How to be an effective leader and people manager


By Jane Sparrow

Enabling leaders and managers to have the confidence and capability to be great engagers is the only way to truly build and sustain a high performance culture. Great communication looks like different things at different times and being able to flex to what is needed, depending on the audience and the desired outcome, is critical to being an effective leader or people manager. It forms the foundation of our leadership development and developing managers programmes. 

Strong leaders and people managers are able to flex their style for outcome and audience. In a large piece of global research I undertook to inform my first book, The Culture Builders: Leadership Strategies for Employee Performance, the results proved that the strongest leaders, managers and communicators are not one, two or even three dimensional – they actually have five fundamental roles in their armory. 

The five roles of being an effective leader and people manager

The five roles leaders and people managers need to build a more engaged workforce are the Prophet, Storyteller, Strategist, Coach and Pilot. Here’s a quick overview of each. 

The ‘Prophet’ is a highly emotive role with a requirement for visionary and inspirational attributes. It involves inspiring others, planting the vision of the future and what it will look like for the individual and team. In the role of Prophet, a manager imagines a bigger, better tomorrow and ignites emotions around how it will feel when reached. 

Prophet top tip

Remind your managers they too are Prophets: what does the vision for their specific team look like? Encourage your people managers to set a vision they are confident about using with their team and remind them keep it current

The role of ‘Storyteller’ is about sharing context, content, metaphors and examples to engage others. Context and content are the top areas for creating employee understanding and thus setting the foundations for Savers across the organisation. The Storyteller works with others to bring the vision, direction, change or purpose to life and helps them identify how their strengths can contribute. 

Storyteller top tip

Consider how you tell the story of your organisation’s People Strategy or how you can change the way you work with the business and how you could strengthen it to lead by example.

The ‘Strategist’ identifies the approaches and builds the plans to engage others. They turn intention to engage into a reality. As Strategist, a manager will engage through a strong talent strategy, centering on development for their people, will keep teams focused and pay attention to wider stakeholder engagement. 

Strategist top tip

The Strategist role is one of the lowest preferences for most managers so helping them to see the value of planning and making engagement work is critical. It starts with managers building stronger relationships with their team and exploring what makes each individual’s heart beat. With this insight, managers can then equip team members with the incentives and motivation that most engages them at a personal level and ultimately secure a clear engagement plan for every single person, regardless of their role or title.

The role of ‘Coach’ is about getting the best out of people. A manager has a responsibility to facilitate team members on a journey to full engagement and being a proficient Coach will help them do this. This behaviour contributes highly to a community of Investors rather than Savers. Good Coaches work with others to understand their passions and what makes their heart beat. They guide, build capacity in others and leave team members feeling highly valued as individuals. At a practical level this starts with ‘asking’ rather than ‘telling’ during challenging times. This is difficult for most managers when their time is so precious but it is critical for sustained employee engagement. 

Coach top tip

Coaching managers to have better coaching-style conversations with their people can be really effective. Managers need to understand the importance of providing employees formal and informal feedback on an ongoing basis. Managers should work continuously – and take training as needed – to improve how they communicate, set goals, give feedback, develop employees, recognize and reward performance, and build trust.

The ‘Pilot’ is a respected role model – calm, measured and trusted. As a manager it’s important to be the one that can guide a team through troubled times, making them feel secure and in control. A Pilot is confident and an expert in galvanizing teams into action. They’re always mindful of when to be inclusive and when to be authoritative.

Pilot top tip

Remind managers and leaders that employees will always look to them for clues on what is really happening and why. Their tone of voice is an important example of how people will ‘hear’ the message and decipher what it ‘really’ means.

Effective people managers who are active across all five roles are essential to high performance cultures 

To build a high performance culture, leaders and managers need to be able to execute all five roles, dialling them up and down as needed and as appropriate. The five roles are key to taking engagement to higher levels than the organisational engagement strategy can do alone. Helping senior leaders pay attention to practical ways of boosting manager engagement levels, competence and confidence is a good starting point. So too, is working with line manager communities to help them develop an appetite, confidence and competence in the five roles. 

Most leaders and managers are valued for being good Storytellers – it’s often the strongest of the five roles seen in most organisations today. This is where much investment, strategy and support is out in place at an organisational level, and communication teams do a great job in equipping, coaching and supporting leaders and managers. However, a leader and manager needs to use all five roles and be proficient in each. In reality, there will be some that are natural preferences, but a successful manager-as-engager will intentionally play the appropriate role at the right time – inspiring, directing, listening, supporting and guiding appropriately to bring the best out of others. 

Find out more about our developing manager programmes or get in touch to explore how we could support your managers.