Your Worst Managers are Driving Away Your Best People

The Hidden Cause of Your Retention Woes

One of our clients recently asked us to conduct a 2-day retreat based upon the concepts in the book “First, Break All the Rules”. (see my review). It’s a very interesting book that has inspired me to jot down my thoughts on what I see as one of the most serious gaps in the effectiveness of many of the organizations that we work with in our practice. One of the basic premises of the book is that there are three sources of expertise that any employee brings to the job. Namely talent, knowledge and skill. Knowledge and skill are learnable. Talent, the author claims, is inborn. No matter how much you work on improving an employee, if their natural talents do not match the job, they will not excel. The trick is to match people with the right combination of talent, knowledge and skill to the right job.

One of the places I see the most evidence of this is in the ranks of managers. More often than not, people are promoted to the management level for their skills at “doing” jobs or “getting things done”. This is usually a testament to their productivity and talent in a particular area of expertise. What’s often missed in the rush to promote these people is that there is little correlation between the ability to produce and the ability to manage. It would be like promoting one of your marketing people to the position of chief scientist. Everyone seems to understand that this would simply not work, but for some reason the position of “manager” is considered to be something that anyone of reasonable intelligence, drive and initiative (demonstrated by their productivity) would be able to handle.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The position of “Manager” is every bit as technical as the position of “engineer”, or “geologist”. In fact, it requires an even deeper talent, one that cannot be learned in school. This is the innate talent of managing people, understanding their internal motivations, keeping them happy and optimally challenged, giving them exactly what they need (different for each individual) and generally keeping the human machinery greased and maintained.

Famous Canadian author Margaret Atwood tells the story of a man whose hand went up at a speaking engagement. He commented, “I’ve always thought that, when I retire from medicine, I’m going to write a book.” Ever the quick wit, Atwood came back in a snap: “That’s funny, I’ve always thought that when I retire from writing I’m going to become a brain surgeon.”

(Need I say more?)

The current crop of business magazines laments the “leadership gap”, saying that there are simply not enough good managers/leaders out there. My guess is that there’s probably a lot of unrecognized leadership and management talent out there that hasn’t had the chance to prove itself in actual leadership or management positions.

In another article published by Mercer Human Resources Consulting, they assert that the main reason that people give for leaving a company is “difficulty working for their direct supervisor”. Apparently, if you’re having difficulty retaining staff, it’s your managers and supervisors that are largely responsible for the hemorrhage. And here’s the kicker…wait for it…the people who leave are the ones who are most confident about getting a job elsewhere. Your most talented people. The ones who are being head-hunted by your competition. The ones you’ll likely need to bring back later as consultants and contractors to get the job done.

So it seems that the best way to increase retention is to have excellent managers and supervisors. Thankfully there are some things you can do:

    • Find ways to accurately identify those with management and leadership talent and get them into these positions.
    • Be honest with the managers who simply aren’t suited to the job and move them into a well compensated technical stream where they can continue to advance in what they do best. They’ll be happier and you’ll be happier.
    • Work with the managers who are struggling but have potential. They will often have latent talents that simply need to be exposed and recognized.

A talented consultant can identify the hidden management gems in your organization and prepare them for leadership positions. Some of the techniques are:

    • Experiential Leadership Development Programs.
    • Experiential learning and self-assessment.
    • One-on-one assessments.
    • 360 degree feedback.
    • Observation in simulated leadership situations.
    • Coaching.

Managers that are struggling may just need help to  unlock their latent management and leadership talents. These are often hidden by “personality blocks” such as the need to look infallible, fear of making a mistake or discomfort with being vulnerable. Once this block is eliminated, the manager’s full talents can blossom.

We’ve seen amazing results when this is approached properly. We can help.


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