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Can Your Managers Manage?

If you are a senior leader and have direct reports that manage others please answer these questions:

  • Do your directs meet at least once a month with each of their directs? Do you even know if they do or not?
  • Is there observable evidence that your people are developing their people? Do you see growth or improvements?
  • Are your people taking credit for work that their teams do or do they acknowledge the team?
  • Are you confident that your directs have the basic management skills necessary to be effective at all aspects of their jobs?

I bring this up because it is quite apparent to me that so few managers actually know how to manage. It used to be (way way back in the 80’s and 90’s) that most public companies had extensive management training programs. If you are old enough to remember Crotonville or St. Charles then you know what I’m talking about. Most companies were not as resource rich as GE or Motorola but there was a booming industry of management programs. To prepare you for a promotion into management you received up to 40 hours of company-specific training. Once you were in your role for a year or so then you began taking more advanced courses to prepare you for more senior roles.

Then the economic crisis hit and most of these programs disappeared. These days very few companies still offer internal management training although they have some money tucked away to sponsor educational opportunities for a select group of high potentials. We have moved from management training as a requirement for promotion to a perk for a handful of people in the hopes that this will help retain them.

Which begs the question: are you confident that your managers can manage? Have they received formal or informal training? If not, are you just hoping that they are doing a good job?

All HR professionals can tell you that the weak link in organizations is the limited management capability. Up and coming people are being promoted into more senior roles and given more responsibility but they are not being prepared to be successful.

These are the common behaviors I see from these earnest but ill-equipped managers.

  • Command and control style with their direct reports. It’s not that their own bosses are using this outdated style, it’s more a matter of not knowing how to supervise or develop others. “Just do what I tell you to do” is a default position because they have such a limited tool kit.
  • High levels of frustration with people issues. These managers haven’t figured out that people come in all varieties that can create some interesting dynamics. When called upon to referee or resolve interpersonal issues they are clumsy and unhappy about the distraction from the real work. They don’t understand why people just don’t get along…or see things their way.
  • Lots of managing up. These folks are good at making their bosses believe that they have everything under control. When something blows up and the boss finds out the boss is often surprised. The direct reports of an inexperienced manager have a more negative opinion than the senior leader. This gap only becomes more evident through a 360 process.
  • Insecurities that get masked in bravado. These are valuable and smart people who find themselves in a situation they struggle to master. Managing other people and team dynamics are so much more complicated than their areas of expertise. But they don’t want to admit that they are out of their element so when things don’t go well there is much finger pointing, defensiveness or chest thumping.

Today’s notion of management training is to “throw ’em in the deep end” and they will eventually figure it out. That may be true for a small minority. For most of us regular human beings in the real world we, our teams and our companies suffer. What I don’t understand is how we could have gone from all to nothing and expect the same results. How could corporations invest so much money and time in preparing people for bigger responsibilities and reaping the benefits of that and then pull the plug and still expect great outcomes? Nothing about that makes sense. And I don’t hear enough conversation about the pain and problems this is causing.

The standard answer an executive gives when the head of HR proposes a solid plan to fix this problem is “we don’t have money”. No amount of metrics and business cases and lost productivity analyses are persuasive. When budgets are shaped and then hacked away at training and development is always the sacrificial lamb. This is so short sighted.

So, senior leader, I implore you to rethink your position. If you keep elevating talented but unprepared people into management roles you will continue to hurt your company. Where is the evidence that this is already occurring? Look at your employee engagement results. Look at data from exit interviews. Find out if you are losing your most talented people. See if the people you retain are not your A team. Find out if people two layers down from you are on the rise. Listen to what your HR folks are telling you.

Managers are where the rubber hits the road. They need to learn how to take the sharp corners and drive through snow and ice. You need to help them gain some traction.

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