Viewpoint: The Truth About Managers and How to Improve Them


By Katy Tynan July 24, 2017
Viewpoint: The Truth About Managers and How to Improve Them

From the Association for Talent Development (ATD).

New managers typically don't know or have the fundamental skills to succeed. Let's change that.

Managers have a terrible reputation. In a survey, 32 percent of employees rated their boss as "horrible," more than 50 percent rated their boss a 1 or 2 on a 1-5 scale. Gallup found that about half of people who quit their jobs do so to get away from their managers.

You might be tempted to assume that management as a profession attracts annoying people. Or perhaps the nature of the role brings out the worst in otherwise kind, generous, and reasonable folks. There are more than 2 million managers in the United States, according to the latest data. Surely, not all are horrible people. In fact, of all the managers I have met through training programs, interviewed for articles and books, or worked with throughout my career, not one was trying to be a bad boss.

Most managers want to do a great job, but clearly not all of them are succeeding. OK, you say, maybe it's their employer's fault. Maybe they aren't trained or taught how to manage.

According to Bersin by Deloitte, U.S. companies spent a staggering $15.5 billion on leadership training, and that number has been growing every year. That sounds like a lot, but when we divide it by those 2 million managers, it comes out to just over $7,000 per person.

It's not that employers aren't investing at all in leadership development or that the people in management roles don't care. There's something else at work here that we need to dig a bit deeper to understand. There are some fundamental truths about management that make it hard to simply shift from a role without leadership responsibilities to one that has them.

Management requires different skills and habits

In many organizations, but most notably in the IT industry, senior leadership or HR will identify someone who is a great programmer or network administrator and put that individual on the management track. "Here's a great contributor," they say. "We need to keep her on the team. Let's give her a development plan and some incentives to become a team leader."

What would you do if you were given the choice between taking on a leadership role (that likely comes with a raise) and staying where you are? Most people take the promotion, even if they don't really want to be a leader. And when they get the new job, many of them don't enjoy it initially. Less than half of managers say they feel comfortable in their roles.

Managers are generally good people who want to be successful, and who are just as frustrated as their team members when they don't feel like they are doing it right. About one-third of employees aspire to become managers, which is quite a substantial number. Management is seen as a major career achievement, the path to a higher salary and more responsibility. Some people approach their promotion as if it will come with a box full of the tools they need to succeed.

What makes a great leader? Do you have to be born with some magical piece of DNA that gives you an innate ability to make people follow you? While studies have differed on which inborn traits do or don't lend themselves to leadership success, they are all in agreement that the fundamental skills of management can be learned by anyone.

Management is not something you are born knowing how to do

New managers must understand that the habits that made them successful as individual contributors are not the same ones that will make them effective leaders.

Most new managers jump into their new role optimistically. They believe that all they have to do is work harder and stay on top of all the tasks for which their team is responsible. They aren't thinking about leading a team; they are thinking about keeping track of many tasks. It's easy to get sucked into feeling productive because you're so busy. But just because you're busy doesn't mean you're doing the right things.

The first big transition to thinking like a leader involves articulating a sense of shared purpose, or a vision. Consider the values that your team members have in common, and how your work contributes to the goals of the whole company. Having a clear understanding of that purpose and vision is the key to prioritization and resolving conflicts.

The second mindset change is the realization that you don't (and probably can't) know everything. Before becoming a manager, you might have been the foremost expert in a certain area. But once you make the transition, it's not about expertise; it's about your ability to help the experts on your team do their best work. Although we all sometimes wish we knew everything, as a manager that's not possible. It's also a recipe for becoming a micromanager. Managers most often need to focus on the what and not the how, which means leaving the details up to your team.

That leads to the third secret of great management. Although most people who become managers know that goals are an essential tool for tracking a team's progress, they sometimes overlook how important it is to not just have goals, but to align them with the vision and the needs of the people on the team. You can master the mechanics of setting and tracking goals, but they won't get you far if they aren't connected to the larger objectives of the team and the organization.

Goals are a little like ingredients when you're cooking. If you go to the grocery store and pick up a random selection of vegetables, you can throw them all in a pot with some water or stock, and you will end up with something that looks like soup. But if you want to make a specific kind of soup, you have to get the right ingredients, combine them with the right spices, and cook them for the right amount of time.

The fourth secret is that we all make mistakes. Sometimes it's a project that goes off the rails. Other times it's a tough day that makes you lose your cool when your goal as a manager is to have a calm and stable demeanor. Nobody is perfect, and putting pressure on yourself to be perfect, or feeling like a failure when you make a mistake, is not going to help you in a management role. Keeping your focus on learning from mistakes and fostering a culture of learning rather than a culture of blame are among the most positive changes you can make in your approach to leadership.

And finally, the fifth (but of course not final) truth about management: Leadership comes from mutual trust. Trust is the foundation upon which everything else is built. Your team members have to believe that they can trust you to keep your commitments, to tell them the truth, and to go to bat for them if need be. You have to trust that your team members are doing their best and that they care about the work they do and the team as a whole. When trust breaks down, it becomes almost impossible to achieve any goal, no matter how well-aligned or constructed it is.

Each year, hundreds of thousands of people take on their first management role. Some are excited, some are anxious, and some are confident that they are going to knock it out of the park. Not a single one of those new managers is hoping to become a horrible boss. But being a great manager requires changing some habits, and change can be hard. Management is not about following a specific set of rules or telling people what to do.

Everyone's experience will be different, but these five basic principles are the keys to success: vision, respect for the skills of others, aligned goals, learning culture, and trust.


Katy Tynan is currently managing director of CoreAxis Consulting, a talent strategy and e-learning and training firm based in Boston. She is the author of Survive Your Promotion! The 90 Day Success Plan for New Managers, and her most recent book How Did I Not See This Coming? A Manager's Guide to Avoiding Total Disaster, which will be published later in 2017 by ATD Press. Katy will also be presenting at ATD's TalentNext conference this November.

This article is reprinted from with permission from ATD. C 2017 ATD. All rights reserved. 


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