The best job I ever had was being a computer salesman for Digital Equipment Corporation in the 1970’s. I was the only one in my territory of the South Island of New Zealand and my boss was miles away in Auckland so I saw him only rarely. I shared the office in Christchurch with two young hardware engineers and my secretary, whose only job was to look after my business needs.

Author: Brianski; via Wikimedia Commons

The only responsibilities that I had were to win some new deals, make my quota and look after my customers, and all of these tasks were easy to do. I had total control of my work time and when I left the office in the evening my time was my own. My weekends were devoted to doing whatever I wanted to do and that rarely involved anything at all to do with my job. The 70’s were really exciting times in the computer industry and DEC was changing the world with its range of PDP-8 and PDP-11 minicomputers and setting it afire with the new VAX range. I was being well trained and developed mainly in Australia and the US, being well paid and rewarded with a good salary, generous performance bonuses and trips to exotic places for Achievers clubs.

I lived in one of the nicest places on earth. Christchurch was a city of about 300,000 close to some of the most beautiful natural scenery in the world with a great climate, wonderful cultural facilities such as the Czech quartet who were visiting in 1968 and who had stayed on when Russia invaded Czechoslovakia. I had a wonderful group of friends and was enjoying an active single life.

Author: P. Stalder; GNU Free Documentation License; via Wikimedia Commons

Life could not have been much better, when I was offered a promotion to Auckland as NZ Sales manager.

What actually makes people move into management roles, particularly when they love doing what they are actually doing, and what possessed me to give away an idyllic life and move to Auckland to accept a management role ?

I had been in a management role before joining DEC, as the IT Manager at International Harvester, and while I had also loved this job, I knew that with my move to Auckland I would be losing all the freedoms that I now had, and would have to spend my time worrying about what and how others were doing, rather than just worrying about and pleasing myself.

I would actually like to be able to say that the reason for my move to management was that I craved a promotion, that it was a calling and that I understood that a management career was my divinely inspired fate, but the real reason that I accepted the promotion was just a case of “cherchez la femme”, and no other reason. I had met an incredibly exciting young woman and she just happened to live and work in Auckland, and I felt that she was definitely worth the move.

I now know that I am not alone in that my move into management had little to do with any true, deep desire to actually be a manager, and it took me some considerable amount of time and learning over the coming years to realise that it was what I was meant to actually do with my work life.

When, towards the end of my career, I took up the role as a Global Head of HR, we thought it would be important to run some surveys amongst management people in the company to find out what issues and challenges they were facing, to ensure that the HR organisation could do some things that would actually help the business units.
One technical division that we chose to work with had over 300 people in management positions, being roles that were defined by the fact that they had performance responsibilities for people other than just themselves.

One interesting, and yet troubling, finding was that about one third of these managers didn’t actually want to be in “people responsible” roles, and not only would have preferred to have stayed in “individual contributor” roles, but most of them also said that they would gladly move out of their management role if they were given the chance to do so without repercussions.

It turns out that most of these people had been offered promotion into management roles primarily because of their vocational skills and their bosses’ belief that this would make them capable of leading and inspiring others in their field of expertise, without anyone really discussing and evaluating not only their suitability but also their actual desire to move up the ladder into leadership roles.

Author: ThisIsRobsLife; CC BY-SA 3.0 license

The reason that they had accepted the promotion was that this was the only way that they had felt they could make more money, get more influence or more status in the company or just have a greater say and some input and control on what projects that they got to work on.

It was obvious that the dual career paths that we had in place for the vocationally brilliant didn’t actually work, and as a result we had ended up with a large percentage of people in management roles who didn’t particularly want to be there, and despite their upgraded titles and improved salaries were doing little in terms of managing their people, but were spending most of their time actually doing their pre-promotion tasks.

Over the last 40 years I have realised that many people working in management roles didn’t actually plan for nor make the decision to do so, but that it just “sort of, somehow, kind of happened”.

I have found this particularly true in European companies where management is still seen as just an add-on to vocational brilliance rather than as a profession, and where there is little chance for true advancement outside of a management stream (See “Flogging a Dead Horse” posted on July 2, 2010).

