Why Too Many Managers Fail

Why Too Many Managers Fail

Over the past three decades, I have promoted scores of individuals into management positions — often with disappointing results in the early years, despite a seemingly rigorous selection process. It’s not that these folks were abject failures in their new managerial roles. It’s just that too few of them displayed the level of excellence that had earned them the promotion in the first place.

Case in point: during this early phase of my career, as director of HR for a heavy equipment manufacturer, we promoted one of our top sales professionals to vice-president of sales and marketing. Jim (not his real name) was a great salesman who loved the chase and beating his own targets. However, managing his one-time peers, being responsible for planning and strategy, and developing budgetary guidelines and parameters were altogether different.  He missed the freedom that the world of business development provided, and the administrative detail of his new position was too confining. We eventually found a way to allow Jim to return to selling, where he once again excelled.

After a few more mishaps along the same lines, the truth finally dawned on me: The performance metrics by which we judge engineers, accountants, sales folks, and others as individual contributors are not the same that we use for judging managerial talent. When looking for managerial talent, we too often choose functional stars who don’t have the interpersonal skills or the moxie required to manage others. And when we’re lucky enough to find the functional stars who could succeed with the proper support and guidance, we don’t always give it to them.

Jim’s failure had more to do with those of us who sent him into battle unprepared for the heavy burden of managing a large, geographically diverse sales group than it did with Jim himself. He missed the networking and camaraderie, experiencing a kind of withdrawal from knocking on doors every day. And he never understood that his underlings needed coaching in the art of sales. Salesmanship came to him instinctively, and he thought such was the case with everyone.

Had Jim been given the proper coaching and training, I believe he would have succeeded. Some of those skills that made Jim a tremendous salesman would have been useful in his managerial role. He was all about building business, he was a great listener who easily connected with people, and he invariably delivered more than he promised. He instinctively understood that time was money and acted accordingly. Perhaps most importantly, he was always pushing himself to a higher standard.

Gallup’s “State of the American Manager – Analytics and Advice for Leaders” suggests that real management talent is a rarity, with only one in ten managers having the “natural ability” to direct a team of people. Absent cloning those who manage well, we need to do a much better job identifying individuals who have potential to succeed as managers – those who can motivate the workforce, hold employees accountable for results, and handle the administrative aspect of the job – and then help newly minted managers hone the appropriate skills. As with many aspects of leadership and management, it’s part art and part science.

Here’s how we can do a better job by talented employees of all stripes:

  • In selecting a managerial candidate look for an individual with the self-confidence to develop, inspire, and challenge a team.  The best teammate does not necessarily make a good manager.  Utilize “trial balloon” projects for individuals whom you may be considering for potential leadership slots, providing them an opportunity to display their talent on aspects related to the managerial role.
  • Use psychometric testing to help decide who should be promoted. Having utilized this testing for many years now, I can tell you that I would never make an appointment to a key position without it. Good psychometric testing will help candidates find the job they will enjoy, have a higher probability of success and avoid the death spiral of a job that will make them miserable.
  • Let’s ensure that we have a frank discussion on the expectations for the role, what the manager’s job will really entail, including the potential alienation one can possibly feel from managing people who yesterday were your “friends,” and what the true challenges might be in the context of their individual skill set and interests. With the benefit of hindsight I now know that prior to his promotion, Jim and I should have had a frank discussion about the realities of the new job.
  • Recognize that functional skills don’t necessarily translate into interpersonal, managerial skills–but then find ways to support functional stars who may not have the skill set to direct a team. Too few organizations spend enough time on the concept of a technical career ladder that allows individuals to progress and affords them career fulfillment and the appropriate respect and rewards. And finally, once we pick the successful candidate, let’s ensure we set them up for success.  Let’s provide a solid development plan, complete with learning objectives and let’s ensure our newly minted manager has a coach, someone other than the boss who will help them navigate the journey.
  • And finally, once we pick the successful candidate, let’s ensure we set them up for success.  Let’s provide a solid development plan, complete with learning objectives and let’s ensure our newly minted manager has a coach, someone other than the boss who will help them navigate the journey.

Finding managerial talent does not have to be the almost-impossible task the Gallup statistics would suggest. But we need to start new managers on their journey with advocacy and support, not just a slap on the back and a hearty handshake.  This is long overdue in the corporate realm.

  • A deft analysis of the Peter Principle in action–top performers at one level rising to their level of incompetence at the next. Perhaps by using ideas such as those explored here, more managers can avoid that trap by recognizing and promoting individuals who have the skills and desire not just to succeed on their own, but to make those around them better. I found this inspiring.

    September 29, 2017 at 2:23 pm
  • Great article! Too many times an organization will pick a sales superstar and promote them to a managerial role without doing the in-depth evaluation you suggest. The net result is usually failure.I have seen this too many times in my business life.

    October 11, 2017 at 9:28 am
  • Ralph Daley

    Great articles Chuck. Could certainly apply to the educational departments and administrative levels as well. Too often I witnessed incompetence promoted because they had served their time as a teacher, taken some administrative courses etc. Collaboration was not part of their vocabulary etc. I strongly agree with your ideas and commend you as a CEO recognizing that this approach is the one of many that is effective. Team building. team mentoring concentrating on the positive and going from there etc. I once had a very wise administrator tell her staff that we are to take the children from where they are not from where we expect them to be and work from there to help them meet their potential.Very impressive article!

    August 9, 2018 at 6:31 am
  • Camelia Lawrence, MD, FACS

    Excellent article, Chuck. Young leaders like myself continue to benefit from your coaching and pearls of wisdom shared through your articles on leadership. Effective leadership is critical to the success of every organization yet so often we miss the mark in the selection process despite our best intent and/or screening process.

    September 15, 2019 at 6:55 pm
  • Brenda Valentin

    Chuck, this is an excellent article! It starts with great leaders like yourself. This type of strong leadership habit is the reason I have continue to progress in my career. I’ve had and continue to have a strong support system helping me along the way. Thanks for sharing Chuck! You are truly and inspiration.

    September 23, 2019 at 9:17 pm

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