Why managers must make flexibility a key goal

Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal - perhaps he should be flexible and change his style
Glenda Nelson

WHILE football fans are happy to sing when they're winning, they also waste no time in voicing their displeasure when their team suffers a defeat.

There's been a lot of the latter at Old Trafford in recent months as Manchester United fans have vented their anger at manager Louis Van Gaal over poor results.

It's not just that that which has led to the regular choruses of boos, but also – and perhaps more significantly - the playing style and strategy being imposed on the team by the experienced manager.

The fear of the fans is that the exciting brand of football upon which United's worldwide tradition has long been built is being seriously damaged by Van Gaal's more methodical and risk-averse approach.

There's a vital lesson for employers throughout Northern Ireland in Van Gaal's story, in terms of the importance of the recruitment process in finding a business leader.

But there's perhaps an even more important message for business leaders to heed in terms of their management style and how responsive they should be.

Every leader will have their own style – some are loud and in-your-face, while others take a low-key approach.

There's no scientific formula for what makes a good leader, but what the Van Gaal example tells us is that leaders are well served by having a degree of flexibility and not being too welded to one style.

The challenge for a business leader is not just to perfect one style and stick to it, but rather to know when it would be beneficial for the company to be more responsive - and to change their style according to business needs.

Sometimes managers do need to challenge those that they lead because the results aren't what is required, while other times they will need to back off a little because the staff are clear on what needs to get done.

The important thing is to constantly assess one's leadership style against the context in which they lead, what they need to accomplish and the style that will best help deliver success.

The potentially damaging effect which Van Gaal's style of management is having on the worldwide brand of Manchester United should also inspire human resources (HR) personnel in the local business community to think about what they can do to ensure that poor leadership doesn't sabotage a company's reputation.

From the outset, HR managers should be explicit about the expectations they have of leaders. Recent global research shows that the most successful companies clearly articulate how they expect their business leaders to behave so that they are accountable to the company and themselves.

Managers are responsible for developing their talent – not HR. It's HR's role to establish the best process for evaluating staff and support the development, but managers must be responsible for coaching them to perform to their best.

HR needs to hold managers accountable. They need to be able to criticise managers when they don't follow the company HR practices and exhibit poor leadership.

Despite recent media reports to the contrary, Louis Van Gaal's job remains safe for now – and the recent win over neighbours Man City will have helped his cause a little.

But the lessons of his story for local businesses remain - and should be heeded by business leaders and HR managers alike.

:: Glenda Nelson is regional manager of Lee Hecht Harrison Northern Ireland, which connects people to jobs through innovative career transition services and help individuals improve performance through career and leadership development

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