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Ask Manager Candidates: Do You Really Want to be a Leader?

PODCAST PERSPECTIVE: In the August 2023 People + Strategy podcast, author Adam Bryant said that before people take managerial roles, they need to think twice about their 'why'—and organizations should help with that introspection.

A woman giving a presentation to a group of people.

Your best sales rep, Megan, is having another excellent year when the top sales manager position opens up. Based on her sales record, the executive team assumes Megan would be perfect for the job and offers it to her right away. Craving the bigger paycheck and fancy title, Megan eagerly accepts. But three months into the job, she misses the rush of her sales calls and is struggling to deal with all the managerial minutiae and employee squabbles.

"What happens in a lot of organizations is that there's this momentum, this inertia that just carries people along almost like a river. 'You're a high-performer, so of course you want to be a manager. Of course you want to be a leader,' " said Adam Bryant, the former Corner Office columnist at The New York Times and a managing director of The ExCo Group, during the August 2023 episode of the People + Strategy podcast. "But I don't think people on either side, whether it's the company or the individual, say, 'Wait a minute, do I really want to do this? Do you really want to do this?' "

Individual performers may have a vague concept of the managerial role, Bryant said, but "you don't really know until you get into these jobs. And then you do discover, wow, that most of your day is dealing with people problems and putting out fires. They're stamina jobs."  

Asking the introspective questions is more important these days—on both sides of the table—because the role of manager has become more complex in recent years, particularly in dealing with remote workers and a host of new technology transformations.

"I always encourage people to be very honest with themselves about why they want to lead. Because if you're clear about your personal 'why,' it will help you navigate the tough parts," said Bryant, who is also author of the new book, The Leap to Leader: How Ambitious Managers Make the Jump to Leadership (Harvard Business Review Press, 2023). "If your answers are for the money or power, those aren't really the right answers, because the world has changed, the whole power command-and-control thing doesn't really play anymore. Yes, there are financial rewards, but there's just so many sacrifices and trade-offs that the money may not feel like it's worth it."

HR and hiring managers can help candidates for managerial roles slow down and consider their "why" by asking those type of introspective questions in the interview. You'll also avoid a bad hiring fit by providing a reality check on the specific, day-to-day tasks of the managerial position (warts and all) and by pointing out other potential career paths for individual performers within the organization.

Next Question: Who Are You as a Leader?

After employees do take on leadership roles, the introspection shouldn't stop. But instead of asking, "Do I really want to lead?" they need to ask themselves this question: "Who am I as a leader?"

"A lot of people go through their entire career and nobody is ever going to ask you that," Bryant said. "But it's a really good investment of your time to come up with the answer for what are the values that are really important to you?"

By establishing what you stand for, you can create your personal leadership brand. Bryant suggests leaders be able to identify their three or four most important personal values as a leader and why these values are so essential. He recommends leaders share this information with their team and tell their story of how those values became important in their career.

"If you have that explicit conversation with your team, it helps with predictability," Bryant said. "If you just state, up front, 'These are the three things that are really important to me,' there's a little bit of a social contract there. You're saying, 'These are going to be important to me, even under pressure, even under stress.' And if you live those values, I think that sets a great tone, because then people can focus on the work instead of trying to figure you out as a boss."

More Takeaways from Adam Bryant in the People + Strategy Podcast:

"Reality is just source material." Bryant spoke about once asking a young CEO where she got her positive attitude. "Her five-word answer was burned into my brain. She said that 'Reality is just source material.' Her point was that, yes, we go through life experiencing stuff, but we are always editing our own films of our life and deciding what story to tell ourselves about our experience. And this is a choice that we're making at every moment of every day. … So it's a super handy tool to step outside yourself and almost be a mentor or coach to yourself. Just maybe to check your own thinking like, 'Is there another way to think about that?' "

Embrace the ability to compartmentalize. "When you move up into these senior leadership positions, you're making tough decisions all day long. There's often no right or wrong answer, and almost every decision you make is probably going to make somebody unhappy. And so the reality is that you have to be able to keep things in perspective. Because if you have too much empathy and you're worried about the consequences on people and the impact of your decisions, you're going to internalize that and be staring at the ceiling in the middle of the night. So, the mental skill of being able to compartmentalize is so important, and I honestly don't think we talk about it enough. It is a balance point, because leaders are always told they've got to have empathy, but you can have too much empathy."



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