Last week I told the story of Mark the highly skilled technical expert who was promoted to management but couldn’t manage his people. What happened next was the organisation’s worst nightmare.
This was a blog post I wrote back in 2016. I recalled it when I recently had a CEO come to me to talk about a Mark in his organisation. I’m not going to detail exactly what we talked about for his Mark, but as this is a very common issue, I am going to give you some approaches for how to handle this kind of situation if you are a CEO or leader in your organisation.
If you are not sure what to do, get coaching or mentoring.
This is a crucial conversation for the CEO and his employee and all credit to this CEO who didn’t quite know how to manage it and contacted me for some mentoring. That would be my first recommendation if you find yourself in this situation. Get the support of a coach or mentor. A few hundred dollars is a small price to pay for finding a good outcome here, or more importantly avoiding a bullying claim, or your employee going on stress leave or an unfair dismissal claim.
Get your CEO mindset clear.
You will handle it best if you are clear about what mindset you are taking into the conversation. Do you really want to find a win/win outcome here or have you become so frustrated with your employee that you are going to find it difficult to converse with him and are likely to transfer that frustration into the discussion? Or do you see this as a performance management conversation? If it is either of the latter two that should be what you talk through with your coach/mentor so you don’t contaminate the conversation with your stuff or end up with a negative outcome that I spoke about above.
Work out how to approach your employee.
If the employee is aggressive and angry, refusing to accept any responsibility for what has happened and blaming his people, then you may decide you need to keep this conversation in house. If he has done some degree of reflection, even if he doesn’t understand what has happened, and if he has become bewildered even mildly depressed, then taking him out of the organisation for a coffee or beer may set a better environment where he might talk and be open to looking at options for resolving the situation.
Listen to understand rather than to reply.
Whenever I am coaching/mentoring leaders about managing the poor performance of their people I always turn to Stephen Covey’s classic book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”. His 5th habit is “Seek First To Understand and Then to be Understood.” So asking your employee how he understands what is happening in his team, asking good questions to help him reflect on it and not making comment or passing judgment is a good approach. Keep him talking until you feel you really understand what has happened as he sees it. Then mirror it back to him to make sure that what you think you have heard is actually what he meant. In other words: “Mark, you are saying that…. You feel that…..You have…..etc.”
Present your position to your employee.
Having demonstrated to your employee that you have heard him and understood his concerns, it is expected that he will now be able to listen to your concerns as the CEO about what has happened, for example, the loss of talented employees, the employees on stress leave, the difficulties employees have in working with him because of his management style and the seeming disintegration of the team. This needs to be done factually without personal judgement at this stage. Most CEOs will have to say that they can’t allow this to continue but that they would like to work out with him a win/win outcome.
Think laterally about the options in advance.
Do some thinking in advance about what the organisation might be able to do to bring about a win/win situation. But first up ask the employee what outcome he wants.
- The best answer you could hope for is that he acknowledges he didn’t understand what it meant to be a manager and that he realises that’s not what he wants to do. He wants to be the technical expert.
This is an ever increasing problem in organisations who do need their technical experts. Some are now creating a consultant designation that promotes the Marks in the organisation with increased status, authority and salary and a business card to match, but they do not have to manage people. Such a designation, however, does not exempt them from developing and enhancing their interpersonal skills and the skills they need to work constructively with others in the organisation.
It would be far better if organisations thought this through before appointing a Mark to a management position, instead of having to manage the disruption in the aftermath.
When a decision like this is reached the CEO can introduce the removal of Mark from the management position as a promotion to technical consultant and Mark retains some sense of credibility and professional identity. At the same time the CEO can promote someone else to fill Mark’s role as manager.
- The next best answer is that he wants to remain a manager but realises he needs management training and that he is highly motivated to change his management style.
My own experience providing this experience to many people is that a group experience is far more likely to produce results than and individual coaching or mentoring experience. I will develop this out in my next blog.
- The most difficult response you could get is that he takes a defiant approach and the CEO has to performance manage him. In this case it is very important that the CEO is advised by HR or if there is no HR professional in the organisation that he/she seek legal advice as to how to proceed.
The fact that few CEOs do this is the main reason why so many situations like this do not end well. It is important to set some goals and objectives with the Marks you are engaging with. Make another time right then (and put it in your calendar) to meet again in 14 days time to see how things are going. This is important even if the initiative you have organised (for example, coaching) won’t have commenced by then. You can see how Mark is travelling and whether his thinking has changed. Continue to follow up on a regular basis to ensure Mark is moving forward.