Recently one of the HR newsletters that I receive had the headline, “Top-five Mistakes Leaders Make in Tough Times” which reminded me of something a mentor had said to me many years ago, “It is easy to look good as a leader when the times are good.” Truer words have never been spoken because it is the tough times that expose a manager’s weaknesses.
There was a terrible plane crash during the winter of 2009 in Buffalo, NY and the cause of the crash was just reported by the media recently as pilot error. According to the news there are actually recordings of both the pilot and co-pilot saying that they had never had to deal with ice on the plane’s wings and they would not know how to handle it. Unfortunately, on that cold snowy night, they had to deal with just that situation but, instead of knowing the right things to do, they did all the wrong things and 49 people died. Those two pilots were successful as long as there were blue skies but they were not equipped to handle stormy weather.
Just because those two pilots were trained to be pilots does not guarantee that they were good pilots and the same is true for managers. Just because a person is put into a management position does not mean that they have what it takes to be a good manager. And, unfortunately, a poor manager’s weaknesses sometimes do not surface until there is ‘stormy weather’ so, just when they need to ‘step up to the plate’, they take the wrong action or, even worse, ‘bury their head’ in the sand and do nothing.
It is not unusual for good workers to be promoted into a position of authority. It is perfectly reasonable that good workers should be compensated, but putting them in a management position is not always the best way to do this. Everyone is good at something but not everyone is good at managing. You have to possess the right character traits and the right amount of emotional energy needed to handle the work and to deal with people as a manager. And, different levels of management need a different character make-up. In my mind, there is an equation indicating what it takes to be a successful manager at different levels of responsibility. Here is how that equation works.
· First line supervisor: 20 percent managing/80 percent doing
· Middle-management: 40 percent managing/60 percent doing
· Upper management: 60 percent managing/40 percent doing
· Top management: 80 percent managing/20 percent doing
By the time a person reaches the top level of management, they must transition from being a worker bee into a person who can get others to do what is required. Many in management are unable to modify their character make-up and just try to work harder rather than smarter. In good times, when it may not matter, they do too much work themselves rather than stepping back to maintain an overview and identify potential problems. However, during the tough times, they may work even harder but not all their hard work can compensate for everything that is going wrong around them or they may not even notice it.
Let’s dissect ‘working smarter’ to find out what that really means. According to the dictionary, smarter means… “showing mental alertness, calculation, and resourcefulness, characterized by quickness and ease in learning, capable of independent and apparently intelligent action, quick and brisk.”
Therefore, we could characterize a smart manager as someone who is aware of how they interact with others and who works to continually improve how they deal with people. They learn quickly from mistakes and modify their behaviors in order to achieve an improved result in the next similar situation. They work independently but can also listen to trustworthy people who give good advice.
If a top-level manager becomes too involved in working, they lose perspective of what others need to be doing and who needs to be doing it. The most effective top executives hold subordinates accountable by asking them specific, pointed questions about their responsibilities. This forces employees to go the extra mile to make certain they are ready to deal with the ‘smarter’ top executive who puts them on the spot with tough questions. Penetrating questions permit the top executive to zero in on what he/she needs to know about a particular situation, which helps their decision making.
The ‘smarter’ top executive stays mainly on the sideline watching others do the work while they focus on the journey – what are the workers doing today and what do they need to do tomorrow to improve the organization’s situation. To become a smart top executive, one must transition from being hard working and close to the action to someone who keeps an overview of the present and the future. Making that transition is not easy but is doable.
John M. Beane
Staff Development Services