How Do You Learn to Manage People?

We’ve taken an interest in people managers since the beginning of the pandemic. Because as we supported different experiences across companies, we quickly saw the pressure point was people managers. And we wrote and coached about how to handle worry, loss, loneliness…. and inconsistencies in work. That order was the priority during the pandemic as managers were told to “look after people” first.

Then, we saw the “return to work” phase, as managers had to pivot to manage the work versus managing the people. Some stepped in and took it on themselves so they could look after people and look after work when the two were in conflict with each other.

And now with company plans firmly in place, people managers are expected to be firmer in managing people. In the last two years, people managers have come full circle with giving feedback, reviews and sometimes performance ratings that communicate less flexibility and more expectation. And through it all, new pain points for people managers have emerged.
Anecdotally, we set out to learn a few things from both perspectives: the managers themselves and the people being managed. And we came away with interesting insights.

When people managers were asked to rate themselves in terms of effectiveness, (scale of 1-5; 1=poor and 5=outstanding), the average was a 3.5. Some were threes and some were fours, but everyone we talked to considered themselves average or a little above.

But when we asked for the same rating of effectiveness from people who are managed, the swing was much greater. Some employees rated their manager a five, and some rated their manager a one. And the wide discrepancy led to another realization. The people managers who were rated the highest had been managing people for more than 10 years. And those who were rated very low started managing people during the last five years.

Our hypothesis became: your skill set at managing people has a lot to do with when you became a people manager.

People managers with a lot of experience under their belt now say the pandemic chaos was an anomaly. As their companies reset, they reset their management skills to conversation guidelines, feedback processes and team expectations that they learned to do a while ago. They have a toolkit that needs some refinement, but they find the fundamentals of managing people to be the same.

People managers who took on teams in the last five years see their role as inconsistent, and their experience has only been the frenetic shifts described above. Many say they aren’t confident being a people manager, and they don’t feel that they have much of a toolkit to guide them. They’ve been handed a new playbook every year and the guidance swings from “anything goes” to “enforce expectations” with smaller pivots in between.

If you ask the more experienced managers how they developed management skills, they all say their skills evolved over time and they learned by watching others and asking others for guidance.

That wasn’t a model that was sustainable during remote work and high-stress situations. So, it’s little wonder that newer managers feel they didn’t get the same guidance or support. And it’s why we’ve taken an interest in helping these younger managers feel more confident in the tools and their skills in managing people.

Work situations are different today, and both experienced and inexperienced managers told us that they find feedback conversations to be challenging.

Today, they’re managing a false sense of confidence from young employees, a stronger demand for personal preference and exceptions, and a concern that every conversation will be a negotiation. They brace for resistance and feel good when they can avoid conflict.

The seasoned managers have a better perspective on assessing behaviors and showing empathy without trading off work.

So while all managers feel they’re being tested by some of their employees, the more experienced managers have “seen things before” and feel more confident in their ability to work things out and get to resolution.

And interestingly, employees see the difference. When we asked those who rated a manager low what skills the manager needed, they say managers need to set clear goals and hold people accountable. They want constructive feedback, and they want to advance in their careers. But they admit they’re impatient about it and often feel the younger manager is in the way of their advancement rather than supporting their path.

The pain points were easy to identify with young managers and their teams. But as we’ve prioritized this development need, we’ve also talked to HR leaders to be sure we’re aligned on what the gap actually is.

And it has multiple components.

Guidelines for Hybrid Work – All managers need a reset on dealing with the blurred lines created by a new way of work. Every company has a return to work strategy, but in most cases, the strategy is different enough that managing people in a hybrid setting is still a development need.

Manager Network – Young managers can’t evolve over time as their predecessors did. In fact, many of their role models are no longer in the workforce to mentor them. The early retirement and remote work of seasoned managers has created a gap in companies. And managers need a structured network and sounding board to support each other.

Manager Toolkit & Tools – While they may have some tools, they want training that brings all the tools together. They don’t have time to find different pieces. They want the best practices for feedback and crucial conversations and guidance on applying them to their situations.

