Article: Accountable Managers: Q&A with Thomas DeLong

Performance Management

Accountable Managers: Q&A with Thomas DeLong

Thomas DeLong affirms that managers' inability to make honest conversations is the roadblock for leadership development

Managers do not want to have honest conversation with their employees


Instead of keeping aside a coaching budget, organisations should ‘pay managers more' andhold them accountable for developing people


Thomas DeLong affirms that managers’ inability to make honest conversations is the roadblock for leadership development.

Many organizations, especially in India, have begun to focus more seriously on succession planning and creating the next bench of leaders. Why do organizations face the issue of lack of leaders?

One of the biggest concerns in organizations today is that people are not willing to be honest with each other. By this, I mean that if people cannot have an honest conversation then they cannot develop people in the long term. One of the premises of the book ‘Flying Without a Net’ is with respect to a person who is so driven to achieve, that slowing down to deal with human interactions can feel like a barrier. And without understanding the essence of human interactions, one cannot become an effective leader. So, while we all talk about developing our people, I am not sure how well we are actually doing it.

Where do you think lays the problem?

What I am suggesting is that firstly organizations have to realize that not everyone wants to be the President. Secondly, I am not sure we allow people the space and opportunity to be different in organizations, and thirdly, there is no system to recognize or reward employees for having honest conversations in organizations.

The other thing I am worried about is relevant not only in the developing economies, but is also true on Wall Street. On Wall Street, for example, if I am a successful trader, and I know how to make money, I may be made a manager even if I am only 27 years old. But at 27 years, while they may be good traders, they do not have the required experience to be managers. In developing economies as well, many young professionals are being put in managerial roles and then they are nervous, abusive, and can make stupid decisions, because they do not know any better. I would rather see organizations grow slower and have more of a fundamental base by having managers who have some wisdom, as opposed to letting children become managers, if you want to grow the business. Some say that 2011 was not the best year for India because of the slowdown. But the slowdown was perhaps good for India as the economy was growing too fast and too many young people were being promoted into roles that they were not ready for.

While developing leaders is critical, it has a demand on their time which might slow down high performers. How can organizations address both concerns?

I am not sure you can separate the two. If you separate those who are achievement-driven and those who are human-relations driven, then you get a two-tiered system in organizations. So, the expectation is that if you are a high performer and you are highly driven, then you also have the responsibility to learn how to deal with people. You cannot ignore the human relations side of the enterprise. And too often, for individuals who surpass the numbers and bring in big revenue, organizations do not hold them accountable for how they treat others. In other words, we allow people to get away with things we should not.

What are the other challenges that act as roadblocks in leadership development in organizations?

The other challenge is how we talk about mentoring and coaching in organizations. Very few people are doing good mentoring – the systemic mentoring programs in organizations do not work. Mentoring is built on a visceral connection between two people and by assigning ‘you to me’ when there is no connection, creates more problems. Most companies tend to outsource ‘managing’ to an external coach but it is managers who should be coaching employees and not external coaches. I also believe that many external coaches have no training or educational background to be coaches. There are no licensors or any licensing process if someone wants to be a coach. Organizations that outsource coaching and do not hold their managers accountable for coaching will have long term problems. ‘Management’ by definition means ‘developing others’, then why would you outsource it? – that is the lazy man’s answer to solving human problems in organizations. Instead of keeping aside a coaching budget, I would argue that organizations should ‘pay managers more’ and hold them accountable for developing people. Unfortunately, managers do not want to have honest conversations with their employees, so they are outsourcing ‘having honest and difficult conversations’. Managers are abdicating their role.

How can organizations bring about the required change in HR’s role?

To bring about this change, I think organizations need to reframe the problem and the goal. To me, the head of HR in any organization is the CEO and it starts there. The management creates different expectations on what it means to manage and what that role should be. And then spend more time training the managers on the true role of management. I would also argue that most of what HR professionals do today is clean up after poor managers. So, train your management to be more effective, and have your HR professionals focus on organizational change requirements as internal consultants.

You have talked about high-need-for-achievement-professionals. How are they different from high potentials in organizations?

There are some ‘high potentials’ that may have a high need for achievement, but the two are very different. A high-need-for-achievement professional is someone who defines oneself based on the number of tasks one accomplishes – meaning, at the end of the day you are only as good as the number of things that you have checked on your list. Such a person is highly successful, very competitive, wants to be number one, is impatient, wants to be involved, is insecure, and has an overloaded agenda. And when this person has too many things to do, then the person starts to experience on-going guilt because no matter what they do, they feel they should also be doing something else. There is not enough time for them to accomplish all they aim for and this leaves them feeling bad about themselves as they start thinking that they are losing the race. They are so obsessed with accomplishments, that they become blinded by their own achievements and do not realize that people around them are paying a price for it– those in their private lives and those who work with them. And then you begin to think that all they care about is themselves, and that is a problem. Organizations will pay a price in the long run if they do not give due consideration to the human element.

So what is the solution to this?

Firstly, teach your people how to stop and be more aware of how they impact other people and realize that they may be hurting others in their journey to succeed. Secondly, get some support as no one changes alone. Number three is to create a specific agenda of the focused things that you are going to do, and fourthly, act and do not blink (hold steady) and know that if you are feeling uncomfortable, then you are doing the right thing. When you are feeling a little vulnerable and little self-conscious, it implies that you are going through the change process. A common mistake is that many people, as soon as they get close to their discomfort zone, tend to pull back and that leaves them feeling hollow and empty as they have not achieved what they wanted to achieve.

Is this a problem with leaders from the new generation or the increasing competition?

Unfortunately, today most managers are managers because the person above them promoted them but, most often without mentoring them for the role. And that cascades down to all levels in the organization. So, sloppy management is the reason why young people are not developing, and they are learning bad habits from the management. What organizations should do is hold people accountable at all levels.

One of the reasons why there has been this paced job movement is because managers and employees do not want to have a difficult conversation. So when one wants to avoid a difficult conversation with their manager, they just quit the job and move on. Similarly, managers have not done a very good job in managing people because they did not create the right environment for employees to have difficult conversations.

Isn’t this also an implication of the organization’s culture and what it propagates?

Yes, and that is the reason why this is something that goes back to the CEO to bring about the required change and that is why more and more organizations are increasing their leadership development budgets.

Thomas DeLong is the Philip J. Stomberg Professor of Management Practice in the Organizational Behavior area at Harvard Business School and the author of “Flying Without A Net”.

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Topics: Performance Management, C-Suite, Learning & Development

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