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Are Good Managers Born or Made?

For many an ambitious worker, the measure of success lies just ahead in a path toward management. Career arcs in a wide variety of sectors are simply built that way, and sooner or later the serious-minded employee finds him or herself champing at the bit to be a leader. “For those who are front-line employees thinking about a long-term future, the question of whether to go into management, whether it is good for you and for others, and figuring out whether you have the temperament to master it, is a career issue that many people are trying to answer,” says Michael Useem, Wharton management professor and director of Wharton’s Center for Leadership and Change Management.

And yet, not everyone is cut out for a role that requires setting aside doing the work of the firm in favor of empowering others to do the work. But can anyone, with enough desire and proper training, become a manager? In other words, are good managers born or made? “This is a question as old as management, and we have lost a lot of wisdom about it in practice along the way because cost-cutting trumped all other concerns,” says Peter Cappelli, Wharton management professor and director of Wharton’s Center for Human Resources.

The easiest approach, and some might say the most meritocratic, Cappelli notes, is to give the management role to the best performer in the role below — a management theory popularly known as the Peter Principle. “The problem is that … the competitiveness to win that often makes [an individual] the best performer is directly at odds with the requirements of managing other people and trying to get them to succeed,” he points out. “As in sports, where a lot of our lessons for business seem to come from, the best individual performers don’t necessarily make the best coaches.”

Unfortunately, even in the modern business world, becoming the office equivalent of a coach is what many workers are conditioned to aspire to, even if it’s not the best fit for them — or their would-be underlings. “We still have a pretty conventional view of the organization today, even though we have thought a lot about flatter organizations and more employee engagement,” says Virginia J. Vanderslice, founding partner and president of Praxis Consulting Group in Philadelphia and an adjunct faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania’s Organizational Dynamics program. “In this country, we’re pretty traditional in our view of what success looks like, and I don’t mean that as just inside the firm. As individuals, we think success looks like a bigger title and more money, and even in school we need to start shifting how we think about these things.”

You’re So Vain

Narcissism is often cited as the major personality hurdle standing between the desire to be a good manager and actually being one, and several studies show that the trait is on the rise. One nationwide meta-analysis and an examination of data within one campus demonstrated significant increases in American college students’ narcissistic traits over the generations, according to Jean M. Twenge and Joshua D. Foster in “Birth Cohort Increases in Narcissistic Personality Traits Among American College Students, 1982–2009,” published in Social Psychological & Personality Science.

As in sports, where a lot of our lessons for business seem to come from, the best individual performers don’t necessarily make the best coaches. –Peter Cappelli

“The larger cultural changes in parenting, education, family life, and the media toward greater individualism have apparently affected the personality traits of individuals,” they write. The nationwide meta-analysis shows that the increases are a little more than one third of a standard deviation over one generation. These results were, rather strikingly, consistent with a large epidemiological study on narcissistic personality disorder, the more severe, clinical form of the trait, the study notes.

Narcissism can cut both ways in an organization. Sometimes, and for some employees, a narcissistic leader comes across as inspirational. Several studies, however, show that such leaders are more likely to commit transgressions of integrity, and to leave unhappy employees and destructive workplaces in their wake. “The difference between having healthy levels of self-confidence and self-esteem, which are appealing and useful qualities for leaders, and being narcissistic is that narcissists have an elevated sense of self-worth such that they value themselves as inherently better than others,” write Charles A. O’Reilly III, Bernadette Doerr, David F. Caldwell and Jennifer A. Chatman in “Narcissistic CEOs and Executive Compensation,” published in The Leadership Quarterly. “That said, the difference between those who are self-confident and those who are narcissistic is often difficult to detect.”

A ‘Deep Sense’ of Personal Security

Tests such as the Hogan Personality Assessments can be helpful in identifying employees with the kinds of qualities that might predict a good leader. Leadership can be learned, Vanderslice notes. “But my conclusion after 40 years of working with leaders is that there are a few core qualities that a person comes with that are the harder things to strengthen,” she says. “Not impossible, but really challenging. And the big one for me is a personal, deep level of self confidence. And by that I don’t mean, ‘Hey, I can beat my chest because I’m so good.’ I mean real self confidence — a deep sense of personal security. If someone doesn’t have that, they are not going to be invested in others because they are too worried about themselves.”

So can any worker learn to become a manager if he or she wants it enough? “In principle, yes,” says Useem. “Most people in my experience can master what it takes to manage people. But I think we don’t appreciate how difficult that mastery is. Learning to manage others requires a very significant commitment, just like learning to play the piano or becoming a technical expert.” One way to think about how the average group breaks down in terms of being management timber: “A significant fraction is temperamentally ready to try out a managerial role if offered, another segment is likely to be indifferent, and a third sub-group would have no interest whatsoever,” says Useem.

“It is certainly possible for people to learn how to be good managers, but those who are not disposed to work with and through others are never going to be as good at it,” adds Cappelli. “If we don’t do training, and business is much less inclined to do so these days, and we appoint the best individual performers, we are bound to have problems.”

