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Good Results Don’t Make You A Good Manager

Originally published
Originally published: 11/1/2011

Improving management skills takes commitment and work.

Your employees talk about you every night at dinner. The meal is placed on the table, and your employee’s significant other asks the fateful question, “How was work today dear?” The next words are about you. Sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly. Either way, they’re about you.

“It was great today. My boss never showed up at the worksite.” Or, “It was really aggravating. The boss never stopped by the worksite and left no one in charge.” Or, “It was aggravating, the boss never showed, but he left Larry in charge.” Or, “Excellent day. I finished ahead of schedule, and my boss was all over me with praise.”

As a manager, you work in the constant glare of an “invisible spotlight.” When you come, where you go, and what you do in between are of the utmost importance to your employees. They’ve been conditioned since childhood to please authority: parents, teachers, clergy, coaches, police officers — and now their manager.

Yet the most frequent and fundamental mistake managers make is to underestimate their impact. Managers invariably fail to recognize the influence they exert over their employees’ lives — personal as much as professional. They fail to recognize how much they matter. In particular they fail to realize that somuch of their relationship with employees is forged in brief, unscripted moments. Sometimes the moments are dramatic, sometimes quiet and fleeting. This was certainly true about Phil, a manager one of us worked with in Cleveland. Here’s the story as seen through the consultant’s eyes:

Phil’s People Problem

A company’s vice president of operations asked me to spend a day on site with Phil, his location manager. Phil was a big man — 6-foot-6-inches and 260 pounds — who managed over 70 employees for his company. His presence and manner were imposing to say the least. Phil was wrapping up his first year at the helm, and by all business measures — revenue, cost control, safety, process improvements, record keeping, and customer satisfaction — Phil’s first year was a stunning success. But the operations VP had detected a few murmurs about Phil’s “management style” during his own trips to the district. Because Phil was so promising, the VP wanted to nip any stylistic problems in the bud.

As is my routine with a new client, I spent an hour with Phil before meeting anyone else. I explained my role: “Phil, I’m a management consultant. My job is to hold up a mirror that reflects the impact you’re having on your organization and to show you where you can make
improvements. So I’ll take a snapshot today. I’ll share my impressions with you at the end of the day along with my best advice.”

Faced with no alternative, Phil grudgingly accepted my presence. He laid out a schedule of meetings with his department heads and built in time for whomever else I might bump into as I meandered through the district’s offices and visited some work sites.

At 4 p.m., after a day of formal interviews, casual conversations, and many observations, Phil and I reconvened for our debriefing. In his year as district manager, Phil had brought order and discipline to his operations. The stiff standards of excellence he had introduced, though initially met with protests, were now a point of obvious and genuine pride.But one other theme ran through every conversation I had with his supervisors and staff. It was, of course, what brought me to Cleveland in the first place. Phil scared the crap out of everyone.

After I presented his achievements, I moved the conversation to Phil’s management style. I explained that in his enthusiasm to turn the organization around, he’d taken no prisoners. Just about everyonetold some version of the same story: A supervisor was demeaned in midsentence for a scheduling procedure that Phil thought was misguided; a newer supervisor’s safetyimprovement recommendation was harshly dismissed because Phil declared it too costly; a department head’s plans for the layout of the truck bays was summarily overridden. The word in the hallways was that Phil had no patience, his ideas were the only viable ones, and he was callous, thoughtless, and intimidating.

He was like the cow that gives good milk but then knocks the bucket over. Each supervisor described the same journey: from initial skepticism soon after Phil arrived, to full throttle enthusiasm and an eagerness to please, to a sense of tentativeness and cowering — both at work and after hours — as the atmosphere became abusive. Several supervisors were actively seeking other jobs. Not surprisingly, these were some of Phil’s best and most promising.

My message should have been tough for Phil to digest. But as I held up the proverbial mirror, Phil simply looked at me, occasionally nodding in agreement. When I finished, he reflected a moment.

Then, “You’re not telling me anything I don’t already know. My family has been telling me these things for years. I don’t suffer fools well. That’s just the way I am.”

I had to respect the guy for his candor. He could never be accused of dipping his words in sugar. But his self-acceptance was self-destructive.

“Phil, we’ve just come to the reason your VP sent me here. He didn’t give you this job so you give you this job so you could be a bastard. He gave it to you with the expectation that you would be a professional leader. Those are far from the same thing.”

Phil sat calmly and considered my response. So I continued, “If you want to be a barbarian with your family and friends, there’s nothing I can do about it. Nor would I want to. For all I know, they love you the way you are; if they do, you’re a fortunate guy. But at this company, you’re expected to work at being a manager. You can’t simply rely on your' natural ways.’ You’re the guy responsible for making these relationships work, not driving them into the turf. You’re the guy who has to develop these supervisors into confident captains, not shadows of themselves, limping away for safe harbor. You’re the guy who has to establish an atmosphere that encourages best efforts, not one that exposes vulnerabilities and insecurities. Being an effective manager is your job. It’s a set of skills that needs to be mastered. In this regard, you’re failing.”

I had no doubt that at that moment Phil wanted to dismiss me as he had his own staff too many times. To his credit, he didn’t take a single swipe. Not then, nor in the months following as we worked together at his request on his management approach. He learned to create those pivotal moments that are the foundation of the management relationship, rather than relying on his own reflexes.

Phil worked hard at catching himself. He began to allow others to succeed and err more on their own and to learn from both. He began to insist on the critical things, recognizing that not everything is critical. He learned that his natural impatience was a virtue so long as it  served to energize, not humiliate. And most important for Phil, he came to appreciate that his employees wanted to please him; he needed to master the art of making that possible for them.

Management Is Work

In a broad sense, Phil’s puzzle is your puzzle: how to piece together your personal virtues and flaws with the job of leading. The first pieces come together only when you stop assuming that “how you are” is how you should manage.

Every manager has to use his strengths and shelve his shortcomings. Management is hard work. It requires many organizational skills and many relationship skills. Why would anyone expect to have them “naturally”? It’s worth pointing out that managers who work at improving don’t necessarily change as people, parents, spouses, friends, or neighbors. They become better managers. They develop a keener appreciation for their obligations and challenges in the unseen spotlight.

Your work involves mastering unfamiliar, uncomfortable behavior that may not feel like the “real you.” If you long to express the real you — to give free rein to your instincts — go on vacation. Managing in the invisible spotlight takes practice, self-reflection, and discipline.

Craig Wasserman has been a management consultant, trainer and lecturer since 1976.  He helps managers explore their ultimate responsibility for making critical organizational relationships work and shows them how to deal head-on with their internal apprehensions and external realities, how to master the tasks that are especially awkward for them and how to perform as intelligent, practical leaders.

Doug Katz has been advising managers on the most intelligent ways to steward their organizations and navigate their relationships with employees for almost four decades. In addition to his consulting work, Doug is often retained to facilitate meetings and conferences addressing controversial issues.

Learn more about Wasserman and Katz at


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