A senior executive colleague of mine once told me he took great pride in his ability to fill managerial openings with high quality people. “I could always just close my eyes”, he said, “and picture at least five faces all of whom could do the job I had in mind”.  While I have no idea how my colleague assessed the exact nature of the position he needed to fill, his comment illustrates the potential for a common flaw I have all too often observed in how management positions are filled: AN EXCESSIVE CONCENTRATION ON THE WHO AT THE EXPENSE OF THE WHAT.

Consider two hard to refute facts. First, what a specific work unit needs in a manager will vary over time. Depending on a variety of circumstances, an organization at any given point in time may, or may not, need a manager with the talent and skills of a visionary, structure builder, detail expert, fix it man or women, start it from scratch specialist, team builder, or someone able to consolidate, merge, or dissolve an organization if required, while managing the human trauma often involved. Second, no manager is likely to possess all of these skills in equal measure. Thus none of us is arguably the best choice for every management opening no matter how desperately we may wish it, or the high opinion with which we may regard ourselves.

When we seek help from a physician, presenting her or him with a list of symptoms, we would be rather shocked if we immediately were given a list of prescriptions to take or recommended for some surgical procedure before we were given a series of diagnostic test to determine the underlying causes for the symptoms we have. The prospect that mistakes would be made in our care would be high, and chances are we would change physicians and fast.

Organizations are organic, evolving, human-driven, output producers. Their direction, output quality, strengths, weaknesses, staffing needs, and the talent requirements demanded in their managers at any given point in time, can be analyzed and diagnosed in much the same way we expect our physicians to approach the maintenance of our health. While the analytical tools employed by physicians and managers may be different, the desired results are the same; a clear picture of the problems, challenges and requirements we face before we take some action.

In their book “First Break All the Rules”,  authors Buckingham and Coffman devote all of chapter six to making the case that the best managers are passionate about “finding the right fit” when it comes to the assignments of people. They point out that one rung on the career ladder does not necessarily lead to another. Believing it does, they argue, is why so many people are promoted to their level of incompetence. (see pp.178-180)

Finding the right fit in selecting a manager begins with a thorough diagnostic evaluation of the organization for which a manager is to be chosen. In other words, focusing on the WHAT. Candidates – the WHO — can then be evaluated for a proven, demonstrable, track record illustrating the qualities and talents in need. Demanding a tight match may require some tough love in rejecting some candidates lacking the necessary skills, yet who believe it is their turn, or who personally believe they are the right choice, or who stand next in the organization’s line of succession, or are the popular choice in the organization in question.  Nevertheless, in the long run,  the tough love is worth it.

Achieving the wrong fit between manager and organization is a ticket to failure for both the manager and the organization involved. That is why top-flight organizations spend so much time looking at both the what and the who before making their management assignments. Few organizations did this more effectively than General Electric during the Jack Welsh era, an era that produced both great business results for GE and a cadre of top flight managers that continue to head some of America’s leading companies. The best managers intuitively understand that finding the right fit between the what and the who is always a strong predictor of success.

Categories: Exercising Responsibility, Managing & Leading

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