Henrietta was an ace software engineer: developer, problem solver, speaker at conferences. She was known throughout the industry for her brilliance. She was so brilliant, in fact, that the Company promoted her to manager because they thought so highly of her and were afraid of losing her!
At first, Henrietta was thrilled to be recognized and rewarded for great work in this big and visible way. She loved getting to take on the toughest, most interesting challenges. And now, as manager, she was able to assign work – so she got to assign the most interesting and challenging projects to herself. She also loved making sure that everyone on her staff did things the right way (her way). She was excited that she finally had the authority to make it so. And that’s when the trouble started.
Henrietta repeatedly told her staff members what to do and how to do it. Some of these people had been doing the work for a very long time and were also considered to be experts. She figured she got to tell them what to do since she was the boss. But for some reason, her staff members seemed to resent her direction and advice. She corrected them when they did things wrong (not her way) – and they really took offense. That wasn’t what she had expected. She had assumed they’s appreciate or at least accept her management. But, she figured that since they resisted learning from her, she’d just let them fail on their own. She withdrew from supervising or managing them at all, and just did what she considered her REAL work: tackling those tough challenges that she really loved. After all, wasn’t the whole point of getting promoted that you were able to do more of the things you loved and tackle the toughest tasks?
Well – no. That’s actually not the whole (or even the most important) point of being the manager. Unfortunately, too many times people get promoted just because they have outstanding technical skills and the employer doesn’t want to risk losing them. And too often, they don’t actually want to do the #1 job of a manager (or even supervisor): to manage and supervise people. When someone is promoted into a managerial position, they are paid more – because they are expected to take on that really tough job of people management.
So, how should an employer think about filling that all-important manager position? Consider these points – in this order:
- Clearly define the job requirements – placing people-management skills at the top.
- Use selection criteria that emphasize the ability to supervise and manage people. Technical skills should come second (even if it’s a strong second.)
- Once the person is hired, clearly state job expectations: people management should come first.
- Then, ensure that the manager’s performance is evaluated first on his/her ability to manage and supervise people.
Technical expertise is great – but that’s not the primary responsibility of managers. If you have a Henrietta on your staff, this employee with great technical skills, and you want to reward her or keep her from going elsewhere, what can you do other than promote her to manager? You can
- Create a Senior position, or an Expert position, or an in-house Consultant position where that person’s special skills can be used to their maximum advantage without putting them in a position where they are required to supervise and manage people – something they don’t want to do and that is not their strength. (Yes, every once in a while there are technical experts who love and excel at people supervision and management as well. If you find one of those, do what you need to do to keep them!)
- Give the technical expert lead technical work – where she can be the lead on those complex projects without being saddled with people supervision or management.
Why is it so important to ensure that those whose strength is technical work (and not people management) not be placed in people management positions where they will fail? Here are just a few reasons:
- When Henrietta becomes a manager, she becomes a toxic employee: she makes herself miserable, and likely makes her staff members miserable.
- As a result, her work is very likely to suffer (even her technical work), and certainly her employees’ work will suffer: they’ll be thinking and talking about how awful she is – rather than spending all that energy on the work.
- Because she’s uncomfortable supervising and managing people, and isn’t good at it, she’ll likely spend more time (emotional time and real time, and work and outside of work) fretting about that, and so be prevented from doing the job at which she excels.
- Because she’s uncomfortable supervising and managing people, staff members who need a manager’s support, guidance, and supervision – or correction – won’t get it, and the employer will suffer.
Finally, if you do find that you have promoted a Henrietta who can’t supervise or manage people – all is not lost!
- First, have an honest conversation as soon as you realize the problem exists. Admit your part of the fault in her hiring/promotion (if you were involved.)
- Encourage her to learn a new set of skills – people supervision and management. Offer classes, coaching, and support.
- Establish a clear set of expectations and a reasonable timeline to meet them.
- Document. Document. Document.
- If it doesn’t work out, figure out how Henrietta will leave her position with dignity, perhaps to return to a purely technical position where she can save face, go back to loving her work, and to making positive contributions to the Company.
Check out this great recent blog by Vu Le, “Nonprofit with Balls”, on the subject of dealing with employees who aren’t making it. Even if you don’t work in a not-for-profit organization, it’s a great blog!
We’d love to hear your thoughts, especially if you’ve ever worked with a Reluctant Manager. Let us hear from you! ~Daphne Schneider