Q&A with Bruce Tulgan: Top Management Challenges

Structured one-on-one communication is the key to effective management.

By Interview by Donna M. Owens

0914cover.jpgBruce Tulgan expects people to be intrigued by the title of his latest book, The 27 Challenges Managers Face: Step-By-Step Solutions to (Nearly) All of Your Management Problems (Jossey-Bass, 2014). Indeed, the renowned business author and advisor, who has worked with leaders and managers at Wal-Mart, Aetna, the U.S. Army and the YMCA, notes that people often ask why he talks about 27 challenges instead of some other number.

Tulgan, founder and CEO of Rainmaker Thinking Inc., a management research and consulting company in New Haven, Conn., explains that, after learning from hundreds of thousands of managers over two decades’ worth of research, the same 27 basic challenges come up over and over again.

What are some of the top challenges all managers face?

Maybe it’s the superstar who the manager is afraid of losing, the slacker the manager can’t seem to motivate, the employee with an attitude problem or the two who can’t get along. Regardless, when things go wrong in a management relationship, the common denominator is almost always unstructured, low substance, hit-or-miss communication.

What’s wrong with the way most managers manage?

They don’t realize that they are stuck in a vicious cycle. They are “managing on autopilot” until something goes wrong. When you operate in this way, something almost always goes wrong. Then when problems arise, managers get more involved—what the book refers to as “firefighting”—and communication becomes more heated and urgent. So most managers cycle back and forth between autopilot and firefighting.

What do the best managers have in common?

Relentless, high-quality communication. They consistently engage every direct report in an ongoing, highly structured, content-rich, one-on-one dialogue about the work that person needs to do. When managers consistently make expectations clear and provide candid feedback for every individual every step of the way, the result is measurably better business outcomes, including improved employee performance and morale and increased retention of high-performers.

What advice would you give to new managers?

Learning must become your strength. From day one, stake it out and use it. The first order of business is to get up to speed with everything and everyone by learning the nuts and bolts of the job.

The big challenge—no matter how much experience you bring to the table—is that you are brand-new to this role. You have a huge learning curve: You need to master your new job, which can mean relearning everything you already know from another perspective. You must learn about a whole new cast of characters and the jobs of every one of your new direct reports. On top of all that, you might need to learn about a new organization or industry. I’ve seen so many new managers—and plenty of experienced ones—hesitant to assume command decisively at the outset.

Outside the office, should a manager be friends with employees who report to her?

If you are taking over a team on which you have been a member, it’s very likely that you may have already formed friendships. Sometimes the friendship predates the work relationship. Either way, it can be hard to separate your role as the new boss from your role as friend. But that’s exactly what you must do. As tempting as it might be to pretend you are still just a member of the team, you have to accept that you are in a different role now.

Donna M. Owens is a freelance writer based in Baltimore.

Job Finder

Find an HR Job Near You
Post a Job


Find the Right Vendor for Your HR Needs

SHRM’s HR Vendor Directory contains over 10,000 companies

Search & Connect