Why Aren't There More Good Managers?

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 24, 2020

When the cake comes out wrong, it's seldom the fault of the ingredients. Odds are the flour, sugar, and eggs were just fine. It's probably the fault of the baker. Some bakers are good and others aren't so good. Some managers are good and others aren't so good. The best have special recipes that they've learned. They take ordinary ingredients and incredible things happen. You can be like that, too. I'm not saying that the ingredients don't matter. Get good ingredients. But it takes much more than that to be a great baker.

Extraordinary managers make the whole greater than the sum of its parts. They add value to their organization. They get extraordinary results from ordinary people. Average managers wind up with ordinary results no matter how good their people are. There are even managers who, unfortunately, drag their groups down so that they get ordinary results from extraordinary people. The whole, then, becomes less than the sum of its parts. These managers have little, if any, value. They don't really manage much of anything. They're "straw bosses." After the worthwhile stalks of wheat and other grains are harvested, straw is what's left over on the ground. It's used primarily for animal bedding. The term straw boss has come to mean a low-level manager who isn't good for much. Such managers have very little authority. They're leftovers. The term also connotes someone who is petty and makes things more difficult, not better, for employees. I know some companies that have more than their share of "straw bosses." I'm willing to wager that you do, too.

Why aren't there more good managers? There are five main reasons:

  1. Most occupations require some demonstrated competence, but management doesn't. Many occupations require certification or a license, where you have to pass a test to demonstrate a certain level of knowledge and proficiency. To become a plumber or an electrician, for example, you've got to be licensed. Frankly, even a dog has to be licensed. What credentials do you need to become a manager? None. None at all. You just have to be in the right place at the right time. Maybe you're the last one standing. Everyone else has quit and you've hung around the longest. It's the "Poof! You're a manager" process. Imagine if there were a "Poof! You're a heart surgeon" process. I don’t think that would work out very well.
  2. Most managers are thrown into the fray without training or preparation. They're given little guidance and direction. We invest little and we get little in return. That's the way it happened to me. I can still remember the day of the week and the time of day. We were finishing up our employee coffee break. It was just a normal daily coffee break. We spent the whole time complaining about management. They were fools, bureaucrats, out of touch, and cared only about themselves—the usual story. I got called into a vice president's office at 10:15 a.m. My first thought was, "I must be in trouble. What have I done wrong?" The vice president told me that starting Monday, I'd be a manager. I was floored. I said, "Why me?" I felt I was being punished. He talked to me about how much the organization needed me. It's not the kind of thing you can turn down. I remember asking him, "What am I supposed to do?" He gave me the classic response: "You'll figure it out." Well, some people do figure it out. But sadly, a lot of people never do.
  3. Everyone is, to some extent, a reflection of the person they've modeled themselves after. Just as parents, teachers, and older siblings have an impact on children, the managers we've worked for have an impact on us. Some of us say, "I'll have to remember how it feels to be treated this way. I'll be sure not to do that when I become a manager." But most say, "This is what managers are supposed to do, I guess. I'm required to be like the person I work for. That must be what the company wants." So, a generation of mediocre or poor managers gives rise to a new generation of mediocre or poor managers. The challenge is to stop the cycle and break the "stagnant quo." Be different. Be better. Be wary, though. You may get in trouble. There will be plenty of people around with the dread disease known as "hardening of the attitudes." I don't think you can be any good if you're afraid to get in trouble or be called crazy for wanting to change things. As Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman said, "Here's to the crazy ones: You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify, or vilify them. About the only thing you can't do is ignore them, because they change things. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do."
  4. Even after they become managers, people continue to be rewarded for being good individual contributors. Knowing what people are rewarded for always helps you understand the way they behave. Ever read a manager's performance review? It's usually hard to find a single line about management performance. It's typically about the projects the managers worked on and the problems they've solved. It's about how hard they personally have worked. They're like super employees. If that's how we're going to continue to reward managers, as individual contributors, that's what they're going to continue to focus on.
  5. Truthfully, the job is hard. Most people can become programmers or accountants with some education and some work. Management requires skills that a lot of people don't have or aren't willing to work at acquiring. The higher you go up the pyramid, the more difficult the jobs are. That's why the pyramid gets narrower and narrower at the top.

I've heard all the excuses that managers give as to why they don't manage. Excuses like, "I'm too busy," and "My boss won't let me," and "I'm not going to hold people's hands." To understand how ridiculous these excuses are, let's put them in a different context. Let's say you were having your house painted. The painting crew was doing a terrible job. The radio was blaring, they were making a mess out of your yard, and not much work was getting done at all. You call the crew chief over and say, "I'm very disappointed in the work your crew has been doing." He claims it's not his fault because he's "too busy" and the "boss won't let me" and he's "not going to hold people's hands." My guess is you'd be outraged. You'd probably call the owner of the painting company and demand that this crew chief be replaced. You wouldn't let him get away with saying those things. Why should we let our managers get away with it?

Adapted from Becoming an Extraordinary Manager: The 5 Essentials for Success, by Leonard Sandler (AMACOM, a division of  American Management Association, www.amanet.org/books/, 2007).