Develop Bad Managers Instead of Losing Good Talent

Jim Tam Talent Management, HR Strategy, Leadership

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 strong potential to be a senior leader in the organization.

When talent loss becomes a trend

What’s even more alarming is this is becoming a pattern. Sal is the third employee who has quit in the past year, all of whom reported to the same manager, Taylor. During your exit interviews with Sal and the others who left, it became apparent that they didn’t just quit the company — they all left because they just couldn’t work for Taylor.

Bad managers & leaders compel good employees to leave

Taylor has been with the organization almost since the company was founded over 20 years ago and possesses decades of knowledge that make him an invaluable asset. Although brilliant, Taylor is abrasive and even borderline abusive. Because he 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 also 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.

Bad managers also keep strong talent away

Here’s the real tragedy — perceived as indispensable to the company, senior management never addressed the “bad manager” issue with him 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 his team. 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.

Not everyone is a born leader

Taylor is not unique, as every company has experience with poor managers. Like Taylor, they may be 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 or qualifications and no consequences for a ruthless management style.

The importance of leadership development

Often, the inability of an individual to properly manage is a result of a 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 technical or subject matter expertise and then rely on this new manager to trust their instincts to lead a team. Unfortunately, when left to their own devices, managers will manage their teams based on how they’ve been managed in the past. 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.

For more information on the complexities of transitioning SMEs to manager roles, see our guide on this subject.

How to develop leadership skills in employees

Now the question is, “Is it too late for Taylor?” The short answer is “No,” however, both Taylor and the organization must make the long-term commitment and investment to develop Taylor. 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 him to be a better manager. Taylor’s manager must have ample opportunities to observe his 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. Using this feedback, Taylor and his manager can co-develop a plan to improve.
  2. Seek regular feedback from the team. Taylor needs to increase his communication frequency with his team 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. Taylor can consult with HR to recommend managers within the organization who have developed a reputation for being great managers. 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 and with 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.

For more information on this topic, see our guide to qualities and traits of good (and bad) leaders.

Don’t let a lack of leadership development poison the rest of the organization

Unfortunately, there isn’t 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. It’s also likely 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.

To avoid this outcome, it’s important to be proactive about investing in talent and leadership development. Committing to initiatives like this not only makes your workers more effective at their responsibilities, but also fosters a company culture of learning, self-improvement, and internal mobility. Keystone Partners has been working with organizations to support these exact issues for the last 40 years. To learn more about how we can help your organization become the best version of itself and retain top talent, get in touch with us today.

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