How New Managers Become Great Managers

Newly minted managers must commit themselves to lifelong self-improvement. Read an excerpt from HBS professor Linda A. Hill’s update of her classic, Becoming a Manager.
by Linda Hill

Linda Hill's book for the star performer-turned-new-manager, Becoming a Manager: Mastery of a New Identity appeared a decade ago to much acclaim. Much of the original book is still fresh today. But a new edition, Becoming a Manager: How New Managers Master the Challenges of Leadership, adds chapters and a more prescriptive style to reflect today's world of expanding globalization, accelerated change, and increased complexity. This excerpt discusses the importance for young managers to continue to develop as professionals via wise career choices and self-examination.

Through my research, teaching, and consulting over the past ten years, I have come to understand more deeply than ever that the best managers are those who have an appetite for learning and are willing to work on themselves. Management is very hard; even the most gifted people must commit themselves to lifelong learning and self-development. In the course of my work, I have had the privilege of developing teaching materials about many experienced leaders and their career development. This chapter builds on stories from some of the talented managers I've encountered who are out there making a difference in their organizations. We can learn vicariously from their experiences.

Consider the example of one manager who was about to undergo a critical transition in her career, only four years after first becoming a manager. When she was about to step into an executive role as senior vice president of marketing at a nationwide office supplies superstore, she recalled:

I'm not a good example of how to manage your career. I've just been willing to raise my hand several times for new opportunities. I've taken a lot of what others would perceive to be career risks, which fortunately have worked out....1

This manager is much too modest. She is an excellent role model for how to manage our careers if we hope to move into ever more important managerial positions. From her story, we see that leadership can be an exciting but arduous journey of self-development. Over the course of her first years at the company, she made a series of upward and lateral moves that entailed a number of tough assignments across many functional areas.

Beginning as the director of regional operations in New England, this manager had profit and loss responsibility for fifty underperforming stores. Hiring a strong team of direct reports, she set store standards, instituted training programs, and rejuvenated performance. Due to her success in operations over the next two years, this manager received two more challenging assignments. First, she became director of sales for 150 stores on the east coast, and then, a year later, she was promoted to vice president and divisional merchandise manager for furniture and decorative supplies. There she had profit and loss responsibility for $350 million and twelve people in an area with poor assortment of merchandise, flat sales, and low direct product profitability. She and her team turned over 75 percent of the assortment, tripled net direct product profitability, and increased sales. When she advanced again, she moved back into the marketing department as senior vice president of small business and retail marketing. Three years later, based on her performance, she was appointed president of the company's e-commerce business, a key strategic initiative for the future success of the company.

The best managers are those who have an appetite for learning and are willing to work on themselves.

This manager, like the other effective leaders I have studied, is a self-directed learner willing to reinvent herself time and again. In the pages that follow, I will build on the previous discussion of power to present a framework for lifelong learning developing a successful managerial career. I will address four challenges: choosing the right position; getting off to the right start; landing stretch assignments; and building a network of developmental relationships. In framing each of these four challenges from the point of view of the emerging leader, I hope to underscore my belief that management, especially the leadership functions, cannot be taught. Instead, managers who want to take on more and more responsibility over the course of their careers must ask themselves: Am I preparing myself to manage and lead?

How Can We Learn To Manage And Lead?

Although some of the qualities of effective management are "innate" or acquired principally through pre-work socialization (personal integrity, high energy level, and a drive to lead), much of leadership is learned.2 Management is primarily learned from on-the-job experiences—by doing, observing, and interacting with others. As unsettling as it is, we have found that the essence of development is diversity and adversity.3 Warren Bennis, a renowned leadership expert, has concluded that it is the "crucibles," or tests and trials, in an individual's life that profoundly shape them as leaders.4 As many have observed, however, people do not always learn from their experiences.5 To make meaning from their experiences, managers need to reflect on and consolidate the lessons of those experiences. To change and grow, they must be prepared to engage periodically in introspection—to collect feedback on and analyze their behavior, attitudes, and values. The difficulty in remaining objective about oneself, however, is well documented. There are mechanisms that keep people from honestly evaluating themselves.6 The more candid feedback that managers can obtain from varied sources, the more accurate and precise their assessment will be.

The best assignments from a developmental perspective are ones in which the fit is imperfect—it is a 'stretch'...

Indeed, people find it nearly impossible to accomplish their development alone. To grow and develop, individuals must be prepared to seek assistance. They must devote time and energy to building a network of developmental relationships (superior and lateral, internal and external to the organization). From these developmental relationships (e.g., mentors or sponsors), potential managers can better learn from their own experiences by receiving feedback, advice, and emotional support. These relationships can be helpful only if the managers are willing to take some risks, disclose some of their shortcomings, and open themselves to constructive criticism—admittedly a tall order.

Choosing The Right Position

Establishing a management career begins with choosing the right positions along the way. Managers should take into account two factors when making decisions about which job opportunities to pursue: How good is the fit between who they are and the position (and the organization)? How good is the fit between who they are and who they want to be? That is, what types of learning opportunities does the position offer? To the extent that the fit is "perfect"—that the manager has the requisite talents and characteristics (personal values that match the corporate culture) to do the job—the manager will be in a better position to make an immediate contribution to organizational performance.7

Admittedly, "fit" is subjective, and all too often women or minorities have been excluded because others have not found them to "fit." One way individuals have coped with this reality is to hide who they really are or how they really think until they get a foot in the door. This can be a dangerous tactic. If an individual's values are not consistent with those of the company, the compromises demanded may be considerable. Besides, becoming a credible leader of others when acting out an inauthentic self is very hard.8

The best assignments from a developmental perspective are ones in which the fit is imperfect—it is a "stretch" (in terms of talent, not values). These assignments are riskier, since the manager is more likely to make mistakes that might set back his or her career progress or have a negative impact on organizational performance. But they are also the kinds of assignments from which managers can acquire new knowledge, skills, perspective, and judgment.