Brand & Confidence – Open dialogs have led to direct feedback from their teams. Sometimes charged with emotion, and sometimes just deflating. But demanding employees can erode a manager’s confidence, and they want to understand how their brand is perceived and how to hold their own in a tough conversation.

We’ve taken an interest in people managers because we know how critical they are in companies, and we hear the pain as we talk to them in workshops and coaching sessions. While it’s no one’s fault that the gap developed, it will be everyone’s problem if young managers don’t gain confidence in their ability to manage.

And that’s why we’ve developed a program that focuses on the components above. We’re talking to companies about how to leverage it and how to tailor it to the needs of their managers. And if you’re experiencing similar challenges, we’d welcome a chance to talk to you as well.


Want a free 15-minute consultation with us to see how we can help you or your leaders? Book a call now!

Sally Williamson & Associates

The Expectations of Executive Presence

In the last few months, we began our research for an updated release of our first book, The Hidden Factor. Written more than a decade ago, the book defined presence and offered executive-level insights on how presence helps some employees get ahead while the lack of it holds other employees back. Presence was viewed as a collection of attributes and expectations that increased with more visibility and responsibility across a career.

Our first book provided executive-level input on how employees show up in a business setting, and we’ve coached to those impressions and expectations for thirty years. In fact, we would say that the concepts of presence: Confidence, Commitment and Connection, are validated over and over again as we talk to managers and leaders about impact and influence.

But a decade ago now seems like a lifetime ago. And as we continue to provide expertise on presence, we’ve collected new insights to challenge and confirm our direction. And in our recent surveys and interviews, we researched two different perspectives: how employees think about presence in a leader and how leaders observe presence in employees.

As our work continues on our fifth book, here are some preliminary thoughts that may help you consider presence in your work environment today:

A Leader’s Presence – the Employees’ Perspective

Ten years ago, we ranked the attributes of presence. And while most of the original concepts are still there, the order of importance has shifted. While confidence, credibility and professionalism led the pack originally, today’s employees focus more on authenticity, believability and engagement.

It doesn’t mean that confidence and credibility are less important. It means to really influence an employee, a leader has to have more than that.

And leaders got a lot of that feedback and coaching during the pandemic. They were guided to share more about themselves and to start with a human connection before a business concept. It has elevated expectations of a leader to a compelling communicator. And leaders are seeking skills to become memorable and repeatable. It taps into our work on storytelling, and in many cases, the pandemic helped leaders get a jumpstart on this skill.

Storytelling is valued enough to be considered an expected attribute of presence in leaders. If you lead a large division or a function with multiple teams and you haven’t mastered storytelling, you’re behind your peers. It’s the element of presence that brings content and style together by helping a communicator establish lasting impressions and repeatable sound bites.

But if leaders are a little ahead on new expectations, employees themselves may be behind.

An Employee’s Presence – the Leaders’ Perspective:

When you ask leaders to think about how they notice presence in employees, there are some new dynamics to consider. Working remote or hybrid has had an impact on how easy or difficult it is to establish presence with leaders. And in several of our discussion groups, managers called this out directly. They say establishing presence is harder because they just don’t get as many opportunities. And it seems leaders feel the same.

Here are three themes we identified in surveys and conversations with leaders.

First, presence hasn’t changed. Choices have.

Leaders have stayed consistent to impressions and how they describe the impact of presence on someone’s visibility and opportunity. Bottom-line: “Like everyone else, I form an impression of you from how you communicate and how you present yourself in business settings.” But as employees have shifted with flexible hours, flexible settings and flexible everything else, the opportunity for comparison is more obvious.

Leaders would say an employee with presence stands out so much more today because of all the other choices being made around them. From how people show up in meetings to when they show up in the office, from lack of focus to lack of clarity, from being prepared to being unclear. And by extending the boundaries of how we work, we’ve also opened up more opportunities to miss the mark.

Second, in-person presence trumps virtual presence. Every time.

“You can’t confuse the convenience of virtual with the influence of in-person.”

