The new manager: Zero or hero?


A ZERO Manager is defined as a newly promoted front-line manager who is unable to make a positive contribution to the team he/she manages. In fact, ZERO Managers often have a negative impact on the team and significantly reduce its overall performance.

ZERO managers are not necessarily incompetent nor embody poor values. On the contrary, they often are driven by an admirable work ethic, possess good technical skills to produce outstanding work and have a solid performance track record. They, unfortunately, believe that the best way of doing a job is “to do it yourself”. Hence they are both unwilling and unable to motivate, coach and empower their team for effective performance.

From Super Contributor To ZERO Manager
Here is one example of a ZERO manager. Johnny was a top notch salesman. His success was driven by an uncanny ability to understand what customers wanted. In the three years he was working in the company, he was ranked Top Salesperson twice. His jovial and outgoing personality coupled with his sales success made him very popular with peers and higher ups. He was a super contributor.

Subsequently, management decided to make him a manager, leading a five- person team. While Johnny was elated with the promotion, he soon found out that leading people was not easy. They don’t always deliver what you ask. The less experienced members of his team try hard but he felt they could not “sell fire in Iceland”. They do not know the products nor what the customer wants. The experienced members pose a different challenge. Johnny has been teaching them new ways of selling that are more effective but they either find it hard to master the technique or rather keep on selling the product their own way.

For an increasingly frustrated Johnny, the solution is to stick to what has made him successful thus far. In other words, he will sell more by working harder, smarter and longer. He hopes the team will see what he does and copy him.

Johnny’s story typically ends in ZERO and ZERO.

Ending # 1:
Johnny picks up the slack and through an enormous effort, continues to get results for team sales. Management rewards his achievement with more management responsibility. He now has a bigger team to manage with an expanded product portfolio. His response is to use his proven approach- work harder and harder, smarter and smarter, longer and longer. Eventually, he recognizes that his efforts are not enough to carry the team. He is physically and emotionally drained. His team is not in better shape – their confidence is down, their relationships with each other fractured and their personal growth stunted by lack of a positive managerial role model. So ZERO win for Johnny and ZERO win for the team.

Ending #2:
Johnny puts in an enormous effort but is unable to get results for team sales. He has lost so much self confidence, and management is so disappointed that both parties agreed that he should go back to his old job. In fact, “sullied” by his failure, and the legacy of strained relationship with his former team, Johnny may decide to leave the company to make a fresh start elsewhere. Score? ZERO win for Johnny and ZERO win for the organization.

Why So Many ZERO Managers? Belief & Ability
The sad truth is that these “endings” happen far too often because many organizations are not aware or discount the real challenges a new manager faces. New managers fumble because they do not have the right “belief” and “ability”.

Belief. What makes Johnny successful as a salesman is his ability to plan his day efficiently, make connections with his customers, understand his products and sharpen his sales techniques. His success is primarily dependent on his own skills and application. In a nutshell, Johnny believes that success is based on “me.” This belief is reinforced by management. Johnny’s superior sales result is rewarded with praise, increasing responsibilities and a fatter pay check.

As a new manager, however, Johnny’s success is dependent on getting the best out of his team. This means he needs to shift his belief from “me” to “us”. Hence, when his people come to him with problems, he should view this not as interruptions but that helping them is his job. And the way he goes about this- not fixing the problems for them but coaching them to fix it- is crucial.

Ability. Belief without ability typically leads to unfulfilled good intentions. Johnny needs a skill set which is different from what has made him successful in the past.

He needs the ability to:

  • Know what his people need to be successful in their job from both a motivational and skill perspective;
  • Coach his team thus showing care for their development and success as well as helping them acquire relevant skills;
  • Grow a high performing team that celebrates individual excellence even as team members rally around and achieve team goals.

The Cost of The ZERO Manager
The failure of a new manager has a huge cost. Ask yourself, “What is the singular, most important driver that can make your work day exciting and engaging or boring and frustrating?” If your response is “My Manager” you would be in the majority. Studies have shown that one’s immediate manager is the most important driver for employee engagement and performance. If you have a ZERO manager as your boss, you are typically uninspired, your personal development slows down to a crawl and your performance dips dramatically. Clearly this will also have a negative consequence to the organization.

The good news is that the converse is also true. Organizations that have a strong management team enjoy the fruits of high employee engagement and performance. Notably, engaged employees are also more receptive to change. This is because they respect and trust their managers and are willing to follow their lead, even if the road ahead is not completely clear. This capability of adapting to change is a strategic advantage.

From ZERO To HERO: The Solution Is As Simple As ABC
The journey of Johnny as an individual contributor to a new manager is well documented. Anthropologists call this journey a rite of passage while management consultants Drotter and Charan label this as a “transition from individual contributor to new manager”.

Many organizations are not aware or discount the challenges of this transition. Many think that smart, hard working and high performing people will figure out the “secrets” of managing a team. What many organizations also fail to realize is that they have been reinforcing beliefs that actually make it more difficult for their people to be successful new managers. Think about it. Individual contributors are earmarked for management positions because they consistently get results. So for individual contributors, this belief of “counting on yourself” is something they will turn to when things are not quite right. They focus on the “me” rather than the “us”.

So what can organisations do? Three things:

  • New Belief. Have the new managers’ boss talk to them on acquiring the right belief: It’s not about “me”; it’s all about “us”.
  • New Skills. Send them to training or make available learning resource that enables them to acquire new skills.
  • Mastering New Skills. When they get back from the program, have the new manager’s boss provide feedback so they can apply these skills effectively and eventually master them.

In a nutshell, many people transiting from an individual contributor role to a first time manager position get derailed. They struggle not necessarily because being a new manager is more difficult — it is because the position is different and thus requires a different set of “belief and ability.”

Organisations can help their people make the transition successfully, so they don’t end up as “ZERO” but as “HERO”.

Leave a Comment