Staff management is often not seen as a core part of a public affairs professional’s job description.
Good consultants might pick up line management responsibilities as a part of a promotion for retaining clients, bringing in new business and delivering great outcomes on the accounts they work on.
But once they’ve been promoted, they’re expected to replicate that success with junior team members, usually with little training or understanding of how to get the best out of people.
Too many public affairs agencies still take a caviller approach to people management. This is a false economy. Bad line management can lead to junior employees feeling overlooked or lacking direction. It can poison relationships in the office, create an unpleasant “them versus us” working environment, and reduce the effectiveness and success of the company.
Even if things don’t get to that level, investing in management skills can help your senior staff learn some tactics to defuse the tensions which arise in any workplace, particularly those that employ younger people.
Many public affairs professionals only learn what it takes to manage a team through trial and error.
Here are some lessons I’ve learned about effective people management during my eight-year agency career.
1. Understand how much guidance your team members need. Some employees like certainty and being told exactly what to do. Younger team members might need a lot guidance, particularly if they’re new to the industry. However, others find excessive direction stifling. If you’re not sure whether you’re being too controlling with your team, ask them. They’ll soon let you know if they’d prefer a different way of working.
2. Learn to let go. A good line manager recognises that there are different ways to the same objective. You might want to insist that a junior team member re-write a piece of work until it’s the same as it would have been had you done it yourself. This fails to recognise that other ways of working are equally valid.
3. Give your team the opportunity to get new experiences. Some agencies take a regimented approach to client management, with younger consultants being restricted to monitoring duties or desktop research while the more senior team members handle external meetings and build relationships with clients. This can lead to frustration as junior team members feel they aren’t getting the opportunity to develop professionally. You might think that the person you’re managing isn’t quite ready to attend that important meeting or write the next strategy document – but if you don’t let them try, they’ll never get the opportunity to learn.
4. Accept that everyone makes mistakes. Goethe said that it was only by “seeking and blundering” that we learn. If you’ve been in the public affairs industry for a few years, you’ve probably tried things that didn’t work or done things wrong. Never make someone feel bad for an honest mistake or humiliate them in front of their colleagues. Instead, focus on what they can do to put things right.
5. Be humble and kind. Junior staff members won’t respect you for your job title or seniority. They’ll respect you for providing steady and fair leadership, listening to what they have to say, and providing advice if they ask for it.
6. Don’t tolerate bad behaviour. Sometimes agencies make bad hires and bring in consultants with a confrontational attitude, or who simply aren’t up to the job. There is often a tendency to ignore the situation and hope that things get better on their own. They won’t. If you have a team member who is dragging everyone down with negative or unpleasant behaviour, or who is obviously floundering, make an early decision about whether you want to keep them on staff.
7. Invest in your own continuous improvement. People management isn’t something that can be learned in a one-day course. It requires ongoing effort to broaden your skills. Seek out other training opportunities. Read articles on best practice. Share thoughts and experiences with others at your level.
8. Accept that your team will never be 100 percent happy with you. It doesn’t matter whether you’re the best line manager in the world. People always like complaining about their boss. Don’t be upset if, despite your best efforts, your team still want to socialise without you and moan about how unfair they think you are.