People should look for jobs in which they can leverage initial fit to establish a self-reinforcing cycle of success whereby, year after year, they acquire more of the sources of power necessary to be effective and successful. They should pursue situations in which their strengths are really needed, important weaknesses are not a serious drawback, and their core values are consistent with those of the organization; in other words, the stretch should not be too big or the risk too great.9 Risk should be commensurate with the individual's ability to cope with and responsibly manage it (for the sake of both the organization and individual). As a general rule of thumb, the risk is probably too great if it will take more than six months to progress far enough along the learning curve to produce meaningful results in a particular job.10

Those early in their careers can glean important self-insight through careful and systematic introspection.

People should seek out diverse experiences to facilitate and balance their development in multiple areas. This is precisely what our manager mentioned at the beginning of this chapter did; she rotated through operations, sales, merchandising, and marketing. Those who are able to grow beyond their initial strengths and develop a broad repertoire of talents are more likely to progress in their careers because they have the requisite abilities to meet the ever-changing demands of their jobs. In this regard, studies that compare high-potential managers who have "derailed" (become plateaued or terminated) with high-potential managers who have made it to senior executive positions are enlightening.11 One characteristic of those who derail is that initial strengths (e.g., a "hands-on" style or technical virtuosity) later become "fatal flaws." When faced with new and different challenges, these managers continue to rely on their initial capabilities, even when they are no longer sufficient or appropriate. They are unable or unwilling to develop other complementary capabilities.

In terms of developing leadership talents in particular, it can pay to look for stretch assignments involving change. Some examples include introducing a new product or information technology system, revitalizing a mature business, or starting up a subsidiary in an international market. These sorts of assignments, almost by definition, require individuals to establish direction, communicate that direction (vision and strategies) to diverse stakeholders, and figure out how to motivate the stakeholders to implement the strategies and fulfill the vision. The more revolutionary—as opposed to evolutionary—the change, the more powerful the leadership learning opportunities.

Getting Off To The Right Start

Managers must be aware of their strengths, limitations, motives, and values in order to make the appropriate trade-offs between fit and learning opportunity when selecting a position.12 However, they only become aware of who they are and who they want to become through experience. As they accumulate work experience, they have an opportunity to make choices and test those choices, and begin to clarify what they are good at and what is important to them.13

Hence, those early in their careers may have only a vague sense of their talents, motivations, and values. All too often, they get off to a bad start by selecting jobs and organizations that simply do not fit their capabilities, motives, and values very well. Because they are not clear about who they are and the kinds of jobs to which they are best suited, they are easily seduced by the money, glamour, or prestige associated with a given job. Some define the "good" opportunities as those that are popular in the social milieu in which they find themselves. These individuals end up taking jobs because the jobs are the popular choice and not because they are excited by the people with whom they will be spending time or the products or services with which they will be working. For those in the minority, given the special challenges of building developmental relationships (discussed below), it is best to pay particular attention to how comfortable they are with their potential colleagues.

In other instances, people choose jobs that are too demanding for them. Because they do not fully appreciate their strengths and weaknesses, they get themselves into situations where they are simply in over their heads. For example, newly minted MBAs who have never had subordinates reporting to them before may take jobs in which they will have considerable people management responsibilities, with little sense of the risk in doing so. Professional school graduates should be cautious about accepting jobs in highly politicized environments where only those who are very skillful at handling difficult work relationships can prosper.

Those early in their careers can glean important self-insight through careful and systematic introspection. In particular, they should look for pervasive themes in their past and current experiences that say something about their key strengths, important limitations, and core values. For example, in trying to decide whether or not to move into a leadership role, people should ask themselves the following questions about what kind of work they find most interesting and fulfilling:

  • Do I like collaborative work?
  • Do I tend to become the leader of groups in which I find myself?
  • Have I ever volunteered to coach or tutor others?
  • Do I find it intriguing to work on thorny, ambiguous problems?
  • Do I cope well with stress (e.g., extended hours, tough personal decisions)?

If they cannot answer most of these questions in the affirmative, it may suggest that they have neither the personal qualities, character, nor motivation required to be an effective manager.14

If people choose an appropriate position, they will be able to convert their general competencies into company- and job-specific expertise, develop relationships, and make a contribution to organizational performance in relatively short order. Once they begin to make a contribution to organizational performance (perhaps in a limited way at first), their track record and credibility in the organization will begin to grow. Therefore, people will begin to seek them out and be more eager to work with them; in other words, their network of relationships will grow. Some will be willing to sponsor and perhaps even mentor them, taking risks on their behalf and promoting them into stretch assignments. From these assignments, they develop more expertise and more relationships and therefore are in an even better position to contribute to key organizational objectives.

Soon, this cycle of success becomes self-reinforcing; their track record and credibility continue to flourish. As they acquire more power and establish relationships with a broad range of people, they find themselves holding a more central position in their network of relationships—and thereby they gain even more power and access to currencies.15 Once they begin to advance, they acquire more formal authority and can consolidate their power.