Some Notions on Promotions

One of the things I really enjoy about blogging is when a reader’s comment provides the inspiration for a new post. This week’s rant was inspired by Androcass. Here’s a snippet of Androcass’ observations of the leadership in the world of IT:

IT is especially rife with much of what you’re saying, in that nobody who is promoted to manager understands a fraction of what is going on even a month after the promotion. That doesn’t stop them from acting as if they know, of course, so a strange kind of disconnect is created: their management thinks them wise and deep because they retain some buzz words, the people reporting to them recognize their essential buffoonery.

I’ve written a lot about how people find themselves in positions as managers of others without any talent for leadership whatsoever. Besides the ones who get there through “connections”, political maneuvering (aka sucking up) or pure luck, many get hired or promoted into management because of their technical skills that have nothing to do with leadership whatsoever. IT is one of those highly technical areas where this probably occurs more often than not. One of the motivations of the decision maker might be the need to pay a valuable technician more in order to keep them on board. Since the higher paying positions in companies often include the management of others, great technicians often find themselves in positions of management that they have no business holding. Another motivation might be mistaken belief that somehow those that are promoted can impart their great technical strengths to other members of the team because they are now “in charge”. This is very shortsighted thinking on the part of hiring authority or the executive making the decision to promote.

I say all of this because oftentimes those making the decisions create more problems than they solve. These problems are not necessarily for themselves but for the poor souls who will find themselves under the thumb of a bad leader.

Good managers are as equally important as good technicians and require as much talent! This is even truer in large organizations. It has always been my opinion that leaders are born and not made and that there are innate leadership characteristics and qualities that cannot be taught in business schools or management seminars. Some people have them and some just don’t. It is also my belief that management is an art and not a science. Leadership requires a certain temperament and personality that doesn’t always blend well with the personality type of a good technician. You may disagree with my premise here but I’ve seen the results of bad promotions many times over my career. Oftentimes companies end up actually losing their best technical people by promoting them and receive poor or bad managers in return. Refer to my post Why Companies Love Micro-managers dated August 10, 2007 and categorized under The Corporate Cynic’s Manifesto for more on this.

My advice to the decision makers here is simple: Pay your technical people what they’re worth to you! Do not use promotions into management as a pay raise!

If you’ve read 160 Degrees of Deviation: The Case for the Corporate Cynic, you know that the worst outcomes of all occur when the personality type that I refer to as a ”Born Jerk” (use your own imaginations here) gets promoted into management. Something strange, sinister and (to some observers) “inevitable” seems to happen when these people get raised into positions of authority. It’s as though their anointing triggers a metamorphosis. They begin to truly believe that their promotions and new titles give them the ability to instantly speak with wisdom, intelligence and authority. They no longer need any training or experience. They have “arrived”. The most dangerous part of this thinking is that any and all of their bad traits and behaviors have been sanctioned, validated and even rewarded by their promotions. A real monster has been created.

Their egocentric thought process goes something like this:

Since a company would only promote a brilliant and wise individual, I must be one. Because I received the promotion over the others on the team who now report to me, I must be more brilliant and wise than they are. My brilliance and wisdom should now be self-evident to all. I am innately better than they are.

Believe me folks, I’ve seen this delusional kind of thinking and the damage that it can do.

I place much of the blame for these phenomena on the executive levels of organizations as it is they who make and/or sanction these choices and are remiss on following up on hiring and promotional decisions. Besides, they never have to deal with behaviors of their own creations. It’s the subordinates who fall prey to the self-indulgent idiosyncrasies, unreasonable expectations and arrogant posturing of these characters.

My advice to the decision makers here is equally simple: When promoting employees into management keep in mind that it is important that the subordinates respect their new manager. Management is not a popularity contest, be wary of promoting people whose only claim to fame is being well liked. Never promote those who are distrusted or despised. There are ways to determine these characteristics in your candidates. Here’s where the cynics and skeptics in your organization can prove to be invaluable. Don’t be lazy and take the easy way out. These decisions are critical to the health of your organization.

Back in the day, management used to be defined as “getting things done through people”. I still believe that but I want to draw a real distinction between management and manipulation. In my view management requires true leadership. Manipulation is the forte of a “Born Jerk”. There are a lot of good employees being manipulated today!

