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Why Managers Are Key to Employee Engagement

Why Managers Are Key to Employee Engagement

Welcome to Advance Your Agency, a series devoted to helping digital marketing agencies grow and succeed.

“Employees leave their managers, not their companies.”

It’s one of those quotes that we often hear, or see plastered all over LinkedIn, but probably don’t know whether to believe. 

Yet, the statistics suggest that managers really do hold the keys to an employee’s engagement at work. In the US, a study by DDI found that 57% of people leave managers, not companies.

It’s similar in the UK, too, where a study by Totaljobs found that almost half (49%) of employees in the UK leave their jobs because of their line managers.

Furthermore, Gallup found that 70% of team engagement is determined solely by the manager. And, in the UK, another study conducted in late 2022 found that employees who feel well-supported by their line manager are 3.4 times more likely to feel engaged at work.

Here’s an overview of what I’ll be covering in this article:


The world of digital agencies isn’t immune to this phenomenon. If you’re running an agency, or even just managing an individual, you need to understand the impact you can have on their engagement. If you mismanage someone, it could spell disaster for your agency.

How Managers Make the Difference

I’ve always been a firm believer that your experience in a workplace is largely determined by the manager you have. But the concerning thing for many agencies (and something which has probably led to the stats shown above) is the varying styles and abilities of those placed within these all-important people-management roles.

Agencies, in particular, often have issues with progression. They fall into the trap of “progression=line management”, rather than just increased responsibility as a reflection of their experience. This can often lead to incredibly clever people doing something they just aren’t good at or don’t want to do—managing people—simply because it’s the only way for them to move ahead in their business.

Our direct managers have such an influence on the way we work. They provide our sense of purpose, direction, and autonomy. Plus, they support our professional development. If they aren’t equipped with the skills to effectively deal with people, then this can have a major impact on the experience we have at work.

Yet with Gallup finding that only 20% of employees ‘strongly believe’ that they are managed in a motivating way, it shows that managers get it wrong far more than we may think.

The Pandemic Made This Even Worse

A lack of proximity and distance from the wider organization means that employees with particularly poor managers are struggling even more since the pandemic.

A shift towards far more remote and hybrid working has meant many develop closer ties with those they immediately work with, but looser connections with colleagues in other teams or departments. 

The result? More day-to-day exposure and reliance on the line manager. And if they aren’t great at their role, this impacts the experience of the employees reporting to them in a staggeringly negative way.

Marketing agencies make up one of the prime sectors that can work fully remotely or with effective hybrid working. But if an agency isn’t careful with how they implement this, they can cause real issues for employees and managers alike.

How to Create Better Managers

So, we’ve established that managers play a crucial role in employee engagement. But, what can be done to make them better? 

Determine Whether It’s Something They Want to Do

This is the first question that really needs answering. Is managing other people something that they actually want to do? 

In far too many organizations and especially digital agencies, management is the main step to higher seniority. Many accept that this is what they will have to do to achieve more status and gain a higher salary.

But being a good individual contributor on a technical or practical level does not equal being a good manager.

They are completely different skill sets, with behavioral traits like empathy and adaptability far more important than the technical skills that they may have previously relied upon. 

I would always urge any organization to not put employees into management roles if they don’t want to be spending a large portion of their time dealing with people and motivating them to become the best they can be.

That’s quite the problem, so how do you get around it?

Establish Different Progression Tracks 

Set up and showcase progression tracks that don’t rely entirely on managing people. Have one that includes management, but also one where your employees can simply become more senior as an individual contributor. This means that star employees have options about how they develop in your organization, and they don’t feel ‘forced’ into a management route if this isn’t something they will enjoy, or don’t have the natural skillsets to take on.

Set Clear Expectations and Make Them Accountable

People who do want to go into management need to clearly understand what is expected of them.

This means ensuring that they are accountable for performance around various people-related metrics. These include things like employee satisfaction and engagement scores, probation pass rates, retention, and promotion rates. 

All managers should have relevant goals set for their performance in that role, and be reviewed against them throughout the year. Encouraging them to constantly reflect on their experiences and iterate their approach as they learn to deal with new situations and challenges will help to equip them to approach them far more effectively in the future. 

Afford Them the Time

A common complaint I hear from managers, especially in organizations where their people management standard is not particularly high, is that they don’t have the ‘time’ to deal with people matters alongside their day-to-day work.

In agencies, where so much of an employee’s time is billable, giving managers the time to manage is often treated like a luxury.

Yet managing people takes a huge amount of time and effort—and even more to do it well. In fact, once a single manager gets to the point where they are directly responsible for anything upwards of five people (and certainly once they reach seven), management pretty much becomes a full-time role in itself.

I have to stress that time spent on ‘managing’ is an investment in the future of others.

As we have seen, managers have the potential to have a huge impact on employee engagement and happiness; this ultimately hits the bottom line through reduced employee churn, more focus, and a better quality of work.

As such, it’s crucial that managers are afforded the time to focus on developing their employees. Expecting them to deliver the same amount of ‘work’ as before is only going to end up creating a bad experience for your team.

Provide Them with Training 

Offering support in the form of training and coaching helps you to develop the skills and confidence of your managers. It also indicates to the rest of your organization that you’re willing to make the investment in improving everyone’s working lives.

As mentioned earlier, many end up in management positions with little to no prior experience or training to get them there. This makes it crucial to introduce them to a range of concepts that they may not have dealt with before, such as having challenging conversations, theories around human motivation, fostering psychological safety, and diversity and inclusion.

One-to-one coaching can also be a highly effective way to get your managers chatting to someone about certain challenges or situations they have faced, and reflecting on how they have dealt with that experience and what could be done differently next time.

The overall aim here is to empower them to ‘own’ their development as a people manager and increase accountability for their performance within that role.


Creating better managers benefits everyone, from the top to the bottom of the business. Whether that’s helping people advance, or creating a better culture. We’d love to hear from you in The Local Pack or on social media about your thoughts about the manager’s position in improving employee engagement.

Sean Butcher
About the author
Sean Butcher is an agency culture consultant and Founder of Reflect Consultancy. He works with digital agencies and other ambitious businesses to help them create cultures that bring out the best out of their people.

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