Managers are Born

how to become a manager

Of course managers are not born. But the way a number of new managers and their organisations carry on, you would actually think some people arrive as managers from the womb. There is this consciously and unconsciously emitted aura around a manager that seems to suggest that being a manager is the exclusive preserve of a rare about-to-be-extinct species from outer space. We have inadvertently (I hope) mystified the managers’ role and this is to the detriment of younger managers and their organisations.

Paradoxically, great built-to-last institutions create great managers but since organisations are aggregates of teams or units and each is led by a manager/supervisor, it means also that it is great managers that make up a great institution. Manager development is therefore a strong business imperative as we cannot execute strategy flawlessly and thus attain sustainable results without managers/team leaders.

Why? Because a manager sets the limits and the character for the team – remember that the apple never falls far from the tree. If we are going to have great managers, we certainly would need to review the mindset, the design and training behind manager appointments and development.

Of course managers aren’t born, so no one suddenly wakes up to find his or her establishment brimming with great managers. If we are going to consistently deliver great results we need to have machinery that consistently spews out great managers. But how would we have such machinery when it seems a lot of us miss out on one of the most important seeming-obvious-but-not-so-obvious points. Which is this – great managers are cultivated!

Cultivating managers is first a mindset, an art and then a science. I don’t know if you have noticed that many executive education courses have a programme for new mangers or new leaders. The one by INSEAD (a top business school based in France) is a three day programme costing upwards of four thousand euros. Also many organisations such as General Electric have elaborate two year programs for developing managers combining classroom training with assignments and on-the-job-rotations. Why go to such extents to develop leaders or managers? Isn’t being a manager an intuitive job – everyone knows what to do when they get there? Right? Wrong.

When we give the impression, by our actions and inactions, that being a manager isn’t rocket science we lose sight of a more obvious truth. Every person becomes a manager or supervisor after spending some time as an individual contributor. I don’t know if you remember the title of that book, Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus by John Gray. You can safely say that individual contributors are from Mars and managers are from Venus – it’s a whole new ball game. Going from leading yourself to leading others is a clear cut transition that must be recognised, guarded and actively managed.

This is how INSEAD’s Learning to Lead programme describes it,

“The transition from being a great individual contributor to being a leader of others is one of the most important and challenging career stages. If this first leadership transition does not go well, it often delivers a negative ripple effect that can dim future career prospects. The bad news is, more than 50% of first-time managers get lower performance evaluations as leaders, than they did as individual contributors. The good news is, when the transition goes well, it can produce positive career results that are amplified far into the future”.

How do people become managers?

How do people become managers? When you arrive in an organisation, you arrive as The Apprentice – working under a lot of guidance and management. A major skill at this stage is the ability to follow instructions. You also learn to take responsibility for your time and your work. As your skill, knowledge level and networks grows, your proficiency and results grow. You begin to get recognition for your work. It is at this point that you move into the Individual or Independent contributor phase.

As your credibility grows, so also does your responsibility over more work. You are then rewarded with a managerial role – you are given your own team or unit to manage. But mastering the art and science of effective management requires an additional set of skills – beyond what got you here. “This program will enable young leaders – recently promoted to people management positions to hit the ground running.

Most new managers are promoted for their excellence in technical skills. Being an effective people manager requires not only excellent technical skills, but also social and interpersonal skills” – New Manager’s Program at National University of Singapore. The wreck that a poorly developed manager can bring upon a team and therefore the organisation is incalculable.

The creativity and innovativeness of some apprentices and individual contributors has been stifled by some of these not-so-ready managers (NSR managers). This explains why some people left some of our organisations. Some of these managers forgetting that they have left their old roles sometimes actually begin to compete with their subordinates. Ask every new manager where their allegiance lies and they would tell you it is to their bosses. So eager to please these bossessome actions are taken that are injurious to the corporate body.

They resort to management by trial and error (MBTE). And you can be sure that you don’t want to be managed by a managerwho is using you as the guinea pig of his or her management development plan. Having no developmental resources of their own, many of these NSR managers default to the management and leadership style of their supervisor. Unknown to them this could well be the transfer of destructive management style from one generation to another.

For example some people still manage by divide and rule. This is the practice of consciously pitting people against themselves so that there isn’t unity on the team and everyone comes to you (the manager) to draw some leverage. Imagine what would happen if a NSR manager emerges from such a leader?

So how did we arrive here? This discourse isn’t positioned to point accusing fingers are anybody. Not the NSR manager, not executive management whom you would expect to know better, not human resources who definitely know better. The NSR manager is certainly not to be blamed as the system didn’t make a provision to help him or her make the transition through the individual contributor-manager gully.

Let’s just agree that we had all allowed a bad situation to persist. We all just need to square-up our shoulders and join forces to see how we can get out of this quicksand. The development of managerial talent should be one of the most important items on a CEO’s job description. But alas that isn’t so, particularly in our part of the world where CEOs and Board Chairs aren’t thinking of the longevity of the business. Instead people are seeking for ways to make the most incredible returns now and are thus blindsided from building an organisation that would outlive them and their children. If it is amongst the top three most important things on a CEO’s desk then it would also be top on the list for executive management members. That’s not the end of it.

