How Do You Help a New Leader When Leadership Doesn’t Come Naturally?

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Feb 18, 2014

As many of us know from experience, too often people are promoted because they are good at what they do, but not all high-performing individuals make good managers.

Companies need to know what to do about this situation since they promoted the person and are now responsible for this new manager’s training and leadership growth.

So, just how does a company manage a manager who can’t manage?

1. How do you avoid this problem in the first place?

Many organizations make this mistake in filling management positions. They place people in management roles because they have excelled in a functional role (sales, marketing, finance, operations, manufacturing, product development, etc.).

The transition is treated as a promotion, which encourages people to accept management responsibilities even if they have no interest or experience in managing people.

Everyone loses when this happens — the organization loses a top functional employee to the ranks of management; the newly minted manager is often less happy in the new role than the old; and the new manager’s direct reports suffer from having a poor manager.

2. What do you do if the manager can “do,” but not lead?

Each organization is different, but it starts with “what does leadership look like?” in his or her case. The executive team needs to be very specific about identifying the top 3-5 characteristics that are needed in their role for leadership. Then they need to relate this to specific actions they will need to take.

Another task is to help them see “leadership moments” as they arise in the work. It is a little bit of pointing the way but building a track record of “smaller” leadership actions is a way to transition from “doing.”

At a slightly higher level, there is talking with them about the difference between leading and managing. Without getting lost in semantics, leading is about direction and change and managing is about getting the job done.

The conversation should be conscious and explicit and should provide them about examples of the differences between the two.

3. Who is at fault and what is the solution?

In short, if an organization finds itself with managers who can “do” but cannot manage, it may be because the company hasn’t taken the time to identify people with management potential, train and prepare them for management roles, and mentor them when they first take on management responsibilities.

4. When should companies promote strong functional performers?

Best practices at top performing organizations are that they reward strong functional performers and keep them in their functional roles doing what they do best — unless they have the competencies (or show potential to develop them) needed to manage people well.

Organizations need to be clear about the competencies required to manage well and fill management roles based on those competencies rather than solely on how well someone has performed functionally.

5. What should you do develop those who are having problems managing?

The first step is to examine the problem to see if it is a systemic problem and, if so, address it at that level.

If the problem is not systemic, then there are two options:

  1. Provide training, coaching, and mentoring to the manager to help them become an effective manager. Most poor managers can become at least fair to good managers with time and practice; or,
  2. Put the person back into a functional role. This is often hard to do because it means admitting a mistake. However, if the person is a poor manager and has little desire to improve, this is the best solution for all.

6. How can you make sure they perform to their potential (as a manager)?

This is a three (3) step process:

  1. Clearly set expectations for the role and communicate what’s required to do the job well (competencies).
  2. Assess the person against the management competencies and discuss with the person where there are strengths and gaps; and
  3. Provide development support in the form of training, mentoring, and coaching.

Typically, this process works best with a clear development plan that is time bound (e.g., development goals with check-ins every 3-6 months.)

7. How can you make sure they perform to their potential (as a leader)?

One of the best ways to help people perform is being goal oriented. It starts with understanding “Where are they headed?” and “What do they want to do?” That gives a destination  — an objective.

Then, what are the goals one should tackle to get there?

Be specific and think about leadership and management competencies. It always helps to write-out the goals, so they are specific and achievable. For example, you have a senior director who wants to become a VP. Identify those VP characteristics and identify where to start.

With that ground work, another good technique is to go “real time.” This is coaching in the moment. e.g., you are working on a big project, and you and your group are presenting to some tough customers. If your person is working on presence, presentation, thinking on his/her feet, anything like that, talk about it in this real life situation. Want your staff to get a “gold star” for being real time? Have them prep before and debrief after; that helps make things stick.

8. What tools should you provide to help them do their “manager” job well?

  • Expectations – What results do the manager’s boss and the firm expect? How will the manager be measured (what criteria?)
  • The specific management competencies that have made top managers successful — If those competencies haven’t been gathered, then an informal list of management best practices in the firm will do.
  • A mentor or HR partner  — Someone who can help the manager identify strengths and gaps.
  • Targeted management training (to get at the gaps), internal mentoring, and coaching.

9. How can you manage managers’ behavior, not just their performance?

The manager’s boss needs to spend time with the manager; meaning they need to take on the role of coach for the manager. They must observe their behavior and problem-solve any issues with the manager.

For example, you might ask,  “I notice that you delegate very little to your employees, preferring to do the work yourself. What is the impact of this on you, them and the organization? What is inhibiting you from delegating? What would it take for you to delegate a big project to one of your top direct reports?”