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SELECTING MANAGERS: What's The Right Mix of Functional Area Expert vs. Ability to Deal With People?

It's the classic Catch 22... We know we shouldn't simply make the best widget maker the best widget maker manager, but.... but....

We have nothing else to base on decisions on who gets promoted to manager other than... Functional Area Expertise.

Ugh.  This is on my mind again due to my friend Paul Hebert writing on the topic over at What Is Paul Thinking? (which you should subscribe to).  From Paul:

"You're doing it wrong!

You keep promoting the people who are good at the “function” of a job into a managerial role. Pointy

But they suck at the role of being a manager.

They just do what their subordinates do, but a little better. They aren’t just Level III, more experienced employees – they’re managers! And that means they manage. Yet few of them have been trained or groomed to be real, effective managers. And this problem is endemic in most companies. We fill upper level positions based on expertise in that function – not expertise in MANAGING that function and the people that support it."

Realities to the situation in my mind include the following sticky points:

1. Most companies have no format or opinion on what makes a good manager.

2. With that in mind, it's safe to assume that almost all companies have no formal training for managers, or for those who aspire to be managers.

3. Most of the people making promotional decisions where at one time functional area experts, and were thus promoted based on that expertise.  So, we have a tradition problem as well as a performance/intellectual debate.

What's the right answer?  What's the right mix of ability to manage vs functional area expertise?  

As Paul points out in the comments, it's not that you're going to put someone in a job that hasn't done the work before, it's that the manager doesn't have to be in the top quartile of individual contributors to be managed.   It's OK to put someone in the job with enough functional area credibility to not be embarassed without being the expert.

But the reality is we have a production problem.  We don't know how to produce managers of people.  With that in mind, if we wanted to fix the problem, I think the solution would look something like this:

1.  We'd find a diagnostic tool to help us measure those that have the capacity to manager others.  

2.  We'd let people know that tool was a big part of how we view those that have the capacity to manage.  We'd let anyone take the assessment and we'd freely share their results with them from a career development perspective.

3.  For those that were enough of a match, we'd offer manager of people training - before we have the need for them to be managers.  Just so they could get a taste.

4.  That curriculum would also obviously be mandatory for those in manager of people roles for the first time as well.

What's the right mix of "ability to manage" vs "functional area expertise"?  I'd call it 50/50, but it's probably a sliding scale - the better you are at managing others, the less you need the area expertise.

Of course, until we build the platform described in #1-#4 above, we'll do what we know best.  The best widget maker will get an office and direct reports.  

Nothing new happens until you and I try to do something about it - so do that.  And go subscribe to Paul's new blog here




We in Hi-Tech are horrible at this.
We may be OK providing training AFTER a previously high performing engineer is put in a management role, but we don't select for talent.

And some engineers hate to admit they are crappy managers, even if they are personally miserable doing the job.

Here is where I could go into technical ladder versus management ladder, but that just scratches the surface (IMO). My company has titles up to Sr. VP for individual technical contributors, but many still see "people manager" as having more prestige.


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