How Not to Choose a Manager

“Vision is dandy, but sustainable company excellence comes from a huge stable of able managers.”

— Tom Peters

We’ve all heard the stories of managers who simply are not up to the challenge of managing others. They can bring frustration, exasperation, and havoc to a workplace. An unprepared manager can spoil an otherwise healthy environment in no time flat — driving away the most talented of contributors. On the flip side of this discussion, the adequate selection, development and support of our managers, provides a tremendous opportunity for organizations to sustain themselves.

To be quite blunt, managers really matter. The best of them build resilience, stoke motivation and empower others. Great managers don’t simply manage by the numbers — they coach, clarify goals, provide feedback, align work with our strengths and inspire. But, the role is simply not for every individual who excels in their source track

So, this is where the rubber meets the road: We need to take responsibility for our managers. No excuses. We just need to pause, reflect and get the right people ready for the role. We must also strategically support them.

If we gather together all of the strategies to build happier, engaged workplaces — I’m nearly certain that managers remain our single best opportunity. When we take a broad view of the collected information before us, including classic leadership research, it is remarkable how simple some of the solutions just may be. We may not possess all of the answers for each and every organization — however, we can begin by identifying what not to do.

A few things to consider when choosing managers:

  • Assume they want the job. This is our first mistake — and it’s major. Often, the single most critical question is never considered: Do you truly want to manage others at this juncture in your career? The underlying organizational issues include the following: 1.) Are managerial roles considered more valuable than individual contributor roles? 2.) Must you have some component of leadership/management experience on your resume to progress? This, of course, will depend on a number of factors, including the nature of the work. None the less, it may be time to re-explore alternative “source” career tracks as an organizational staple (Read more from Hay on strategies here).
  • Base the decision on tenure alone. Time alone will not a manger make. Savvy organizations will make the investment to prepare employees for management roles — as the stakes are quite high. Key here is utilizing well developed assessment techniques to identify current skills and potential for growth. (For example, are candidates open to coaching others, do they possess the required communication skills, etc.). Not considering these issues can have serious consequences. Have you heard the saying, “People don’t leave companies, they leave managers.” Well, it’s true.
  • Over-estimate the role of deep technical experience. We’re learning this requirement may indeed be overplayed. Research from Google’s Project Oxygen, for example, tells us that the essence of what we need from our managers, is not always related to deep technical knowledge. What sets apart effective managers, is the orientation they have toward their staff. They express real concern for their team, have open conversations and a willingness to provide on-going support. When ranking the “8 habits” of highly effective managers, Google found that deep technical expertise came in dead last. Very interesting.
  • Think it’s the only path to compensate top talent. We all know that money isn’t always the only answer to retain exceptional employees — and neither is becoming a manager. Yes, managers can earn a higher salary, but that’s not a viable reason to promote someone into a managerial role. Why must we manage others to be well rewarded within an organization? We could compensate source track contributors at equal levels. Or utilize other elements to enhance the package, such as opportunities for intrapreneurship, broadening scope in line with strengths, or addressing aspects of work that have personal value. (Such as working from home, etc.)
  • Believe it’s simply the “next step”. It seems that the Peter Principle still lives. We need to pause and consult the manager “designate”, to determine if they feel up to the challenge. These decisions should be made very carefully, with great deference to the role that lies ahead. If not, that next “rung” on the ladder can turn out to be quite wobbly.
  • Leaving them “high and dry”. Mangers need provided guidance to become better at their craft. If so, contributors with potential, who may not otherwise venture into the managerial territory, might consider the role. The role of manager should be taken seriously, with a fresh look at training, on-going direction and feedback. (See an example of managerial feedback at Google, here.)

What are your thoughts on selecting managers? Weigh in here and we’ll share best thoughts in a follow-up post.

Dr. Marla Gottschalk is an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist, consultant and speaker. She helps organizations put the right people into the right roles.


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