OPINION20 April 2010

Onward and upward?


It’s crazy that there isn’t more support for management and leadership development in research agencies, writes Paul Vittles.

Why are so many people at the top of our research firms not happy? I’ve coached many owners and MDs of research firms, and they often feel trapped. They want to keep ‘doing the research’ even when they’re the CEO. They don’t have succession plans and they struggle to exit the business.

Many research agencies provide no structured management or leadership development, and most provide no personal growth training, just core research and project management skills if you’re lucky. It’s crazy that so many employers don’t offer systematic support for the difficult transitions from researcher to manager and from manager to leader.

The lack of support for researchers trying to contend with difficult transitions leads to further generations of people at the top who are not happy.

I ran two (oversubscribed) sessions at Research 2010 on this topic. Many more delegates told me that they wanted to attend but felt they should be going to sessions on research methodology, understanding clients’ perspectives, the challenges of online communities and so on. But researchers will never be able to understand these things properly if they themselves are not developing their leadership skills, strategic thinking, self-awareness and ability to cope with change.

In other words, this is not a fringe issue. It’s fundamental. If the research industry is to transform, individual researchers and research firms must transform.

There are a few enlightened employers but many take the view that ‘people tend to move on after two or three years so why bother,’ or managers are not sufficiently developed themselves to see the problem. I regularly hear things like: “I just learned on the job” and “I was thrown in at the deep end with no support.” Not helpful.

Many of the agency executives I have met and worked with spend their lives on a treadmill and find it hard to engage in even the most basic reflective learning. After they’ve been running in treacle for two or three years, and are well into the cycle of working relentless long hours, they are given a promotion, a new title of manager and a couple of people to line-manage. There often isn’t even an ‘introduction to management’ course. Rarely are they assigned a mentor for this crucial transition. They are put in a position where they can make or break the lives and careers of other researchers with no training or support.

Some don’t feel under pressure and think they can cope. They learn from the mistakes they are conscious of, but much of what they do wrong is things they aren’t conscious of – they don’t know what they don’t know. They’re not reading management books because they still think of themselves as researchers – and, besides, they’re too busy.

They usually first become aware of a problem when someone is not performing. At this point they often struggle to realise that they themselves may be part of the problem, because they have not applied basic management practices like setting clear expectations, agreeing priorities, supporting staff through transitions, delegating effectively and so on. Why should they? No one has taken them through this stuff.

Others focus too much on the underperformers and not enough on the overperformers. As a result they lose talent. They are too quick to recommend promoting people because it seems like a quick fix but it comes back to haunt them when good performers stop performing because they’ve risen too far too fast.

Then they find themselves in a situation where the team leader role is up for grabs and they feel compelled to put themselves forward. The job probably came up because the last poor sod had no support – and there still isn’t any. The cycle continues.

People at the top of research firms tell me how they set out to get to the top of whatever ladder they were on, but when they got there they found themselves asking, “Is that it? What now?” Many have spent so much time trying to get to the top that they haven’t stopped to consider if they’re on the right ladder. Even if they do, they assume that switching ladders would mean starting from the bottom again. Others think not in terms of ladders but snakes. They’ve been pushed forward by the fear of others getting the promotions and having to report to people they don’t respect.

I’ve coached several owners of research businesses who feel they have to be the CEO even though they hate it. They are in a position with too much responsibility and they want to let go but they don’t feel they can – they think it will be seen as a demotion or a loss of face. And besides they need the money. Most have no succession plan and even when they get a terrific number two, they interfere and fail to develop them. Some stay in positions they hate for years.

I’ve had MDs telling me that they always wanted to do X or Y but they ‘fell into research’ and ‘found themselves in charge of staff’ and then ‘were suddenly promoted to lead a team’ and ‘then a management opportunity came up’. We must break the cycle.

Employers need to actively provide management and leadership development and personal growth programmes. They can develop the mentoring and coaching skills of their managers and bring in external mentors or coaches. They can offer programmes to help staff better understand their strengths, the roles they can best play at any point in time, their motivations, their leadership style.

At the same time researchers and managers must take more responsibility and start investing in themselves. Seek out the management training courses, leadership development programmes, the personal development mentors and coaches, the widely available literature.

Understand yourself and your goals better and the balance you want in your life. Check you are getting on the right ladder, putting it against the right wall, and climbing it at the right pace. Better still, don’t think in terms of ladders and hierarchies. Think about what do you love doing. Do you just want to do research? What do you want to do more of? Is managing people a strength of yours? Do you want to be a CEO? Do you know what that actually entails? Will you be happy if you get there?

Only you have the answers – just don’t forget to ask the questions.

Paul Vittles has been an executive coach since 1997, working with research firms and external clients in the UK and Australia

1 Comment

12 years ago

Paul don’t worry, there is a ray of hope out there. Some market research agencies take the issues of management and leadership very seriously. The trouble, however, is that generally research is so exciting and compulsive that senior managers find it so difficult to drag themselves away. You suggest senior managers feel trapped. Surely, in reality, this is due to the fear of leaving what they know and love, to enter that great dark transition into sorting people and organisations out, a much more fearsome role. I couldn’t agree with you more; it is the lack of effective management that means key issues in the research industry are not addressed. We have a wealth of talent in the market that needs to be developed; even if you were to disregard the human cost of this never ending game of “pass the parcel” as researchers move on every two to three years, the significant commercial price should be a powerful one. Yet many of my peers across the industry seem prepared to accept this high turnover as a status quo. The result is poor ROI for businesses and an industry full of researchers who have never had the opportunity to reach their full potential. After three years training and development, individuals should be committed and performing exceptionally well. Research agencies need to recognise that individuals require constant development to aid their sense of worth and confidence in meeting the constantly changing and demanding environment. Properly managed staff development programmes are key to any company’s future and the targets and annual training plan approach (including Management Training Programmes), like the ones we have installed at Discovery, do much to reassure individual employees of their continued worth and value. A three month paid sabbatical after three years and a clear succession plan are some of our other retention tools. Yes, such things require hard work and substantial investment, but I have only to compare our retention figures against the industry average to know that it’s worth that effort. I know that succession planning is often a painful process and one that needs to be well communicated, but without it, good employees are left hanging, often thinking ‘what happens now?’ I, for one, admit to having focus group withdrawal symptoms, but as MD of Discovery, it’s simply not possible for me to undertake research anymore if I’m to fulfil my role of looking after our researchers. We need to get across the fact that while research can be exciting, running a company can be fun too. And from where I’m standing, right now there’s not a job that more urgently needs to be done in the research industry than encouraging, developing and retaining the talent we have.

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