I will end this rant with some advice to both the decision makers as well as those who get promoted into management. It sums up my beliefs about leadership as it relates management. I know this sounds corny but:

Being given the opportunity to be responsible for the activities of others should be a humbling experience. Managers who expert their subordinates to humbly prostrate themselves before their superior’s feet should be “humbled” right out the door.


2 Responses to “Some Notions on Promotions”

  1. Androcass Says:

    I am quite glad that I could serve as an inspiration for your post. Don’t be surprised when I do the same, use you as inspiration: first, because I really “enjoy” what you’re writing; second, because the pressures of daily blogging often have me casting about for anything I can find. (Enough about me…)

    As a follow-up, let me offer a couple of observations about management, at least in the IT world.

    The mechanism you’re discussing is quite common, but there is something else that occurs quite frequently. I’ll tell it as a story of one particular manager (I’ll call him R), but it is not a singular phenomenon.

    R was, at best, a mediocre technical mind (I worked with him on two companies before I worked for him at a third). He did not work very hard (IT isn’t normally a 9 to 5 job, except for him), and he never did any of the extras, reading journals, learning at home, that are done by most of us in the field. He found a narrow technical niche, milked it for an unspectacular career.

    Then R lucked in. He wangled a job at a high-growth company at a time when their standards were pretty low. A few months into his tenure, his boss left abruptly, a few weeks from a major software release. Upper management panicked and, rather than going on a major search even among other employees, decided to promote from within. It came down to a choice between the two senior developers, and they chose R – in some sense, that was logical, because the other guy was integral to actually getting the product out, whereas R was a fifth wheel.

    I joined the group a couple of months later (I didn’t really want to work for R, but I thought that I was positioning myself for a management position in this growing company – whoops!). And what I found was not your “Born Jerk.”

    You see, R is a really good guy. You’d love him as a neighbor, he’d lend you his stuff and even help you use it. He’s just not someone who ever should have been allowed into a technical field (I’ll omit that story for length).

    And he was remarkably humble a couple of months into his management career. He was kind of awe-struck at leading a group of MSs and PhDs (he has neither), and truly believed that he was just a member of a team (albeit with an inflated title and salary).

    But over the next six months or so, I saw him change. I mean, he has important VPs coming to him and asking for his opinion (another thing atypical about R, he had an exaggerated respect for anyone above him in the org chart, that is, he “humbly prostrated himself,” not what you commonly see in IT), so he must be good. That they would ask the same questions of an orangutan in his cubicle never occurred to him.

    He became duplicitous and manipulative; being a nice guy at heart, he was hilariously bad at that, but he thought it was expected. He began taking credit for things he couldn’t have thought of with 60 extra IQ points. And he became a total joke, so much so that new group members couldn’t understand how those of us who had known him before still had some carry-over respect for him.

    Long story short (OK, that ship has sailed), two-thirds of the company was laid off in the wake of the tech bubble’s bursting, but R is still there five years later, making six figures, and he hasn’t improved a whit (the prevailing theory is that upper management won’t admit a mistake – “we promoted him, our decisions are always right, therefore he must be good”).

    Which brings me to my second point, and it’s one you may well have written about before (I haven’t gotten around to reading all your back posts yet): One of the biggest issues facing American business is what I call the “evaluation crisis.”

    The ability to evaluate the value of people is, perhaps, the most important challenge for management and, in every such situation, they’re dropping the ball. Whether hiring, promoting, giving raises, or deciding whom to lay off, it is clear that very few know what they’re doing.

    I won’t belabor the point, already having written a little too much for a blog comment, but, when I look at the decisions made by a cadre of “big executives,” decisions that have nothing to do with the real caliber of an individual, I am continually appalled. We who, for example, write code for a living have a pretty good idea as to who else can do it, so we know how often management doesn’t have a clue.

    If we still had a burgeoning job market, that might be OK – we would be mis-evaluated and move on to something bigger and better. But, at a time when, in the IT field, we are facing the challenges of H-1B visas and offshoring, we’re talking about an inability to evaluate having a major effect on careers. There are a lot of talented people out of work or underworked because one person with power and no judgment made a decision about their career. I can’t believe that it doesn’t have some long-term effect at some point.

  2. thecorporatecynic Says:

    Thanks Androcass! I am very very impressed with your writing and equally impressed and interested in this story.

    Keep coming back to read more. I’m sure that Ill have some somments on this later.


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