A good analogy is this: You’re sitting in a room with a person and the television is on. You’re watching something together. But as you engage with each other, it’s easy for the show to be drowned out as you take more of an interest in your conversation with each other. You feed on each other’s enthusiasm which is expressed through body language and voice energy. There’s just more to take in and more to influence when you’re with someone.

It doesn’t mean that virtual can’t work. By focusing on the television, you and the other person in the room can choose to make the television the focal point. But it takes agreement and combined focus to make it happen. And in a business setting, a really good facilitator. And that puts your ability to make an impact in the hands of someone else.

Third, leveraging impressions is a lot about relationships. They matter.

If your presence is established as an initial impression, it takes repetition of that impression for people to attach presence to your brand. It’s how people begin to think about you and talk about you when you’re not around. They describe you to others, and they leverage you in different places.

Presence opens the door to new relationships. But leaders are talking a lot about the lack of relationships with newer employees.

In our discussions, one leader said: “If I’ve seen you twice a month in a virtual meeting and you’re one of ten people, I don’t really know you. I don’t think of that as a relationship. I only know you related to the skills you’re discussing in the meeting.” And without the more relaxed opportunity to form a relationship, it’s harder for leaders to assess expanded responsibility and consider promotion. For employees, it’s harder to have a network of champions.


As we head into another year of hybrid working and expanded choices, you should think about how presence shows up in your business setting. From leaders to managers, the expectations of presence have stayed consistent. But a lot about how we establish a presence has changed. And that’s going to take more effort around fewer opportunities. It means learning how to have a presence in the way you’ve been asked to work or the way you’ve chosen to work.

Resetting presence is a priority for us in the year ahead. And we anticipate 2024 will add another book to our resources.

As always, we’re here when you need us and hope you’ll consider how we can help you and your team reset presence in the year ahead.

Want a free 15-minute consultation with us to see how we can help you or your leaders? Book a call now!

Sally Williamson & Associates

Influencing Without Authority

TAKE US WITH YOU! Listen to this article on the go:

There’s a path in career advancement that isn’t always easy to navigate. It’s the spot between individual contributor and seasoned manager. And for some, the path never appears and for others, it’s as if the path was clear all along.

There’s some mystique to who finds the path and runs up it quickly and who turns a different way and misses the path altogether. Maybe some were given specific landmarks and guidance so they wouldn’t miss it. Maybe some knew where to turn and chose not to.

And it begs the question: who picks the path and who guides the turns?

Sometimes an earnest employee does it on their own. They jump in and seek guidance and can find their way. Sometimes it’s circumstances around a project or a big initiative that forces someone into management. But most often, it’s a mentor, a sponsor or a leader who sees something in someone that signals manager potential:

  • Where do they see it? In everyday meetings or quarterly presentations.
  • How do they evaluate it? Group reaction and response.
  • And what do they call it? The ability to influence without authority.

It can be as subtle as someone who gains alignment with conflicting perspectives or as bold as someone who knows how to set options and impose action. It’s a skill that, once learned, will follow you throughout your career. And it’s a differentiator between an individual contributor and a management candidate.

The most common feedback employees get as they begin to gain visibility is: “You’re in the weeds. You’re sharing too much detail.” It’s feedback that means we’re asking you to recognize the difference in what you’re actually doing and how we’re asking you to communicate about it.

Let’s take two employees and consider what they missed.

First, John, a product supervisor. John has responsibility for upgrading a product and getting it back in the market in six months. John scoped the project in order to get buy-in and financing. And now, every day, he leads a huddle with the five developers working on it. He has a project manager who works with him to manage the flow of changes and incremental sets. Most days, John’s time is spent problem-solving with one of those developers.

John’s Mindset: John is in the weeds. He understands where he started on the project and he understands the end game of what he’s trying to deliver. He was a part of the conversations when the decision was made to invest in upgrading this product and why it matters to customers.

How John Communicates: If you ask John to attend a meeting and report on this project, you’re going to hear the play-by-play steps of what they’re changing, how they’re changing it, where they’ve gotten stuck, and what they’ve done to solve it.

