Transitioning into a new role can be challenging for any employee, but when that employee is taking on a management position for the first time, there can be another set of difficulties, says Tom Davenport, senior consultant at Towers Watson, a global professional services company in New York City. The new responsibilities that come with a management position are more than just different technical skills, which the employee has already proved to grasp. Rather, the additional responsibilities involve managing people, and those are skills not everyone possesses.
On the employer side, choosing the right person for the job might seem like the obvious first step, but it’s not always that easy. Often, employers choose to promote employees based on their technical skills rather than their foreseen abilities to lead others, Davenport says. While having a strong technical skillset is important, it should not be the primary determining factor for transitioning employees into managerial positions.
“Promoting employees because of their technical skills is what I refer to as the ‘manager death spiral,’” Davenport says. “What organizations need to do from the beginning is fight the temptation for that first promotion to be mainly on the basis of technical skills. Find someone who is technically good, but maybe they’re a seven on the one to 10 technical scale. They don’t have to be a 9.5.”
When defining a list of desirable attributes for a manager, strong leadership skills is, of course, one of the most wanted qualities; however, if an employee has never been in a management position, Davenport says, he or she may not have had the chance to demonstrate leadership skills. Instead, employers should look at specific qualities that could indicate how that person will perform in a management position.
“You want someone with good listening skills who can have effective conversations with people and are sought after for advice,” Davenport says. “Finding somebody who clearly demonstrates empathy is one of my personal favorites. You need a manager who understands what somebody is saying and can internalize their experience. That’s important because managers need to do help their employees develop and reach their aspirations.”
Davenport believes it’s important that new managers already possess these attributes because many of them typically cannot be learned. Rather, they are inherent traits, and if the manager doesn’t already have them, it could be difficult for him or her to effectively demonstrate these skills.
“A lot of management skills are something you can’t learn if you don’t demonstrate them in your basic personality in how you experience and handle your work,” Davenport says. “You can’t go to the empathy training from 2-4 on Wednesday afternoon.”
Still, there are types of training that can help, Davenport says. Instead of focusing on personality traits, employers should train cognitive skills. While many leadership qualities cannot be easily learned, an employer can teach its managers how to motivate their staff members with rewards and recognitions systems.
“It’s all about taking someone who has the potential to be empathetic, be a good leader and listener, and help people be successful and then training them in the tools, techniques, processes and assets that are available to them to play that role,” Davenport says. “But don’t try to train them in the basic personality traits they have to have to be successful in that job. You can go a long way in training managers to use their cognitive skills, and that can be very powerful.”