Changing Gears: Individual Contributor to First Time People Manager
Anil was one of the best sales executives in the entire zone, consistently exceeding his targets and displaying an astounding understanding of customer and market needs. He regularly won awards for his stupendous performance at zonal and national level. His amicable personality and collaborative nature coupled with his strong focus on results set him apart as a “rising star” in the organization.
Based on his consistent performance and loyalty to the organization, he was promoted to the role of an Area Sales Manager, leading a team of five sales executives. Anil was elated, seeing the promotion as a well-deserved reward for his contributions to the organization over the past couple of years.
Two months into the new role, Anil grew increasingly frustrated with his team. The results he had planned were evading his grasp – he felt that his team members lacked the knowledge and skills to understand customer and market expectations. Anil saw himself working harder and harder in an effort to compensate for the team’s subpar performance. Gradually, he started losing patience with the team members and also saw himself fast approaching a state of burnout. Despite his best efforts, the team’s sales numbers showed a downward trend. A further concern was that a couple of his experienced team members had submitted their resignations, finding it difficult to handle Anil’s increasingly abrasive behaviour.
Anil started losing his confidence in himself and no longer found others looking up to him as a star performer. He began to feel that things would be better for all concerned if he left the organization and made a fresh start elsewhere.
Does this story sound familiar to you?
As Indian organizations adapt to fast growth and continuous change, many employees are being asked to assume greater and more diverse responsibilities early in their careers. The transition from an Individual Contributor role to a People Manager role can be one of the most challenging phases of an employee’s career. The highest performing individual contributors continue to repeat familiar patterns of behaviour even in their new role, and may find it difficult to adapt themselves to its vastly different requirements and challenges.
From the organization’s perspective, first line people managers are of great strategic significance. They are the “translators” of the organizational vision and objectives for the larger employee population. This group also acts as the feeder group for the organization’s succession plan. The productivity and turnover levels of individual workgroups depend to a large extent on how well they are “managed” by these first line people managers. In addition, these managers play a great role in shaping the culture of the organization. Lastly, the first managerial role is often a key developmental experience that shapes the employee’s core managerial philosophy.
As per the “Leadership Pipeline Model” suggested by Drotter, Noel and Charan, the first significant passage for an employee is from “Managing Self” to “Managing Others”. This requires a significant change in mind-set on the employee’s part which should also be supported by the organization.
Challenges of the Transition
In most cases, individual contributors are deemed promotable into people manager roles simply because they have proven themselves as “technical experts” and have also displayed a fair degree of collaborative skill. In other cases, tenure-based promotions are the norm. As a result, most employees attempt to make the transition without the quantum behavioural change that is required. Some of the challenges frequently encountered include the following:
Mindset Change from “Doing” Work to “Getting Work Done Through Others”
Many first time managers may find it difficult to cope with the new responsibilities and continue operating the way they always have, relying on their own skills and know-how. The focus as a manager then ends up being around daily fire-fighting and handling tasks themselves. For instance, a newbie manager may execute a complex transaction himself rather than helping his direct report do it, and feel fulfilled in displaying his expertise to others around him. In the process, the manager may end up increasing his workload beyond sustainable levels as well as severely inhibit the capability development of his team.
Tendency to Treat Managerial Activities as “Non-essential” or “Non-productive”
A common mistake is to treat non-task related activities as a waste of one’s time. Many first time managers prefer to rush into execution mode without spending sufficient time on planning, brainstorming with the team or setting clear expectations. This sometimes results in inadequate focus on critical areas such as coaching and feedback, review mechanisms, team meetings etc.
Changing Focus from Individual Responsibilities to Team Outcomes
The first time manager may find that he can no longer focus only on his own deliverables and instead needs to take responsibility for his entire team. The shift in focus from individual responsibilities to taking collective ownership for team deliverables is yet another challenge.
