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. They can bring frustration, exasperation and havoc to a workplace. An unprepared manager can spoil an otherwise healthy work environment in no time at all — driving away the most talented of contributors. On the flip side of this issue, the adequate selection, development and support of our managers, provides a tremendous opportunity for organizations to become sustainable.

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

So, this is where the rubber meets the road: We need to take responsibility for our managers. No excuses. We need to pause, reflect and prepare the right people for the role. We must also be sure to support them going forward.

If we gather 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 information before us, including classic leadership research, it is remarkable how simple the solutions may be. We may not possess all of the answers for every situation or organization — however, we can begin by identifying what not to do:

  • Assume they want the job. This is our first mistake — and it's critical. Often, the single most critical question is never fully 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 to be more valuable than individual contributor roles? 2.) Is leadership/management experience an absolute requirement to progress? This, of course, will depend on a number of factors, including the nature of the work. However, it may be time to 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 manager make. Savvy organizations will make the investment to prepare employees for management roles. 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 needed communication skills?) Failing to consider these can lead to serious consequences. Have you heard the saying "People don't leave companies, they leave managers"? Well, it's absolutely true.
  • Overestimate the role of deep technical experience. We're learning this requirement may be overplayed. Information 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 are willing to provide ongoing support. Although important, when ranking the "8 habits" of highly effective managers, Google found that deep technical expertise came in dead last.
  • Believe it's the only path to compensate top talent. We all know that money isn't 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 might compensate source track contributors at equal levels, or utilize other elements to enhance the package.This could include opportunities for intrapreneurship, broadening scope in line with strengths, or addressing other aspects of work that have personal value. (Such as working from home, etc...)
  • Believe it's simply the "next step." It seems that in some cases, 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 career ladder may prove to be quite wobbly.
  • Leave them "high and dry." Managers require guidance to improve their skills. If this step is clearly present, contributors with potential (who may not otherwise venture into managerial territory) might consider the role. The role of manager should be taken seriously, with a fresh look at training, ongoing direction and feedback. (See an example of managerial feedback at Google here.)

What are your thoughts on the selection of managers? Weigh in here and we'll share best thoughts in a follow-up post.

Dr. Marla Gottschalk is an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist. She is the Director of Thought Leadership at Kilberry Leadership Advisors, Toronto.

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Photo: Stephen Lew / shutterstock

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