I have had a number of instances in recent years where I have become involved with a company and fairly quickly come to the conclusion that the management team that has been tasked with effectively running the company is actually incapable of delivering on that responsibility.

I believe that anyone in a role where management capability needs to be observed and measured, whether in the role of a management coach or as a board member, should be aware of a number of warning signs that point to the fact that the company executive management may be actually incompetent.

1. Wrong hiring decisions keep being made at senior levels.

When the executive team too often have to terminate senior people who they themselves recruited, it is a serious sign that something is wrong with the management team. Good managers hire good people and go through a stringent recruitment process to make sure that they are hiring the right person for the role. Incompetent managers hire emotionally and with “gut-feel” rather than with a structured understanding of what they need and what they should be looking for, and tend to hire people who are weaker than they are, and who will not be a challenge to manage. These weak hires can then be blamed and terminated when things go wrong as a way of diverting attention from the manager involved.

Author: Tanemori; Source: Hatena Ftolife; via Wikimedia Commons

2. Tough decisions are made but rarely executed

Strong management can not only make tough decisions, but will carry out their plans to successful execution and completion. Managers who talk tough but do not execute are a danger to success. I worked with one management team which rightly took the decision that they had no option but to go through a process of cutting heads and the closing of some small non-performing subsidiaries, as the previous 12 months had seen rapid headcount expansion without the expected increase in revenues (a warning sign in itself). The executive team agreed on “who, where and when”, and advised the board of their decision and the details for execution. When the dust had settled, very little had actually been achieved against their own plan, beyond having a long list of excuses and justifications as to why they had changed their minds at the last minute.

3. Deadlines are not met

A deadline that is set, and agreed, is a commitment and executive teams that consistently miss committed deadlines will not honour other commitments either, and this is unacceptable, and a serious sign of incompetence. One board that I am a member of regularly receives its board papers from the CFO on the night before the board meeting despite the commitment that this will be distributed at least 48 hours beforehand, enabling the board to have some chance to review them. This has happened so often over the months of my involvement in this board that it is just another indicator that the CFO needs to be replaced.

Financial Statements Wikimedia Foundation, Inc.; via Wikimedia Commons

4. Love of external consultants and professionals

A management team that readily calls in external consultants is often covering up their lack of skill, knowledge and capability. Bringing in an external consulting company to ratify the strategy, or perpetually bringing in external legal advice for example is generally a sign of “covering one’s arse” and can show that a management team does not have enough confidence in themselves nor their decisions to be effective. Not only is it expensive and habit forming, but external consultants are generally like a case of herpes, in that once established internally are impossible to get rid of.

5. Inconsistent stories from the members of the same management team

A management team that can’t agree on their stories is an obvious sign of a management team in disarray. I recently sat through a presentation from a CFO who presented the proposed budget for the coming year to the board, to find that half of the management team refused to commit to the numbers when pressed for their agreement. The management team were so divided that work was occurring and decisions being taken in camps and without the involvement of all the team members. When a management team is this divided it is a sure sign that not only is the team not working but that the CEO is incapable of pulling the team together. Definitely time to make serious changes in the team.

Author: Areyn (own work); via Wikimedia Commons

6. Meetings bloody meetings

Competent management take the decisions needed for their area of responsibility and keep the relevant people advised of their actions. Incompetent management teams spend most of their time in meetings, which are a great way to try and spread responsibility when things don’t work (See “Meetings bloody meetings” posted 18th April, 2011), and are also a great way for managers who don’t know what they are doing to look incredibly busy and always “on the go”. Meetings are one way of keeping everyone advised on what is happening but are rarely successful vehicles for decision making or business management.

7. Working incredibly long hours

Executive teams that always work very long hours, and tell everyone about it, are generally not functioning well. Effective managers know how to prioritise and manage themselves in a way that means that they work hard (and mostly longer hours than those they manage) but that still gives them time to “refuel and replenish” with friends and family. Incompetent managers try to cover up their lack of capability by working excessively long hours as their visible “badge of courage”, and as a smoke screen to the fact that they don’t know what they should be doing. If they can’t manage themselves they definitely can’t manage anyone else.

As Peter Drucker said

“Most of what we call management consists of making it difficult for people to get their work done”

Author: Jeff McNeill; via Wikimedia Commons



  1. Avizent says:

    Every Board Member should read this – if only to be aware of their own potential weaknesses let alone those of their colleagues.

  2. Frank says:

    Les, another great topic and thoughts.
    I’d add a couple:
    1. management not having any idea of key details (or being too immersed in detail) and not knowing what their staff are doing
    2. managers that have a “parent-child” or “teacher-student” relationship with their staff, neither gives empowerment
    3. staff “talk” about their manages in non respectful terms, ie the floor doesn’t respect the heirarchy.
    Regards, Frank

    • leshayman says:

      Frank, thanks for the additions. I agree with all 3, and am sure that there are more. I am pleased to start a discussion on this, as I beleieve that management skill, particularly in larger companies, is not keeping pace with changing market conditions and business needs, nor with changing employee expectations. Les

  3. Management is important but only as much as basic human needs such as running water, roof and food are necessary, once you have a basic level the performance of an organization or an individual really depend on the industry and the macroeconomics he is subjected to as well as the occasional luck ( or lack off ) in the decisions taken. Take the best manager in South Sudan, he might be better off then his peers but the natural and social determinism of his condition as a Sudanese manager is no less obvious. Peter Drucker also said “When a subject becomes totally obsolete we make it a required course. ” but I am not sure he was thinking about management when he said it.

    En Economist´s opinion …

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