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Breadcrumbs and butterbeans

Ask staff what they expect of managers, and requirements of the management role, and you will receive various responses. Typically amongst these will be the requirement for managers to know the detail of their roles, including how to do the job itself. This may come from a position of being better able to support, train and develop staff, which I don’t think anyone would argue with. This also reflects how many managers enter management – an excellent sales person becoming a sales manager.

I think this poses a difficult question as the danger here is that the manager will tend to be more ‘hands on’ – telling people how to do their job and, in part, doing it for them – and spending less time on essential aspects of the management role. This would also limit the ability to appoint managers from outside the immediate occupational area. On the other hand, having little understanding of the work the team is undertaking can be equally risky as experienced and less well-meaning staff could run rings around them. In this case the manager would be the manager in name only.

To help illustrate a healthy middle ground I use what I’ve come to call the breadcrumbs and butterbeans test. This is born from an episode of 1970s children’s television programme Bagpuss(see clip below). On examining a broken toy, the organ mice, seemingly knowledgeable and efficient as ever, demonstrate to the other resident’s of Emily’s shop how the mill makes chocolate biscuits out of breadcrumbs and butterbeans.

Now, we all know that this isn’t possible but the mice are so convincing that it’s not until the wooden bookend Professor Yaffle uncovers it’s the same biscuit going round and round that the sham is exposed. I’ve seen this happen time and time again, especially when a manager is appointed from outside the team.

So, what’s the key learning point to take away from this? Essentially the manager needs to know enough about the roles undertaken by the team to know that chocolate biscuits aren’t made out of breadcrumbs and butterbeans. The manager should engage with team members, asking questions and challenging areas that are unclear. Taking a coaching approach to conversations around issues will not only facilitate their resolution but will help resist the need for managers to understand the unnecessary detail.

Next time… book review – How to be Human.

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