Stop hand-holding your managers

So you have a good manager. Sort of.

There is a recipe for failure for senior management, that is paved with stress, overwhelming amount of work and frustrations, because „things are not improving.“

A typical situation can go like this: you have a head of sales, who is generally alright. He brings in the cash and hits his sales quota. He is effective in maintaining the status quo and makes sure his organization is in order and delivers results. Unfortunatelly, you don’t remember the last time he either initiated discussion or changed any aspect of how his organization works, except maybe some minor things. You, as his direct boss, would on the other hand change and question a lot: should be tweak the coverage model (= how many reps of what profile are in what locations and serve what type of customers)?, what would happen if we increased the prices by 3%?, how to better structure the value proposition to the customer segment, that does not perform as expected?, should we abandon certain customer segment?, is there a completely new market opportunity?, are we measuring the right things?

What do you do? You obviously will give him feedback. If he changes, the problem is solved. Perfect. Those issues could be just of a developmental nature and you will solve them through feedback, mentoring or coaching. Unfortunatelly, more frequently then not you will still have a problem on your hands, because people rarely change. So, what do you do after you have tried to address it with traditional performance management tools? Do you keep him, because he delivers results and his organization is in order? Or do you ask him to leave and search for somebody else, because he is not effective at the more conceptual aspects of his job? A lot of executives, including me many times, choose a hand-holding approach: you let him do what he is good at and help him with the rest.

What is wrong with hand-holding?

The trouble is that you lack the necessary depth to be effective, you send the wrong message to the rest of the organization, you probably don’t have enough capacity, you may even lack the skill and most importantly, you won’t have a strong bulldog-like leader who will push the necessary actions forward over obstacles.

Nothing in business moves forward without friction. So in practice, if you decide to take over some aspects of your subordinate’s work, it will be only you trying to make things happen. The more you take over, the less feeling of ownership there will be left in mind of the subordinate in question. All the millions of details and obstacles to overcome will be on your plate on top of your regular responsibilites. You will be responsible for the thought process and also for putting the ideas into practice. That is because those new initiatives would be from yourself and you will be the only one who is able to see the whole picture, make tradeoffs, tweak it, change the plan, start again several times, etc. All those little details that are crucial for proper execution.

What to do about it?

The details of the unique situation may be different in every case. It could be a problem of manager’s will, like the lack of proactivity, lack of engagement or lack of caring. Or the issue could rather be the problem of skill, like inability to ask the right questions, or see the right problems or opportunities, it could be the wrong assessment of priorities, inability to perform necessary analyses and design new solutions or troubles in putting them into practice.

You may be tempted to solve the specific situation according to these aspects. For example if you think the trouble is in performing analyses, you may think about assigning an analyst to work with the manager. In another situations you may think about engaging consultants to assist. I would advise against all those solutions. They look good „on paper“ and I tried all of them myself, but ultimatelly you will still have the suboptimal manager in place. Analyst will prepare his report and consultant will make his presentation, but then you have to action the changes and you will only get frustrated as you will see things stuck all the same as before. That is because these patches only address part of the problems and the real issue, that you don’t have a strong enough person in place, will remain.

The only real question is whether it is worthwile to try to solve it in the first place. In another words: if I solve this and get a world-class person who will do exactly what I miss now, is it going to materialize in some critical aspect of the business? Not every problem is worth solving. Getting a new person who will be effective the way you want will cost money, take time and energy, entail risk and if the benefits will not ultimately show distinctively-enough on the P&L or some other way you measure “ultimate success”, it might be smart to keep things the way they are.

Conclusion

Hand-holding your managers is short-sighted. Trying to patch the situation through consultants, analysts, project managers, etc. creates false hope and only postpones the problem. The only two meaningful courses of action is providing feedback, mentoring and coaching for some time and then, if it does not work and the problem is important-enough, go for the uncomfortable but right decision and exchange the person.

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