Saving Your Rookie Managers From Themselves

Editor’s Note: Saving Your Rookie Managers From Themselves by Carol A. Walker is an excerpt from HBR’s 10 Must Reads “On Managing People,” a compilation of Harvard Business Review articles.

By Carol A. Walker

Rookie managers have a real knack for allowing immediate tasks to overshadow overarching initiatives. This is particularly true for those promoted from within, because they’ve just come from the front lines where they’re accustomed to constant fire fighting.

As a recent individual contributor armed with plenty of technical know-how, the rookie manager instinctively runs to the immediate rescue of any client or staff member in need.

The sense of accomplishment rookies get from such rescues is seductive and far more exhilarating than rooting out the cause of all the fire fighting. And what could be better for team spirit than having the boss jump into the trenches and fight the good fight?

Of course, a leader shows great team spirit if he joins the troops in emergencies. But are all those emergencies true emergencies? Are newer staff members being empowered to handle complex challenges? And if the rookie manager is busy fighting fires, who is thinking strategically for the department?

If you’re the senior manager and these questions are popping into your head, you may well have a rookie manager who doesn’t fully understand his role or is afraid to seize it.

I recently worked with a young manager who had become so accustomed to responding to a steady flow of problems that he was reluctant to block off any time to work on the strategic initiatives we had identified. When I probed, he revealed that he felt a critical part of his role was to wait for crises to arise.

“What if I schedule this time and something urgent comes up and I disappoint someone?” he asked. When I pointed out that he could always postpone his strategy sessions if a true emergency arose, he seemed relieved. But he saw the concept of making time to think about the business as self- indulgent — this, despite the fact that his group was going to be asked to raise productivity significantly in the following fiscal year, and he’d done nothing to prepare for that reality.

Strategic thinking: a necessary skill

Senior managers can help rookies by explaining to them that strategic thinking is a necessary skill for career advancement: For first-time managers, 10 percent of the work might be strategic and 90 percent tactical. As executives climb the corporate ladder, however, those percentages will flip-flop.

To be successful at the next level, managers must demonstrate that they can think and act strategically.

You can use your regularly scheduled meetings to help your managers focus on the big picture. Don’t allow them to simply review the latest results and move on. Ask probing questions about those results. For example, “What trends are you seeing in the marketplace that could affect you in two quarters? Tell me how your competition is responding to those same trends.”

Don’t let them regale you with the wonderful training their staffs have been getting without asking, “What additional skills do we need to build in the staff to increase productivity by 25 percent next year?” If you aren’t satisfied with your managers’ responses, let them know that you expect them to think this way—not to have all the answers, but to be fully engaged in the strategic thought process.

Rookie managers commonly focus on activities rather than on goals. That’s because activities can be accomplished quickly (for example, conducting a seminar to improve the sales staff’s presentation skills), whereas achieving goals generally takes more time (for example, actually enhancing the sales staff’s effectiveness).

The senior manager can help the rookie manager think strategically by asking for written goals that clearly distinguish between the goals and their supporting activities. Insisting on a goal-setting discipline will help your new (and not-so-new) managers to organize their strategic game plans.

Critical but soft goals, such as staff development, are often overlooked because they are difficult to measure. Putting such goals in print with clear action steps makes them concrete, rendering a sense of accomplishment when they are achieved and a greater likelihood that they will be rewarded.

Managers with clear goals will be less tempted to become full-time tacticians. Just as important, the process will help you ensure that they are thinking about the right issues and deploying their teams effectively.

Giving constructive feedback

It’s human nature to avoid confrontations, and most people feel awkward when they have to correct others’ behavior or actions. Rookie managers are no exception, and they often avoid addressing important issues with their staff.

The typical scenario goes something like this: A staff member is struggling to meet performance goals or is acting inappropriately in meetings. The manager sits back, watches, and hopes that things will magically improve. Other staff members observe the situation and become frustrated by the manager’s inaction. The manager’s own frustration builds, as she can’t believe the subordinate doesn’t get it.

The straightforward performance issue has now evolved into a credibility problem. When the manager finally addresses the problem, she personalizes it, lets her frustration seep into the discussion with her staff member, and finds the recipient rushing to defend himself from attack.

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Most inexperienced managers wait far too long to talk with staff about performance problems. The senior manager can help by creating an environment in which constructive feedback is perceived not as criticism but as a source of empowerment. This begins with the feedback you offer to your managers about their own development. It can be as simple as getting them to tell you where their weaknesses are before they become problematic.

After a good performance review, for example, you might say to your new manager, “By all accounts, you have a bright future here, so it’s important that we talk about what you don’t want me to know. What are you feeling least confident about? How can we address those areas so that you’re ready for any opportunity that arises?”

You’ll probably be surprised by how attuned most high performers are to their own development needs. But they are not likely to do much about them unless you put those needs on the table.

Foster desire to achieve goals

More than likely, the feedback your managers have to offer their staffs will not always be so positive or easy to deliver. The key is to foster in them the desire to help their reports achieve their goals. Under those circumstances, even loathsome personal issues become approachable.

One of my clients managed a high-performing senior staff member who was notably unhelpful to others in the department and who resented her own lack of advancement. Instead of avoiding the issue because he didn’t want to tell the staff member that she had a bad attitude, the senior manager took a more productive approach.

He leveraged his knowledge of her personal goals to introduce the feedback. “I know that you’re anxious for your first management role, and one of my goals is to help you attain that. I can’t do that unless I’m completely honest with you. A big part of management is developing stronger skills in your staff. You aren’t demonstrating that you enjoy that role. How can we can work together on that?”

No guilt, no admonishment — just an offer to help her get what she wanted. Yet the message was received loud and clear.

A brainstorming session this client and I had about ways to offer critical feedback led to that approach. Often, brainstorming sessions can help rookie managers see that sticky personal issues can be broken down into straightforward business issues.

In the case of the unhelpful senior staff member, her attitude didn’t really need to enter the discussion; her actions did. Recommending a change in action is much easier than recommending a change in attitude. Never forget the old saw: You can’t ask people to change their personalities, but you can ask them to change their behaviors.

Indeed, senior managers should share their own techniques for dealing with difficult conversations.

One manager I worked with became defensive whenever a staff member questioned her judgment. She didn’t really need me to tell her that her behavior was undermining her image and effectiveness. She did need me to offer her some techniques that would enable her to respond differently in the heat of the moment.

She trained herself to respond quickly and earnestly with a small repertoire of questions like, “Can you tell me more about what you mean by that?” This simple technique bought her the time she needed to gather her thoughts and engage in an interchange that was productive rather than defensive. She was too close to the situation to come up with the technique herself.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from HBR’s 10 Must Reads On Managing People. Copyright 2011 Harvard Business Review Press. All rights reserved.


1 Comment on “Saving Your Rookie Managers From Themselves

  1. Great article Carol.

    I do however, feel differently about the following statement, “For first-time managers, 10 percent of the work might be strategic and 90 percent tactical. My experience as a former manager, who was tossed into the role at age 24, leads me to believe that this number should be flipped. My biggest mistake as a new manager was focusing on the everyday tactical pieces of my job and failing to pay attention to what was going on above me. Had I been more strategic, I might have been more successful as a member of the management team.

    In my recently released book, Suddenly in Charge: Managing Up, Managing Down, Succeeding All Around, I discuss why new leaders should focus on the strategical aspects of their jobs more and a bit less on the tactical side. Failure to do this will result in a career that is cut short before it really begins.

    Roberta Matuson
    President of Human Resource Solutions
    Author, Suddenly in Charge

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