Why Most Managers Are Stuck - by John L. Davis
Consider the following factually based scenario: A team in the company needs a new manager. The most competent individual contributor on the team is promoted. After several years in the position, he still hasn't fully transitioned into the manager role. People on the team lament, "We lost a great individual contributor and gained an awful manager." This scenario plays itself out thousands of times a year in companies throughout the United States and Canada.
Research-based training firm ConceptReserve recently released findings from "The Transition to Manager: Why Most are Stuck," a study that included data from 2,600 managers from 149 companies and based on assessments by more than 19,000 people during a five-year period.
The data revealed 9 percent of these managers were still acting as individual contributors; 66 percent were stuck somewhere in the transition; and 25 percent were fully functioning and effective in their manager role.
Tracking these managers over a 12- to 18-month period after the initial assessment, it became clear most managers underestimated the complexity, difficulty, time and effort involved in making the transition to manager. The study exposes a problem of epidemic proportions.
According to the data, many managers have not completed this critical transition five, 10, 15 and even 20 years after being promoted. The vast majority of managers today appear to be stuck somewhere in the middle of the transition, and only a small minority make significant progress in the five-year period after being promoted.
Part of the problem lies in how talent managers think about this important transition in the first place. Most see it as stepping out of one role - that of an individual contributor - and into a new one. The implication is this transition takes place fairly quickly. But the research shows this often does not happen.
Making the transition from individual contributor to manager is like traveling a long mountain path that winds back and forth, and up steep grades with abrupt drop-offs. It takes great effort to keep moving forward, and there are many challenges, hazards, detours and distractions. Research shows:
a) High performance as an individual contributor is a poor indicator of success in completing this transition.
b) Age, experience, tenure and the promotion itself have little positive impact.
c) Transitions are nonlinear and messy.
To better understand this journey from the manager's perspective, the study asked more than 1,200 managers to describe the most difficult challenges they faced making the transition to manager.
Anyone who has struggled with managerial responsibilities knows these challenges are very real. But early in discussions with the study pool, it became obvious most of the challenges are symptoms of more fundamental issues. This led to an examination of the roots of those challenges, which then revealed many underlying assumptions managers make about their role. The Psychological and Behavioral Shifts
Six core assumptions often fatal to the managerial transition were identified. While the assumptions are fairly descriptive and don't require much clarification, these and others like them are at the heart of what Harvard Business School Professor Linda Hill refers to as the "profound transformation" an individual must make to become an effective manager in her book Becoming a Manager: How New Managers Master the Challenges of Leadership.
These assumptions describe the mindset of most individual contributors, but that individual contributor perspective has to change for an individual to successfully complete the transition to the manager role.
This change is a psychological shift in perspective and thinking. Essentially, the person moves from an exclusive focus on his or her area of expertise to a broader, more inclusive approach. This approach integrates other areas of expertise with relevant business, process and relationship issues to create more effective solutions.
A behavioral shift also is required for a manager to complete the transition. Study data helped researchers identify the most critical behaviors organizations need their managers to perform, but at a macro level, the behavioral shift involves moving from focusing on managing oneself to taking responsibility for others and involving others inside and outside of the manager's group.
Psychological and behavioral shifts can be made if a manager is given the right tools and gets the right kind of help. Very few managers will make this shift without such support.
The Transition Irony
One of the fatal assumptions many managers make is, "Competent people do not need help." Data substantiates the fact that managers who fail to make the transition or get stuck somewhere along the way are not incompetent, nor are they stupid or lazy. Most of them are extremely competent in the area of expertise for which they were originally hired.
The irony is the manager's competence in his or her area of expertise is the biggest reason why the transition to manager is so difficult. Maintaining a narrow focus on one's area of expertise and not thinking more broadly becomes the biggest impediment to successful transition.
However, most of today's organizational leaders see the manager transition problem as a competence issue and try to solve it by offering skills training. While this is a logical approach, it focuses on the wrong issue.
Successfully transitioning into the manager role is not dependent on improving management expertise, but rather on changing one's focus.
Developing management skills is important and helpful at the appropriate time, but this type of training will do little to facilitate the transition if emphasized too early in the process. In fact, overemphasis on a manager's skill development without addressing the required psychological and behavioral shifts first will quickly grind the transition to a halt.
Albert Einstein once said: "The significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them." This is not only true for managers trying to make the difficult transition from individual contributor to manager, but also for anyone attempting to understand, measure or facilitate this transition. Talent managers need a new way to think about this problem and a new approach to solve it.
One approach based on the Four Stages of Contribution model describes how professionals in large organizations are expected to contribute. This model builds on "The Four Stages of Professional Careers," a multi-year study of several large organizations conducted by Gene Dalton, Paul Thompson, former Harvard Business School professors.
Stages of Contribution describes how professionals contribute in fundamentally different ways at each stage of their careers, as well as how they need to transition from one stage to the next as expectations for their roles and contribution to the organization change over time. This framework can help managers understand the functions their organizational leaders expect them to carry out. It also provides them with a conceptual basis for the psychological and behavioral shifts necessary to making the transition. Five Key Transition Elements
The study results suggest there are five key elements critical to helping managers through this transition. First, managers need an accurate assessment of where they are along the transition continuum. This includes an analysis of the individual contributor behaviors they are struggling with, as well as the broader manager-like behaviors they already have mastered.
The second element is training to clarify the manager's current perspective and approach, compare it to a more workable perspective and approach and help the manager create a plan that incorporates the psychological and behavioral shifts required to complete the transition.
Third, the manager needs to apply this new perspective and approach to how he or she works. Managers need to scope out their work from a much broader perspective.
They also need to redefine their role as orchestrating the individual areas of expertise required with the business, process and relationship factors important to deliver value to internal and external clients.
The fourth element involves finding the right kind of support. The study data highlighted the crucial role the transitioning manager's own manager plays in a successful transition. In order for the manager's manager to provide the right kind of support, that person needs to complete his or her own transition. Further, that person needs to know how to coach effectively and how to hold direct reports accountable. This requires regular information on how the transitions of those direct reports are progressing, as well as information on how they are approaching their work.
The fifth and perhaps most critical element to the success of a manager's transition involves tracking progress over time. This can be accomplished by conducting assessments at regular intervals to provide accountability and show progress.
The transition to manager involves taking a much broader approach. It involves dealing with the broader business and technical issues, learning how to use business processes to accomplish work, developing greater capability inside the manager's group and building broader relationships across the organization.
Helping individuals start and complete the transition to manager increases managerial effectiveness and satisfaction, as well as engagement levels, productivity and satisfaction of the individuals in the manager's group.
In fact, when a manager moves all the way through the transition, his or her average organizational contribution level likely will double or triple. That's impossible to match when the person is stuck.
[About the Author: John L. Davis is the president and CEO of ConceptReserve, a research-based training firm.]