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Failed First-Time Managers: 2 Case Studies

I’ve promoted 20 or 30 people into their first manager jobs during my career. Two of those promotions were failures — they did so badly that I had to take them back out of the positions. Here’s what I learned from that experience.

In both cases there was ample evidence that the people were ready for a promotion. Both people had performed well as project leaders where they provided direction to others. Both were respected by their peers and customers, and had good communication skills. Both people had worked for me for a few years, so I had a pretty good idea of what their strengths and weaknesses were.

The First Failure
The first failed manager was promoted into a software development manager position. She had shown good ideas as a project leader, and I expected her to dig right in when she had her own people reporting to her. But I didn’t recognize a problem she had with self-confidence and prioritization.

As a project leader she had to make decisions, and she seemed to cope well with the decision-making process. But apparently her confidence in her project leader decisions was bolstered by the fact that her manager had the final word on those decisions. When she took that manager role, she began to second guess herself. She couldn’t adequately prioritize her time between the important decisions and the trivial ones, and she lost her self-confidence. She got to the point where she would decide something, tell her employees, then change her mind after talking to someone else. Many of those decisions were trivial enough that they didn’t significantly affect project success, but it was unproductive to keep changing her mind, and it began to cause a lot of rework.

I talked to her numerous times about the problem, but she was unable to regain the focus she had as a project leader. Eventually her stress level got too high, and we jointly decided to take her out of the position.

The Second Failure
The second failed manager had been very successful leading infrastructure projects with well-defined objectives. We needed a services manager to lead an organization that was responsible for the overall infrastructure for a large department, and I promoted him into the position.

He had the technical background to understand the area he was responsible for, and he worked well with the employees who reported to him. He initially did well in the position, taking care of infrastructure needs, and prioritizing work based on the needs of the business.

Over a period of several months, however, he began to get overconfident. The customers for his services began to complain that he wouldn’t listen to them, and when I discussed the complaints with him, he took the position that he understood their needs better than they did. I tried various approaches to improve his customer relationships. I tried working with him on defining customer expectations and on better communication. Ultimately, however, I couldn’t get him to understand that he needed to redefine success to include customer perception. I removed him from the position, and transferred him to another area that was more project focused.

What I Learned:
1. Sometimes you can’t tell in advance whether someone will do well in a management role (or any other role). And you can’t wait until you’re 100% positive, because no one is ever sure. There will be failures. You just need to stay on top of the situation and change things if necessary.

2. All first-time managers have to adjust to a new situation. All require support from their manager and some degree of hand-holding. It’s important to meet regularly with a new manager to talk about any questions and difficulties. And it’s important to get independent information from the new manager’s customers, peers and subordinates to get a full picture of what’s going on.

3. The biggest unknown about promoting someone into a first-time manager position is how it will affect the new manager’s self-perception. Some feel inadequate and have trouble with stress, uncertainty and the reactions from their new subordinates. Some let the new implied status and power go to their heads, they become overconfident, and they don’t pay enough attention to the views of their customers and employees. Both reactions can be temporary and can be corrected with time. But different situations demand different levels of tolerance. Sometimes the person has to be taken out of the position if it doesn’t appear that the situation can be corrected in the time available.

4. Even if a first-time manager has to be removed from the management position, that doesn’t mean that the person can’t become a manager later. It’s possible that the person will learn from his or her mistakes and do better in a few years.

5. Taking someone out of a manager position has to be done carefully and announced with tact. The action can be devastating to the ego of the person being removed from the position. If that person is going to continue in your organization then it’s important to explain the change in a way that minimizes the damage to the person’s reputation.

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