How NOT to appoint managers. Beware of specialists.

professional architect working with draft in office

The biggest challenge for organizations is people care. Indeed, it’s the most valuable asset for creating a never-ending story. An organization without the right people certainly has only that sooner or later, it will die.

And the question is: “how do you find the right people”?

In my job as the CEO of 8 figure business, I need to answer this question repeatedly as my daily job. 

The CEO’s most important jobs are to decide and execute the right strategy and to create the best possible co-leaders in the company. 

But it’s time to face the truth: the more someone is a well-established leader in doing the hard work, the more they would become a bad manager or leader.

There is not a single drop of sweat or an extra hour to rack your brains in front of a product that will make you a better manager. It’s not the sheer volume of problem-ridden emails you bring to your boss or the brilliance of the new screws you’ve designed that makes you a leadership champion.

Leadership is a different subject than technical skills. A leader can bring someone from drawing lines on a computer to managing a team that gives life to a full product from a 3D printer. The leader’s bulletin board is nailed with the mission of growing an incredible talent to become the new leader.

Life in the technicolor of specialists is full of solutions to challenging problems. They are brilliant. You can find them creating a new way to extract clean water from exhausted waterjets.

But they are so successful in their job that it would be incredibly overwhelming to change habits and start focusing on the success of others. 

Let’s start from the beginning, from a story that carries the pain of a light pole caught while we are running at full speed looking away, and that suddenly shows itself as we turn around, hitting us with all its heavy stillness.

The story of a brilliant specialist who leaves after the burden of being called to be a leader.

The memory of a painful story made of obvious but wrong decisions

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Some years ago, we had an incredible talent in our organization that had disproportionate technical gifts, an astonishing work ethic, and a divergent way of approaching problems. 

This rare diamond could sail in fragmented requirements, missed information, and theory absent from school desks, and indeed deliver projects that delivered good projects. You know, someone who pulled gold out of manure.

When it came the time to choose the new manager of the design department, we were so sure about the decision to go all in with this person. 

From our perspective, the only problem was convincing people with greater seniority about our choice. Seniority that we could have calculated as the total number of solved projects. But the person chosen, despite the age, had a decidedly higher density of solved problems.

How naif we were at the time. I was hasty and inexperienced in making a decision that turned out to be extremely heavy, and that, at the end of the story, ends with the resignation.

I committed several textbook errors, and I want to tell everyone what NOT to do when choosing a new leader.

The reason why is that wasting talent is a crime that should be severely punished.

I list three major characteristics we aimed for:

  • People with great Charisma and dedication to work
  • Technical masters with the proven ability to solve complex problems
  • Innate leaders

Let’s dive in.

Mistake #1 – Leadership is not Charisma and attitude 

photo of man holding mic
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The generation that rode companies as we passed the new millennium had the myth of quantity in their heads. Understandably, we came from a boom era in which quantity won. The more you worked, the more you sold, and the more you earned.

It only matters a little to do the right things well; there was no time.

In Italy, when we talk about the “new generation”, one of his biggest criticisms is that “he did not do the military service”. I do not dispute that it is a significant experience to be able to answer “yes, sir”. But there are better lenses for observing a person’s shades of color.

Moreover, it hides with it the belief that only men are suitable for leadership roles because they have passed through the solid teaching of the discipline of Gunnery Sergeant Hartman.

The best worker is usually more appreciated (especially in private companies), and when he has struggled to make his way, he may slow down and block others. But we will talk about hazing at other times.

This position leads to Charisma, appreciation, and respect.

People usually need to be corrected about the value of Charisma because they need to consider the context. The best example is in the movie 12 angry men with Sidney Lumet.

This movie enlighted me with the idea that Charisma and attitude are matters of context. In the film, we assist in a jury’s conversation in deciding whether someone is a murderer or not. In an interpretation that leaves the viewer with a sore jaw, the main character, Henry Fonda, jumps between different relational modes to move the other 11 companions for a day, absolutely sure of guilt, to consider the reasonable doubt option.

Indeed, promoting someone in the organization for the current attitude and Charisma is a big mistake because there’s one obvious conclusion: changing roles leads to new modal interactions.

Mistake #2 – Leadership is not being a master of technique

Soil preparation near Norton Bavant
Soil preparation near Norton Bavant by Maigheach-gheal is licensed under CC-BY-SA 2.0

In agriculture, the soil is occasionally moved to accommodate new minerals, which act as nutrients for fresh, tastier, or more beautiful flowers and fruits. A land hardened by time ends up becoming harder to work and arid.

This is the demon of experience, which has filled people’s lives so profoundly that they are numb like a sleeping limb to the changes around them.

People are empty earthenware pots that fill the space with various types of inert materials throughout their lives. Each event, lesson, and project brings with it material. What happens when the jar is full? The gardener pours the water from his sprinkler, and the liquid slips between the crevices. When the last air bubble leaves the room, the water comes out, taking a bit of soil with it.

After a few days, we are ready to leave, but always for that little liquid.

When there is a crisis, our clay shard vibrates and sometimes breaks, much more soil falls to the ground, and there is room for new material.

This metaphor of life applies in a crystalline way to work experience. Experienced people filled their jars. Sometimes profound lessons, like precious stones, enrich the soil. Other times, they repeat the same plot every day and claim that this is equivalent to a license of wisdom.

However, when the time comes to promote an experienced person, they are blown away by a whole new profession, and there needs to be more space left.

Where are the skills resulting from repeating the process every day, always the same operations, however rich in meaning? When you start being a boss, everything changes. Your Charisma is failing, and new skills are just as tricky to pick up.

Already moist loam opposes new water and repels new techniques and tools.

