A recent article in the Wall Street Journal raised the question: Who’s to blame for inept managers?
The answer, of course, is the superiors who hire or promote them -- but not because they intentionally select or retain poor performers. Every leader knows that his or her own success depends on putting the right people in the right positions. It’s easy to blame a manager’s poor performance on his or her boss, but more often than not, managerial incompetence isn’t obvious to superiors. Instead, fault lies with the systems used for evaluation and the alternatives available for dealing with performance failure.
Despite their widespread popularity, standard 360 evaluations and psychometric tests are poor substitutes for informed, thorough evaluation. Standardized assessments and tests are promoted as rapid, economical alternatives for determining competence and assessing performance. Consultants and salespeople alike tout them for their objectivity and accuracy.
In reality, the typical 360 evaluation is far from objective. How can a group of very different people, with very different relationships to the subject and very different priorities, be expected to evaluate an individual professionally and objectively?
Additionally, reliance on these measures can cause you to miss crucial information about how senior executives and managers think and how they relate to others on a day-to-day basis — factors that can make or break your organization’s ability to perform. While 360s can appear relatively cheap and quick to implement, a poor evaluation system can have very expensive repercussions.
The second problem is the alternatives available for floundering executives. “Cutting poor performers loose” is a lose-lose proposition as a first-line response. If the alternative is firing, superiors may be reluctant to acknowledge a problem and even colleagues and subordinates might shrink from responsibility for destroying a career. When alternatives, such as a different position or behavioral coaching are available, problems are much more likely to be identified early on.
Every executive has strengths in some arena. The first key to effective leadership is correct placement. If an executive doesn’t have the talent for one area, he or she should be given the opportunity to do a different job. Richard Branson, billionaire founder of the Virgin Group of companies, believes strongly that if an employee is not excelling in one area of the company, he or she should be given the opportunity to do well in a different Virgin Group job. At Virgin, firing is seldom an option.
Coaching, too, can make a difference. It’s understandable that company leaders would hesitate to throw good money after bad by investing in coaching for problem managers. However, many organizations indiscriminately assign rising managers to executive development programs regardless of the specific needs of the individual. This is clearly a waste of time and money. Highly targeted and personalized executive coaching can be far more cost-effective in developing leadership competence.
Today’s organization can’t afford to lose quality people due to managerial incompetence. But wasting time affixing blame won’t help. Greater investment in effective evaluation and coaching is a drop in the bucket compared to the expense of recruiting and training new people – not to mention the ultimate cost of employee disengagement and apathy.
Copyright 2006; Dr. Jane Adler and Dr. Robert Karlsberg, authors of The Road to CEO: Psychological Strategies for Getting to the Top, specialize in Executive Transitions, Leadership Development and Organizational Change.
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