What Happens When People Are Promoted To Management When They Can’t Manage People.

Manager can't manage people

When I began working in the area of soft skills back in 2008 there were two groups of people that initially came to me. One group was young professionals who were highly qualified academically who had graduated 3-4 years previously. They were seeing colleagues, who were nowhere near technically qualified as they were, getting the opportunities and promotions ahead of them. They were bewildered, disillusioned, even angry. They were unaware that the reason their colleagues were being given more opportunities for growth than they were was because they had well-developed soft skills, that they related well with others, worked well in a team and managed conflict well, to mention a few of the skills they had.

The second group I was working with were the Marks that I talk about below. These were the technically expert people who were promoted to management because of their technical expertise but couldn’t manage people.

That was 11 years ago and given the coaching I am still engaged in and the extensive concern across organisations, HR and recruitment agencies globally, both these issues are still a problem. So when last week I had a CEO come to talk about what to do about the Mark in his company, I recalled this very popular blog post I wrote in 2016. I have reproduced it here and next week with tell you what strategies the CEO and I decided he could try with his Mark to develop his leadership.

Here is My 2016 Blog Post

If you are that person or if you were the leader who promoted that person or if you are the technically skilled expert who wants to move into management, then this is for you.

Mark has technical skills your organisation cannot afford to lose. No one else in the organisation has his level of expertise. You really want him to focus on bringing that expertise to research and development, enhancing the product development and service delivery in the organisation. Mark, however, has been wanting to move into management for the past 18 months, saying that having been with the organisation for 3 years at the same level, he deserves a promotion given his significant contribution.

You don’t deny any of that and you are quite concerned that if you don’t grant that management promotion to him, he may seek it elsewhere. So what do you do? You make him a manager. What happens next is an organisation’s worst nightmare.

Because Mark is highly skilled technically, he believes that his management will be assessed on how successful he is at getting his team members to produce work at the same high criteria he has set for himself at a technical level. He becomes the command and control leader. He micro-manages his people to make sure the work is getting done. If it’s not done, he puts significant pressure on them to work back to get it done, using fear as a motivator. He sets and imposes his standards and monitors each team member to see they are being met.  He becomes angry when anyone slips up or doesn’t meet deadlines and then if things don’t go the way he wants them to he can be moody for days at a time. He barks orders at his team that verge on bullying and harassment.

For the first 6 months, the team’s output and results are significant and that confirms to Mark that he is a good manager and that his style is just what is needed. He believes that you can’t trust people to perform at a high level without monitoring what they are doing, and making them keep their heads down and checking their output on a regular basis to ensure they are meeting expected targets and using their time productively. His results confirm his belief, he thinks. His team accept his leadership style even though they don’t like it because Mark was introduced to the team by the CEO who spoke highly of his expertise and skills and no one wanted to be seen to contradict that by complaining.

It all then began to change however. A talented team member seen as a prospective leader resigns to take up another job. She doesn’t implicate Mark even though he is the main reason for her departure. One respected team member goes higher up to make a complaint about Mark and reveals the low morale and discontent in the team. A few months later, two go off on stress leave and cite Mark as the reason and the insurer asks the organisation what it is going to do about Mark. Two more cite their commitment to the organisation and ask to be moved to another department because they cannot work with Mark. There is a noticeable increase in absenteeism in the team. The team appears to be disintegrating.

In fact, what has happened is devastating for Mark. All his professional life he has been a success story, highly acclaimed for his technical expertise, always working at the cutting edge. Now, for the first time in his life, he experiences himself as a failure. Initially he denies responsibility and turns it back on the lack of commitment and expertise in the team that he has inherited. He may or may not later become aware of what has happened.

So What Has Happened In This Common Situation?

Mark does not make the transition from doing the work of a team member to managing the team. He is no longer doing the job he loves, instead he is training the people he manages to do the job he loves and they will never, in his eyes, do it as good as he does it.

He has spent his professional life investing in his technical skills and has not seen the importance of developing soft skills. His professional identity is completely tied to his technical expertise so why would he? He hasn’t kept himself up to date with the changing economy and the fact that organisations are now looking for people who know how to motivate and inspire people to high performance. They want people, especially in management and leadership, who have more rounded personalities, who have a wide range of skills and expertise, not just technical skills.

Let’s not blame Mark for all of this, however. He has been promoted not because he has been identified as having good management or leadership potential but because of his previous role as a technical expert of high standing.  It really does not make sense, when you think about it, to promote a technical expert to management and believe he would naturally be good at motivating people.

He was appointed to this position with no experience or training in leadership or management.

Even when his manager became aware he was having difficulties, and it was apparent that  team members were unhappy with his management style,  little was done. Because of that, the organisation was at risk of being left with a non-performing manager in Mark, while the prospective talented leaders of the future left because they could not work with him.

Mark’s manager hasn’t well-developed soft skills either. He delayed having that crucial conversation because he didn’t know how to have it in a way that would motivate Mark to want to change. Instead he feared that they would de-motivate him and he would leave. He cannot explain to him what the organisation wants from him. The manager cannot even articulate clearly what is wrong about what he is doing. It’s all fuzzy and confused so Mark is often not clear, even after the few short talks his manager has had with him, what he needs to do to change.

As well, his organisation does not have a structure for holding on to its technical experts, while at the same time advancing their careers, apart from advancing them into management for which they are often patently unsuited.

I see this happening constantly in my work. People are constantly telling me: “Oh yes, we have people like that in our organisation.” These technical experts advanced into management without the skills to manage people were one of the groups of people for whom I wrote my book – Soft Skills – The Hard Stuff of Success back in 2012 (now out of print).

It is frequently difficult to get them to change, however, or even believe they need to, even when their leaders offer them coaching or mentoring opportunities to do so.

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