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The 7 Biggest Challenges of a Manager

I’ve previously written about why you might want to be a manager and the 13 skills needed by a manager. This article explains the seven biggest challenges faced by a manager.

1. Achieving a Stretch Goal
The organization you’re managing is responsible for something — whether it’s performing a business process, supporting some other organization, developing a new product, or getting new customers. There are goals associated with your objectives, and if your organization is aggressive then those goals require more than the typical amount of effort. It’s going to take some careful planning for you to figure out how to apply your organization’s people and resources to achieve an aggressive goal. You’re going to have to motivate people, remove roadblocks from their path, and focus them on the things that are most important. It’s a stretch goal, but you can achieve it — maybe even surpass it.

2. Bringing Out the Best in Your Employees
All employees have good days and bad days. Some of the causes are out of your control. But it’s important that you take steps to make as many days as possible “good days.” Here are some of the things that you can do:

  • Treat every employee with respect. If you have praise for the employee, give the praise in front of coworkers. If you have criticism for the employee, give it in private. For all but the worst underperforming employees, make sure that the praise happens much more often than the criticism.
  • Help employees align their personal goals with their work goals. Talk with each employee about his or her personal goals: what they want to get out of life, where they want their career to go. To the extent possible, use this information to help you allocate work assignments.
  • Provide a work environment that is appropriate for the work and conducive to employee well-being. A comfortable work environment makes your employees more productive.
  • Encourage employee communication and cooperation. For example, in one of my management jobs, I held a monthly lunch for my employees. During the lunch I updated them on any company news I’d heard, and I had some of the employees describe their recent work and some of their challenges. We also had a series of awards.
    But these were not your typical awards. Each award was given by the previous award recipient to someone who exemplified the spirit of the particular award. There was a “Gumby” award (a Gumby character) given to the most flexible employee, and other awards for things like putting the team ahead of yourself, most creative outside-the-box idea, and unluckiest employee. Employees sometimes even created their own one-time awards when something special or unusual happened. Over time the number of awards grew, and the interchange of enthusiasm and ideas made the organization a happy and fun place to work.

3. Dealing with Underperforming Employees
Not all of your employees will do their best. Some will have personal issues that interfere with their work. Technically it’s not your problem, but in reality any issue that contributes to an underperforming employee is your problem. You’ll help employees cope with personal issues, you’ll provide motivation and counsel, maybe steer them to appropriate resources inside or outside your company. You’ll “carry” your underperforming employees to a point, and then beyond that point you’ll have to ease them out of your organization. You’ll be humane, but you have to balance the needs of the organization with the needs of the employees.

4. Dealing with Outstanding Employees
Some of your employees obviously outperform the others. That’s good news for your organization, but it presents its own set of challenges. Outstanding employees need special treatment. You want them to keep doing an exceptional job but that usually means that you’ll have to pay them special attention. They need recognition for their talents and efforts. They need encouragement, training and guidance. And above all they need to know that they have a career path in your company, even if that career path takes them out of your organization.

You’ll be tempted to hold on to your outstanding employees and keep them from being promoted out of your organization. You shouldn’t do that. When an employee star outgrows your organization, the best thing for your company is to make sure that the employee finds a home in another part of your company where he or she can continue to contribute. And ultimately, you’ll be rewarded for your good deed of helping the employee achieve his or her potential. Your reputation as a “team player” and good manager will grow, and your own career will be enhanced.

5. Hiring the Right People
No matter how happy your employees are, you’ll get occasional turnover. And if your organization is successful then you’ll often find that your budget and headcount will grow as you are assigned more and more responsibility. Either way, you’ll need to hire. Hiring is easy, but hiring the right person is extremely difficult.

The trick in hiring is to get an understanding of how an employee will actually perform the work — not just how the employee does in interviews. Interviews are seldom a good predictor of work and work habits, so going beyond the interview is crucial.

I’ve sometimes used unconventional interviewing techniques. I’ve done the traditional interview, but then I’ve tried some things that gave me a better feel for how the interviewee will perform in an actual work situation. For example, for some programmer positions, I had the prospective employee spend some time with his/her future coworkers, going through a task that the current employee was doing. Getting feedback from the current employee (who had a vested interest in finding someone who would carry a part of the workload) made a big difference in our choice for some potential new hires.  And the process also increased our acceptance rate for job offers, since the job applicants had a better feel for the environment into which they were being hired.

6. Responding to a Crisis
No matter how much planning you do, things will go wrong. An employee will get sick at a critical time. A weather disaster will hit your facility and disrupt your plans. A crime will be committed — maybe a theft or even something that harms an employee.

Planning is a part of managing, but perhaps more important is a manager’s ability to change plans on the fly in response to changing conditions. When a crisis hits, you have to be able to deal with it — calmly, quietly and without being overwhelmed by stress.

7. Continuous Improvement
No matter how good your organization gets, it can do better. There’s always some type of improvement that can be made: a change in a process, a better working environment, better employee motivation, more focus on the essentials. If you ever get to the point where you honestly have no idea how to improve things further, then you should either (a) seek outside advice, or (b) look for another job. There’s always a better way, and you have to keep looking for it.

Management is complicated. It requires skill and motivation. But most of all it requires commitment — the commitment needed to rise to these seven challenges.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Shyam J December 5, 2009, 12:16 am


    Thanks for making these articles available to professionals like I. My background is primarily in the software technology space and more recently (last 3-5 years) developing program management skills in a Fortune 100 company. My initial years of experience comes from leading teams in a managerial position. However, in my current place of work, I’m finding it quite challenging to get into one. In interacting with several managers, I strongly believe I can contribute better, but opportunities are hard. What recommendations do you have for folks such as I?

    • Harwell December 5, 2009, 2:18 pm

      Thanks for your comment. I’m not sure I understand your question, but I’ll try to respond to what you’ve written.

      If you’re asking, “How do I get into a management position from an individual contributor position?” then here’s a quick answer:

      1. Make your boss aware that you’re interested in getting into management. If he/she doesn’t know about your interest, then you’ll never get the opportunity. And if your boss is aware then you can begin to get the coaching you need to grow into a position.
      2. Show your team and your boss that you have the perspective required to work at a higher level.
      3. Demonstrate the skills that you need to become a manager.
      4. Watch out for management job opportunities (e.g., a manager leaves, a new project opens up, there’s an organization change), and make sure your name is considered.

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