Tenets of Management Design: A role in management is not an extension of performance as an individual contributor

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In this post, I continue to explore the tenets of the new field I’m pioneering, “Management Design.”  Management Design is a response to the bad existing designs that are currently used in creating managers.  These current designs describe how managers tend to be created by accident, rather than by design, or that efforts to develop quality and effective managers fall short, often to damaging consequencesWe need to turn this around.  

Today’s tenet:  A role in management is not an extension of performance as an individual contributor

Most people start their careers as an individual contributor (IC).  They bring skills that they learned in school or at other organizations, and then develop their skills in their role as an individual contributor, both through initial training and on-the-job experience.  As I’ve documented, people in individual contributor roles tend to get lots of performance feedback and guidance on how they’re doing this job.  If the manager of the individual contributor is doing her job, the manager is one of the sources providing ongoing, specific and immediate feedback to the individual contributor. 

If the manager is doing an even better job, she is also strategically developing the skills of the individual contributor to what the organization needs to be successful.

When this works, this is a good design! 

OK, so now how do you find people in management?   From individual contributors of course.  

Here’s where the mistake frequently occurs:

The management team will identify individual contributors for their skills as individual contributors, and then “reward” them for their outstanding work in this area with a promotion into management.  The simple theory is that if the individual contributor could do X amount of positive work as an individual contributor, with a team of say, 3 people, the individual contributor can achieve four times the amount of productivity.  That is 3X with direct reports plus the X that the individual contributor could produce.  On top of that, the high performing individual contributor is rewarded with a promotion to management, which is typically higher paying and has higher status.

For example, Jim is an amazing business analyst.  He creates insightful reports from a series of diverse sources, they are easy to read and understand, and always seem to provide recommendations that are spot on.  He also comes up with useful pivots and ratios that allow the decision-making teams to ask in-depth questions that can be answers.   The management team wants more.  So they promote Jim to Business Analyst Manager, and he inherits a team of three other Business Analysts (Betty, Sarah and Amari), with the idea that they can produce what Jim does on his own to 4X the amount  — 80 reports — with Jim-level quality.   

That’s the implied theory I’ve observed.

The problems with this theory are that:

a)      The individual contributor, Jim, is still expected to produce the 20 reports he did before with the same high level of quality

b)      It is assumed that Jim’s direct reports, Betty, Sarah and Amari, by virtue of reporting to Jim, can now produce the same quantity and quality.

c)       Jim doesn’t necessarily have the skills and ability to change the performance of Betty, Sarah and Amari for the better.  (Remember, Jim’s been focused on creating reports, not learning about managing a team and doing thing like, say, providing performance feedback.)

d)      Jim will enjoy the role as manager, with the higher salary, prestige, and prominence in the organization, and producing 4 times the amount than before is what Jim aspires to.

The theory is untenable, because implicit in it is that Jim remains an individual contributor – still producing reports himself – as well as is responsible for managing and improving the performance of his team.  Something has to give.  Either Jim will ignore his team and keep producing reports himself at a high level, or he’ll transition to doing something he, by definition, has had no practice in doing – helping others improve in their role.  

In essence, the “reward” of going into management is actually a punishment for Jim, as he does less of what he is good at and probably at lower quality, and the team he has working for him produces lower quality that what he produced himself, lowering his own standards.  The management team that promoted him to manager is now suddenly dissatisfied with Jim’s work, and Jim has gone from being a terrific business analyst to an underperforming “Business Analyst” producing few reports in his scope of responsibility and at a lower quality.  Jim suddenly feels vulnerable in is job, doesn’t know what to do other than keep doing what he is good at – the individual contributor work – and perhaps starts yelling and managing from a deficit with the distraction that is his team.

So instead of promoting someone to management for their work as an individual contributor, consider this tenet.  The transition to management duties should be a strategic move where both the individual contributor and the management team see the ability in Jim to do the management functions, and strategically reduce expectations as an individual contributor, and increase the expectations as someone who brings others to higher performance.  This is a change in duties that could be managed not with an outright promotion, but as a trial phase where Jim and team get to practice this new dynamic and get used to it.  Jim should embark on this only if he wants to switch his duties away from what he is good at already, and to learn a new skill of bringing others along. 

Let’s look at this grid:


Current management design is often impatient and has people in the lower-right grid take on the management role and expect high performance as manager right away.  This is not a very strategic placement of ability.  You need to find the people who more fit the upper right quadrant profile, and then really test the assumption that they are actually interested in transferring away from their expertise as domain expert and high-performer to one who is interested in replicating and transferring their high-performance to others.   Also note that the one who was an individual contributor in the lower-right corner may, over time, change their perspective and want to do consider this transition.

In any case, this transition takes new skill development and practice and feedback. 

Which quadrant best describes your organization?  What have you experienced in this area?

Related posts:

Tenets of Management Design: Focus on the basics, then move to style points

Tenets of Management Design: Managing is a functional skill

Tenets of Management Design: Drive towards understanding reality and away from relying on perceptions

Tenets of Management Design: Identify and reward employees who do good work

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About Walter Oelwein
Walter Oelwein, CMC, CPT, helps managers become better at managing. To do this, he founded Business Performance Consulting, LLC .


3 Responses to “Tenets of Management Design: A role in management is not an extension of performance as an individual contributor”
  1. No name says:

    I am in the upper right hand quadrent and really would like to manage and train a team. I am marked as a high potential and have received awards for my contributions as a leader in my role. I want to go into management, but honestly, it is tough to convince others that I am management material because I have no experience. I know a lot about a lot and work very well with people. Everyone fights for me on teams because I have good ideas and am easy to get along with.

    The problem I see, is management themselves. Most are lazy and do not develop plans for their groups and develop their people. I have no doubt in my mind that I can manage better than most of the managers already there. I will be completely honest, they are horrid. They don’t train, they don’t communicate, they don’t develop employees, they just boss people around. Not many people like them. I would love to get into management and try to create change, but it’s tough.


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