Ability to Adapt Approach to Suit Differing Situations and Individuals
A “one size fits all” approach will not suit the wide variety of situations and individuals that a first time manager is likely to encounter. The ability to tailor one’s approach to suit the expectations, work styles and personalities of team members as well as the demands of specific situations is a key challenge. This challenge often gets manifested in the form of conflict within teams.
A related challenge for first time managers is the ability to motivate their team based on an understanding of each team member’s individual strengths, aspirations and motivators.
Striking the Right Balance between Empowerment and Control
A typical mistake made by “rookie managers” is to micromanage each activity that their team members perform. On the other end of the spectrum, some managers may delegate tasks without being able to hold others accountable for follow-through. The manifestations of these issues are the overtly directive “boss” approach or a dysfunctional friendly “buddy” approach.
Many first time managers understand the importance of delegation but there is psychological difficulty in letting go of work that has helped make them successful. This is where the critical skill of delegation whilst holding others accountable comes into the picture.
Functioning with Limited Direction
As an individual contributor, the lines of accountability are very well-defined. The employee often has a clear understanding of his or her own deliverables and is able to plan his daily schedule fairly well. With the interdependencies that come with being a people manager, the first time manager may find it challenging to plan his or her work. Clear instructions, follow-up and handholding may no longer be provided. This is where the first time people manager is expected to take a lead, show initiative and ensure the job gets done even in the face of ambiguity.
Focusing on the Big Picture
The first time manager has the critical responsibility of cascading organizational goals and objectives to his or her team members. No longer can the focus remain on being a “here and now” task executor - the larger context of the team’s operational goals becomes extremely important at this level. With this, there also arises a need to reach out and build the employee’s network, outside the confines of his or her role, department and even organization.
Enabling a Smooth Transition
Many organizations in India today are looking at ways to help their first time managers transition smoothly into their new roles, and accelerate their learning curve. Some approaches that are being employed are as follows:
Defining and Articulating Behavioural Competency Requirements
Clearly articulated behavioural competency requirements give the individual and the organization a practical framework to identify and develop critical success factors for the target role. While a bulk of the manager’s development will be learnt on the job, this framework gives them a clear understanding of what is expected of them in their new role. This framework can also serve as a foundation for selection, promotion, assessment and development processes.
Articulating Well-defined Career Paths
Well-defined career paths give employees different alternatives that cater to both organizational expectations and individual aspirations. They create a common language for defining role expectations associated with different career transitions and also illustrate how these evolve as employees move roles within the organization. Having clarity on career paths helps employees make informed choices and also prepare themselves for target roles. The true value of career path definition is unlocked when they are used in conjunction with competency requirements as a developmental input.
Competency-based Selection and Promotion Processes
Most often, the best individual contributors are “rewarded” by promoting them into people manager roles. In hindsight, many of these decisions may be mistakes, resulting in the loss of a star individual contributor as well as the creation of a sub-optimal team.
Competency based selection processes assess employees for job suitability, resulting in far higher chances of success in the new roles. This methodology also helps the organizations make a clear differentiation between “performance” in the current Individual Contributor role and “potential” to move into a People Manager role.
Tailored Development Opportunities
Many organizations in India and abroad have structured, targeted development programs especially for the first time managers. These programs incorporate a mix of classroom training, on-the-job learning experiences, developmental feedback, structured coaching or mentoring, peer learning and sharing and online programs. In many of these programs, the focus is often more on behavioural change. This entails breaking out of “individual contributor” patterns of behaviour and adapting to the demands of the new role by leveraging on the employee’s inherent strengths and preventing opportunity areas from becoming derailers. These programs can be structured around the competency requirements articulated for the people manager role. For instance, Wipro Technologies has recently launched the “Managers Excellence Framework” which has several focused developmental initiatives to build the capability of first-time people managers. These include HR process workshops, a Manager’s Insight survey which collates 90 degree feedback from team members, mentoring by senior leaders and large amounts of online and offline learning support.
It is thus clear that first time managers are an employee group of great strategic significance to the organization. This group holds the key to effective engagement levels and performance of the organization. There is a definite need for focused development for this group in order to help them successfully transition from individual contributor to people manager roles.
