“Managers are appointed, leaders are elected” | Column

By Mike Cook
For the Bellingham Business Journal

When I first got the idea to write a post with this title I wanted it to be profound, pithy, memorable and certainly tweetable. What I found in trying to write the piece is the title so says it all that there seems to be almost nothing left to write! Rats! Not much room for pithiness but it is a great title. So here goes anyway because I couldn’t imagine anyone reading just a title.

Intuitively you probably agree with the above quote. The words are those of Ian Tyler, CEO of an international construction contractor called Balfour Beatty. It is always interesting to me what different perspectives come from readings of the same material by a diverse set of eyes. My eyes are always tuned to picking up insights into patterns companies have developed that unwittingly undermine their expressed intentions to encourage a highly engaged workforce. Tyler’s words struck me as the kind of obvious wisdom almost any manager would agree with before launching into one of those “wouldn’t it be great if we lived in a perfect world, one that allowed us to choose just the right people for management, blah, blah, blah,” speeches. Nothing discounts profound knowledge faster than a “Yeah, but…”

It is certainly a matter of picking the right people for management but what does that mean? What are the criteria that indicate the greatest chance of success? I’ve lost track of the number of people who complain about the quality of their managers when they really mean they are missing leadership. When asked, these same people will answer sheepishly that they usually find themselves selecting a top performer for the vacant manager spot or the most technically knowledgeable candidate available so they will have someone filling the spot, since as we all know if the employees don’t have someone watching them they will run amok or just sit at their desks idly. But should we be in such a hurry?

“Gallup has found that one of the most important decisions companies make is simply whom they name manager…Gallup finds that companies fail to choose the candidate with the right talent for the job 82 percent of the time.” – Amy Adkins, writer and editor at Gallup

Are there some companies that do a solid job? Certainly. But based on my experience they seem to be few and far between. Why else would “my manager” be among the top reasons cited by employees leaving their positions voluntarily? In my career I can count on one hand the companies I have encountered where managers told me they felt well-prepared before receiving their first management assignment. The number of companies that do a rigorous job of succession planning for first management positions may be more numerous than my experience indicates (Gallup suggests otherwise) and I’d be happy to know more about that.

However, even when companies do a good job of selecting leaders—managers who have an understanding of how to become not only a leader of the people they manage but also a leader among peers and superiors—I think the recognition that their position as leader is granted by their audience is truly rare.

Case in point: I interviewed a young manager last week who was struggling in his role as a leader, his superiors said. It didn’t take long to establish that he is exceptionally bright and one day may become both a solid manager and a good leader. But not yet! In a period of maybe 30 minutes I heard at least five examples of how smart the manager was and how effective he would be if people would just listen to him. I recommended an immediate coaching engagement because this situation already smelled of burnout and it had only been 11 months since his appointment to manager.

To just wrap this up quickly for now I suggest you refer your managers to this little piece I found while searching last night. It is called “Connecting as a Leader” and it was written by Ivy N. Carter. It is a sweet little bit of personal wisdom and experience that I am sure almost any manager would benefit from.

 Are you trying to lead without preparing your audience?

 Do you know someone who is struggling because they think their title confers leadership on them?

Mike Cook lives in Anacortes. His columns appear on BBJToday.com every other Tuesday. He publishes a semi-weekly blog at www.heartofengagement.com and also facilitates a monthly business book reading group at Village Books.

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