Chief Human Resource officers or HR directors or group HR managers need to be reawakened to this crusade as well. Any HR professional intent on providing strategic partnership with the business, with a view to enhancing great business performance must make the development of managerial talent a chief priority of the entire organisation. Through design, systems development, training, policies and practices, we would need to install a development mindset and culture throughout the organisation. An in-exhaustive list of pointers is provided here.

Help New Managers Arrive as Students

Obviously the place to start is to admit that the individual contributor-manager transitionis a critical one. This ensures that every new manager arrives on the role as a student. As against arriving in the role as the-more-first-amongst-the-equals. The aura that says “I am in charge here” would be unnecessary if the focus of the new manager is to learn what it takes to do a great job of the new role. This change of focus is the tipping point.

Senior business leaders who are making recommendations for the promotion of their star employees from the independent contributor to manager must bear the responsibility for helping new managers or new supervisors’transition into this role with the proper mindset. This reminds me of the transition from secondary school to university/polytechnic. You stay in the secondary school (high school) getting one promotion after the other until you get to the final year. In recognition of your hard work and the good grades amassed you are then promoted out to the university.

If you arrive in the university feeling cool with yourself, feeling like since you made good grades while you were in the secondary school that good grades here would be a piece of cake – you are likely headed for disaster. Because success at this new level requires you to arrive as a student again. Being a student is that disposition of a person ready to learn, a person who admits that he/she may know a lot about other things but doesn’t know enough about this particular task. It creates an openness to listen and to seek to understand more broadly and more deeply. It imbues the new manager with a certain humility that would be useful for leading (not for bossing) a new team.

New Manager Integration program

Success is deliberate (TD Jakes). Each organisation, no matter how small, needs its own version of anew manager integration or onboarding program. “According to a recent survey, only 40 percent of executives are considered outstanding managers. How can companies build a strong, deep bench of talent and improve this statistic?

By investing from the start in developing the new manager’s potential and teaching the skills required to be strong, capable managers and leaders”( should start before people get into managerial roles and should continue some months (6-12months) upon resumption of office. It would consist of in-class training, laced with projects and assignments. This goes on with each new manger being placed under the guidance of a mentor.

Specific New Manager Competences to Build

What are some of the specific competences that a new manager needs to develop? The New Manager Programat the Grenoble Ecole de Managementsays it “aims at giving newly appointed managers the tools and methods to succeed in their mission and to guarantee a smooth transition to a management position”. We can glean from their program modules some of the skills a new manager needs to grow.

  1. Self-Analysis, Interpersonal Skills and Leadership. Asking and answering questions such as: What is my new role as a manager? What will change and how do I adjust to this new position?What are the different management styles and how do I relate to them?What will change in the relationships with my former colleagues?
  2. Understanding Corporate Strategy and Change Management. The new manager needs to learn about: Relaying the corporate strategy and explaining the strategic direction; Understanding and managing the impact of the corporate strategy on the team’s environment; and Leading & accompanying change.
  3. Using the Manager’s Toolbox. Tools such as Planning and organizing tasks: delegation and control, measure of performance, feedback and reward; Building a winning team: motivating and inspiring, giving feedback about performance, recruiting and promoting; Communication: making your message clear, analyzing different ways managers communicate, managing conflict.

In their case, INSEAD’s Learning to Lead programme focuses on teaching new managers five key managerial roles:

1) Innovator: engaging others’ innovative ideas.

2) Director: effective goal and expectation setting.

3) Motivator: inspiring and motivating others.

4) Enabler: supporting performance and removing roadblocks and

5) Coach: developing individuals and building teams.

Manager Development now a KPI (Key Performance Indicator)

Senior executives should be measured on their contribution to managerial talent development. Recall that what you don’t measure you can’t manage and what you don’t measure doesn’t get done. Listen it is possible for all of us to get caught on with the desire to just make the numbers.

Then whose responsibility is corporate preservation? It should be borne by all but it starts from the C-suite. Senior execs should be charged with deepening the managerial bench strength. The cliché is right that there is no success without a successor. As a General Manager how many people have you invested your time to develop, groom and support?

Different Developmental programmes for Different levels

As managers move up the ladder from one level of leadership to the other, it behooves us to create developmental programmes suited for the type of challenges they would encounter. A cursory look at the Harvard Business School executive education course bouquet would show this as well.

There is the General Manager programme, and this is different from the programme for High Potential Leadership or even the Advanced Management Development programme. In essence we should institute ‘rite of passage’ developmental programmes that are compulsory for persons entering into different levels of leadership. Managers or/and leaders are not born, so we should teach and continue to hand-hold people as they move from one level to the other, only then would we be able to preserve today’s wealth or shield our organisation’s from unforeseen circumstances.