Why It’s Getting Harder to Find Great Managers
There’s a dirty little secret in companies: the pool of management candidates is thinning. Consider people like my entrepreneur friend who owns a software development shop, where his technical folks have no interest in management positions because they’d rather be creatively unencumbered. Or in Fortune 500 companies where women — and men — are opting out of promotion tracks so they can have more options. And certainly it’s evidenced in the frenetic rush to nail down succession planning in corporations around the globe.
Management used to be a coveted position, with numerous eager candidates jockeying for each slot.
The size of an executive’s team was a measure of success. Now you openly hear professionals bragging about not having to manage anyone.
Why has finding high-potential managers become so hard? Did employees lose their desire? Or have corporations systematically killed it? Consider these factors:
1) Lack of training.
Most managers learn their skills “on the job,” which essentially means “trial and error.” A December article in Harvard Business Review showcased research that the average age of first-time managers is 30 years old, while the average age of those in leadership training is 42. That means managers are leading others for a full decade before receiving training (if at all). Considering how much of our enjoyment is derived from feeling successful, you can understand why new managers find the job draining and unrewarding. This frustration can be a cautionary tale for those coming up the ladder behind them.
Americans work more hours than we have in our history, and more than any Western industrialized nation. Instead of making us more prosperous, middle class incomes have stagnated or decreased, and research shows that we’re less productive. We talk incessantly about work-life balance, with companies quick to advertise corporate flextime policies and high-end fitness centers. For most managers, it’s all window dressing. What’s demanded and expected of them is near total commitment to their jobs — despite convincing research that downtime is critical to creativity, strategic thinking, and happiness.
3) Unrealistic expectations.
Even at senior levels, when managers are more experienced, there’s a wide gap between what’s expected and what’s possible. According to Heidrick and Struggles CEO Kevin Kelly, the firm’s internal research show that 40% of senior executives are fired or pushed out after 18 months. We expect new recruits to affect considerable change at a fast pace, despite the fact that underlying cultural factors create significant headwinds. New hires can also get caught up in the “glow effect,” where they experience a honeymoon period during which their fresh ideas are widely applauded with limited constructive feedback. They are in effect put on a pedestal to eventually get thrown off into reality, backfiring in a morass of cynicism.
4) Virtual everything.
One of the most rewarding parts of management can be building camaraderie. This too, is becoming harder to obtain as managers lead increasingly virtual teams. While there are social networking tools out there to facilitate virtual teaming, they’re still not widely used. (Partially because they’re installed with scant training.) Managers miss the face-to-face interaction of in-house teams, and find it even harder to manage collaboration and accountability. As one director at a global consulting firm told me, her job primarily consists of sitting alone in her remote office on back-to-back conference calls with her geographically dispersed team members.
Restrictions on travel budgets have worsened the issue, with some managers not able to bring their employees together at all. Twenty years of research into virtual teams shows that face-to-face time is important to building effective teams — and critical in early formation. Virtual work has many virtues, but to be successful, managers need to have the leeway of managing in-person too.
5) One-size-fits-all support.
When companies do offer support for managers, rarely is it broken down by functional area, team stage, or experience. While there are similarities across all areas of leadership, the fact is that it takes a different approach to manage a team of 25-year old developers than 40-year old accountants. Leadership training is too often formulaic and generic, and therefore not nearly as relevant as it should be. Coaching programs are an improvement, but managers need to be able to choose a coach who they can trust, and who understands their unique position.
We need great managers, and we need to get serious about attracting and retaining them. Not only do we have complex problems to solve, we’re also about to see an avalanche of baby boomers retiring as they began hitting age 65 in 2011. The opportunity is there, let’s step into it.
Have you seen the management pool shrinking? Or have you taken yourself out of it? Comment here or @kristihedges.
Kristi Hedges is a leadership coach, speaker and author of Power of Presence: Unlock Your Potential to Influence and Engage Others. Find her at kristihedges.com.
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