And what to do about it
As your business grows, you need more managers to coordinate everyone (the 10:1 staff-to-manager ratio is often used as a rule of thumb). But where to find managers? You either hire from the outside or promote from within.
If a developer becomes a manager, this is NOT a promotion. It's a change to a different career path. Either you are a great hands-on developer, or you're awesome in managing people. This holds true for the vast majority of the workforce. And even if you are equally good at both, you most likely have a stronger passion for one.
It's still a very consistent opinion in most developers' heads (and HR departments too) that if you don't manage to become team lead, and then director of something, and finally a CTO, you have failed. And this is really, really bad, because every time a great developer, who isn't good at managing people or has a greater passion for developing, is "promoted" to be a manager, the world loses a great developer, and a bad manager is born. - Ingmar Heinrich
You might be tempted to promote your rockstar worker, but don’t be so hasty. According to research, companies choose a bad manager 82% of the time.
Why is it so hard to find a good manager?
Because, a management position requires a whole new set of skills, like dealing with people, organizing processes, strategic thinking, business savviness, etc. Those skills are difficult to measure, assess, and acquire.
When promoted to management, a worker has to acquire new skills, plus they can no longer do what they excel at. Instead, they have to spend lots of time on meetings, reporting, and coaching.
Even promoting a manager from one management position to another isn’t easy. This is because each level in management is vastly different and requires a sharp U-turn in terms of the required skills and job description.
To better understand how the transition to management works, you need to understand the leadership pipeline model.
The Leadership Pipeline model
The Leadership Pipeline describes how each level of management differs and what challenges each level brings. The pipeline shows the new responsibilities and the skills a worker has to acquire to become a manager.
The main transitions for a small company are:
- From being a worker (managing self) to managing others
- From managing others to managing managers
- From managing managers to managing a business
Transition #1: Managing others
The first transition happens when you’re promoted from a worker to a manager. You need a whole new set of skills and the job isn’t anything you’re used to.
Let’s say you’re a great designer. The boss likes your work and decides you should manage other designers. This represents the first sharp turn. You’re no longer responsible for your particular design, but for all design in general. Your design skills don't matter anymore because now you’re responsible for what others do - you're basically designing through others.
Also, as a manager, you need to communicate with other departments and see what they need from designers, then decide what to do and who should do it. You also need a system to track projects and give feedback.
It's difficult to promote someone to a manager because nothing they did has prepared them for the sharp turn in job their description and skill requirements.
Transition #2: Managing managers
It might seem like the first transition is the most radical, but it’s not. The second transition is just as radical as the first one. When you tell a manager to manage other managers, their job description and skill requirements completely change once more.
Let’s say you’ve managed to make the first transition, built a great team, and became better at telling people what to do. Now the boss wants you to manage other managers. This is your second sharp turn. The job description may seem similar but it isn’t. Now you're not telling others what to do but teach them how to lead their teams.
You have to share techniques you’ve learned in management, coach soft skills, plus everything is more abstract and super people-oriented. Your job now is to provide motivational talks. You also no longer have any connection to design or whatever you've been initially hired for.
To be successful, you need new modes of communication and you constantly have to be in the loop. If there are more branches in your company, you need to start fighting for your branch, be vocal where resources go, make and meet quarterly projections, plan KPI’s, etc.
Most of your day will consist of sipping coffee with other managers, attending conferences, and networking. You no longer deal with workers who need to get things done, but you deal with managers with easily bruised egos.
Transition #3: Business manager
When you become a CEO, there comes another U-turn. Just when you figured out the corporate politics, you need to rise above it. You need to become a visionary, learn to put together various reports, steer the company in the right direction, and appoint the captains for each part of your ship.
Being productive is no longer important. Most of the time you'll spend sitting and thinking. Plus, short-term goals no longer matter as your job becomes to think of the long-term goals (something other managers can't do because they're not incentivized to).
How to prepare your employees for a management position
It’s difficult to promote people to managers because they need to change their mindset, responsibilities, and workflow.
So how do you prepare people and ease them into their new role? You’ll first have to understand the fundamental difference between a regular job vs a manager’s role.
Take programmers, for instance. They are creators — they put their time, effort, and soul into the code. The result is tangible and easy to test — it either fails or passes.
Management, on the other hand, is all about making charts, plans, and projections. You can’t easily get answers and all your productivity depends on others. Your only way to measure the result is through profit. The people you lead are your primary focus.
It can take a lot of time and effort to switch to a management mindset.
When your company grows, you’ll have lots of people to coordinate. You need to start thinking early who will be coordinate people, recognize potential leaders in your organization, and nurture them.
There are two useful programs that can help you preparing workers for management role: mentorships and action learning.
Mentorships and action learning
In a perfect world, seniors would do everything, since juniors can’t do much on their own. In reality, it’s not sustainable. That’s why you need to train your staff to become independent.
Training and talent management takes time, but it creates more self-reliant people, which lowers your business risk. That’s why mentorships are great for developing autonomy.
But mentorships alone aren’t enough to create leaders. Leaders need breadth and understanding. People need time, experience and the right assignments to become effective managers. That's where action learning comes in.
Action learning is an approach to solving real problems that involve taking action and reflecting upon the results.
Action learning exposes workers to problems outside their jurisdiction. The worker usually gets to solve a problem from a different department, but the real value is a broadened awareness — they will understand the importance of every function and how each cog keeps the machine going, which isn’t easy to teach by mentorship alone.
You need to start assigning people new responsibilities so they can learn completely different things. Then, when one day the work overwhelms you, you have managers ready to promote.
“I’ve never fired executives because they didn’t work hard or they weren’t smart. The issue is always that they had the wrong background and the wrong skill set for the company at that point in time. Whose fault is that? You’re the one who knew your company. And you’re the one who got the chance to assess the candidate. You got it wrong. Or else you failed to integrate the person.” — Ben Horowitz
Before you grow your business team and promote someone, ask yourself:
- Have I prepared the person for the new responsibilities?
- Will they be able to let go of their technical skills and switch to a manager’s mindset?