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Thursday, July 27, 2017

'You're Not a Manager'

     My old friend Tom was once appointed acting general manager of a division of his company. The president told him he was the only candidate for the permanent appointment, and the job was his to lose.
     He lost it.
     So Tom went back to his previous job as a department head, realizing he’d missed some important elements in the opportunity but unsure as to quite what they were.  
     He left the company a few months later when the new guy turned out to be a terrible boss – ignorant, interfering and autocratic. Most of the other department heads were gone before Tom.
     It took a while longer, but the new general manager was flat-out fired.

     You don’t get to go back, though. Tom apparently wasn’t considered again; they never contacted him, and someone else was appointed.

     Nevertheless, when Tom’s new job elsewhere didn’t work out, he asked for and got an interview with the president of his old company. The series of events had ignited in him an interest in management.
     He was received warmly, and they had a nice conversation – but one that did not include any hint that there might be anything there for Tom.
     Then he asked for a quick assessment of his positives and negatives.
     The president praised his work ethic and his integrity. Then one negative, a devastating one: “You’re not a manager.”
     A firm handshake and good-bye forever.

     What had gone wrong?
     Well, Tom had the potential for management; the company president had spotted that. The temporary appointment gave him the opportunity to grow into the skills of actually being a manager.
     The growth did not occur. No one ever told Tom how a manager’s very thought processes are different from those of an individual contributor, and he lacked the ability to see it for himself. Some people have or develop such vision on their own, but they are a minority.
     Unfortunately for Tom, he was not one of the gifted few.
     Another unlucky factor was that no volunteer mentor came along to guide Tom through the tricky transition to higher responsibility.
     So he totally missed signals and opportunities both before and during his temporary appointment. He also made some judgment mistakes on the job that were duly noted at headquarters.
     They had put him in a sink-or-swim situation, and he sank.

     But not for good.
     Somewhat later and in another place, Tom became a manager and did quite well. The temporary job had indeed exposed his lack of management knowledge, but it also awakened in him a strong attraction to that kind of work.
     And it opened his eyes to the errors he had made back then. Once he understood how he had mismanaged, Tom sought advice and got some training. He was on his way.
     On the other side of the situation, the senior management lost a valuable commodity in the not-ready-for-prime-time Tom. They just dropped him and moved on. 
     Unlike Tom, the top people of the organization learned nothing from the experience.  They continued to pick candidates by superficial and subjective guesswork, and kept appointing people without any particular preparation.

     That kind of management is expensive, and not just in immediate waste and cost.  One unhappy outcome is that appointees in such situations frequently adopt survival tactics that are not good management, but too often harden into permanent practices.
     It doesn’t have to be that way. A colleague of mine, Susan de Grandpre, advises managements on how to take a much more successful approach.
     Susan is an expert on mentorship.  Her book, “Common-Sense Workplace Mentoring,” describes workplace practices that, in short order, help people build skills and expand horizons to their own benefit and that of their organizations.
     The simple basis for Susan’s system is having knowledgeable veterans meet regularly with less-experienced fellow staff members for candid discussions of their work and relationships.
     It’s a guided-growth process, not a random or hard-knocks one. Most of us don’t get that kind of invaluable assist, so we’re left with whatever we learn from the events and personalities we meet along the way.

     There is a predictability to a person’s career.
     Beginners must learn the tasks and processes at the working level.
     Supervisors learn how to oversee the work, tend and maintain the processes, and instruct and support the individual contributors.
     Managers initially focus on expanding their supervisory skills, then become more involved in designing and improving processes, and obtaining and investing resources.
     At the higher end, they are making decisions in such broader matters as hiring, assigning and disciplining employes; providing programs in quality improvement, staff training; adding or ending major business functions; and developing internal and external communication.

     As people rise through the levels, the entire nature of the work changes. It is less dominated by the performance of specific tasks. Increasingly, it becomes a pattern of relationship building, problem solving, process development and vision.
     The risks become more complex and potentially more expensive, taking management with them. 
     Those skill sets demand greater thought, patience and sensitivity to opportunities and problems. Much of the work at higher management calls for judgment and the ability to see beneath the surface. 
     In the example, Tom was so focused on the work that his attitude – and therefore his growth potential – froze at the task level. It was only later that he became aware of the broader, deeper and more complex requirements of higher responsibility.
     General managers don’t do tasks. Tom knows that . . . now.

Question: How much of your knowledge of management came from education and training, and how much from trial and error?

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