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Why are so many managers useless as leaders?

This column is part of Globe Careers' Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab

Unfortunate fact: there are a great number of people in managerial and supervisory positions in organizations who really have no business being in charge of people.

Their employees don't respect them because they're clueless, or micro-managing, or credit-grabbing (or all of the above); and staff either find ways to work around them, or just go through the motions until they can escape to something better. But before you malign these managers completely, consider this: perhaps this state of affairs isn't entirely their fault. Let me explain.

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Most people get promoted to supervisor or manager because they have a track record of results, usually in some sort of analytical or technical role. They were accomplished at getting things done, and the eventual reward for their good work was the title of "manager."

But here's a critical fact that many people simply don't realize: all the skills and behaviours that make you successful as an individual contributor are also the very skills that will cause you to fail as a leader.

When you move into a role of leadership, an occupational change occurs. And if you don't make a fundamental intellectual shift to accommodate this change in occupation, and if you don't change the way you do things, you will become (at least to your staff) "the manager who sucks."

Inadvertently, thousands of supervisors and managers set themselves up to fail as leaders because they don't know that the new occupation called "leader" requires different skills and behaviours than what created success for them in the past. So what exactly are the differences from the old job to the new? How can you avoid becoming one of the disparaged? Here are four aspects that are crucial to keep in mind.

Accomplishment is defined differently

First, understand that your job satisfaction becomes more vicarious and intangible. In the past, you could take a task from beginning to end and enjoy the gratification that came from a job well done. And you might have even been publicly or privately recognized for your efforts. As a leader, satisfaction now comes from watching members of your team take projects from start to finish, and rather than receiving recognition, it's your job to give it. Your sense of accomplishment must now come from seeing others grow and develop, or sometimes, simply from surviving a business crisis with a minimum number of casualties.

Your key resources are now your people

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Your technical knowledge and your top-notch analytical skills are no longer critical to your success; your key resources are now your people. And sadly, the unfortunate truth is that your people won't always do things the way you think they should. Yet, ironically, your success is evaluated on the basis of how your individual staff members perform. Even if you have team members who are not performing up to par, the process to replace them is time-consuming; it takes energy and effort to work through problems and arrive at acceptable solutions. True, it is a frustrating paradox to find yourself in, but it is a reality of leadership. And the sooner you come to terms with it – and develop strategies to manage it – the better. Which leads right to the third important aspect of this occupational change.

Your issues are now more long-term and ongoing

Primarily because your key resources are people, most issues you will face will no longer be quick fixes. It's no longer a matter of correcting a formula or removing a process bottleneck. Managing people issues – whether it's sub-par performance, chronic tardiness, or frequent negativity – takes time. Weeks and months of effort will often only produce infinitesimal positive change. And sometimes it will feel like you are on a treadmill with no stop button. Face it, developing people is an endless and often tiring process. But, it is also immensely satisfying. The secret to success is to find ways for the latter eclipse the former.

You will experience the tightrope phenomenon

Finally, realize that there will be times when you will feel like you are caught between a rock and a hard place, something I call the tightrope phenomenon. Unless you're the top dog in your company, chances are that you report to one or more senior levels of management, all of whom have certain expectations of you. Not surprisingly, so do your staff. The trouble arises when those expectations do not match, which unfortunately will happen often. You will find yourself trying to balance on a tightrope, striving to meet organizational goals yet still fairly representing the obstacles and challenges faced by your employees. Invariably, in your attempts to please both parties, you will satisfy neither. Increased communication, in both directions, while never completely eliminating the tightrope phenomenon, will diminish and reduce its impact.

Merge Gupta-Sunderji (@mergespeaks) is a speaker and author who turns managers into leaders, drawing upon her over 17 years of first-hand experience as a leader in corporate Canada. Reach her at www.TurningManagersIntoLeaders.com.

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