Thursday, April 09, 2015

Capacity for Managing

Having just read a report entitled, The State of the American Manager, I’m reminded of a retort from Elder Cunningham, a character in the touring Broadway musical, Book of Mormon.

Reminded before leaving by his father to just do whatever his companion tells him to do, Cunningham humorously declares:

“Right, I am a follower.”

I won’t be a “spoiler” for anyone who has yet to see it, but researchers at Gallup find that only 1-in-10 people have the innate talent to lead and another two-in-10 manifest some of the talents necessary.

A talent by this definition is a “natural capacity for excellence.”  We can “learn skills, develop knowledge and gain experience” but we cannot “acquire talent.”

I must divulge that for several years beginning in the late 1980s, I was a mentee of the late Don Clifton, who did a lot of research on talent and strengths.

The company Gallup, which was acquired by his company during that span, has continued to delve deeper and deeper into the psychology of strengths and workplace engagement.

I kept a copy of an assessment he and an associate did of me in November 1986 which had been requested by my governing board to serve as a template for selecting a successor.

We stayed in touch off and on until the early 1990s but based on my spotty track record at vetting individual contributors who would also be good managers, I needed much more of his tutelage.

The just-released report lists five talent “dimensions” for good managers that have evolved from his work: “motivator,” “assertiveness,” “accountability,” relationships” and “decision-making.”

These “dimensions” have evolved only slightly from those Clifton noted in November 1986 on a profile my governing board would use to select my successor.

Two areas highlighted in Clifton’s assessment of me proved cautionary and useful during the remainder of my four-decade career as an executive.

I “attracted and worked best,” he noted, with “talented, bright, aggressive individuals” whom I could develop and grow but a “duality” in my nature led me to be conservative, introspective—and at times, even insecure” when it came to building and trusting relationships.

In small organizations, such as those that I led, with a workforce of no more than two dozen, it is hard not to want and need individual contributions to take on management roles in order to keep good talent.

But without the required talents for management, this backfires, leading to managers who are half as engaged as those with the talents noted in the report, and who often when compared to when they were individual contributors become disengaged, or even actively disengaged.

The report notes that the top two reasons people are typically made managers are because they were successful in a previous non-management role or because they had a lot of experience and tenure.

This is even more typical in a small organization.  But as the report notes, “managers should be grown not promoted” and that should start with an assessment of whether they have the natural capacities.

Subsequent analysis of why previously successful organizations often fail cite a decline in capacity, which even more than sustainable funding, is identified by a gradual decline in management capacity.

The landscapes of communities are littered with the corpses of broken organizations, not because they were obsolete or ineffective but because officials and governing boards failed to give them the capacity to endure, including good leadership.

The only thing worse than a “glass ceiling” is placing people in positions of management who lack the talent, interest or engagement.

On the upside, someone with management talent will have “a profound impact on engagement [within an organization’s workforce], and that engagement has a profound impact on just about everything that matters to an organization’s long-term viability.”

The report is well worth reading and re-reading.

Training is a must, but may not be the answer.  It is far better to do a talent assessment of an individual for management before investing in training.

A recent report by McKinsey & Company based on a survey of executives around the world last year shows a high level of frustration over the lack of metrics tying training to business performance.

The 14% of organizations that identified capability building as on of their top-three strategic priorities, appear more confident that learning programs that “use a range of qualitative and quantitative measures were generally better at meeting the stated targets.”

Gallup appears to have a model worth investigating which first identifies the talents and strengths of individuals and then tailors learning to build on those foundations.

The consummate individual contributors are sales people.  Based on his research, Steve W. Martin who teaches at USC Marshall noted What Separates the Strongest Salespeople from the Weakest in an article in Harvard Business Review.

Some talents such as verbal acuity, achievement oriented personality and situational dominance were not surprising based on my experience nor was the fact that only 46% agreed that their sales manager had an impact.

But nearly 70% of the higher performers rated their sales manager as excellent or above average.  But high performers and low performers identified different attributes for a great sales manager.

Standing out was leadership, management and coaching skills.

A key to selecting high performing individual contributors as sales people is an “inward pessimism” that drives them to ask prospects tougher qualifying questions and seek out true decision-makers.

Key for a high performing sales organization overall is super-accountability, one of the five talent “dimensions” identified for managers in general in the Gallup report.

Don Clifton would be smiling.

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