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Leadership Evolution: How to Manage Managers

Hiring great managers isn't enough. As your business grows, if you can't manage your managers, you'll halt growth.
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Watch any youthful organization and you'll recognize a predictable leadership pattern at work: One visionary founder working with a bunch of high-energy, hard-charging "operator" types.

At this early stage of growth, the "operators" are expected to do whatever it takes to translate the founder's vision into reality, and they are often given a high degree of autonomy. Over time, the more successful of the operators become the "big dogs" of the organization. They build the myths and legends of extraordinary over-achievement: snatch victory from the jaws of defeat on a weekly basis, pull in customers and clients, improvise exceptional customer service daily, and build a deep pool of sweat equity with the founders.

And so, when the business needs to appoint its first real managers, guess who are the natural pick for those positions? The highly successful big dog operators, of course. 

It's at this point that the organization begins to experience its first growing pains.

What looks like a natural evolution (from founder-managed to manager-managed) instead becomes a stumbling point that slows--even halts--the organization's fast growth.

Why does this happen? Two reasons.

The first, simplest reason is that not all high-performers make good managers. Many big dogs either can't or won't delegate, turning that previous high-performer into a decision-making bottle-neck.

The second reason is harder to spot, but even more dangerous: Enamored with their success to date (and, often, not aware of any alternatives) the newly-appointed operator-managers attempt to replicate on a smaller scale the model that has successfully grown the business thus far, with disastrous consequences.

A high-performing salesperson, for example, once elevated to the position of sales manager, turns their team into a microcosm of the visionary/operator model, with themselves as the visionary head. Nothing wrong with that, in and of itself. Except down in the warehouse, the newly appointed warehouse manager is doing the same thing, as is the marketing manager, the admin manager, the HR manager and all the other newly promoted big dogs.

Before you know it, the previously smooth-running business has become a handful of fiefdoms, with each manager defending their own turf and operating with little coordination and much redundancy. Increasingly, we drop the baton from department to department and the customer suffers. Our reputation takes a hit, profitability and morale drops, and everyone is spending more and more time firefighting.

Fixing such a situation once it happens is very difficult--unravelling "battlefield promotions" is painful for everyone concerned. So, avoiding it in the first place is the best policy.

Here's how a growing business can avoid the descent into silos:

1. Recognize managerial skill. Appoint someone as a manager because they exhibit managerial skills, not because they consistently hit their operational targets.

2. Understand that there can only be one company. Ford Motor Company's CEO, Alan Mulally, spent years breaking down silos using the slogan "One Ford, One Team". You can avoid the need to do so by not allowing silos to form in the first place.

3. Understand that leadership evolution. As Marshall Goldsmith says, "What got you here won't get you there." A parenting technique that works with your two-year-olds will have limited impact should you persist with it when your children are teenagers. Same with business. You need to lead them differently as they grown and become more complex.

4. Mentor, model, teach, and reward "horizontal leadership." When appointing managers for the first time, it's easy to emphasize the "vertical" aspect of their new responsibilities--managing their direct reports. After all, that's the reason you're appointing them in the first place: to manage others. Problem is, that's not where the main threat to the company lies. It lies in the new managers failing to work well together, horizontally.

5. Recognize that it's your job to mold the new managers into a team. Implicit in the act of appointing new managers is a fundamental shift in your own job description. As their leader, your primary deliverable is not to oversee each individual manager's activities (although that's an important secondary goal), but rather to mold the new team into just that--a cohesive team. 

IMAGE: Robbie Veldwijk via LinkedIn
Last updated: Sep 10, 2012




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