Develop Bad Managers Rather than Lose Good Talent

Jim Tam HR Strategy, Leadership, Talent Management

Sal just resigned. Sal had been with your company for just two years and was an exemplary employee. As the HR Director, you hate to see promising talent leave, particularly someone like Sal, who was a high-performer and had the potential to be a senior leader in the organization.

But what’s even more alarming is this is becoming a pattern. Sal is the third employee who has quit in the past year and ironically, they all reported to the same manager, Taylor. During your exit interview with Sal, it became apparent that all these individuals did not quit the company. They all left because they just couldn’t work for Taylor.

Taylor has been with the organization almost since the company was founded over 20 years ago and possesses decades of tribal knowledge which made Taylor an invaluable asset to the company. Although brilliant, Taylor is abrasive and even borderline abusive. Because Taylor is so smart and has seen it all, it’s a challenge for Taylor to exercise patience for others who may not be as quick to grasp ideas and perform to Taylor’s expectations. Taylor has been known to chastise employees publicly and disregard the opinions of others. He often barks instructions at the team rather than coach or engage them in conversation. And during the pandemic, when his employees needed a more empathetic manager, Taylor continued to lead in a draconian manner which further alienated and disengaged the team.

Here’s the real tragedy. Perceived as indispensable to the company, senior management never addressed the “bad manager” issue with Taylor and simply allowed “Taylor to be Taylor.” In past years, when it was easy to hire replacements, it wasn’t an issue. However, with the Great Resignation and the transparency of social media portals like Glassdoor and LinkedIn, it’s been increasingly difficult to find quality candidates to work for Taylor. It’s no wonder whenever there are job openings in Taylor’s department, there are few, if any, internal applicants. Clearly, Taylor’s reputation as a challenging manager is well known throughout the company.

Taylor is not unique, as every company has experience with poor managers. Like Taylor, they may be a subject-matter-experts and/or someone who has been given a lot of latitude within the organization because they are considered to be indispensable. They could also be a CEO or founder of the company who believe they are offered immunity and allowed to be a bad manager. Or they may even be the CEO’s son or daughter and through nepotism, is now in a leadership role with no managerial experience and no consequences for a ruthless management style.

Often, the inability for an individual to properly manage is a result of lack of proper training combined with their past managers not providing the coaching to prepare them to be managers. All too often, companies promote people into leadership roles based on their subject-matter expertise and then rely on the new manager to trust their instincts to manage the team. Unfortunately, when left to their own devices, managers will manage their teams based on how they’ve been managed. And if their managers never received any managerial training, it becomes a vicious cycle. One might say that Taylor is a direct reflection of the company’s position on developing managers.

Create a Better Manager

Now the question is, “Is it too late for Taylor?” The answer is “No,” however, both Taylor and the organization must make the investment to develop Taylor. (It takes a village!) The first step to tackling this problem is to make Taylor aware of the problem and the degree of severity. In this example, using a formal 360-type assessment tool where data has been collected from Taylor’s peers, direct reports, and supervisors, would be recommended. After the feedback has been shared and assuming Taylor is still committed to being a better manager, here are some immediate steps to take:

  1. Create opportunities for observation and feedback by the direct manager. Taylor’s manager must be an active participant in coaching Taylor to be a better manager. Taylor’s manager must have ample opportunities to observe Taylor’s interactions with the team and be able to provide concrete feedback. This requires a tremendous amount of trust and Taylor must be open to receiving constructive feedback and, along with the manager, co-develop a plan to improve.
  2. Seek regular feedback from the team. Taylor needs to increase his communication frequency with their teams and solicit input on how they would like to be managed. This demonstrates to the team that Taylor is committed to improving and is willing to be vulnerable which will build trust and support from the team. Over time, these conversations will be easier and more natural as Taylor’s relationship with the team strengthens.
  3. Get an executive coach. In addition to getting more internal feedback, the company should provide Taylor with an executive coach; or Taylor can hire one directly. A coach is different from a manager or a mentor because an executive coach is an independent, objective third-party who can provide an unbiased viewpoint on all areas of Taylor’s behavior without consequences. The coach will challenge Taylor’s perspectives, heighten self-awareness, and help Taylor achieve greater self-actualization. Just like a personal trainer, the coach will push Taylor and keep them accountable to their commitments.
  4. Observe great managers. This is easy and very logical. Taylor can consult with HR to recommend managers within the organization that have developed a reputation for being a great manager. Within most organizations, there are managers that everyone wants to work for because they are great at doing certain things. Perhaps they’re great at communicating with their teams. Or maybe they are great at developing and promoting talent. Or maybe they have low turnover rates because people just love working for them. Taylor should observe or even seek guidance to understand what they do well and embed those practices into his managerial style. This is also a great opportunity for mentorship.

Final Word

There is not a magic wand to make Taylor or anyone a great manager overnight. It requires time and commitment from all parties. Although many times it’s the individual that’s to blame for being a bad manager, just as often the blame could be shared by many. No one wants to be a bad manager and rarely do poor managers know they are bad managers. Usually, bad managers are victims of having a series of bad managers of their own throughout their careers. Also, it’s probable that they were never given coaching from their managers or formal managerial training by the organization. In today’s environment, organizations that do not invest in developing good managers, or worse, allow bad managers to continue being bad managers, will find themselves losing the “war for talent.” This is a huge business risk and can also be very expensive if you’re constantly having to hire new people.

If you’re a manager, ask for constant feedback from your supervisor and your people. If you want or think you can benefit from formal training or an executive coach, ask your manager or HR. Your willingness to be developed demonstrates professional maturity and self-awareness.


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