Your experience of Emily will be similar.

Emily runs a lead gen process for a B:B sales team. She sits within the marketing organization, but her customer is sales. She runs weekly campaigns based on targeted personas, implied needs, and new verticals. She has a team of four, and they are deep in the weeds of watching website activity, tracking outbound mailings, and making real-time changes to adjust to activity.

Emily’s Mindset: She meets with her team daily, and she works with each individual on the specific campaigns they manage. Emily is deep in the weeds and close to the adjustments made on each activity or data point.

How Emily Communicates: If you ask Emily for an update, you’re going to get the play-by-play of each campaign’s activity and adjustments.

So, let’s go into meetings and see how others respond to them.

Assume you’re the VP Product and, quarterly, you meet with the VP Sales to let her know how things are progressing, so that her team can communicate what’s coming to customers. You invite John to give an update on the product upgrade and within five minutes, the VP Sales is shaking her head. After the meeting she says to you, “I didn’t understand any of that. What am I supposed to do with that information?”

John provided an update on the workflow and progress behind the update. He didn’t provide the strategic message that the VP Sales hoped to hear. She wanted to know how the update would impact the company’s customers, not how it was literally taking place. John was not effective in that meeting.

Now assume that you’re the VP of Sales and you have your regional directors coming in for a meeting. You’ve asked Emily to provide an overview of lead generation. At the end of Emily’s presentation, your district leaders were confused by the amount of data and didn’t understand what to plan for next quarter.

Just like John, Emily approached this visibility moment as an opportunity to showcase the work of her team. Her audience wanted to align her actions to their opportunities. Emily was not effective in her meeting.

In both meetings, the listeners’ impressions were:

  • Too in the weeds…
  • Misses the point…
  • Unclear on the takeaway…

We describe it as the difference in talking about what you’re doing versus talking about the outcome you’ll deliver. But if you’re John or Emily, they would say that’s oversimplifying their biggest challenge. And the challenge is they don’t always see the difference in doing the work and communicating about the work. And it’s a skill that our team calls communicating and influencing without authority.

It’s communicating from the listener’s perspective and thinking about the value your listeners will take away from your insights. It’s worrying less about reporting on what you’re doing and putting in the context of a strategic mindset. This is the skill that allows some people to climb the manager path early. They’ve learned to speak someone else’s language so that communication aligns to what someone else is trying to accomplish.

Employees like John and Emily need help understanding the difference in supporting outcomes versus partnering on outcomes. It’s a shift from communicating activity to communicating outcomes.

When we coach that skill, it changes an employee’s momentum within a company. It improves their ability to influence conversations today, and it increases high-visibility moments, which leads to the next steps in their career faster.

And as we continue to see companies ask managers to step up quickly, we know this skill belongs in their toolkit. And that’s why we’ve packaged it as a new program for 2024. If you’d like to help one person step up for a promotion or your entire team partner more effectively with internal groups, give us a call. We’ve got the solution you need.

We’re here when you need us!

Want a free 15-minute consultation with us to see how we can help you or your leaders? Book a call now!

Sally Williamson & Associates

Advancement vs Development

There’s been a shift in employee conversations.

To people managers, it feels a lot like a long car ride with young children. “Are we there yet?” is asked so many times that it stirs feelings of frustration and exasperation.  Ask any people manager, and they would say the most common question from an early career employee is “Am I there yet? Am I ready for promotion?” And while most people leaders have a faint memory of feeling eager and impatient themselves, there is more frustration and exasperation with their newest employees and the repetitive “Am I there yet?”

No doubt it creates an impression of someone who seems self-focused. But it’s worth noting that this generation of newest employees are considered to be a very smart generation. They have a skill set that many around them in the workforce don’t have. They’re tech natives, so they can do almost anything faster. And in the early steps of their career, they’ve experienced unusual trends with a workforce shortage and hiring salaries off the charts. So, it stands to reason that they’re being coached at home and by friends to “ask for anything… and you’ll probably get it.”

