How to Know If You’re Ready to Manage People

By Mark McClain
manage

Question for you: Do you like to work, or do you want to get work done through others?

Knowing what needs to be done, and DOING the work might be where you thrive. And as long as your supervisor recognizes that this is your strength, you’re golden. But what if your supervisor doesn’t realize that and pushes you into a management role because that’s how it works for those in your company who have proven adept at the doing part? Or on the flip side, what if you are one of those people who thrives on motivating and leading the charge, managing a team of doers versus being the doer, but you’re so busy doing that you are never given the chance to manage?

This is fundamental in determining who does and doesn’t have management potential and, conversely, who operates best as a contributor versus a manager. Unfortunately, seeing this clear distinction between those who endowed with manager material and those with contributor material is not how most organizations think. Suppose someone is good at a function in many cases. In that case, all the organization’s energies and hierarchies are geared toward promoting that person; to have them manage a group of people who are doing that same thing, whether or not that person is interested in managing people at all.

It’s the well-known Peter Principle: people in hierarchical organizations tend to rise through promotion to their individual incompetence level. Just think of all the hall-of-fame players from the sports world who have become great coaches or general managers. (Trust me, it’s a short list). Meanwhile, the list of former players who failed spectacularly in coaching roles is long and still growing—because doing is one thing, and managing is something else entirely.

So before you think you’d like to manage people, ask yourself this: “What do I enjoy most?” If you want to get work done through others and helping them achieve success, you might be great in a management role. But if you’re a hands-on doer, you may find management challenging at best, intolerable at worst.

It goes further—to what for many is an entirely counterintuitive thought: the best managers want to make themselves useless. True managers aspire to assemble teams that are so high functioning that, at a minimum, they could function reasonably well for some time in the manager’s absence. At the most extreme level, on a truly amazing team, it would theoretically be possible for anyone on the team to successfully direct the work for an extended period until a new manager was found to lead the team. But there are flies in the proverbial ointment, little things like personalities and egos. And that’s why most people—the “non-managers”— worry that if those around them become so successful that they are no longer needed, they will be in trouble. And so, they try to protect their jobs by getting political and protecting their turf.

True managers know better. They’re the first to take responsibility when criticism surfaces about those they lead or the projects they manage, but they are also quick to deflect praise back to the people who do the work. They say to themselves, “The best thing I can be as a first-line manager is to be no longer needed. Then I can move up to the second line, and one of the great people I work with now can move up to take my place.” And that’s how people find themselves getting promoted from managers to VPs and maybe even to CEO.

This is really crucial to get right if you’re building a great organization where people genuinely love doing their job day in and day out. In a healthy organization, everyone is allowed to grow and evolve in a way that suits their strengths. Growing and evolving don’t automatically have to mean climbing the proverbial corporate ladder. It could mean staying right where you are and making an incredible impact in your functional area, possibly as an “expert,” driving real change that matters. Don’t get me wrong – we all need strong and managers in our organizations. But we also need strong leaders on teams that back up those managers and leaders. It’s a very sensitive balancing act at times, but for organizations that get that balance right, the opportunity for everyone on the team to thrive is almost unlimited.