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In the Line of Fire

by Mark Deavall, January 2014

A little while ago, I was asked by one of my clients to interview a few of their constantly underperforming staff, and try to figure out how to “light their fires”. Now this is something that I don’t do with a great deal of joy. I don’t try to “fix” problem people. I have found over the years that rarely, if ever, can one “fix” a problematic individual. I work with really good people to help them become excellent. However because this is a long-standing client with whom we have a very strong relationship, I agreed to do the project. So the individual interviews were arranged, and I duly arrived to chat with these people. I discovered that they were all members of the workforce and so were subject to “first-line” management.

My strategy was to first find out what their ambitions, if any, were. So I asked them one question – “If you could do any job in this company, what job would that be? Forget about abilities and qualifications. Let’s dream a little”. Without fail, every one of them said that they would like their boss's job or the MD’s job! When I asked them why they would like these jobs, the consensus was that their manager or MD is free to arrive at work whenever he or she likes, they make a few phone calls and give some instructions and after that they are only seen when someone needs to be reprimanded or a new task needs to be allocated. The belief among these workers was that management is a “really easy job”, that you get paid a lot of money for doing.

What really worries me is that at some point people are put into management positions with this belief running rampant in their minds. As a result, they cause huge damage before either we fire them, they quit or they eventually decide to learn to become a professional manager. Let me make this point very clear. In years gone by, going into management was a “promotion”. Nowadays, going into management is a career choice. One that requires a whole new set of skills and abilities. A person can earn just as much, if not more money in a specialist role as what one can being a manager. I repeat – MANAGEMENT IS A CAREER CHOICE AND NOT A PROMOTION!

So having gotten that straightened out, let’s take a look at this job of management and fix some misconceptions:

1) A manager is responsible to make sure that the productivity targets of each individual staff member are constantly met. Therefore the manager needs to be continuously engaging with his or her staff in order to remove the obstacles that hinder them from reaching their productivity goals. Continuously means “ALL THE TIME”! Not just at performance appraisal time or when there is a problem. Also, if a manager is going to be held accountable for the productivity of a department, make sure that they have the authority to run that department the way that they deem fit, and that they are not undermined by more senior management. If the manager needs to be corrected, it needs to be done privately and in the form of coaching. In the eyes of the workforce, their manager has the final say!

2) A manager is responsible to ensure that the right people are brought into their department. The departmental manager has to be the one to make the final decision as to who will be recruited or transferred into their department. After all, if they did not make that final decision how can they be held accountable for that person's productivity? On that note, if the wrong person has been recruited by the manager or the manager accepted a transfer of someone into their department, and that person turns out to be unsuitable, I give them three months to either fix or fire the person. If nothing is done within three months, then that manager IS the problem.

3) Ensure that your managers are well trained in the art of people management. Too often we see managers being sent on all sorts of “management training programs” that incorporate a whole lot of theoretical and operational training.  Absolutely necessary stuff for the understanding of a business. But seldom do we see managers being taught the skill of people management. After all, every single function in a business is driven by a person or persons. So is it not therefore vitally important to know how to get the best out of these people?

4) When putting someone into a management position, make certain that the person has the necessary courage to impose control and discipline. As I have previously stated in numerous articles, a department cannot work without the imposition of control and discipline. So managers need to be able to impose this, but in a dignified and respectful manner. There is no room for bullies in management, just as there is no room for people that are unable to impose control and discipline.

5) Never overburden a manager. I am shocked to see that some managers are expected to manage teams of 30 people and more. This is a physical impossibility! No one can directly manage such a large team of people. Between eight and ten people per manager is the optimum. Any more than that and the management effort, no matter how well meant, is diluted and therefore wasted. Also, a situation is being created where the unproductive people will “find corners to hide in” simply because the manager does not have the time to pay them consistent attention. These are the people that suck your payroll dry and show no return on the investment that you make in them by paying them a salary. If you want real productivity, give your managers teams that are of a realistic size.

6) Managers are “get-doners” and not “do-ers”. While I accept the fact that most managers have a certain direct operational responsibility, that is not their primary function. When evaluating their performance as a manager, their ability to extract the company’s desired productivity from the workforce should be the only criteria evaluated. But too often, because the managers managerial ability is being evaluated on their individual operational performance, they stop managing and start doing. Hence the manager starts work at 6 am and goes home at 9 pm, while the staff work from 8 am to 4:30 pm. The manager is doing their work for them!

7) Ensure that your managers are in their roles, because they see management as a career. There is nothing more destructive than a reluctant manager. I often see people getting very excited about being put into management roles. Six months later the envisaged prestige, glitz and ego boost has worn off and reality has set in. It’s at this point that misplaced pride and ego kick in and the person continues in a job that they essentially hate. This is a very destructive manager! If a manager feels that they no longer want to be a manager or that they are not cut out for the job, make it easy for them to exit the role with dignity and to take up another position within the company.

8) It is very dangerous to make someone a manager over their peers. They are friends and buddies with these people. They have been a team, and more often than not partaken in slating the manager and claiming that they can do the job better. Now suddenly this person that is now the manager has to stop malicious gossip and impose discipline! Just as blood is thicker than water, in most instances friendship is more powerful than position. If you want to make someone a manager, make them responsible for a team that they have not had close personal relationships with. It’s a very unusual person that can make that transition from friend, to friend and manager, and keep those two roles balanced. In my career of over 30 years, and having dealt with thousands of people, I have ever only found 4 people who have done that successfully.

Using a “promotion” to management as a reward for consistent good performance, is a very dangerous practice. People are good at their jobs because they become experts. That’s what they are paid to do. But a technical expert does not necessarily make a good manager. A good manager is someone that has acquired the skills that lead to productivity within the workforce, and then uses those skills to get the productivity that the company requires.

Be very careful when putting people into management positions, that they are not in fact being set up for failure. Teach the skills before they get the job, and make sure that having a career in management is what the person actually wants.

Warm regards
Mark Deavall


I trust that you have found benefit in this article. If you would like to contact me or have me talk to the people in your company, please call me on 27 11 609-1264, or
E-mail me

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