
  • They are better at the actual job than most other people in the team. Therefore, the hope is that they can teach others how to become equally as good.
  • They are (often) liked by others…although this is not always true.
  • During periods of growth, it is often hard for agencies to find the budget to recruit experienced people managers externally.

I am a HUGE fan of internal promotions and progression. I promoted 80% of my own management team from within the team and was an active advocate for internal progression within the company. However, if you’re promoting subject matter experts that fit the descriptions above, you must nurture and develop their management and leadership skills before and during they take on the new role of a people manager.

  • Sign them up for leadership training
  • Help them develop their coaching and mentoring skills
  • Link them up with a mentor or coach for at least the first 6 months of their management role
  • Allow them to practice people and manager skills well before they begin their new role
  • Familiarise them with people and HR processes early; ensure they understand rhythms and routines for e.g. PDPs, pay reviews, L&D

I started managing people as a graduate straight out of university. I had no previous experience, so had to find my own way and make my own mistakes. I am super grateful for the experience and wouldn’t change it for the world, but I would also advise agencies to prepare new managers appropriately. Throwing a subject matter expert into the deep end can be risky and costly, and potentially damaging to the new manager’s well-being, and that of their team. Managers are tasked with staff retention and engagement. We often forget this. They’re not just here to improve results in the team. Your staff retention rates are completely dependent on their ability to keep and engage people and, as such, line managers must have the skills to do this.

Why do people leave?

There are a thousand answers to this question. However, there are also some patterns I’ve seen in exit interviews, in my own team, and whilst working with agencies as a consultant.

  • Lack of progression opportunities in the past or future
  • Lack of learning or development opportunities
  • Manager is seen as a blocker, or negative impact on work, or engagement at work
  • *and a whole load of other, less frequent, reasons

How you feel about the agency you work for depends a lot on your manager. Do they understand you and what you want and need? Do they facilitate open and honest conversations about your career, challenges, well-being, and aspirations? Do they give you the freedom to learn and develop? Do they have your back? Do they know what motivates you? Do they know your talents?

Many people leave because their manager hasn’t done enough to keep them engaged. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not the manager’s sole purpose to keep people in the business or take responsibility for their team’s happiness. However, their job is to engage, nurture, motivate, listen, enable, and facilitate. All too often, a lack of development or progression is cited as a reason for leaving, and it often comes back to a lack of people management and leadership skills of the line manager.

So what should managers be good at?

If I had to describe the ‘perfect’ manager, I would probably have to write a book. But I don’t think that’s fair. We’re all human, and we’re all different. There are however a handful of skills that I know have had a massively positive impact in my own department, and across the wider agency world.

  • A coaching mindset: without going into the detail of what coaching is, some of the best managers are great listeners, are genuinely interested in what others have to say, adapt their communication style, explore options and solutions without ‘telling’, and explore opportunities with a balanced and supportive approach. They don’t micro-manage, they don’t dictate, they don’t shut down. They provide feedback, are constructive, they explore with their team members how to keep them engaged and develop their skills further.
  • Personal development planning: good managers don’t use a PDP template for the sake of it and hide it in a drawer. They explore people’s career ambitions and learning goals. They understand the agency strategy and how their teams tie into it, and enable people to contribute to the wider goals. They have open and honest discussions about people’s current performance in their roles. They actively explore opportunities within the business, or with external providers, to support learning and development opportunities. They’re not anxious or precious about helping people to progress into other teams within the agency. They regularly discuss progression paths and encourage their team to think long-term. They keep things exciting for their team and help them uncover opportunities to progress and experiment. They think creatively about how to further peoples’ ambitions, even if there aren’t any formal roles to progress into.
  • Understanding the importance of engagement: A good engagement score or ENPS (employee net promoter score) is a great way to measure how people feel about the agency and how engaged (~ likely to stay long term) they are. Managers play a huge role in this, which is also why most staff engagement surveys will provide results for line managers, and the company as a whole. A good manager will understand the elements that make up engagement (e.g. how people feel about their job, their progression, the values of the agency, their salary, their colleagues etc. and actively introduce steps to keep engagement high in their teams.

For retention to be positively impacted by a line manager, the agency leadership team must first agree that some of their time should be prioritised and used for team engagement, PDPs, coaching etc. All too often, agencies task their line managers with leading a team whilst still using the majority of their time for client work. This is understandable when margins are tight and there is no additional budget for client roles. However, if staff retention and engagement are high on your agenda, your line managers must be freed up and skilled to fulfil those tasks.

Finally, for your line managers to hold on to their teams, the agency Board or Founder must commit to values that are supporting positive engagement and retention such as promoting learning & development within the business.

Line management is equally wonderful and stressful. Many people actively aspire to become line managers. Others try it and never want to do it again. The positive impact you can have is immeasurable. The negative impact can be equally damaging.

As an industry that is trying to solve the retention conundrum, I am an active advocate for developing our subject matter experts into confident people managers. It’s not the ONLY solution, but it’s a piece of the puzzle.

About the Author:

Freia supports agencies with the effective delivery of their strategic goals, and guides them through the changes needed across Operations, People, Sales, and Processes. Before working as a consultant, Freia delivered the strategic initiatives and change programs for one of the most successful UK-based digital marketing agencies, and has scaled her own content & online PR department from 1-100 people. Agencies invest time and energy into the creation of their vision and ambitions but struggle to see them through to the implementation of positive, embedded changes and ways of operating. As a qualified agile change manager and mental health first aider, Freia’s goal is to make this process more effective and enjoyable.

  • 👥 Your people managers are key for team retention.
  • 💼 Many agencies promote subject matter experts into management roles.
  • 👩‍🏫 Subject matter experts need coaching and mentoring to develop their management skills.
  • 📚 They should receive leadership training and be familiarised with HR processes.
  • 🚪 A lack of development or progression is a common reason for leaving.
  • 🎯 Good managers have a coaching mindset, focus on personal development planning, and understand the importance of engagement.
  • 💪 To retain teams, agency leadership must prioritise team engagement and commit to promoting learning and development.