The Coveted Manager Job–Grappling with a 3-Headed Monster

Finally, you’re a manager. You are now responsible for bigger things. The way you lead and the performance of your employees are what determine your value.

Pretty heavy stuff, eh?

We often covet those “big” job titles without knowing what’s expected. That old line, “Be careful what you wish for,” is a legitimate warning.

What a manager’s job looks like on the surface isn’t always what it is in reality. The sad truth is that when it’s your turn to be the manager, no one really tells you what you’re getting into. So you’d better ask.

Go on high alert!

No one wants their long-desired manager promotion to become a living hell.

In Greek mythology, the three-headed dog, Cerberus, guarded the gates of the Underworld so that no one (specifically, the dead) could get in or out without permission from the god Hades.

The better plan was to avoid heading hell-bound in the first place. The same is true when taking on a job as manager.

When it comes to hiring or promoting you as a manager, management is keenly aware of three things–your:

  • Readiness and desire
  • Knowledge and skills
  • Fit with employees and peers

Management may or may not be right about you, but these are the criteria that they’re using to make the decision. In some cases management may or may not be effective themselves. So you need to be careful about how you hear and process their offer.

Demand to know.

All manager jobs are not created equal.

You need know what kind of work group, function, or cluster of departments you are to manage and whether you’re ready to grapple with the monster facing you.

Manager jobs essentially fall into three categories which means, to be effective, you need to know if you are cut out for the task.

1. Maintaining the status quo: When you take over a work group that works well together and consistently meets performance expectations, you need to be comfortable supporting the way things are being done. Your role is to keep the wheels turning, reinforcing what’s effective and collaborating with employees  on any fine-tuning.

If you’re one who is numbed by the warm hum of a well-oiled machine all day or can’t resist poking the sleeping beast just to get a rise out of it, then this manager role isn’t for you.

2. Fixing a mess: Work group dysfunction, poor output, and/or declining relevance are often reasons why you’ve been chosen as the new manager. In these situations, processes are often broken, performance management is lax, and innovation is dormant. Your role is to make big change, deal with resistance, and take risks.

If you hate conflict, lack internal political savvy, don’t know how to leverage relationships, and are unwilling to be personally accountable for your decisions, then you need to rethink this job. Fixing a mess is arduous and often slow, so you’ll need to do some soul searching and/or even defer this kind of challenge for a while.

3. Creating something new: The need to create a new department  spawns the need for a new manager. Sometimes a new product/service line is the reason or the need to expand or split an existing function. Your role is to organize, staff, and deliver results, dealing with doubters and managing expectations.

If you have a low tolerance for ambiguity, thin skin, fear of failure, and an inability to turn abstract ideas into concrete output, then starting from scratch may not be the best fit for you. When your manager job requires you to become an internal entrepreneur literally,  that role needs to be in your blood.

Tame the monster.

Managing a work group can be exciting and fulfilling, but, like every job, it needs to fit you. Every monster can be tamed so you have to be smart about the ones you grapple with.

So look hard at the manager job you covet and make sure you’re clear about what you’d be getting into. Then take on the challenge with all you’ve got!

Image from PEU Report

Pretty Good at Managing Employee Performance? What About Bob?

Go to training. Learn how to manage people. Go back to your work group and deliver all those promised results. Sweet!

Ugh…then reality turns sweet into sour. Live situations don’t match the training role plays or the workbook exercises. 

Our success as managers is a function of our ability to select and apply the best practices we need to solve the performance issues staring at us. 

Here’s a test case for you the puzzle through. See what you think and then we’ll compare notes at the end. 

What about Bob? You decide. 

Bob is an individual contributor who wants to become a supervisor. He’s been after his supervisor, Gail, for an opportunity to demonstrate his leadership skills and his readiness for a promotion. 

Recently, Gail’s work group customer satisfaction ratings had declined, so she wanted to determine the root cause. She saw this as an opportunity to give Bob a chance to lead a team to develop an improvement plan. 

Gail met with Bob, explained her expectations, assigned three coworkers as team participants for two hours each a week, and gave Bob a deadline to deliver an action plan. She also asked for bi-weekly progress reports

After the first team meeting, Bob told Gail that he didn’t think the right people were on the team. He also requested more detail about what kind of action plan she wanted and tried (unsuccessfully) to negotiate more weekly meeting time. 

After each team meeting, Bob was in Gail’s office asking for more particulars about what she wanted and for her approval of his meeting minutes before sending them out. 