Beware, however, that the certainties of your technical ability are no longer needed. To trust someone other than you, that sense of inadequacy is manifested, killing performance and even emotions.

On the one hand, the person you drive now feels that they are not like you. You point it out so often. He gets it wrong everything he can do wrong. And many years of knowledge had moved away from the awareness of what you were when you started. They call it a curse of knowledge. Once a university professor, one of the best and one of my mentors, told me: “you know, Matteo, I realize that I have learned something more every year. But those who start university always arrive with the same baggage. Whether he likes it or not, the distance between them and me increases.”

On the other hand, the new manager feels that sense of shaky ground when he can’t just grab a mouse and move people with the pointer as if they were Guybrush Threepwood as you take him to explore Monkey Island. Others make mistakes (whoever does), and relying on the skills of others is an entirely different skill.

Laurence Peter and Raymon Hull saw that most of the promotions are condensed in the so-called Peter’s Principle: people climb up the hierarchy rise to a level where they become incompetent, as the old skills don’t apply to the new job. And skills are not immutable, but they are as hard as they use in the current context. 

And the conclusion is that promoting people for their hard skills leads them to refuse newer skills because the ground manners already filled up all the spaces in their heads. And life.

Mistake #3 – Leadership is not innate

2013 Inaugural Parade (201201210005HQ)
2013 Inaugural Parade (201201210005HQ) by NASA HQ PHOTO is licensed under CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

The first time I visited Manhattan, I was walking in Washington Square and was struck by an image: a grand piano right in the middle of one of the paths that cross the park. A young man, probably a student, was playing a cover of the titles for a fistful of dollars in a classical key.

But he wasn’t the only one. At the metro stop between the 14th and 8th Avenue, someone was playing a wooden ruler that sounded like a violin.

And while we were waiting to enjoy a bowl of Ramen at Chelsea market, we could hear a person playing his electric double bass with such mastery that his skin vibrated to accompany his melody.

When the best you can do is put together a few chords on the guitar, listening to good musicians, you may witness such high performances that you immediately think of innate talent.

But the truth is that behind great performances, there is only a lot of apprenticeship, lots of mistakes, sore calluses, and the desire to throw the scores in the bin.

When you observe people with great determination, character, and ease in relationships, you may be struck by the same sense of bewilderment and admiration: it is innate Charisma. 

Yet it is not so. Often people with more excellent communication skills are unnatural, but they accumulate so much deliberate exercise that they manage to appear highly confident.

Leadership is a trainable skill, like learning to play blues scale up to improvise with the drums or how to inlay the mother of pearl in a birch Stratocaster.

Hard Skills and Technical Skills should be distinct. Or better. The hard skills required to make a guitar by hand are manual, while to manage a company like Fender, you have to juggle different skills, which are still problematic. But they are hard for various tasks and are neither more nor less important than the others.

In manufacturing or software companies, on the other hand, there is a tendency to overestimate technical competence, leading to embarrassment in the management of promotions. One must seek something different than innate leaders to solve this problem because there is no natural leadership.

Instead, you need a reliable system to nurture new leaders better suited to that specific role.

How to develop better leaders

person walking on a pipeline
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To be successful, you always need a robust and repeatable process to build the house, piece after piece.

Even to develop leaders, you need a path:

  1. Start early
  2. Build a talent pipeline
  3. Increase your luck

Start early

We often find ourselves choosing the new manager out of urgency: the old one is gone, perhaps retired, or you acted on impulse for some problem.

It is effortless to make mistakes, so the secret is to build a system in which every step of the learning path to becoming a leader has been defined first. You know how to train, how to evaluate, and how to share best practices.

Above all, managers’ competence is codified and part of the company’s assets, not a pure expression of individual creativity.

Build a talent pipeline

For each leadership role, build a succession of steps and always have someone ready at each stage to advance it.

To support a mechanism like this, you need to have space. Companies that don’t grow or evolve could lead to unnecessary envy and hazing.

Consider an internal recruitment path to know who to bring into the pipeline.

By internal recruitment, I don’t mean to run ads, but to choose candidates only after having carefully assessed their motivation (why they could benefit from being a leader), values ​​(based on which personal values ​​they make decisions and how well these fit in the cultural system of the organization) and skills (compatibility with manager/leader skills and learning skills)

Set expectations for people clearly to make them know what you expect from a leader and a manager so that everyone can assess if they would fit in the role.

Increase the luck

Every system needs people to shoot. In this, mentors are required to develop talent in the pipeline.

To estimate how talents progress in the pipeline, you must carefully assess the necessary skills through proven methods.

And tutors must be strongly motivated for the mentee’s success, perhaps even with a compensation system based on these performances. They don’t have to experience it as a threat.

Guess what: mentors’ skills are also trainable.

What to do when you have an emergency 

Unfortunately, all systems have flaws, and it can happen where to choose an emergency. You may have discovered that your manager has no integrity and is using their role strictly for personal benefits, hiding what is happening.

In particular, it happened to me that I had to attack a behavior: conceiving power as a personal toy. Power exists only by what is done with this power. And in an organization, power is an essential tool for achieving the company’s goal. And it has to be just that. In cases like these, after constant discussions with people who lived on the concept of a sick autonomy, “I have my space, I don’t want interference”, I had to find new leaders.

In this case, it is necessary to act by following a temporal principle based on proposing the solution first to the person in charge and only after refusing it to the other designated persons.

And to do this, think about managing a selection process quickly: clarify expectations, make it clear what is expected, and how you want to improve the situation. And decide based on these criteria.

To foster a company’s health, leaders must manage with a purpose in mind and the utmost interest to take the company beyond decades.

Faced with this challenge, it is an unforgivable evil not to put the best ways in place. To win. And win again.