Until we can get to a stage where we recognise the difference between vocational and management characteristics and skills and treat each accordingly, and hence differently, we will continue to make management appointments a hit and miss art, and keep putting people into roles where we lose the vocational brilliance and replace it with incompetent management.

As author Paul Dickson said “Never try to teach a pig to sing; it wastes your time and it annoys the pig.”

Author: Guido Gerding; GFDL license; via Wikimedia Commons


9 Responses to TO BE OR NOT TO BE … A MANAGER

  1. Dear Les, good read. You have highlighted a contradiction : “we will continue to make management appointments a hit and miss art, and keep putting people into roles where we lose the vocational brilliance and replace it with incompetent management.”

    Contradictions in society arise when two competing social systems are fighting on the same turf, for example modernity versus traditionalism. In this case I would refer to Thorstein Veblen for the theoretical corpus of ceremonial vs instrumental : “The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions (1899) proposes that economic life is driven by the social vestiges of tribal society, rather than by utility.”

    The reason your best “Vocational” are accepting Management positions is because you reward them materially and symbolically to do so ( I quote you : “but also their actual desire to move up the ladder into leadership roles.” ) because the value system in place in the company is “a social vestige of tribal society”. Sounds heavy but nothing like a hyperbole on a Monday morning to put things in context.

    If “keeping your Vocationals” had a high utility, you would reward them accordingly both materially and symbolically/status. I think Bill Gates may have understood this deeply and since he had no management desires but still wanted to acquire increased materiality and status, and I suspect no people management desires/skills(?), he went on to Entrepreneurship, Strategy and Acquisitions.

    • leshayman says:

      Thierry, that is why great companies have dual career paths so that vocationally brilliant people can stay in individual contributor roles. IBM for example had streams where people could rise along multiple steps eventually to “ambassador” status with comensurate increases in status, influence, importance and benefits without having to move into a management role. i believe that this dual pathing is a key starting point to be able to implement a “management by passion/decision/testing/selection/preparation” rather than just looking at the top performer. I have found, as an example, that the best salesmen do generally NOT make the best sales managers. The best sales managers tend to be the salesmen who can attract, motivate and direct the best team of supporters from pre-sales, product specialists, admins etc etc as they have shown that they can lead and not just sell. Les

  2. Keith Parris says:

    Hi Les, you may have forgotten that the services areas in Digital had dual career paths and that several managers on the technical side realised that “management” wasn’t their skill and moved back into a technical path. Personally I really enjoyed the first 2 levels of management and was very successful at it. I however, could see that continuing with the next promotion step into Head Office was more politics than management. So I moved into partner sales at which I excelled; it turned out to require more management skill (with no direct reports) than sales skills. Also, I observe all the top technical people needed management and political ability to achieve success.
    Could it be that to be successful in business (more than just a basic performer) management skills are essential.

    • leshayman says:

      Keith, thanks for the reminder … interesting that DEC had a working dual career path in the 1970s and so few companies do so today. You are right about the need for some people skills in whatever job you do and at whatever level. Les

  3. Adriana says:

    Dear Mr. Hayman,

    I feel already indebted to you as I have already learned so much from your posts, however I would be even more indebted if you dedicated your next blog post on what would you expect from a candidate during an interview.

    Next week I have the admission interview for an MBA in Germany, and whatever you will decide I thank you as you already influenced me a lot; you inspired the structure of my motivation letter and my essay and even the structure of my very thoughts.

    Looking very much froward to your next post!

    Thank you!

    • leshayman says:

      Adriana, this is such a hard question to answer as it depends so much on what is the role and it’s requirements.
      Generally I look for skills/experience but focus more on behaviour as I believe it is easier to enhance skills than change behaviour.
      Also …. some general things …
      I look for courage … I want to know if the person will stand against the herd if they believe in something strongly.
      I look for a desire to drive change rather than accept what is.
      I look for a desire to learn and grow.
      I look for someone who wants to make a difference.
      I look for passions in their life … what they are passionate about is less important to me than the fact that they can be passionate about something, or life in general.
      I look for relationships/family/clubs etc., and friends (not a la Facebook) as a sense of team.
      Not sure if this helps.
      The best advice I have is to be honest and be yourself. Good interviewers will pick up on people play-acting.
      Good luck.

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