Part of the equation, Useem notes, is figuring out why someone wants to be a manager. Useem recalls hearing former Mexican President Felipe Calderón speak about why he decided to make the journey from community organizer to national leader. “As an organizer early in his career, he was working with people in a neighborhood to demand better services, but after a while he said, ‘I’m helping to improve the lives of hundreds, but if I am willing to play a national role, I could affect millions.’”

Among other capabilities needed to make a good manager, Useem lists “a willingness to work with ambiguity, uncertainty and unpredictability. If you want everything to be at right angles, that’s probably not the mindset you want if you plan to work through others.”

As individuals, we think success looks like a bigger title and more money, and even in school we need to start shifting how we think about these things. –Virginia J. Vanderslice

Managers must learn to appreciate how distinctive each individual is in what they want from work and what animates them to work well, Useem notes. “As a company manager, for instance, you may learn that one employee wants to be home by 5 p.m. for family time with no after-hours obligations, while another is ready to shoulder far greater responsibility,” he says. “Coming to appreciate — and then manage — the great diversity in human motivation and purpose is essential for anybody going into management, and that requires becoming a lifelong student of human nature.”

Some firms are particularly good at cultivating management talent. Useem cites Johnson & Johnson as one. “They are very methodical at identifying front-line employees who can not only make pharmaceuticals and consumer products, but can also manage others to help them get their jobs done.”

Getting Pushed Up — and Out

For many, no matter how good they are in their jobs, no matter how much recognition they receive, happiness lies in becoming a manager. The bank teller eyes becoming branch manager, the associate plots of rising to partner, the section violinist dreams of one day leading the orchestra. But the criteria firms use for deciding who gets plucked for a management role often have more to do with how well that employee is doing in the work itself, and less to do with how they might manage others.

“A lot of us become very good at doing something — software engineer, investment banker, sales person — and we really build expertise in a subject and get very good at doing it, and then get pushed into a role where less and less of our time is spent doing whatever it is we were good at doing and more time is spent managing people,” says Wharton management professor Matthew Bidwell. “For a lot of us, we value expertise, so the big challenge in some areas is that we respect people based on coming up with brilliant solutions, and that’s not what a manger is supposed to do — and if they are trying to do that, they end up micromanaging.”

Thus, Bidwell adds, people struggle to make the shift to manager, meaning they spend a lot of time trying to do the work and not enough time coaching, supporting and helping to develop employees, or running interference between them. “And that is really a central issue for people — letting go of the old role and embracing the value of the new one.”

Many companies allowed management training to fall by the wayside during the recession. Corporate spending on training dropped by 11% in 2008, and then another 11% in 2009, according to a Bersin by Deloitte survey. After a modest increase in 2010, spending experienced double-digit growth each year through 2013. The number-one area of spending was in management and leadership training, the survey says. Even so, in any economy, training is not what it should be. “Firms don’t train very much, full stop,” says Bidwell.

But many firms contribute to the problem by rewarding employees with management positions because of skills that have nothing to do with management. In one study in progress, data on salespeople at hundreds of firms were examined through a company that provides sales administration software through the cloud. Researchers tracked employees promoted to management and their resulting performance. The study, “When Good Tournaments Make Bad Matches: Evidence of the Peter Principle in Sales,” found that the best promoted managers had displayed evidence of teamwork and cooperation before they were promoted. But organizations instead tended to promote the best salespeople, who did not generally make great managers.

Coming to appreciate — and then manage — the great diversity in human motivation and purpose is essential for anybody going into management, and that requires becoming a lifelong student of human nature. –Michael Useem

“Our study suggests that the greatest potential managers may not ever make it into management because firms pass them over by promoting their best salespeople,” says Alan Benson, a professor at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, who co-authored the study with Danielle Li and Kelly Shue. “The same might be said of engineers, architects, lawyers, academics, or lots of others who can be promoted because they’re great at one thing that’s not necessarily related to management.”

If Not Management, Then What?

Some won’t ever make it in management. And in those cases, firms are often not always adept at recognizing when that is happening and coming up with solutions. “What do we do with good individual contributors who don’t make it as managers?” asks Cappelli. “The challenge is that working through others in most roles has a much bigger impact than one can have as an individual. That’s why a good executive running an operation is just more valuable than an equally good engineer working [in the same operation] could likely be. Many organizations have created ‘dual tracks’ to recognize and acknowledge those in individual roles, and those are a good idea. But those people just aren’t as valuable as leaders are.”

As an alternative to traditional management, Vanderslice suggests a master technician track, “where someone really good at the job is encouraged to further develop technical or professional skills and then be recognized for being the most accomplished. If they are the right person, they could take on an education or mentoring role with younger folks in the aspect of what they’re doing.” People who are masters of their profession — for example lawyers, architects or engineers — may not be the most interested in or best equipped to do well managing people, Vanderslice points out. “You don’t want to lose those people entirely or lose them into management if they are, for instance, a great architect. But they might be great teachers. The other thing for them and the firm is to think about how they can broaden what they know, as well as doing it well. What’s the newest thing in their field, and can you develop that?”

But not every firm makes these kinds of accommodations. Managerial aspirants beware. Says Useem: “For those considering a management opportunity, make certain you are ready for it and capable of mastering it. The costs and risks are high if you fail to do either. But the rewards and impacts are also high if you can do both.”

This story originally appeared on Knowledge@Wharton website, reprinted with permission. 


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