Bob then started having disagreements with team members and asked Gail how to handle them. He complained again that they weren’t the right people. Gail was spending almost 3 hours a week dealing with Bob. 

To make matters worse, Bob submitted the action plan a week late. It lacked substance and did not have the full endorsement of the team. 

What would you do? 

This situation challenges us to put into practice all aspects of what we’ve been taught about managing employee performance.   

Here’s my take on the performance management techniques that were at play. (The bold is what I focused on.) Gail used some techniques effectively but not others—at least not yet. What did you see? 

Employee development: Gail decides to give Bob a chance to lead a team, an opportunity for professional growth aligned with his career aspirations. The project was important and created an opportunity to engage other employees by making them part of Bob’s team. 

Project managementGail recognized that process and accountability are important to team success, so she built that into her stated expectations for Bob when she asked for bi-weekly progress reports. 

Coaching: When Bob started having disagreements with two of the team members, Gail needed to coach him on how to resolve conflict effectively, including some self-examination by Bob about his team leadership approaches. 

Time management: Bob’s reluctance to act and/or inability to solve problems independently was costing Gail almost 3 hours a week. She needed to reestablish her expectations with Bob and hold him to them. 

Performance feedback: Bob delivered an action plan… that lacked substance which was unacceptable on several levels. So, that assignment needed to be redone with or without Bob. Bob needed specific, documented performance feedback about his work, including initiatives for further supervisory skills development. 

We need all the pieces. 

Using performance management techniques in isolation only gets us part way. Each situation we face demonstrates how different best practices intersect, strengthening each other and delivering greater benefit to the employee, the company, and ourselves. 

Effective management is both art and science. The people we work with are pieces of a complex puzzle which challenge our ability to solve problems. Individual performance management techniques are part of our toolkit. When we use them well and together, we can create a positive workplace experience. 

So how do you size up this situation?

Photo from alasis via Flickr

Un-Stink Your Goals! Enjoy the Sweet Smell of Success.

Have you started moaning yet? It’s time to write your next year’s performance goals. We don’t want to do it, mostly because we think they stink. 

Goals are your scorecard. 

When we play games, we keep score because we want to know how we did. That’s part of the fun. 

Organizations pay us to play for them. There’s a lot at stake, so we often feel uneasy about how well we’ll score. 

That’s because we don’t know: 

  • what we’re really expected to achieve
  • how we’re being measured 

The good news is that we can fix this.

Set yourself up to win! 

Goals have to be written or you and your boss will keep revising them in your heads until they fit whatever you’ve done or not done. This can set you up for a big goose egg. 

Goals have to state what you’re accountable for delivering. Yes, this is about getting stuff done that you can measure and/or see. No smoke…no mirrors. 

Goals need to cover work  beyond your job routines. They are about stretching, differentiating, and setting you up for growth. 

Goals need to demonstrate that you “get” the business that you’re in and the impact that you’re positioned to make. 

Write them right. 

You should know, all year long, how you’re doing on your goals by the way they’re written. You can only do that if your goal statements are measurable and/or observable. Try to write at least one for every business category you impact. 

Here are examples of “sweet” year-end goals you’d want compared to “stinky” ones you don’t: 


  • Sweet—Reduce administrative expenses by 15%
  • Stinky—Improve cash flow and reduce expenses 


  • Sweet—Reduce cycle time to bring new products to market by 60 days
  • Stinky—Process paperless claims promptly and effectively 


  • Sweet—Achieve an average rating of “very good” on the annual customer satisfaction survey
  • Stinky—Ensure satisfied investors 


  • Sweet—Increase employee availability by 5%
  • Stinky—Improve employee morale

 Sometimes we have jobs or assignments where we rely on others to deliver on the goal’s we’re accountable for. In those situations, our goal statement might be: 

  • Sweet—Provide leadership to ensure the successful testing and implementation of the new human resources compensation system on budget by Jun 30, 20__
  • Stinky—Implement a compensation management system in HR 

Make it a game with yourself! 

I write personal business goals every year that keep me focused and track my progress. Last year my stretch goals were on social media, an area where I was a bumbling neophyte. 