It makes sense that their focus is about what’s next. And if people managers take a deep breath and a step back, they’ll find that enthusiasm and motivation is driving the annoying impatience.  We all made mistakes in our early steps, and this group‘s impatience will likely be one of their missteps.

But if you have a motivated, even an impatient employee, you can shift the conversation.

Some managers feel hesitant to do this. They, too, lived through unusual trends. And they were told to look after people, to be very flexible with people. So having any conversation that stands firm or offers a little humble pie, makes them nervous.  But when you balance the worry of disappointing someone with the responsibility of guiding someone, you’ll find that honesty is the best policy.

Here’s how you shift the conversation.

First, compensation can’t be a gray area: Every employee needs to understand how compensation works inside a company. 90% of individual contributors don’t understand pay bands. They don’t really understand how talent ratings work within companies, and so they’re very naive about their manager’s capabilities and limitations around advancement. 50% of managers don’t understand how this works beyond their team.

People leave companies because they make assumptions about how things work, and they assume managers can do whatever they want to do to advance them. Advancement is a process within a company, and the assessment behind it happens for most employees at the same time each year. Navigating advancement requires instruction. When an employee understands the rules, timing, and the process companies use to advance an employee, they realize they’re asking their manager for the wrong thing in those weekly conversations.

Second, distinguish between advancement and development: Good managers lean into development which makes the annual advancement conversation easier.  If Joe is your employee, the conversation shift may sound like this:

“Joe, I have an advancement conversation with you twice a year from a standpoint of compensation, position changes, and increased responsibilities. Our company does that once a year, and at midyear, I’m happy to talk to you about how you’re tracking. But I’m more a steward of your development plan than your compensation plan. In terms of growing your skills and experiences, I’m happy to have an on-going conversation with you. As your manager, I have a lot of ownership for helping you get the experience that will lead to advancement down the road. And while the company guides the conversation we have once a year, you and I can set a unique and individual development plan to set what you want to see and what you want to learn.”

Third, build a multi-step career path with an employee: Shift their thinking from what they want to do next to where they want to be in ten years.  This paints a picture of multiple experiences and relationships that will happen over time versus a specific event of taking one step up the career ladder.

If an employee can’t tell you where they want to be, explain the importance of having a path.  While the path may change, it will help them shape the experiences that they need along the way, and it adds some direction to what they should explore. It also gives them something to talk about as they network within your company.

As companies continue to evolve and reset quickly, we see many people who get stuck or sidelined because no one understands the longer journey they’re pursuing.  They only see an employee’s current skills, and it may be too much or too little for a company to apply their skills. But when companies have more intel, where someone is today AND where they’d like to be in the future, it’s easier to adjust a role short-term and keep an employee on course from the longer career path.

This missing element, the ability to talk about your career path, was the inspiration for our book, Disrupted! How to Reset Your Brand and Your Career. In fact, people managers have their own stories to share about how experiences led to career opportunities. And managers should share them often. Young employees need a broader view and a longer game plan. They also need relationships.

And that’s the Fourth element. Encourage relationships that may lead to mentorship: This is another misunderstood corporate norm. Young employees are “coached” to find mentors quickly in a company. Maybe the right intent, but it’s often executed poorly. Leaders get frustrated when someone they don’t know asks: “Will you be my mentor?”  The answer is maybe, but probably not.  To the employee, mentorship means someone who is going to tell me what to do to accelerate my success.  To a leader, it means added time focused on someone you don’t really know. So maybe, but probably not.

Mentoring happens over time, and it’s a one-in-a-hundred relationship that grows beyond advice to common interests and trusted camaraderie. No one knows who will take hold as a mentor, but coaching an employee to build multiple relationships starts the beginning of a network that may reveal a mentorship.


People managers are the critical factor that gets high performance out of employees today and guides career development for where employees will end up tomorrow. But it takes a shift in conversation, and a people manager who can put the four steps above into place.

If you’re finding employee conversations challenging, let us help you shift the conversation.

We’re here when you need us!

Want a free 15-minute consultation with us to see how we can help you or your leaders? Book a call now!

Sally Williamson & Associates