What do managers really do? What is the difference between managerial work at different levels and how do we get the right person in the right job?
It boils down to understanding what managerial work really is about. We get little help from psychometric instruments. Yes, we do know that there is a correlation between intelligence and conscientiousness and achieving results in a managerial role. So would higher scores on intelligence and conscientiousness imply greater ability for higher managerial positions? I have not seen any research correlating managerial levels with specific measures of intelligence etc. Psychometrics are used to differentiate between applicants, not between levels of work. What is it then that makes the difference?
Many of us had a good laugh in the seventies when we read Laurence J. Peters’ “The Peter Principle”, claiming that managers are promoted until they reach their level of incompetence. A good laugh most probably due to recognition of the fact that a significant number of managers are not good at their job and we recognized the described symptoms. The really interesting phrase is “level of incompetence”, implying that there are levels and that some people can attain higher levels.
There are plenty of descriptive expressions of when somebody is not doing the managerial work expected of them. In the UK one might say that somebody is not up to their job, has too much on their plate, is out of their depth or not up to the mark. In Sweden we can say that somebody is to short for their coat or that they do not have sufficient height. In Denmark they say that a person unable to fill his shirt. Most languages probably have similar expressions. Again, the most interesting is, up to which mark, the size of the coat or the height that is sufficient, that indicates some sort of requirement, but of what? If we can pinpoint this, then we could probably avoid the effects of Peters’ Principle.
So how does the incompetence show itself? Primarily in the inability to make decisions. Decisions are what we do when we do not know what to do. If we are unable to cope with the uncertainty, ambiguity or complexity in making a decision, then we will not take a decision. The person will primarily avoid taking a decision, either hoping that it will eventually go away or that further information will let the decision make itself. When under pressure a person will make a decision anyway and it will be seen as being the wrong decision. Not knowing what to do and decide is a terrible burden. I have seen many managers flounder and agonize, not knowing what to do.
Interestingly there is another category of managers who do not take the right decisions, i.e. those that have done the job, grown out of it and should really have been promoted. Many who have outgrown their jobs lose focus. There is a lot of detail that needs to be considered and they may feel that they have seen it all. “This particular case is just like all the others.” People may see this person as unfocussed and not doing their job properly and will see little difference between the incapable person described earlier.
Colleagues in Bioss have done management audits in a number of organisations. Just over a third are well placed and doing a job at their level of ability. One third have been over-promoted and in Peters’ words reached their level of incompetence (no wonder the book sold so well) and less than a third could be doing the work one organisational level higher. There is no great shortage of potential managers, almost half of those at the first managerial level could be working higher up. The serious problem lies at the strategic level, where about half had reached their level of incompetence.
Bioss is now an international consultancy with about 200 partners, consultants and associates. We were originally a research institute at Brunel University, where a “scale” was developed to measure managerial work. The major difference between levels is that of uncertainty and complexity. Most people can within a very short time-frame see if their decision was right or wrong. At the highest levels the results of a decision may not even be seen during the tenure of the decision maker. How do you then know in which direction to go? What is the difference between those that succeeded in those decisions and those that fail?
In the very early research it also became clear that many organisations have to many levels. Bioss describes seven levels of work that add value to the organisation and its clients/customers. Too many levels detract value. If the organisation has too few levels then there is work that needs to be done that will not be done.
These are the seven levels that we describe, most jobs lie within the two first. Here short descriptions:
Quality – This is where we find most of the people in organisations. They are the persons that we usually identify the company with, such as bank tellers, car workers, postmen etc. These are the people that do the work that provides the income and profits of the company. Their job is to do a good job with quality.
Service – Here we find both first line managers and specialists. The job of the manager is to give service to their employees so that they can do the quality work. Many first line managers talk about how they juggle their work, they need to ensure quality, have an organisation in place, schedule staff, ensure customer satisfaction, productivity, a good work environment etc. The specialist birings their deep accumulated knowledge into their jobs.
Practise – Here is operational management – a small to mid-sized organisation, people, plant, resources, budgets etc. The job is to create a work system. Which is the most efficient structure, system etc, both now and for the immediate future?
Strategic development – At this level in the organisation we usually find a functional or geographical structure. Here are people whose job is to develop strategy within their areas and spend more time and energy considering where and how value will be created in the future and less time on running large operations.
Strategic intent – This person will be leading a large company within a well-defined business. In a large corporation this will be a strategic business unit. The job is asking the existential questions “Where is this business going?”, “Why are we in it?” in order to ensure the financial and social direction and viability of enterprise.
Corporate citizenship – These are probably the people that we find at the World Economic Forum or Aspen Institute. They are making sense of the world and are sensitive to changes that can be seen and be responsive in building strong local, national, regional and worldwide presence.
Corporate prescience – Here are the very few people who somehow seems able to go beyond visible trends. It is as if they are gazing into a crystal ball and see possible futures and take steps now, the full effects of which may 20-50 years to be seen and understood.
Of course we have considerably longer descriptions of both the jobs and what people actually do in their roles at different levels.
I very often find that managers strongly relate to and understand these descriptions. Higher managers directly sense which of their subordinate managers are doing their job or not and
People have different strengths and develop differently over time. I ascribe status to a person that does a job well. I can be amazed looking at a gardener. When I go to our favourite sourdough bakery I look at the skill and energy-efficient movement of the baker. I am disappointed when I meet a manager who has reached their level of incompetence. Some people become immensely skilled bakers, footballers or violinists over time. In Bioss we are interested in managerial career paths. We see that some people follow paths that may lead them to very high managerial positions. Some of the early research at Bioss was sponsored by the US Army wishing to identify potential four-star generals and put them on more rapid career path development.
Bioss developed a method, which we call Career Path Appreciation, in order to “predict” such development. Better to promote on potential than past history, as the latter may lead to filling jobs with people who already have done it and have matured out of it. Longitudinal studies show that we are able to “forecast” with more than 80% precision in a 7-10 year time frame. Long enough to ensure than a person is not promoted to their level of incompetence.
Quite a number of people are given a job based on their track record and proven ability to deliver at that level. The risk is that they have outgrown their past and should really get a job one level up. I have often seen how people like this after 6 months realize that they have done a lateral move and there is no challenge in what they are doing.
Some companies and organisations have worked with Bioss and Bioss methods for decades. You can see a list of some of the international clients at http://bioss.com/about/our-clients/