Case Study: People Leadership Competency Development Program at RBS Business Services India
The Business Services Division of Royal Bank of Scotland has a sizeable footprint in India and saw the need to build a strong leadership pipeline. In this context, the employee population of existing and aspiring first line and second line managers were identified to be of strategic focus.
Over the period 2010 – 2012, the Future Leaders Program (FLP) was rolled out as a developmental intervention for close to 650 existing and aspiring people managers in a phased manner.
The objectives of the program were threefold:
To set a clear standard and increase awareness of people leadership behaviours
- To ensure that anyone currently operating in a people leader role meets a minimum benchmark as measured through an assessment centre
- To provide a broad bouquet of development options to support enhancement of people leadership behaviours
To this end, the FLP People Leadership Behaviours were identified as the underlying framework for assessment and development. These behaviours were clustered under six broad heads – Communication, Developing People, Interpersonal Sensitivity, Continuous Improvement, Leadership and Results Focused.
The Future Leaders Program encompassed three stages:
Stage 1: Assessment for Development
In this stage, a diagnostic assessment was conducted for the participating people managers to identify core strengths and development areas. This was done through development centers based on the FLP People Leadership Behaviours. This was carried out in partnership with an external partner and also with large-scale involvement of senior business leaders. Individualised feedback on strengths and development areas was provided to each people manager as an outcome of this stage.
Stage 2: FLP Development
This stage was spread over approximately a year in which a variety of resources were made available to participating people managers to enhance people leadership behaviours. The resources provided included Harvard online resources, classroom training sessions, People Leadership Competency Guides, customised Competency Journals and Group Coaching sessions. The framework for all components of the FLP Development Phase was the FLP People Leadership Behaviours.
Stage 3: Assessment for Accreditation
In this stage, assessment centres were conducted in conjunction with senior business leaders and an external partner in order to assess managers against the identified FLP benchmark. Feedback based on the FLP People Leadership Behaviours was provided to each manager for ongoing development.
Outcome of the Program
There is significant awareness amongst current and aspiring people managers on the behavioural requirements and expectations of the transition to a people manager role. In addition, business leaders and participants of the program speak the language of people leadership behaviours and show awareness of their personal areas of strength and development. A critical outcome is also better team engagement and motivation levels. As an organization, there is now a clearly identified leadership pipeline. Risks due to lack of person-role fitment in people manager roles have also been minimised.
Reflections from Dipali Sheth, Head of Human Resources, RBS India
“Future Leaders Program (FLP) has been very well received as an overarching developmental program for our managers with people handling responsibility in RBS India. This program has been instrumental in supporting our managers to make the crossover from individual contributors to being people leaders. The effectiveness of this program is driven through its well-designed robust leadership assessment centres conducted pre and post the development journey for our managers. Through this structured leadership development approach, our managers work towards reaching a benchmark on defined people leadership competencies and as a result support the organization in building a robust leadership pipeline for the future. After having launched FLP in India, I have received very strong positive feedback about this program from our internal customers, and to my delight, have Business Heads and their Management teams asking me when we are launching more of these programs! This program is futuristic and I see it continue to evolve and become part of the career development of our valuable talent.”
It is clear that first time managers are an employee group of great strategic significance to the organization. This group holds the key to effective engagement levels and performance of the organization. Organizations in India have woken up to the business-critical need of equipping future managers with the necessary skillsets and behaviors required to be successful in a people manager role. These development efforts will have maximum impact when done proactively for aspiring people managers. At the same time, organizations also need to highlight the fact that in today’s world, career growth need not necessarily be about increasing span of control or hierarchical growth.
“The Leadership Pipeline - How to Build the Leadership-Powered Company”, by Ram Charan, Stephen Drotter and James Noel
Niranjana Harikumar is an organizational development consultant who has worked with various organizations in designing and implementing competency-based assessment and development programs for different employee populations.