08th May 2009

Becoming a manager

By D. Quinn Mills

Making a transition into management is a major challenge and some people don’t succeed at it. New managers need to be very careful about identifying, and employing, the keys to success.

Management is about tasks, including what and how things are done. Managers need to know the objectives of their department or team and how to achieve the objectives. This aspect of management is objective and impersonal.

But management is also about people. Managers direct and supervise other people. Managers integrate and match people and tasks in order to get work accomplished.

The role of a manager is to accomplish things through other people. For the most part, managers are not people who actually do the work, but rather managers supervise, direct and motivate those who perform work.

This isn’t to say that managers don’t work—they do managerial tasks, but not the tasks related directly to production of the products and services provided to customers or clients. Those who do the direct work are called individual contributors. It is the role of a manager to direct individual contributors; this is a fundamental distinction that needs to be kept always in mind.

The managerial point of view

In fact, when a person gets her or his first managerial job, a most important key to success is that the new manager understands and adopts a managerial point of view. This point of view reflects the distinction we made just above— that a manager gets things done through other people, rather than doing them himself or herself.

Some new managers fail to understand or adopt the managerial point of view, and so they fail as managers. They were probably excellent individual contributors, and possibly that’s why they were chosen to be made managers. But because they were good at the work they were doing, they want to continue doing it.

As managers, however, they have a broader responsibility, so now they try to do the work of several people, or to continue to do their own individual contributor’s work, and also manager others. In other words, they don’t let go of their previous work—they just try to add on more work— that of a manager. They often break down under the load, or don’t have time to do anything well. Either way, they fail to become effective managers.

It is this failure to let go of a person’s role as an individual contributor and grab hold of a manager’s responsibility for directing others that is the key cause of failure for new managers.

Management is about other people. A manager works within a web of human relationships— those of the people he or she supervises and of the manager’s peers and superiors. If you’re a person who likes to be on her own, management probably isn’t for you. Key managerial skills are good people skills. The vision, dedication, and integrity of a manager determine success or failure.

It’s a manager’s role to see that work gets organized, that individuals take responsibility for particular tasks, that tasks are coordinated so that they add up to accomplishing an overall project, and that the work is done on schedule and to the necessary standards of quality. The objective of managers is always to create top performing organizations.

A manager focuses on the group of people that she or he directs, and on each individual among them. The group accomplishes the work; the individual is developed and makes his or her own contribution. The manager’s job is to do both well.

D. Quinn Mills, the Alfred J. Weatherhead Jr. Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School (emeritus), consults with major corporations in the U.S. and globally. He has written extensively on leadership, strategy, and management issues.

Copyright © 2009 D. Quinn Mills

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