Jeff Schmitt: From the Bottom Up

Twelve Ways Leaders Fail New Managers


It'll be the toughest conversation you'll ever have. A year earlier, you introduced the new manager to the team, rattling off her credentials and virtues. You even joked that you'd report to her one day. Now, sitting across the table, you can barely look at her. You have so much to say, but all you can squeeze out is: "It's not working out."

You came ready for a brawl, expecting unflattering accusations to be flung back at you. Instead, it ended with awkward small talk and a flaccid hand shake. But you won't be able to shake the guilt. There was always some issue that took precedence over your manager. You tolerated too much and turned up the heat too late. Deep inside you know the truth: She never had a chance.

You failed her.

When you elevate someone to management, you're subtly telling your employees: This is the person you should aspire to be. Your employees regard this person as your voice, a direct reflection on you as a leader. Too often, leaders forget that management entails a major transition, requiring a new mentality and skill set. It proves particularly trying for stars, who frequently distinguish themselves through production and quality. Instead, they must step back and coax others to do the work, becoming advocates—if not referees and buffers—for their reports.

Twelve Slippery Steps to Failure

Yes, managers are blamed for what they cannot control. There's always someone looking to test them. Under these conditions, you must ask this question: Have I put my managers (particularly new ones) in a position to succeed? Here are 12 ways you probably failed the last manager you let go.

1. Provided lax onboarding. You had to learn on the fly when you started. Your manager didn't have time to coddle you and it made you resourceful and resilient. So you leave your new hires to sink or swim, figuring they'll come through just as you did—when that's not the case.

2. Set a poor example. Your employees take their cues from you. You set the tone and serve as the role model. The question is: What are they adopting from you? Attitudes and behaviors are contagious. Your conduct sets the boundaries for what's appropriate. Take a look at your flaws. Ask yourself if you would accept those defects from your direct or indirect reports.

3. Lacked accountability. Your managers can't read your mind. Look at the expectations you've set. What are your priorities? What larger purpose do you ultimately want to achieve? What is your timeline for reaching it? What metrics should they hit? What will happen if they miss these marks? And how often do you review all this with them? Whatever gets measured gets done, or so the cliché goes.

4. Offered no support system. Management requires a steep learning curve, with so much changing on a moment's notice. Too often, new managers feel alone in a bubble. Before you throw them to the wolves, introduce them to key leaders and reliable veterans who can provide a safety net, sage advice, and occasional support. Give them time to build relationships. And don't worry about a mentor: They'll find one on their own.

5. Accepted underperformance. You think they don't take the hint. But what cues are you giving them? Are you sharing the hard facts? Or are you just tiptoeing and sugarcoating, hoping the issues self-correct over time? Fact is, self-awareness is a rare trait. And your managers deserve better than token feedback from you.

6. Didn't listen. You hired them for who they were and what they could do. Then you plugged them in and expected them to do your bidding without question. But sometimes they push back … and for good reason. Want to know the quickest way to alienate a new manager? Ignore the knowledge, experience, and talent he brings to the table. Yeah, you probably hired him because he reminded you of yourself. But you have blind spots. So ditch the all-knowing bully shtick. Listen—even when he says what you don't want to hear. That might be a telltale sign to change course.

7. Never solicited feedback. You think you know what's really going on. You believe only numbers reflect performance. But it isn't hard to conjure up success for one year. You need to ensure that it continues year after year. Without a solid foundation based on intangibles—camaraderie, buy-in, trust—everything inevitably falls apart. So quit focusing exclusively on the quantifiable. Start talking people: your managers' direct reports, peers, and partners. Don't be afraid of what they'll say.

8. Failed to keep power in check. Power corrupts. When you're not around, it can easily go to any manager's head. Without constraints, some managers will apply different rules to themselves. They'll delegate more of their responsibilities and reward their pets. With no one watching, they'll make inappropriate comments. Knowing they can get away with it, they'll threaten anyone who dares challenge them. It's human nature. That's why institutions and laws were created. So set parameters on what will and won't be tolerated.

9. Didn't manage workload. Suddenly new managers must think both tactically and strategically. Not to mention that their every word and move has added weight. Is it any wonder they avoid situations where they're not comfortable? They'll never tell you that, of course. They understand that you assumed they'd be successful here; they were everywhere else. Set clear and reasonable goals early. Watch out for scope creep. Most important, manage their fears. Whether it's spare time or words of encouragement, show you truly care about them personally.

10. Neglected to maintain focus. As a leader, your job is to set the vision and course. And it's your managers' job to reinforce your message. Ask yourself: How often am I revisiting the big picture and reviewing our strategy with my managers? Do they understand the "why" and the "how"? If you're not reinforcing your goals regularly with your managers, you can bet they're not doing it with their reports either.

11. Didn't give room. They came into management to make a difference. As part of that, they want to make the job their own. But you've left little room to experiment. You shot down their ideas. And God forbid they made a mistake. In reality, you couldn't let go. You stifled their talent and enthusiasm. Maybe you thought you were shielding them from failure. In reality, you prevented them from forging their own identities. Next time, play on their strengths and tap into their natural enthusiasm.

12. Lacked the right tools. In these times, "do more with less" is almost a creed. It's no surprise that leaders rarely see greater budgets, resources, and head counts. However, there are two tools you can provide that don't require hand-to-hand combat up the chain: authority and support. Back your managers in battles with other departments. Don't undermine your managers in front of anyone. If you do, you'll soon be wondering why they can't get anything done themselves.

Jeff_schmitt
Jeff Schmitt is an online columnist for Bloomberg Businessweek. He has spent 17 years in sales, marketing, project management, training, legal compliance, and recruiting. You can reach him via e-mail or follow him on Twitter.

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