Article (July-2017)


Who is managing the managers?

Prof. Arup Varma

Designation : -   Loyola University

Organization : -  Chicago


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In the last two issues I talked at some length about the issues involved in managing high performers, and the so-called average and low-performers. As you might recall, I expressed some reservation with these labels, as these seem to projections of those managing these folks, rather than titles the folks have actually earned. I had promised to follow that up with a discussion of those responsible for managing the performance of the groups mentioned above. I believe this is an important piece of the puzzle that is often skipped in the discussions of how to manage high (and low) performers. In my opinion, discussing how to manage high-potential employees without discussing those who are managing them is akin to missing the forest for the trees. Let's explore the reasons for this.

First, as should be painfully obvious, not everyone is suited for managerial responsibilities, and not everyone even wants it. Yet, we are often limited by our traditional thinking, and believe that everyone wants to become the CMD, or that everyone wants to be a manager. The fact remains that many folks would simply like to remain in their current roles, or reach a particular position/level of their choosing, and continue there for the rest of their stay in the organization. Even more so, many folks would like to continue as individual contributors, and have no or little interest in managing/supervising/leading others. Then there are those who are very eager and keen to become managers, not necessarily because they want to be managers, but because they recognize that it is a critical step on the ladder to the top. Of course, there is yet another group that deserves to be mentioned and discussed - these are the sincere folks who want to do a good job as managers, and take on the responsibilities in good faith - and yet, even many of these folks struggle and falter. Let's discuss each of these groups one by one, and then let us offer a solution to the critical problem - how do we find and/or create good managers?

i. The Reluctant Manager - Let's start by talking about the individual contributor - in every organization; there are people who are very good at what they do, and want to continue to do what they do. These folks would like to be rewarded for their individual contributions, and have little or no interest in managing people. Yet, at some stage, we decide that in order to move further up, they must assume managerial responsibilities. Why? Perhaps because that's how we have always done things, and it would take too much effort to change the way we do things. But, if we keep doing the same things, we will keep getting the same results (I think this quote, or some version of it, has been attributed to Albert Einstein, among others). Well, the problem with this approach is that we are forcing people to do something they have little or no interest in - and yet we are surprised when they do a poor job. Of course, this assumes that we recognize that they are doing a poor job of managing. More often than not, we don't recognize that the manager is poorly managing - instead we take his/her word as the final truth, and blame the unlucky individuals who are stuck working for this type of manager.

ii. The Eager Manager - This type of manager is actually slightly better than the previous category - primarily because, at the very least, they want to be managers. The problem with this group is that their primary interest may not be in managing people, but they see it as a 'necessary evil,' as a stepping stone to their desired goal of moving up and up. Of course, there is anything wrong with such ambition, but the problem is that those who are assigned to be on such leaders' teams might end up suffering for no fault of their own.

iii. The Sincere Manager - The good thing is that this third category of managers actually exists. I would also venture to guess that this group has the majority of folks in any organization, and further that the two earlier groups probably belonged to this group at some point. These are folks who truly care, who want to lead, not just manage, and sincerely care about the welfare of the folks who work for/with them.

Clearly, I have used broad strokes to paint all managers across all organizations into 3 categories. But, the point is that this categorization is important to understand that not all managers operate from the same frame of reference. Yet, a cursory search of the thousands of articles on performance management and performance appraisal will turn up no more than a few score articles looking at manager competence. Somehow, we take it for granted - if someone is a manager, they must know what they are doing. Why else would the company make them a manager and give them the chance to lead a team!!?? Well, as I have discussed above, people become managers for a whole host of reasons, and being qualified to be a good manager is perhaps the least of those reasons. So, what does it take and what should organizations do?

First and this is perhaps the most important thing - train the managers! We wouldn't let someone who has not been trained drive a car - okay, we shouldn't! By the same token, letting managers drive individuals' careers should not be taken lightly. So, what should the training include? Well, there is a whole lot of hard and soft skills training required. To begin with, the training should include (i) the importance of learning the jobs the individual supervises, (ii) how to set goals, (iii) giving feedback, (iv) coaching and counseling skills, (v) performance appraisal techniques, (vi) rewards/punishment training, and (vii) the company's performance standards. While these are all important skills, there is a whole set of soft skills that anyone supervising others should learn. For example, it is important to train individuals to avoid letting their personal biases cloud their 'judgment,' so that the manager's evaluations are as objective as possible. It is important to recognize and acknowledge that as long as human beings are evaluating other human beings, some amount of bias will creep in. So the goal of this training should be to minimize bias, not eliminate it.

P.S. When I started writing my column just over a year ago, I wrote the first few issues from different cities in different countries. However, in the last few issues, I neglected to mention where I was at the time of writing the column. Well, I have heard from some of you, who have asked that I keep including my travel details in this column. So, here goes. I am writing this column from my hotel room in Beijing, where I am collecting data on supervisor-subordinate relationships. I have been regularly coming to China for almost 15 years now, for data collection, lectures, and teaching assignments. Ironically, one of the things that many companies here seem to be struggling with is the same issue that I have discussed above - a shortage of good managers, especially at the mid-manager level. This is not very surprising, as once again the emphasis here seems to be on rewarding and promoting technical competence and success, rather than demonstrated managerial abilities. As I alluded to above, rewarding individuals for technical competence by giving them responsibilities for managing people is akin to making someone the head surgeon at a hospital because he/she has spent a lot of time there as a patient!