Building a Top 20 Workforce: How Bad Management Becomes a Big Problem

Editor’s note: Each Tuesday here at TLNT, Dr. Wendell Williams will detail the seven different obstacles that need to be addressed by management before any organization can achieve and build a Top 20 workforce.

Who among us has seen high performing individual contributors promoted to management and becoming crash-and-burn managers?

For example, exceptional sales people promoted into terrible sales managers, or solid middle managers promoted to executives who could not see the forest for the trees? These are all examples of trial by promotion.

Earlier in this series I discussed the The Peter Principlewhere people are promoted based on performance in their last job, continuing until they reach a level of incompetency where they remain. Bad management can be a powerful impediment to achieving a Top 20 workforce.

The source of job dissatisfaction? Usually managers

In fact, when I am asked to install a high-performance pre-hire screening system I will often ask about managerial skills. Why? Can you imagine what will happen when highly motivated, highly skilled employees meet old-school managers who expect to be the “boss?” Can you spell t-u-r-n-o-v-e-r? How about u-n-i-o-n-i-z-a-t-i-o-n?

We all know this from firsthand experience, but research has shown the most frequent source of job dissatisfaction is an employee’s manager. Bob Hogan’s research into dysfunctional leader-behavior shows that  70 percent of people holding management positions have limited ability to manage. My own observations are even worse.

Before we get into a heated discussion about leadership vs. management definitions, I would like to mention that I earned a management degree from Purdue, an MBA from Pitt, and spent a few years working among the faculty at VCU.

Professors who taught management in all three schools could quote chapter and verse from dawn to dusk, but few had any real-life knowledge of what it took to either manage or work in an organization. Even fewer knew that B-school theory seldom transferred into real life activities. The only ones who seemed worth their salt were faculty who worked in the real world long enough to know the difference. But, back on topic…

Managers are born, not made

A person filling a management position requires a unique set of skills which few have. They include ability to diagnose performance problems, coaching skills, planning skills, organizational skills, integrity, cooperation, teamwork, conscientiousness, caring about subordinates, giving clear direction, and so forth.

You might note I did not mention “leadership.” This is because there is no such thing as a “leadership.”

I’m sure this will drive some trainers crazy, but think about it. Is executive leadership the same as mid-manager leadership, front-line leadership, military leadership? Of course not! Leadership is a result, not a behavior. It only happens when the right skills are used at the right time.

In a Top-20 world, managers know their role is to set objectives, coach subordinates, and get them the resources necessary to do the job. When I evaluate managers, I find marginally competent ones often share certain shortcomings. These include not confronting and coaching low performance, taking a “get better or get out” role, or an inability to ask questions that uncover and diagnose performance problems.

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From personal experience, I have worked for managers who wanted to track my every move, told me it was my job to always make the manager (who happened to be an incompetent fool) look good, and worked for a paranoid guy who stole intellectual property from his employers, to name a few.

Does C-Level = Catastrophe?

Managers tend to fail for different reasons as position power and responsibility increases.

Everyone knows stories about leaders who use shareholders, voters, or investor money to feather their nest, take travel junkets, use it for personal gain. Think of the many news stories citing politicians and executives behaving badly. You might even recall some arguing their sexual escapades with subordinates were their personal business.

Narcissist selfishness knows no boundaries. As applicants or candidates for promotion, narcissists look like the perfect executives: impressive, intelligent, engaging, and charismatic. That’s why so many make it to the executive suite. Underneath all that charm and intelligence, however, their inherent feelings of superiority and manipulation skills will eventually cost your organization dearly.

Management skills triangle

As responsibility increases, so does the skills to achieve them. Among C-level executives, the key elements are strategic thinking, personal charisma, and lack of narcissism. Among mid managers, the key elements are planning, organizing and implementing. At the first-line level, coaching and fact-finding skills are critical.

The point to remember is, as responsibility increases, so do increased demands for cognitive ability, planning skills, interpersonal skills, and positive motivators.


In case you missed the earlier parts of this series: