Management is a Skill

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manager-sm Management is a skill. It sounds obvious, but in my years as a consultant at companies both large and small I saw this simple bit of knowledge ignored time and time again.

Take Rob, for instance. Rob is a great engineer. In fact, Rob may be the best engineer the company has ever seen. Rob has been a good employee for ten years and has been responsible for great things over those years. Would Rob make a good manager? Yes or No?

Bzzzt. Trick question. You have no idea if Rob would make a good manager. Sure he’s a great engineer and if he were promoted to manager of the engineering group there is no doubt that he would be able to understand everything going on around him. In fact, when Rob assigns Alice a project he knows it will take about a week. After a week, Alice isn’t done with the project. No problem. Something may have come up or something could have gone wrong or million other things. After two weeks the project still isn’t done. What Rob does now, is what determines if he is a good manager or not, and it has absolutely NOTHING to do with his engineering skills.

Rob talks to Alice. She tells him how the past week was just crazy, plus her kids are freaking out, and that guy in accounting needed something right away. Rob understands and asks if she can get it done this week. Alice says she will try very hard. Then it’s three weeks, four, five, six, and we have our answer, Rob is a bad manager.

Management Skill?

If the project should take one week and if one day after Rob is berating Alice and threatening to fire her, Rob is a bad manager. If the project drags on for six weeks and Rob hasn’t been able to get Alice to get her job done Rob is a bad manager. What is the magic time in that range? That is what being a good manager is all about.

Notice how this particular example has absolutely nothing to do with what Rob’s job was before he was a manager. Whether Rob was an engineer or not is completely moot. The fact that he was an engineer may give Rob better insight into whether or not the time frame for completion was right in the first place, and it could give him insight into any problems that Alice might be having, but actually having to deal with Alice is what being a manager is about. Maybe Alice is one of those workers who just needs a little more supervision. An extra bit of oversight would keep her on target and happily working as one of the company’s most productive engineers. So, Rob sets a daily 11:00 status session with Alice and her projects are completed well and on time. Maybe Rob is a good manager.

Management skills have nothing to do with technical savvy. They have everything to do with people savvy. Dealing with an employee who starts showing up every day at 9:20 instead of 9:00 is management. Dealing with conflicting vacation requests is management. Deciding who can telecommute or work flex-time and how much is management. Being able to whip up the engineering plans for the biggest client in a week is NOT management.

Bad Management Skills

Bad management skills run rampant in many companies. Many bad managers come to rely on bad management skills as crutches to avoid actually having to do the management they are paid for.

Bad management skills include:

  • Too Many “Policies” – in an effort to not have to make difficult decisions some managers try to answer all possible questions in advance by issuing policies. This leads inevitably to a ridiculous contrivance. Think about schools that declare any student brining a knife over 4 inches long to school will be suspended for a month, only to find their top honor student in the cafeteria with a 5 inch kitchen knife because Dad packed the child’s lunch box when Mom was sick and thought the child might need to knife to cut up his apple. Clearly the policy was not intended for this circumstance but because the school was unwilling to make tough decisions based on all the facts, they are now in a more ridiculous situation. The same thing happens in the workplace.
  • Too Many Meetings – convinced that the problem is simply that either they don’t know enough or that the employees don’t know enough, bad managers schedule constant meetings instead of reaching out individually until no one considers the meetings anything more than a required waste of time during which to drink their coffee.
  • Too Many Reports – like too many meetings too many reports causes employees to begin working toward whatever looks best on the report instead of what is most productive.
  • Micromanagement – if things are bad it must be because people aren’t being managed enough. More checking in, and more input into trivial issues must be the solution.
  • Phony Rewards / Phony Punishments – nothing makes employees roll their eyes more than “contests” or other such nonsense cooked up by management to motivate them. Has anyone in the history of business actually worked one ounce harder in order to get their manager to wear a blue wig to the manager’s meeting?

Worst Management = Uniformity

The worst bad management skill is forced uniformity. Some managers continually confuse “the same” with “fair”. Because Alice needs a daily status session, Rob has decided to implement them across the board. After all, if everyone has a daily status session that is “fair”. This decision makes Betty, another great engineer, very unhappy. Betty, unlike Alice, doesn’t need much oversight. Her projects are done well and on time without any need for extra management hand holding. In fact, Betty spends more time preparing for the daily updates than she does working on her projects. She is actually working on several multi-step projects and before the daily sessions did a fine job of juggling them all. Some days she only worked on one project, other days she worked on several. With the new daily status sessions Betty feels forced to make sure every project advances every day. This isn’t practical and it is actually slowing her down causing her to become even more stressed about her job and her daily meetings.

As a bad manager, Rob can’t see what has happened to Betty. He says that she doesn’t have to have progress on ever project ever day so he doesn’t see what the problem is. The problem, of course, is that Betty used to be happy and productive, now she is neither. In the interest of uniformity Rob has overlooked the fact that he just switched from the management style that Betty prefers to the management style that Alice prefers. When looked at from this perspective such a change is obviously unfair, but Rob clings to “the same is fair” fallacy and is at risk of losing a good employee.

In this instance, not only are Rob’s bad management skills not helping, they are actually hurting his department.

Manager’s Manager

So, what can be done? Well, that rests entirely with Rob’s manager. If Rob’s manager is a good manager he’ll notice the drop off in performance in Rob’s department. If he is a good manager he’ll be able to find out what is going on and perhaps give Rob some direction. If he is a bad manager he may not even notice the decline in Rob’s department for a long time, perhaps not until some annual report comes in. If he is a bad manager even if he does notice the decline he won’t be able to get to the bottom of it. He’ll just ask Rob (who won’t know and won’t tell) or send out some random looking “anonymous” survey that won’t get the answers either. In other words, bad management will simply become entrenched at the company until things get so bad, another bad manger further up orders an “across the board” employee cut. Of course, neither Rob nor his manager will go thanks to their long years with the company. The likely departure is Betty. Now the company has one less good employee with the same number of bad managers.

Actions

To avoid bad management in the first place it is critical to remember that management is its own skill. It is not simply being the highest ranking employee in a group. A manager’s main function is to manage employees not to perform the job of the employees he oversees. The best way to avoid a mistake is to promote employees to managers ONLY OF DIFFERENT DEPARTMENTS. In other words, if Rob is such great management material and such a wonderful asset to the company that he would be better utilized as a manager then Rob should be promoted, but NOT to manager of engineering. If Rob doesn’t have the skills to manage another department then he doesn’t have the skills to manage his own department. Keep in mind that Rob’s value as a manager comes not from his ability to perform his department’s function, but to oversee the personnel of that department.

Insist on ongoing management training, Not abstract “How to Motivate” type training, but real world management training. Topics of the training should be things like “How to deal with tardy employees” and “How to solve conflicts over time off”, not things like “How to be a better leader.” With real world skill building under their belts, the managers will grow in skill and ability just like they did when they were first noticed as possible managers.

Most importantly don’t be afraid to fix mistakes. Sometimes it is impossible to know in advance how someone will perform as a manager. If skills are the problem training may be the solution. If not, then a transfer to an easier management position or even to a non-management position is certainly the best move for the company in the long run even if it costs a good employee. One good employee lost is better than dozens of employees tainted by bad management.


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