Promotion to management: it’s a badge of pride for almost any employee. The coveted manager role seems to be one of the only ways to advance one’s career and garner more power and responsibility within an organization.
But have you ever considered why people are most commonly promoted into this position? Often promotion to management comes as a result of two things – one being job tenure, i.e. the amount of time on the job, and the other being individual performance, i.e. sales numbers or contributions to a particularly important project. While both of these types of employees should be rewarded for their loyalty and performance, respectively, the problem is that neither of these reasons for promotion to management has anything to do with actually managing people. To emphasize this point with an analogy, just because Michael Jordan was a virtuoso on the basketball court does not mean that he would be a world-class coach, too.
While some companies have found pathways for employees to advance without becoming managers, especially in Silicon Valley where valuable developers can eschew management paths in favor of being a sort of internal topical expert, in many organizations there isn’t a clear alternative for advancement. Due to this fact, there are many companies counting mediocre managers among their ranks. It’s a representation of the Peter Principle, a concept formulated by educator Laurence J. Peter and published in 1969, which posits that people rise to the level of their incompetence. And to clarify, this isn’t a universal incompetence, it is simply skill-specific with regard to managing people.
And with so many people being promoted into management for arguably the wrong reasons, this creates a serious issue for leadership within organizations. As the common wisdom goes, employees don’t leave their jobs, they leave their managers. According to Gallup, roughly 50% of employees cite their managers as a reason for leaving their position. Moreover, Gallup estimates that managers account for 70% of the variance in employee engagement numbers. Low employee engagement, poor resource management, and dysfunctional teams as a result of bad management lead to talent and productivity losses – things that can silently, but significantly, affect the bottom line.
While fixing the issue of career growth for non-managers is a whole different animal to address, what the current situation reveals is that there is a huge opportunity for organizational improvement through ongoing management skills training. Management can feel like a fuzzy thing to teach because it spans so many different areas and involves so many soft-skills, things that often get less attention than hard skills and individual performance. However, solid management skills are what create the environment where employees feel engaged in their work and present their best selves. A good manager knows how to delegate effectively, communicate clearly, display emotional intelligence, provide coaching when necessary, and foster personal and professional growth within their team.
What’s ironic is that while these abilities sound much less difficult than the job-specific skills that got a person into their management position in the first place, the truth is that they are eminently more difficult. We are often biased about our abilities in these areas, rarely possessing the self-awareness to realize when we are lacking. As Rich Archbold, the Senior Director of Engineering at Intercom said in this blog post, “few managers ask themselves the hard questions: Am I the reason people are leaving? Was it because of something I did, or something I didn’t do? In my experience, managers suffer something akin to the Dunning-Kruger effect. They assume they’re not the problem, but that their employees are.”
He goes on to cite a poll showing that managers consider 46% of their hires to be failures, with the most common reason for failure being because the person is uncoachable. On the flip side, the survey participants said that only 20% of hires were successes. This seems to place a disproportionate amount of the onus on the employees, but is this fair? Now think back on almost any sports team movie you can imagine – Coach Carter, Remember the Titans, Hoosiers, Miracle, Cool Runnings, you name it – and think about what these coaches accomplished. Did these coaches decide that close to half their teams were uncoachable? Of course not, they used their management skills to create an environment for success. It is, in fact, a coaches job to make sure the individual members of a team are successful and ultimately contribute to the success of the team. A coach is not promoted to her position because she’s an amazing athlete, she’s promoted because of her ability to effectively lead a team.
The first step to improvement is realizing that there’s a skills gap. If you are a leader within your organization, then you should acknowledge that there is room for improvement for all managers in your company. If you are a manager yourself, then you should not make assumptions about your skill level. Solicit feedback from your team and seek out opportunities to hone your skills. Just like new technologies force us to develop new skills, you too should be seeking out new models and methodologies for improving yourself as a manager. By embracing this path, you might just transform yourself into a great manager, and perhaps, one day, a true leader in your organization.
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