How Zillow and others are reimagining the role of managers

Peer coaching and new technologies can equip managers with the skills and support they need today.
By: | February 5, 2021 • 5 min read
(Photo by Hannah McKay - Pool/Getty Images)

The role managers play in organizations was already undergoing a transformation even before the events of 2020 brought profound change to daily operations. “Many of us grew up with this mental model of what a manager is from our parents, which was, ‘Oh, they just give the orders,’ ” Corina Kolbe, vice president of learning and development at Zillow, said in a recent webinar with me. “Now, you’re a mentor, you’re a coach, you have to set vision and strategy and give feedback. There’s just so many things for managers to do, and that’s complex.”

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The pandemic made all those tasks much harder. As HRE recently pointed out, “managers have had to be a lot of things in the last yeara source of information, a model of organizational culture, a counselor, even an IT assistantas employees look to their supervisors to navigate the quickly changing world of work. As more organizations build remote or hybrid work into their long-term strategies, the very role of the manager is being redefined.”

As though all that wasn’t tough enough, the important new calls for diversity and inclusion added another dimension to managers’ overwhelming roster of responsibilities. Experts have noted that managers need to learn how to start discussions with their teams about sensitive issues, take concrete actions and ensure they’re making everyone feel heard and included.

Tackling all this can be extremely stressful and lonely. As research from the University of Western Sydney recently showed, “the loneliest place of all may be middle management,” where pressures are coming in from both above and below them in the corporate hierarchy. It affects not just their work relationships but their personal ones as well. “Long hours and stress are ultimately taking a toll on middle managers’ relationships with their partners, family and friends, but they often keep it to themselves and put on a brave face to the world,” the author of the study explained.

Aaron Hurst, CEO and co-founder of Imperative

Given that the pandemic has left millions of people feeling more stressed and isolated, the need to help managers through this time has become all that much more important. New technologies can help.

My focus is on peer coaching, a system in which employees have regular guided one-on-one conversations. Recently, my team has been working with numerous companies including Zillow to institute it for managers. We’ve come to see that it has particular power and resonance during this time.

Why managers benefit most from each other

Suddenly working from home and not getting the typical social cues that they receive in the office, managers at Zillow were feeling less competent and experiencing more self-doubt, Kolbe says. But to whom would they turn? Certainly not their reports. But they also didn’t want to approach their own bosses about these concerns, which “feels stressful.”

See also: How peer coaching helps your employees find purpose

Turning to each other, they were comfortable unloading. The more they held peer coaching sessions, the more they found they were all wrestling with the same things. And because the process involves helping each other find solutions, it brought a great deal of relief.

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This, in turn, built relationships among them based on trustwhich not only helps end feelings of isolation but also helps build a stronger corporate culture. “It’s been really amazing to see the connections that start to happen, and the community we’re able to build,” Kolbe says.

Neuroscience shows that intentional efforts to build relationships can have profound effects. As the Harvard Business Review reported, “those who connected with others and helped them with their projects not only earned the respect and trust of their peers but were also more productive themselves.” And the book The Business of Friendship by Shasta Nelson added these relationships are strongest when they include three critical factors: consistency, vulnerability, and positivity.

Because peer coaches meet every other week in the same pairings, this approach builds all three. The pairings then switch after a period of time, such as a quarter, to foster new relationships and help managers experience new perspectivesbuilding inclusion.

They also develop the kinds of skills managers need “more than ever,” Kolbe says: “human skills.” Today’s leaders need to focus on skills like emotional intelligence, giving feedback and problem solvingthe kinds of things that emerging technologies can’t do. By participating in these sessions in which there are only two people, peers are put into the position of having to exercise those skills.

The more they do this, the more coaching becomes a part of the company culture, with managers offering each other ideas and advice outside of structured times, and offering the same to their reports. As Oracle notes in its Working Human report, “Building a coaching culture really can make a difference to the effectiveness of the business.” For managers, it’s key to “embrace it as a useful, everyday tool.”

Embracing new tech adoption

Peer coaching is one of a number of new systems and technologies managers have been trying out in order to address the changes in the workplace. The digital transformation itself is often the talk of peer coaches as they support each other through this time. They can use their sessions to discuss how to optimize a suite of new tools.

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For example, new technologies give leaders greater insight into what’s happening with their teams during this time when they can’t observe employees directly. Machine learning programs like Uplevel monitor activity and productivity, spot trends, identify areas in which employees need support and pull together information from different verticals to offer a more holistic view. Referral technologies like Candidate help managers find great hires, replacing some of the talent discoveries that have previously come through workplace interactions and in-person networking.

Even with the vaccine rollout underway, broad changes in how the workplace functions are sure to last. And the pace of change is unlikely to slow down, so businesses will face all sorts of unforeseen challenges. Just as Zillow is reimagining how it functions, so are organizations of all sizes. As we build the future of work, let’s be sure to equip managers with the tools, technologies and cultures that will empower them to help each other lead the way.

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To learn more about Zillow’s peer coaching program, click HERE.

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