The new manager is an amateur at doing managerial tasks

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Perhaps this is obvious, but has it ever occurred to you that a new manager is actually an amateur at being a manager?   Not just initially, but ongoing, well after becoming a manager?  Let me explain.

The typical model is that someone starts their career not as being a manager, and then, after a certain moment in time, becomes a manager.   It’s a new job title, new role, and lots of new stuff to do.  And this new stuff – since it is new, shouldn’t we expect managers to be amateurish in how they perform these tasks?  After all, they have never done this professionally before.

Perhaps this moment of becoming a manager isn’t entirely ignored, as there are many management development programs out there, but even with this assistance and turbo-boost into management ranks, there is a reigning operating theory – that when you hire people who are generally competent in their field, they will perform this new complex job of management competently as well.

With non-managerial roles, there is a gradual build up of skills, expertise, and speed that can possibly turn into creativity and innovation.   This can be done in a short period of time, but it is generally understood that when you are starting out, you need to get better at what you are doing, and most organizations provide that chance.

But with management, there is usually an inverse expectation.  Managers are expected to be authoritative and good at managing the moment they become managers.  The reason for this is that managers have already proven competence in one area, and they are staying, for the most part in that same area, so this new management job is actually an extension of their previous job in which they were expert.  Because of this haze of domain expertise, there becomes the mistaken notion that there is a relatively limited need of development in the area of managing.

I’ve written recently about how the act of becoming a manager is an automatic subversion of the person’s work identity.  The trace of the former expertise always lingers, but is rarely useful.  The amateurish actions of managing are now the new expertise of the manager.  At the same time, these amateurish actions must be asserted as expertise on the same level as the trade expertise, even though the management tasks being performed are amateurish.

So the boss is obliged to act like expert while being an amateur.  The boss is an expert-amateur, an expert at being an amateur, the one who is best at being an amateur.  Perhaps the term should be “Ama-Managers.”   That is, when a new manager says, “I am a manager,” they are saying, “I am an amateur manager.”

Because of this initial need to be an expert using amateurish techniques, a new manager will rarely assert or acknowledge that he doesn’t know what he’s doing, or that his actions are amateurish.  The manager is typically more successful at creating the impression of being an expert in their ways of managing than taking the time to learn the actual professional management techniques.

Someone new to her (non-managerial) field does not have this trace of expertise to maintain.  The new person will admit her lack of expertise and work to gather and demonstrate expertise.  But managers are different – they are reliant on maintaining the air of expertise more than they are reliant on learning new management techniques.

And when someone has been a boss for a while – and is no longer the ‘new’ boss – this makes the amateurish techniques appear even more expert.  The longer the person is a manager, the trace of expertise as a manager increases, even if the management techniques were the same amateurish ones from before.

If you are dealing with a bad boss or suffering through difficult management, think of this issue – managers are, by definition, not good at managing when they start.  They have to start their careers anew when they become manager, and are given limited structure and feedback in this embarkation to being a manager.  They are expected to be as great – no, greater – than they were as individual contributors, so the fastest path to this is to create the impression of greatness, not build the actual greatness as they may have as employees.  This impression is generated by leveraging the inherent authority that is provided to a manager, and the techniques for creating the impression of authority, greatness and expertise is the first – and perhaps last — thing that managers learn when constructing their new identity as managers.

The emerging field of management design seeks to create a new dynamic where managers build their expertise in managing rather than rely on their trace expertise as individual contributors while “making up” their own management methodologies.

Does your organization rely on managers to assert their expertise, even when performing as amateurs?  Is this current design you’ve observed in your organization?

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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 .


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