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Why are we so bad at hiring managers (and does it matter)?

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Earlier this year Gallup released some data showing that employee engagement was generally appalling throughout the world.  They suggested that, on average, just 13% of employees around the world were really engaged in their work.  Now that’s kinda bad, right?  I mean we all know that engaged employees are more productive.  It’s also fairly widely believed that managers play a big part in that level of engagement (Gallup themselves estimate that managers contribute 70% of the variance in engagement stats).  A bad manager can be catastrophic for engagement levels.

So the latest Gallup data should be cause for serious concern.  They’ve returned with an exploration of how our organizations recruit their managers and found that by and large they’re absolutely rubbish at it.  I mean seriously rubbish, as in getting it wrong 82% of the time rubbish.

Gallup suggest that great managers are pretty few and far between.  Indeed, they believe that just 10% of people have the talent required to be a good manager.

“Though many people are endowed with some of the necessary traits, few have the unique combination of talent needed to help a team achieve excellence in a way that significantly improves a company’s performance.” they say.

To attempt to paint a slightly less bleak picture, they go on to suggest that 20% of us could make decent managers with a healthy dollop of training and development.  Gallup believe that the hitherto awful attempts at recruiting talented managers is largely down to the failure to apply science or research to the task.  Most managers in the study seemed to have been promoted due to operational performance (ie non-managerial) or they’d just been in the field for a while.

They conclude by identifying five key talents they believe managers have in abundance:

  • They motivate every single employee to take action and engage employees with a compelling mission and vision.
  • They have the assertiveness to drive outcomes and the ability to overcome adversity and resistance.
  • They create a culture of clear accountability.
  • They build relationships that create trust, open dialogue, and full transparency.
  • They make decisions based on productivity, not politics.

Which is quite the identikit.  They suggest that such people do exist, often hidden away from the spotlight, but I can’t help but think that they’re falling into the superhero leader trap, whereby all woes will be resolved if only the perfect leader could be found.

The shortlist of skills ignores the unique circumstances and unique requirements of each individual organization.  Superhero leadership might work in stable environments, but in complex and unpredictable ones I really don’t think it does.

It’s the kind of environment where the systems within which employees operate are as important, if not more so, than the managers themselves, because rapid change requires rapid responses.  Top down leadership doesn’t apply in that kind of world.

Businesses today face a virtually unprecedented variety of challenges, from harvesting profits in mature economies with flat or declining growth, to establishing toeholds in emerging countries, to creating the next wave of disruptive innovation, to working through the complexity of changing regulations – and everything in between. Each of these unique challenges requires a unique kind of leader. One size does not fit all.

It’s far better to rely upon a broad base of individuals and leaders who share a common set of values and feel personal ownership for the overall success of the organization. These responsible and empowered individuals will serve as much better watchdogs than any single, dominant leader or bureaucratic structure.

And as organizations grow in size and complexity, it becomes even more critical to distribute the leadership load. Conventional structures that rely upon concentrated leadership to drive decisions towards the centre run the risk of becoming constrained by their own organization. They also lose the opportunity to empower a much broader base of competent leaders. The capacity of the organization increases when it distributes the leadership load to competent leaders on the ground who can make the best knowledge-based decisions.

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