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Leaders have to learn the job, just like everyone else

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Buy yourself a didgeridoo and blow into it. The consequent auditory experience will be less than euphonic (although it might be helpful anyway if you suffer from sleep apnea, not that this has anything to do with anything).

Whether it’s didgeridoo playing, juggling, figure skating or knitting, when anyone does something for the first time the results probably won’t be pretty. Which is why people read how-to books, take lessons, search You Tube for instructional videos, and otherwise look for help.

When the subject is supervision, middle management, or executive responsibility, the likelihood of nailing it right off the bat is just as unlikely. Strangely, not everyone taking these on for the first time looks for help. Even more strangely, those who promote them into these roles often fail to provide training, suggest any reading matter (like, for example, Leading IT: (Still) the Toughest Job in the World), or even reserve extra time to provide one-on-one coaching.

Which makes no sense. Supervision is different from being an individual contributor, middle management calls for techniques beyond those needed to succeed at supervision, and executives aren’t just middle managers only bigger.

“Leadership” is the art of getting others to follow. It consists of eight tasks: Setting direction, making decisions, staffing, delegating, motivating, managing team dynamics, establishing culture, and communicating. They are the job description for anyone in charge of an organization.

How you go about them when the organization is a three-person workgroup is, however, quite different from how you go about them when you’re responsible for a 100,000-employee multinational enterprise.

Take, for example, communicating, and in particular the sub-task of listening (the others are informing, persuading, and facilitating).

For supervisors the most important technique is “active listening” — knowing how to make sure you understand what someone is telling you, and to make sure that individual knows you didn’t just provide air time … you actually did get to their meaning.

Middle managers, whose direct reports have others reporting to them, need to add a new skill to the mix: “Organizational listening.” It’s knowing how to get a handle on the organization’s health and current situation — the buzz, the pulse, morale, concerns, what employees are saying to each other, what problems are being swept under the rug, which managers they have no respect for … What’s Going On Out There.

Supervisors do have to listen to organizations, specifically, those on the receiving end of what their organizations do. It’s exponentially harder for middle managers, who have larger organizations to track and less direct interaction with employees who, after all, don’t report directly to them. It’s exponentially harder still for executives, who are responsible for employees who don’t even report directly to the people who report to them. Not to mention the organizations on the receiving end of what their organizations do.

Most supervisors figure out the importance of listening to their employees, possibly because in their own careers they reported to a bad supervisor who didn’t listen to them. Promote them to the next level, where managers and supervisors report to them, though, and many will figure their old listening approach is sufficient … if they listen to their direct reports, they’ll learn what they need to know.

This, of course, doesn’t happen. The technique is called listening through the chain of command. The reason it doesn’t work is that it’s carefully constructed to filter out the most important information, namely, everything the supervisors and managers who report to you would rather you didn’t know is going on.

Supervisors who are promoted to middle management need to add additional listening channels to the chain of command. Channels like metrics, skip meetings, an open-door policy, general walking-around time, employee surveys … a wide range of ways to stay in touch with employees and to have a feel for things.

Middle managers promoted to the executive ranks find themselves even more isolated, because organizational dynamics conspire to keep everything they need to know most away from them. Even the best middle-management listening channels aren’t enough. At this level, culture takes on a dominant role, and in particular creating a culture of honest inquiry. That’s because in an organization with a culture of honest inquiry, employees go out of their way to make sure they tell whatever they know that’s important to whoever needs to know about it.

None of this is knowledge leaders are born with. Make sure the ones who report to you have the opportunity to acquire it.

The alternative, after all, is leading a team of unqualified leaders. You deserve better.

Comments (1)

  • “Even more strangely, those who promote them into these roles often fail to provide training, suggest any reading matter (like, for example, Leading IT: (Still) the Toughest Job in the World), or even reserve extra time to provide one-on-one coaching.”

    This matches my own experience. In 30 years, I’ve seen exactly one instance where a newly promoted supervisor was provided with significant training and feedback. Not coincidentally, her manager is one of the best managers I’ve ever worked for.

    In tight times, it’s common for companies to cut back on training, seeing it as a luxury – and to be fair, some training is. But as you point out, failing to train new supervisors, managers and executives just sets them up for failure.

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