My goal was to: Increase visibility on social media to build my network by: 

  • Writing a minimum of 104 blog posts –exceeded
  • Attaining a minimum of 600 career/business Twitter followers—exceeded
  • Increasing my fan pages “likes” to 200 each—exceeded
  • Increasing my Linkedin followers to 250—exceeded
  • Utilizing video to share information—not attained
  • Learning about podcasting—not attained   

Since I had no idea about social media’s power, the subgoals, which were exceeded, really aren’t where I now know I can take them, so I’ll ratchet them up for 2011. 

For two subgoals,  I didn’t deliver at all. (See what happens when you don’t create a metric for scorekeeping!) I’ll need to decide if I want to carry those goals over to 2011 and, if so, make a “scorable” commitment. 

If I hadn’t written these goals down, I’d have no real basis for assessing my progress or goals for moving forward. 

Empower yourself 

Your goals are one way to take control of your career. If your boss suggests stinky goals statements, offer to rewrite sweet ones so you both can keep score. It will set you apart and demonstrate your willingness to be accountable, a real career differentiator that will never fail you. So now, you’re up. Swing for the seats! 

What have been your experiences with goal-setting? Any tips to add? Thanks.

When Leadership Goes Bad, The Reasons Run Deep!

It’s no picnic running things, especially when dysfunction runs rampant or performance is tanking. All too often, we get promoted to leadership positions when things are in disarray. 

The lure, of course, is our chance to be heroic, a miracle worker, a superstar! So we say, “Yes, I relish the challenge.” They say, “Great! Good luck,” something we’ll desperately need. 

Classic mistakes 

As soon as we get tapped as the “leader,” we want to get into it. Bring on the challenges: 

  • Take on the budget
  • Get programs implemented
  • Develop new initiatives
  • Rally the employees
  • Resolve old issues 

In time, we may sense that things are going but not all that well. There’s edginess in the air, push-back by some employees, intermittent complaining, and a lack of enthusiasm. 

Surprisingly, your staff starts branding you with labels like: 

  • Impatient and driven
  • Insensitive and uncaring
  • Blunt and disrespectful
  • Arrogant and self-centered
  • A poor listener and distant 

Smart leaders know that the focus of their jobs is not the work per se: It’s on the people doing it—their employees. 

The right fixes 

Demoralized, angry, and unhappy employees become the ruin of any leader. It may take a while, but it gets you in the end. 

When leaders realize or are told that the problems they have inherited are not being resolved, two erroneous conclusions are often drawn: 

  • “It must be my personality or the way I’m coming across.”
  • “I just need to give my employees more pep talks or maybe a team- building program to get us on the same page.” 

Systemic problems require systemic solutions. Smart leaders, facing difficulties, don’t ask, “What’s wrong with me?” Instead they ask, “What’s wrong here?” 

Employees rally around a leader who shows them how they can make a difference. They thrive on structure, role clarity, performance expectations, and feedback. 

If you want to turn dysfunction into employee engagement, here are the essentials: 

  • A current state of the department presentation by the leader
  • A goals grid, specifying the specific financial, operations, stakeholder, and employee goals for the current year
  • Updated position descriptions that identify job scope, accountabilities, responsibilities/duties, and qualifications
  • Specific performance goals for each employee, cascading from the department goals
  • Quarterly reports of department performance against goals 

These tools let employees know the priorities are that you, the leader, are committed to. This is how they know what counts and what doesn’t. 

I worked with two standout leaders who hired me because they were told that they had behavioral traits that were problematic. One was told that her communications style was too blunt: The other that he came across as being impatient. They both: 

  • Had taken over organizations that were in death spiral
  • Went hard at trying to right a sinking ship
  • Assumed that employees understood the severity of the situation and would follow their lead 

Instead, employees resisted, criticized, and became obstacles. They really didn’t understand how dire things were. They couldn’t see the big picture, blamed these leaders for problems past and present, resisted change, and created crippling organizational noise. 

The reality was that each leader was strong, smart, and committed. What they lacked was knowledge of performance best practice tools and how to implement them.  So they wisely regrouped, took stock, and put into place the structure employees needed. As a result, they each created a lasting fix.

Great results 

It’s a leader’s job to give employees the tools, support, and environment they need to do great work. Leaders can’t succeed without their employees, since leaders do very little “real” work. Instead, they provide structure, information and insights; remove obstacles; develop the employee capabilities; and generate momentum.   

It would be nice if every leader had a personality that we liked, but that isn’t necessary. No matter how business fit we are, we still need our leaders to provide the platform we need to do good work. If they haven’t, be bold and ask for it! 

What have been your experiences with a leader who ran amok? Was there ever a fix?